The Science Delusion

An interview with cultural critic Curtis White

Curtis White pulls no punches. To readers who see in Buddhism little room for spirited debate, White’s unapologetic bluntness may seem unexpected or even jarring. But for White—Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Illinois State University, novelist, and author of several works of criticism including the 2003 international bestseller The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves—there is too much at stake in our current intellectual climate to indulge in timid discussion.

White’s latest book, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, strikes out at a nimble opponent, one frequently sighted yet so elusive it often seems to dodge just out of view: scientism. White identifies scientism as an unwarranted triumphalism based on unproven premises—such as the claim that science has got the world nailed down (or soon will, anyway), that the answer to all of our human problems lies in the discovery of natural laws, or that submitting to a scientific perspective is a choiceless imperative dictated by impersonal facts. To White, this attitude is not only wrongheaded, it is dangerous and wreaks social, cultural, and political damage.

The Science Delusion takes dual aim: at scientists and critics who proclaim themselves “enemies of religion” and at certain neuroscientists and thought leaders in the popular press whose neuro-enthusiasm, White thinks, is adding spin to the facts. What these science advocates share, he says, is both an ideology promoting the scientific worldview as the single valid understanding of human phenomena and also a set of assumptions, “many of which,” he writes, “are dubious if not outright deluded.” But for White, the debate over knowledge claims is a side skirmish. There is a more urgent battle to fight that becomes evident when he asks, “In whose interest do these science popularizers and provocateurs write? And to what end?”

White writes at a moment when the arts and humanities are struggling for survival on campuses across America as they are increasingly eclipsed by the “STEM” disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). In White’s view, what we are witnessing is a takeover, on the part of science, of the multiple narratives of what it means to be human—narratives that have flourished throughout Western history in religion, art, literature, and philosophy. Scientism comes with its own narrative, which White puts like this: “We are not ‘free’; we are chemical expressions of our DNA and our neurons. We cannot will anything, because our brains do our acting for us. We are like computers or systems, and so is nature.” When this is what we think we are, we become quiescent cogs readily manipulated by societal forces. In White’s view, once scientism rewrites our story so that the things human beings care about—like love, wonder, presence, or play—are reduced to atoms, genes, or neurons, human lives become easy prey to corporate and political interests. We become “mere functions within systems.” White wants us to wake up and recognize that this view is not scientific discovery, it is ideology. Mistaking one for the other has profound consequences, “not just for knowledge but even more importantly for how we live.”

Western Buddhists, engaged as we are in adapting an Asian religious tradition, generally agree that it is valuable to try to understand how Buddhism has been shaped by its host cultures in Asia. But shining that light of understanding on ourselves is a much more difficult proposition. It is hard to see what presumptions we bring to the project precisely because they are our own and not someone else’s. In striking hard at some of our most deeply ingrained assumptions, White brings them to our attention. Whether or not we agree with his critique isn’t the point. White isn’t looking for agreement. He wants to challenge our complacency, and in so doing, to shift the very framework within which we determine our agreements and disagreements.

–Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor

Your latest book is entitled The Science Delusion, which is clearly a response to the title of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion. What is the science delusion, and what are its implications for living a spiritually meaningful life? There is no singular science delusion. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book that tries to question the role that science plays in our culture is being visible at all. So the title is a provocation, although an earnest one.

What I criticize is science as ideology, or scientism, for short. The problem with scientism is that it attempts to reduce every human matter to its own terms. So artistic creativity is merely a function of neurons and chemicals, religion is the result of the God gene, and faith is hardwired into our genetic makeup.

Not surprisingly, “spirit” is a forbidden word. Science writers tend to reduce believers to fundamentalists and the history of religion to a series of criminal anecdotes. Richard Dawkins is, and Christopher Hitchens was, particularly culpable in this regard. Any subtle consideration of the meaning of spirit is left out. But of course the history of religious thought is quite subtle, as anyone familiar with Buddhist philosophy knows well. Another good example is the legacy of Christian existential thinkers beginning with Kierkegaard: it seems to me shamefully dishonest not to acknowledge such work.

Both scientism and religious fundamentalism answer the human need for certainty in a rapidly shifting and disorientingly pluralistic world. To what extent are they in the same business? As your question suggests, the drama of the confrontation between religious fundamentalism and scientism is a confrontation between things that are more alike than they know. Both fundamentalism and scientism try to limit and close down, not open up. Science tends to be vulnerable to the “closed-in” syndrome. Scientists value curiosity, and they value open-mindedness, but they are often insensible to alternative ways of thinking about the world. It’s really difficult for them to get outside of their own worldview. This problem is probably created by the way in which we educate scientists. It seems to me scientists need to have a better background in history and the history of ideas, especially if prominent figures like Stephen Hawking are going to pass judgment on that history and say things like “Philosophy is dead.”

