Filed in History, Science

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?

An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.Linda Heuman

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Vanishing Paths 2Even among worldviews, which are all convincing to their adherents, secular humanism combined with scientific materialism has a particularly compelling normative force. The success of instrumental reason in producing vast wealth, status, and power combined with obvious scientific and technological advances allows us to believe that this style of thinking and its discipline of science are not just efficacious but also indubitably and solely true. By these standards, other worldviews and other modes of knowing are unable to justify themselves and therefore seem invalid. But failure to satisfy the criteria by which secular modernity measures success is not a shortcoming of other worldviews and other modes of knowing; it is simply a result of applying our own criteria outside their ken. For the past 100 years, scholars across fields ranging from philosophy and cultural anthropology to the history of science, sociology, literary studies, and linguistics have questioned the assumptions that constitute the immanent frame. Unpacking why the immanent frame’s subtraction story spin is so convincing has been and continues to be an urgent challenge for modern thinkers who are concerned about the ethical implications of unbridled individualism let loose in a value-neutral world.

The point here is not that a traditional Asian worldview (or some other) is right and ours is wrong, but that our secular and materialist convictions block us in certain critical ways from participating in what has always constituted a Buddhist form of life. Much of the meaning of a religion is conveyed in its symbols, rituals, and myths. Consider how our privileging of rational knowing gets in our way.

Reason is concerned with literal meaning—that is, “x is y.” Symbolic knowing is concerned with metaphorical meaning: “x is like y.” Thus, while reason hones in on facts, symbols explore relations. Reason demands one-to-one correspondence: either water is H20 or it isn’t. In contrast, symbols work with multifaceted meaning; the water offered on a Tibetan altar is at once flowers, incense, and light. Symbols govern intricate patterns of meaning. They condense many meanings into one. They expand one meaning into many. And they can even hold together discordant or contradictory meanings.

From the point of view of instrumental reason, ritual seems like purposeless action. But ritual too is working with another kind of knowing—the sense in which we know the floor is solid and the walls obstructive, which we discover by finding our way around—by walking on the floor or bumping into the wall. This type of knowledge is not theoretical in nature; it is how we live. And ritual can shape that level of meaning, articulate it in definite ways. Ritual doesn’t represent meaning like rational propositions do; it enacts it. Bowing to the Buddha, for example, isn’t just how you think about your faith; it is how you go about attaining it and how you live it.

Again, from the perspective of reason, myths are just bad theories or wrong propositions. But narratives can deeply shape our understanding—both intellectual and intuitive. They are deeply interwoven in our identities and can pull strings on our motivations—ask any psychotherapist, politician, or advertiser. Or ask yourself: Why do you practice Buddhism? Your answer will be a story.

Our Buddhist tradition is like a meaning-symphony in which symbols, rituals, myths, and beliefs harmonize and counterpoint. Reducing the dharma to a system of rational beliefs and associated meditative techniques and discarding the rest is like covering one’s ears so that only the percussion beats through. Listening to our tradition in that manner, we can’t even tell what piece is playing. If then, on top of that, we toss out Buddhist beliefs that don’t fit with materialism, it’s as if we are only hearing that percussion line as a beat we already know. Is this an authentic dialogue with tradition? In what way are we to learn something new?

Certainly we cannot turn the clock back. There is no returning to a presecular world. We must reckon with our secular scientific background. What, then, is the way forward?

There are no easy answers. We might begin, however, by confronting our biases—indeed, our chauvinisms: our presumption that science has got it all figured out; that the modern worldview is a triumph over all past forms of understanding; and that today we are closer to a truer understanding of ourselves and our world than people of any other place and time. We need to start examining the immanent frame’s background assumptions, which constrain our sense of the possible. As we hold each assumption up for examination—as we pull it from the background and into the foreground and subject it to analysis—something curious happens. In a certain sense it loses its power over us—its status as “the way things are”—and becomes one possible way among many ways that things could be.

Examining and even questioning the foundational assumptions of secular and scientific materialism doesn’t mean we stop doing science or stop living in a technological world. Rather, it means we begin to see our worldview as a worldview, to appreciate how it, too, came to be constituted on the basis of a number of sleights of hand and is, as a result, no more universal or final or resting on solid ground than the worldviews of our medieval Western or traditional Buddhist predecessors. Like their worldviews, ours is a set of conventions. We can then understand that this is what it means to have a worldview: the human form of life operates within a vast web of implicit background understandings that limit what can count as valid beliefs and experiences.

