Hard Science, Hard Questions

James Shaheen

If you read any of a number of mainstream publications, not to mention the Buddhist press, you’ve probably noticed that Buddhists and Buddhism are playing an increasingly significant and visible role in two influential areas of contemporary life: digital technology and neuroscience. There can be something appealing, almost intoxicating, about being connected to areas of research and commerce where so much money and cultural power aggregate. Which means Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism would do well not only to affirm our participation in these fields but also to reflect critically on what our participation means. While we can and should use advances in our knowledge of the world to better understand the Buddhist traditions we practice, there is a risk in simply subordinating those traditions to the prevailing ideologies of our time. Buddhism has a long and rich tradition of self-examination and social critique, and in reflecting on how we are coming to terms with developments in contemporary life, we participate in and extend that valuable tradition.

In this issue, contributing editor Linda Heuman sits down with cultural critic Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion. In his latest work, the Illinois State University professor emeritus takes on the proponents of scientism—that is, not science itself but science as ideology—which, he argues, “attempts to reduce every human matter to its own terms” and positions itself as the only valid means of knowing the world. For White there’s a great deal to be lost as scientism increasingly displaces the humanities with its own limited narrative, one that renders us “mere functions within systems.” At the core of White’s argument is the recognition that this is not hard science; it’s ideology with profound consequences “not just for knowledge but even more importantly for how we live.”

We might ask ourselves, is a view of human meaning, purpose, or ethics derived from natural science really compatible with a Buddhist understanding of the nature, purpose, and potential of human life? And is science, as scientism’s proponents argue, not only an extraordinarily effective method for gaining certain types of knowledge but the only reliable and the most complete way of understanding the world?

We needn’t be queasy about hearing White out or about thinking hard, asking difficult questions, and doing what we can to address things that have gone awry. Buddhism participates in any culture in which it finds itself, and does so critically; it is a cultural presence that affirms what is conducive to its own deepest and most emancipatory values and stands against what is not. So the issue is not whether Buddhists should engage in cultural criticism but how rigorous we are willing to be about it.

Buddhism in North America is a relatively small world, though not nearly as small as it was just a couple of decades ago. It is probably natural to be excited by its finding a place of influence in areas that are themselves so influential. But the wedding of Buddhism to contemporary science and technology is a complex matter, and even some of its most enthusiastic advocates—including many scientists who are themselves engaged in the research—acknowledge that it warrants scrutiny, for such a process cannot occur without consequences for our practice of Buddhism as a moral, intellectual, and spiritual tradition. Whether or not one agrees with everything Curtis White says is not what is most important. Tricycle welcomes both agreement and disagreement, with him as with all our contributors. The only agreement we seek from our readers is that there is value in examining the meeting of Buddhism and modernity and doing so with rigor.

—James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

View the Spring 2014 Table of Contents

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Kevin K.'s picture

Just a quick note to say how grateful I am for Tricycle's willingness to address Buddhism's encounter with modernity in such depth. I know by now that any article by Linda Heuman is going to be of lasting importance, and her interview with Curtis White certainly doesn't disappoint.

The Eric Braun article on the origins of what Bhikkhu Sujato calls "vipassanavada" is equally important and thought-provoking. All-in-all - and I don't say this lightly given Tricycle's long history of great writing - I think the Spring 2014 issue may be your greatest ever.

Thank you so much for all that you do.

James Shaheen's picture

And thank you for words of support!