There is a common assumption that science is not a world-view but simply “the way things are.” Along with that assumption goes another: that science derives its authority from its privileged access to how things are—that it launches off from the bedrock of the Real. The odd thing here is that science itself tells us that it does not have a privileged access to things as they are, and that the philosophical paradoxes in its discoveries, especially in physics, are an open acknowledgment of its many uncertainties.

What we have now is this very uncomfortable joining of an ideological assumption that science is fact-based with the actual work of science, something that is highly speculative and whose reality is often only mathematical. For example, physics is deeply dependent on mathematical modeling, but no one knows why mathematics seems to be so revealing about reality. As the physicists Tony Rothman and George Sudarshan point out in Doubt and Certainty, the math equation of the Black-Scholes model used by stock traders is identical to the equation that shows how a particle moves through a liquid or gas. But, as they observe laconically, in the real world there is a difference between stocks and particle movement.

Even something as familiar as Newtonian equations are mathematical idealizations and, as Einstein showed, they are inadequate in important ways. And if Newtonian predictions about the movements of things as large as astral bodies are idealizations, what can be said about quanta or strings or the branes strings are said to attach to? These things are only numbers. They have no empirical presence at all.

Most Buddhists would have little argument with the statement in The Science Delusion that “the world is something we both find and invent.” How is this understanding at odds with scientism? Even now, after Heisenberg, after quantum physics, so much of the discourse of science in its public proclamations is focused on the establishment of knowledge as fact. This overlooks the paradoxical nature of scientific confirmation. Does confirmation mean positive knowledge of reality? Does it mean probability? Does it mean that something is useful? Newton’s equations have never stopped being useful, even though they have been superseded by general relativity.

Scientism is intolerant of the idea that the universe depends for its being on the participation of mind. Immanuel Kant’s Copernican Revolution was about this single fact: we have no simple access to the thing in itself. Any knowledge we have of reality is necessarily mediated by our own symbolic structures, whether they be math, philosophy, religion, or art. Even the theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler could say with conviction, “The universe does not exist ‘out there,’ independent of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening.” Yet what we most often hear from scientism is “We scientists deal in knowledge of truth, and philosophers, artists, and religious believers don’t.” End of conversation.

Many assume that logic and reason lead away from religion. How can the systematic study of literature and art affirm religion? Our culture widely assumes that all reason is empirical reason: a logical development proceeding from an empirical fact. Similarly, we tend to assume that spirit concerns things that are supernatural. But this is not the only way to understand reason or spirit. The essence of the spiritual logic of Buddhism is contained in the four noble truths. There is suffering. Most of this suffering comes from self-interested desire enabled by delusion. This suffering can be stopped. The eightfold path shows how suffering can cease. This is not an appeal to the supernatural, but it is most certainly an appeal to spirit.

The ultimate religious question, the ultimate religious mystery, is not whether or not there is a God. I call myself an atheist because I think that question is silly, childish, and beside the point. The ultimate religious question is “What is compassion?” Or as Christianity puts it, “What is love?” Compassion is not a quality that can be demonstrated empirically. It is not a thing. It is something that we use flexibly. It speaks to a quality that we keep very close to us: the urgency of kindness. Compassion exists only to the extent that we invest it with the energy of our own lives—“altruism gene” be damned.

This sort of “theo-logic” also exists in the West. If there is a God principle in existential Christianity, it is in its confidence in the ultimacy of compassion. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich argued that God is the object of our “ultimate concern.” When we are claimed by those concerns, we open ourselves to our true nature.

And art since Romanticism participates in a similar logic. Of course, the common assumption is that art is just imagination or entertainment or a waste of time. My point is that art thinks, and the history of art for the last two centuries shows that art thinks in very particular ways. Art has its own spiritual logic. It asks: How are we to transcend what Friedrich Schiller calls “the misery of culture,” meaning industrial culture in which man is “nothing but a fragment”? For Schiller and the Romantics, the multifold path of art is the way to accomplish the transcendence of this suffering. As Pablo Picasso wrote, “Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is a weapon of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.” As Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May 1808 show, the “enemy” is cruelty.

Now, in any of these contexts, this is a perverse logic. If you had to judge the situation empirically, I don’t see how you could fail to conclude that the “preponderance of evidence,” as lawyers like to say, points to the idea that, as O’Brien says in Orwell’s 1984, the future is “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But Buddhism comes to the opposite conclusion. Our suffering is proof not of who we are—violent because of “human nature”—but of the fact that we are deluded, that we don’t know ourselves, and that if we are to end suffering we must, as Nietzsche says, become who we really are. It is the perversity of this logic that makes it spiritual because it is in no way supported by the facts on the ground. It’s like the story of the Jew who tells his Christian neighbor that he is going to Rome to see what Christianity is really like. The neighbor, of course, fears that once the man sees all of the corruption there he will not convert. But when his neighbor returns, he says, “Ah, my friend, yours is truly the greatest faith, otherwise it could not survive such cruelty and hypocrisy.”

The crucial thing to see in this process of thought is that it is a form of spiritual reason based in realism: our experience of how it is with the human world. True, it is not empirical reason driven by a notionally objective world, but neither are its conclusions dependent on supernaturalism or magical thinking. The idea that all human reason must be empirical is a story that is told to us by our masters.

When critics speak of scientism as an ideology, many seem to be thinking of an ideology as a set of beliefs—like propositions you hold in your head. Your book gave me a sense that ideology, in particular scientism, is much more deeply rooted than that. I use the word ideology in the sense that Marx used it: the stories and ideas that we live out as members of a particular culture. Needless to say, there is a neutral sense in which every culture must have ideologies. The pejorative sense of the term comes from the idea that structures of power and privilege can and do manipulate and enforce these stories in order to support their own interests. The stories stop being concerned with the question “what is the best way for us to live together?” and start being about “what stories best support our own interests?” Telling stories that you want everyone to see themselves in, but that really favor only one group, requires dishonesty. So what I am concerned with is identifying those dishonest or false elements within the ideology delivered to us by science and its patrons.

Of course, the primary ideological story told by science is that it has no relation to ideology. But that’s what every ideology says. It says, “We are only concerned with the way things really are.” And so the science of economics tells us that self-interest is rational, that it is the essence of freedom, and that it may even be a part of our genetic makeup. These become the covering fictions for stupendous destruction and cruelty. As Buddhism argues, these ideas are not skillful. They are delusions, and they do great harm.

Neuroscience’s claim to be able to understand meditation in terms of the mechanics of neurons and chemicals is another example of ideological storytelling. You can have Buddhism, this story goes, as long as you are willing to acknowledge that it can be best understood through neuroscience. Buddhism is dangerous if it can’t be made to confirm our culture’s empiricist assumptions. If Buddhism refuses to confirm those assumptions, it is a counterculture and therefore a threat to the stability of the status quo. My feeling is that if we in the West are fated to misperceive Asian Buddhism, let it be a creative misperception in the spirit of Buddhism, and not merely the repetition of a familiar and oppressive ideology.

You’ve written that we don’t only have technology, we also have technocracy—which is run by corporatists, militarists, and self-serving politicians. You see a moral urgency to this situation, where many, including many Buddhists, are much more sanguine. It is a mistake to think that we just happen to have these toys and gadgets around without trying to understand what their relationship is to the larger culture. One of the first books that spoke to me powerfully as political theory was Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture (1968). I reread it recently, and it still holds up very well. He wrote, “By technocracy, I mean that social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration.” Theodor Adorno called it “administered society.” An administered society is one in which technological rationality and industrial organization have penetrated deeply into every aspect of how we live.

For example, by bringing personal computers into our homes, we also brought our workstations into our homes. And so, who knows how many hours a week you work? In a sense, many workers are never not at work, because now they carry their job in their pocket. Or consider service workers in the fast food industry. These workers are treated not as humans but as a part of a superefficient machine, and the skills required of them are crudely mechanical as well.

The more normalized all of this becomes, the more oppressive—and, needless to say, perversely successful—it is. The result is a culture that is “totalized.” Every aspect of the culture is made conformable to a certain technocratic and mechanistic ideal. That’s why I say that scientism is such an important part of state ideology. It is doing work for the boss.

How? Simply by normalizing the idea that everything is a machine, especially us. We are not likely to make a Thoreauvian or a Buddhist critique of technocracy if we have been convinced that we are computers. Thoreauvian critiques are disruptive and disobedient, and technocracy would prefer that we not think in that way. Ultimately, we are arguing about what it means to be human.

For the moment, the idea that we are neural computers is in ascendancy. Currently, from a very early age our children are given to understand that if they want a decent standard of living, they’re going to have to make their peace (ideally, an enthusiastic peace) with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, or STEM. Universities are now in the business of training people to go out into a world that is understood to be one vast mechanism, and this includes nature or, as we now say, “the ecosystem.” But that’s okay because we’re computers too. I can’t emphasize enough how oppressive this feels to many young people. As one reviewer of my book wrote, rather bitterly, “Anyone who doesn’t want to be a graphic designer, or a techie, or a slavish Apple devotee—no jobs for you!” And, I’ll add, no way to pay off your huge student loans.

Anyone who doubts the seriousness of this vision should read David Brooks’s December 2013 column for The New York TimesThinking for the Future,” in which he predicts that the economy of the future will depend upon “mechanized intelligence.” Fifteen percent of the working population will make up a mandarin class of computer geeks and the “bottom 85%” will serve them as “greeters” or by doing things like running food trucks. And yet, Brooks claims, this vast class of servants will have “rich lives” that will be provided for them by the “free bounty of the Internet.”

In your own Thoreauvian article “The Spirit of Disobedience: An Invitation to Resistance,” you quoted Simone Weil: “The authentic and pure values—truth, beauty, and goodness—in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.” In light of this perspective, what are your thoughts about the introduction of meditation into education and industry, especially into the “creative industries” of Silicon Valley? Thoreau and Weil were writers coming out of the Romantic tradition. For me, the Romantic movement was an attempt to create a wisdom literature for the West. A good part of that wisdom had to do with returning us to the immediacy of the world. As a poetic technique this has come to be known as “defamiliarization.” What it attempts to do is to destroy the world of custom, habit, stereotype, and ideology so that we can see things for what they are, so that we can see and feel the “stone’s stoniness.” When Walt Whitman says that his poetry is about “leaves of grass,” he is essentially saying, We have not been attentive. We need to look again at this leaf of grass. He wrote, “Bring all the art and science of the world, and baffle and humble it with one spear of grass.”

Perhaps the saddest thing we can say about our culture is that it is a culture of distraction. “Attention deficit” is a cultural disorder, a debasement of spirit, before it is an ailment in our children to be treated with Ritalin.

As for Silicon Valley, it has a legitimate interest in the health of its workers, but it has little interest in Weil’s notion of “the authentic and pure values.” Its primary aim is to bring Buddhist meditation techniques (as neuroscience understands them) to the aid of corporate culture, such as in the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google. This is from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute website:

Developed at Google and based on the latest in neuroscience research, our programs offer attention and mindfulness training that build the core emotional intelligence skills needed for peak performance and effective leadership. We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.

Mindfulness is enabling corporations to “optimize impact”? In this view of things, mindfulness can be extracted from a context of Buddhist meanings, values, and purposes. Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a whole way of life but only a spiritual technology, a mental app that is the same regardless of how it is used and what it is used for. It is as if we were trying to create a Buddhism based on the careful maintenance of a delusion, a science delusion. It reminds me of the Babylonian captivity in the Hebrew Bible, but now the question for Buddhists is whether or not we can exist in technological exile and still remain a “faithful remnant.”

Bringing Buddhist meditation techniques into industry accomplishes two things for industry. It does actually give companies like Google something useful for an employee’s well-being, but it also neutralizes a potentially disruptive adversary. Buddhism has its own orienting perspectives, attitudes, and values, as does American corporate culture. And not only are they very different from each other, they are also often fundamentally opposed to each other.

A benign way to think about this is that once people experience the benefits of mindfulness they will become interested in the dharma and develop a truer appreciation for Buddhism—and that would be fine. But the problem is that neither Buddhists nor employees are in control of how this will play out. Industry is in control. This is how ideology works. It takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, like Buddhism, and it redefines it. And somewhere down the line, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.

It’s not that any one active ideology accomplishes all that needs to be done; rather, it is the constant repetition of certain themes and ideas that tend to construct a kind of “nature.” Ideology functions by saying “this is nature”—this is the way things are; this is the way the world is. So, Obama talks about STEM, scientists talk about the human computer, universities talk about “workforce preparation,” and industry talks about the benefits of the neuroscience of meditation, but it all becomes something that feels like a consistent world, and after a while we lose the ability to look at it skeptically. At that point we no longer bother to ask to be treated humanly. At that point we accept our fate as mere functions. Ideology’s job is to make people believe that their prison is a pleasure dome.

Linda Heuman is a Tricycle contributing editor.

Image 1: Courtesy Harper Collins
Image 2-4: The “Buddhabrot” is a special rendering of the Mandelbrot set, a fractal that is generated from a simple equation using complex numbers.

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sirmalcolm's picture

So many of us agree with you in acknowledging the open, inquisitive mind of the true scientist - including Mr. White as I read it. It seems to me he coined the term scientism precisely to note the difference between true science and dogmatic ideology.

mkwart's picture

I just found out about an interesting book that would add to the discussion of this article: "Who's Asking?--Native Science, Western Science and Science Education" by Douglas L. Medin and Megan Bang.
I was a graduate student in Indigenous studies in Alaska and we were made acutely aware through our studies with elders and others of our western scientific bias. That is where I became aware that science is as much a religion as religion. The scientific method was unquestioned as providing the most accurate portrayal of reality. But native people had traditional ecological knowledge from living on the ground in places for thousands of years. I would try to get this information included in environmental assessments of government projects, but this kind of information is "only" anecdotal, and so it is discounted as not "real" knowledge. We are just trying to come out of this paradigm now with research. I realized that my acceptance of the scientific method and the "truth" of the information scientific research provided was interfering with appreciating real knowledge, as exemplified by the traditional ecological knowledge. These two worldviews are being combined now. I was like a fish in water with science--I didn't realize how completely and invisibly I was caught up in it's paradigms until I encountered traditional knowledge.

Richard Fidler's picture

Science presents its methods clearly; indigenous tradition does not do that. Science attempts to provide a description that investigators from varied backgrounds will agree upon, while indigenous sources are not always consistent from one informant to the next. This is not to discount what indigenous peoples have to say--only to point out the difficulties in relying upon native traditions to the exclusion of insights derived from science.

Am somewhat confused as to exactly which scientific methods are unsatisfactory to you. Are you opposed to ethnography, for example? It attempts to gather information from many sources and tries to construct meanings not just from a "Western" point of view but from the viewpoint of indigenous peoples. Are you opposed to the system of juried journal articles? Also, I am curious as to whether you would criticize any testimony from indigenous sources. Will you accept without question whatever an informant tells you?

You say "science is as much religion as religion", but I can see plenty of differences. Scientific findings are open to review and criticism. They must be replicated. They must present methods clearly. They must address alternative interpretations. Religion doesn't do those things.

Perhaps your discontent with science has to do with your impatience for the slowness with which science responds to problems. It does not accept stories immediately--nor should it--but it will, if given enough time, entertain those stories as hypotheses for investigation. I think you are too quick to reject scientific explanations and descriptions: relying solely on indigenous oral traditions is fraught with problems, too.

jeffreyjoemiller's picture

"Religion doesn't do those things."

Not only does it not do those actively works to prevent followers from doing those things.

barry.cull's picture

Essential questions are nicely dealt with in "The Quantum and the Lotus" by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan. The book explores what is knowable, how we know, and to what use we put that knowledge. In his book Curtis White criticizes the ideology of scientism in its unshakable belief that technology should serve the interests of the industrial-military complex at the expense of building sustainable communities. The relationship between science and capitalism seems vulcanized at this point in time. The hope lies in being able to examine the way we live our lives in a mindful and compassionate way.

jungsoo's picture
barry.cull's picture

I posted in the wrong spot. Not sure of how to delete.

jungsoo's picture

me too!'s picture

Yes science has emerged as the modern common sense way. part of the effort involved is to try to understand our lives through rational thought, science being the ultimate tool. There are cognitive limitations to understanding life in this way. It only helps us to see in a different way looking at pieces and parts with the indirect metaphoric use of language. Understanding the essence of life is something that we can better know from another way of more direct experience.

Will.Rowe's picture

I enjoyed this article. Science/scientism as an ideology seems ever apparent with the man-made global warming theorists who demand we accept their ideology, much with same the fervor shown by rabid Marxists or religious fanatics. Such extreme attachment to ideology does not seem in keeping with a Buddhist desire to rid oneself of attachments.

marginal person's picture

The author tells us that there is an assumption that science is not a world- view but simply, " the way things are".
Replace the word "science" with "Buddhism". Another assumption is that science derives authority from its privileged access to how things are, that it launches from the bedrock of the real. This statement could be a faithful Buddhist describing the dharma to a non-believer.
Buddhism can also be seen as an ideology in the sense of the various sects putting forth their story with the primary motivation to further their own agenda.
We all have ideologies. The problem arises when they are covert. Most Westerners see Buddhism as a philosophy but the problem is they suspend critical thinking in favor of comforting belief. Why are terms like the dharma, impermanence, contingency , the four noble truths etc. not questioned vigorously but instead accepted as "reality".
It's important to question the assumptions of science, but don"t stop there. I'm not speaking of religious Buddhism, people are entitled to believe what they will. I say question Buddhism's claim to valid description of "what is"..

Will.Rowe's picture

"The problem is they suspend critical thinking in favor of comforting belief." You have just described quite accurately the demands of the theory of man-made global warming fanatics. We must accept their ideology; There is no debate. This theory is fact simply because they say it/ believe it to be so. Kerry and Obama have both ridiculed anyone opposed to this theory as "flat earth" minions. Debate is not allowed. This sounds like a dictator or religious fanatic. This is not democracy.
This "all or nothing fanaticism" is dangerous and not comparable to my trying the 4 Noble Truths and seeing if they work for me. My acceptance of Buddhism has been after I tried it and proved it to be authentic. What has worked, I have used. This was no blind faith acceptance.
The theory of global warming worshipers demand complete acceptance without examination or questioning, merely believe them because they say they are scientists.

jungsoo's picture
Jonathan.s's picture

It's a real shame to read those comments. I believe that climate change is caused by fossil fuels, for the same reason that I believe lung cancer is caused by smoking. That is, there is a clear causal relationship between the composition of the atmosphere, and the climate. It is not mysterious and it is not a 'green left-wing plot' to take over the world. It is a matter of fact. The composition of the earth's atmosphere can be measured accurately, and it has been. To deny that it can be, is very much like 'flat-earth-ism' because it is the denial of actual measurements.

I am all for science but completely OPPOSED to scientism, by the way. Whatever causal relationships can be scientifically demonstrated - such as the relationship between CO2 and global warming - can't be disputed on ideological or religious grounds.

But science itself is limited, especially with regards to deep questions such as the nature of human identity and why we engage in behaviour that causes suffering. When those questions are made subject to scientific analysis, it is a completely different matter to empirical and objective questions, such as that of global warming.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You underscore the Buddhist teaching of the oneness of life and environment (esho funi).

jungsoo's picture

agreed. this topic is continued with today's "Daily Dharma"...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Effective Buddhism is not so much interested in "what is" as "what are you doing with it".

jeffreyjoemiller's picture

What you are doing with it is entirely dependent on our understand of "what is". The degree that we're not interested in "what is" is directly proportionate to our ability or inability to do anything with it.

Will.Rowe's picture

I agree. We concern ourselves with overcoming suffering, not concocting the scariest story of all: that we are somehow destroying the planet.

marginal person's picture

All you can do, I can do Metta. :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

In that Buddhism's concern is all activities of life itself (not just sterile analysis) practitioners do the best they can in any situation.

marginal person's picture

Amigo, it was supposed to be a joke. It should say:
"Anything you can do, I can do Metta. (my bad)

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Mo betta, eh Brah?! You know da kine..." ;-)

marginal person's picture

Tru dat !

Richard Fidler's picture

Any competent scientist recognizes that theories do not completely capture "what is out there". That is because science is reductionist--it simplifies what it is supposed to explain, leaving out variables that can have effects--and because the universe is inherently "noisy", that all observations have to deal with error and that phenomena are not necessarily completely predictable because of the very nature of things.

Still, that does NOT point to a scientific explanation as just another view--that a theory of disease based upon demonic possession is equivalent to Pasteur's germ theory of disease. Scientific theories are testable and non-scientific ones are not. Consequently, science-derived knowledge can be criticized, falsified--this process resulting in progress in our understanding of the world.

Think of diabetes, a condition formerly thought of in terms of diet, exercise, rest, not doing certain things and doing others. The scientific view that diabetes resulted from a malfunction of the pancreas resulted in treatments both of lifestyle and medicines, which were based upon an understanding of the way the body works--and not upon a priori assumptions derived from religious principles such as "purity" as in Indian medicine or in "balance" as in Chinese medicine. That is the power of science: it builds upon a concrete understanding of the physical world. Other non-scientific approaches do not.

TedChristopher's picture


Diabetes is a great example. And here is the most relevant quote on the subject from the Scientific American October 2010's "Revolution Postponed" by Stephen S. Hall:

"In type 2 diabetes, for example, association studies analyzing 2.2 million SNPs [Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms (or DNA "letter" variations which often signal larger DNA variations)] in more than 10,000 people have identified 18 SNPs associated with the disease, yet these sites explain only 6 percent of the heritability of the disease - and almost none of the causal biology".

And I will bet in the 3 plus years since that statement the (expensive) searching for the DNA origins for the heritability of the likelihood of diabetes - like everything else - has increased 10 fold and the results are still nil. No way did that 6 percent hold up.

The relevant issue is not some fantasy idealizations about some comic book entity Science, nor an academic critique of that comic book entity (like Curtis'), it is whether the carved in science-stone, bio-robotic vision of life is panning out. If it does that would nuke the deeper underpinnings of Buddhism. In reality that bio-robotic vision is getting crushed (and never made sense, look at the examples I give at the link below) but the comic book entity is still clinging to its robotic vision and comic book-starring role.

Richard Fidler's picture

Don't understand how your example of the lack of correspondence between DNA variation and subsequent phenotypic expression of the disease or its heritability has anything to do with a criticism of science. You probably know what is epistasis is--seems likely to me that the disease is not wholly inherited and, to the extent it is, the expression of the gene(s) depends upon environmental factors. All of this is well understood within the general paradigm of science.

TedChristopher's picture

There is nothing "well understood" here. It is about one of the most fundamental beliefs of the life sciences - an individual's specifics as beget by their DNA - failing almost completely across the board. You can read a very succinct write-up touching on this and the "almost beyond belief" status it already had in 2008. Given the tendencies of science (or as an insider acknowledged the "religion" of science) it is not surprising that few amongst the followers are aware of this situation even in 2014.

In a recent paper effort touching on this, no scientist reviewer in any way rebutted my point.

Here is a link to the 2 page write-up,

marginal person's picture

I don't disagree with the assertions you make about science.
The point I was trying to make (and obviously didn't) is that the varieties of Buddhism we have in the West, sometimes act as covert ideologies.

Richard Fidler's picture

I know you don't disagree. Your post just stimulated a thought process within me. I agree with your post.

wp84195's picture

I have to take issue with this somewhat spare, decontextualized, naïve and idealistic representation of science. But I do not know where to start. Briefly:

Science does not come to us as something on its own - it is always as part of what one scholar (Ellul) called an inseparable "science-technology-commodity" complex. It should be understood and evaluated as such. It is not an accident that the most glorious achievements of science find their highest expressions in modern missile systems.

Many years of work in anthropology have shown that our view of science and technology is identical to earlier magical worldviews of ancient cultures (Alf Hornborg, e.g.). There is tremendous power in the scientific worldview for all that it achieves (for a small number of us), but also tremendous poverty and it hides a number of unexamined, irrational assumptions. (Utopian) Scientism is much like a younger brother that is always right, but not very helpful when we are faced with problems that cannot be solved by mathematical formulae and spreadsheets. Buddhism, as far as I can judge, makes me feel it is more important to be helpful than to be right. But scientism is, as Curtis states, an ideology in our time, since it has become the analytic, political, and linguistic water in which we swim - we do not even notice it. Further, it is permanently yoked to the hegemonic cosmology of our time: economics.

Progress in science is also a cultural illusion that is always only visible from a particular, limited societal space. To take the example above: manufacturing insulin for those with diabetes requires an industrial system that requires the totalitarianism of money (it would not work had we not managed to arrange the world in such a way that money does indeed work magic - for some), and runs on cheap fossil fuels and, above all, inequality. For science to work you need an infrastructure with symbolic power that commands energy and resource flows around the world. That symbolic power is achieved by colonization, dispossession, wars, violence, criminality, empire building, conquest, plunder, theft, enclosure of the commons, etc.

Richard Fidler's picture

Yes, science and technology are linked tightly, but that does NOT imply that it depends upon the nasty collection of nouns you have assembled: wars, criminality, and all the rest. Science has certainly produced nuclear bombs and napalm, but so has it also produced insulin and pacemakers. The use to which science is put depends upon the values societies hold: as I mentioned before, that process of valuing does not belong in the domain of science.

I note that you do not choose to comment about the working methods of science, in particular, the ability of science to criticize itself. Does that mean you accept that science, while never completely describing Reality, comes closer than approaches involving faith, intuition, or tradition? I hope so.

trixie22's picture

well said Richard, well said

Dominic Gomez's picture

"The use to which science is put depends upon the values societies hold". This is where religion comes in. (In this case, Buddhism.)

monicamierster's picture

\m/ bro

keigenberg's picture

The author seems comfortable with the classification and labeling of people and systems of thought into
-ists and -isms. Perhaps it is a shorthand which stops just short of understanding the nature of science?

jeffreyjoemiller's picture


TedChristopher's picture

Hi once more Tricycle et al,

I comment a bit more as the topic is vital and the book a misfire.

If you would like to see a concise meaningful shot at Science and its singular relevant Delusion you can sample it here,
Examples like the cello player described have been around and have always rebutted the absolute position of Science(=Scientism). That position being, 'Your simply a robot, but we can help'. If you want to make deeper legitimate sense out of Buddhism (not modern trendy sense), then you are going to have to question the Religion of Science.

Danny's picture

Very interesting article. Science "maps" our world, but cannot show us how to "get around" in it. That is the realm of ideology (our humanly constructed beliefs in practices). We must be careful not to let our science become ideologically driven, to keep them (science and ideology) separate and distinct.

TedChristopher's picture

Hi again to Tricycle et al,

Below I have a comment and suggestion on this subject. Here I will comment explicitly on Curtis White's points.

This book is essentially another exercise in academic critique-ing or philosophizing. And to what end? Curtis White has essentially walked away from the central position defining modern science and its conflict with alternative understandings of life, including religious ones like Buddhism. That position is an absolute one - worthy of the general tag "scientism" - and that position is that life is a material-only phenomena. If that absolute position were panning out then at a minimum it would it would disprove religious understandings (which Curtis apparently cedes). Moreover such an understanding would perhaps lead to science-led improvements in our robotic existences (along with nuking free will).

That position - starting with particular DNA origins of our individuality - is simply getting crushed (cup your ear and lean in the direction of genetics and that failure can be heard as the deafening silence emanating from geneticists).

See my links below for a few 2-page write-ups which rebut the scientific position succinctly. The associated longer papers lay out some of a possible transcendental explanation including references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

If you are serious about Buddhism then get after trying to understand its implications. Why bother with such academic/philosophical efforts?

trixie22's picture

..along the same line as my reply to Richard Fidler earlier,....hoping Richard will be able to summarize my cup-runneth-over thoughts on the above statements.

Richard Fidler's picture

“Both scientism and religious fundamentalism answer the human need for certainty in a rapidly shifting and disorientingly pluralistic world.” Linda—you claim to not endorse the author’s views towards science, but your preamble to the question suggests otherwise. Better to be honest about your bias from the beginning.

The author sets up a clear dichotomy between science and non-science, dwelling on the pejorative “scientism”, a term like “educationist” that takes a word that formerly gained the respect of all and now is to be considered in a different light. I do not accept his dualism. Science and the humanities, science and the arts are not in competition—except at the level of universities where they compete for funding. Even there, a biologist seeking the answers to spider behavior is hardly likely to take funds away from the English literature department. Not all science is about DNA and computer simulations funded by Google and Microsoft.

Science does not disrespect the arts and the humanities. For the sake of this discussion, let’s write down what science does respect: science respects careful observation, it respects explanations based upon real world observations, it respects orderly methods to be used in distinguishing truth from non-truth. It does not speculate about the spirit, the afterlife, or the existence of god and his miracles. I see no conflict between these principles and the way the humanities are conducted. The two are, in the words of evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould, in different domains.

Can science approach questions such as the nature of consciousness? I do not see why not. Is an explanation derived from brain functioning helpful in understanding the subjective feeling of consciousness? I don’t know—but I wouldn’t reject the possibility as the author does. And bringing up the “science of economics” as an affront to our system of valuing human experience—come on, economics is hardly a science.

The rest of the arguments presented seem to me to be not about science (I won’t participate in the denigrating of that subject by using the hybrid word “scientism”) but of how science is used in our society. That aspect, the valuing of human experience, is NOT a concern of the domain of science but of the humanities domain the author cares about so much. He needs to convince society that it is on a wrong path when it idolizes technology to the detriment of the arts, literature, and reflective thought. It won’t do to blame science for the unwholesome direction society is taking in recent years: you have to make the case that human lives should be spent in better ways that in servicing our machines. That should be the goal of the writer, not creating a false dichotomy that does little but stir up enmity.

Douglass St.Christian's picture

"That aspect, the valuing of human experience, is NOT a concern of the domain of science but of the humanities domain the author cares about so much."

And there is the rub. Science has no ethical context, save itself. It is its own standard and judge.The claim that there are "different domains" is the ideological heart of science itself. White wants to hold onto "science" as being a social good in some undemonstrated way, which unravels his criticism of scientism. After all, he does the good scientists vs bad scientists thing that defenders of science use to put the curtain back, hiding the Wizard of Awes that baffles and misleads. He seems to let science define the scope of the critique, which means he loses his argument from the start.

Because science is not -- cannot be -- concerned with any ethical context other than its own standards of replicability and falsifiability, it cannot be counted a social good in itself. Catalogue all the advances and contributions, so-called, and then trace their consequences. Absent any broad ethical core, none of these advances and contributions can stand as good in themselves. Facing some thing that is inherently destructive, science argues for making it less destructive, not for avoiding destruction, because science has only itself as its measure.

I think that is the beating heart of White, Berry, LaDuke and so many others in their critique of the ideology of science.

Richard Fidler's picture

Perhaps science cannot be counted on as a social good (because it is amoral), but it is a necessary foundation upon which moral decisions must be made. If we don't know what is true, how can we proceed to make moral decisions? Destroy the predators to increase the number of deer--is that a decision that promotes a social good? Not if it results in the destruction of an ecosystem--as we found out. Moral judgment begins with an understanding of what is true. That is what science provides.

yourneighbor57's picture

I also deeply appreciate your reply. Well said.

trixie22's picture

Richard: I was blown away by the article, by its assumptions, assertions and its dualism in its own logic. I just didn't know where to begin to respond. So very glad I read through the comments, as you have so effectively and efficiency summed up my thoughts. So very grateful for your reply. namaste

sherabpa's picture

Kant's Copernican Revolution was not that we have no access to the thing in itself. This was already the views of the British Empiricists that awakened him from his 'dogmatic slumbers'. Rather, his revolution was that while all previous philosophy had insisted that the mind must conform to the nature of things, in fact phenomenal things [things as experienced] must conform to the nature of the human mind. In particular, phenomenal objects must conform to the ‘synthetic a priori principles’ which are conditions of the possibility of experience. Synthetic a priori principles are conceived to be propositions that are both necessary, and true of physical reality.

The belief in lack of access to the 'thing in itself' is similar to old Buddhist Sautrantika idea that there is a hidden substance of the world which we know through representations. It is confused to consider this an antirealist view, for it a view which supposes there is an objective reality. Kant's revolution was that these notions are products of the faculty reason, not of the science of metaphysics.

TedChristopher's picture

Hi Tricycle et al,

If you want to make some objective sense of the religion Buddhism then will have to find some problems with the carved in science-stone material-only vision of life. This is easily done.

This summer I got a long overdue paper into a new medical site/journal, Cureus, that provides evidence for this in a two-fold fashion. One, the ground floor of science's vision, DNA-beget-you (and behavioral genetics et al), is simply getting crushed empirically. Two, that gap/mystery is largely consistent with the common premodern transcendental vision of life which is of course the ground floor of Buddhism. For emphasis, I added a number of spectacular behavioral conundrums from the intelligence neighborhood. I also included some references to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

John Adler, the Stanford neurosurgeon who initiated Cureus, commented with regards to the paper that "[p]resumably somewhere in the intersection of both worlds [religion and science] will lay the truth". 

If you are interested then you can look here,
(The publication journal, Cureus, changed formatting and this derailed some of my formatting, so scribd is the place to see it). 

Or a new website,

TedChristopher's picture

For brevity an interested reader might best first look at the website which has some simple 2 page write-ups with strong rebuttals of science's vision. Then later it provides the Cureus paper and an earlier one too.

apollonios's picture

Somewhere in scientism's Nothing-But claims, I thought I caught a glimpse of emptiness. Science tells us that every thing is nothing but the causes and conditions that preceded it. Here I am, knowing that. For just a second, samsara falls away.