The distinction between explicit beliefs and their implicit background context has been a critical one in our own Western philosophical tradition for the last century. Many of our most prominent thinkers—from Wittgenstein to Kuhn up to Taylor— have called attention to its importance and the problems that arise when it is overlooked. Although the understanding of background context emerged in the West, its implications lead us back home to one of the core teachings of Buddhist tradition— the two truths. When we as Buddhists consider that all our experiences, along with the objects of our experiences—and even subjectivity and objectivity themselves—arise within the context of implicit background assumptions, we recognize what we call “conventional truth.” When we consider that therefore, as a consequence, no worldview can appeal to the objects of its own creation for its own validation—that no worldview rests on solid ground in this sense—we recognize “ultimate truth,” emptiness.

At some moment it could hit us that the liberative possibilities spoken of in Buddhist texts may not be superstitious fairy tales. They may be real possibilities. For the first time it may seem plausible, indeed credible, that just as our form of human life gave rise to the material accomplishments toward which it directed its aspirations—skyscrapers and Internet technology and the like—so too might another form of human life, operating within different background assumptions, with different aspirations and with an understanding of its own conventional nature, be capable of giving rise to spiritual accomplishments like liberation and enlightenment. Then with courage and genuine humility we might begin to look at our job as dharma pioneers differently. Our cutting-edge task is not to fit Buddhism into our world. Nor is it to adapt ourselves to fit a world that is no longer available to us as it might have been to our ancestors. It is to reach across a great chasm and to meet our tradition in a new place where it—and we—have never been before.

Of Related Interest:

Linda Heuman reviews Religion in Human Evolution, by sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah.

"The Transcendent Imperative," by Tricycle features editor Andrew Cooper.

Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image 1: Central Tibet, 1700-1799, Gelug lineage. Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line, red background on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

Image 2: Tibet, 1800-1899. Uncertain lineage. 93.98x64.77cm, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

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rihananicholas8367's picture

To put this in Buddhist terms, in modern Western Buddhism, for the first time in Buddhist history, it is now possible to construe the purpose of dharma practice as the improvement of one’s psychological well-being or physical health, as a means to experience more harmony in one’s relationships, or as a way to build a more equitable, kind, and peaceful society. In this materialist-compatible version of Buddhism, death is the end, so the only problems are here and now. An endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth doesn’t exist, so freedom from it is a not a coherent goal. In today’s science-based world, a buddha’s omniscient cognition or emanative forms seem, frankly, superstitious— part of an ignorant and outdated worldview no more relevant to modern people than ghosts or demons.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

The cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth still exists for the modern Western Buddhist, which is why the focus on the reality of the present (and by natural extension, the future) is paramount. The delusion has always been that escaping from this cycle is necessary in order to become happy, i.e. gain enlightenment.

Edel Maex's picture

“Given the depth of suffering in samsara and the possibility of a solution to it; given that the very texts we study outline a path to that solution; given that we have a realized master right here who is, we believe, capable of leading us on that path to that solution—why would we devote our precious human lives to exploring whether meditation can lower blood pressure?”

Given the fact that high blood pressure is a major cause of cardiovascular sufferig and death, this statement sounds outrageously selfish.

mattbard's picture

enjoyable read... i suspect we already know this stuff, putting a voice to it was nice..... when i get confused, i don't automatically think i am wrong, but take a moment to look at alternatives. of course, cultural shifts , are by nature out of the box... i just take a little bit longer to sort the menu.......now i got more view, and thanks for good piece..... .m

Cato's picture

I've never thought of Buddhism at all connected with God or religion. The Buddha asked us to test principles he set out. I think Mr. Gomez needs to go beyond Christianity, which permeates the West....this is his problem not humanism or science. Elizabeth

celticpassage's picture

There's nothing beyond Christianity

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Elizabeth. Christianity does not teach the interconnectedness of all phenomena, the eternal cycle of life and death, nor the law of cause and effect. The sutras do.

celticpassage's picture

I would agree that Christianity doesn't teach the cycle of life-death (reincarnation) but I'm not so sure about the other two.

For example, Christianity certainly does teach the law of cause and effect. I don't think you could find a useful teaching that does not. So, Buddhism is not unique in teaching that.

Also, in Christianity, God created all things and everything including humans exist in God and are not separate.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhist teachings are universal in many respects. As for everything existing in "God", Buddhism posits a universal principle or law rather than an almighty anthropomorphic Creator.

celticpassage's picture

Well, I don't think that thinking Christians conceive of God as being anthropomorphic; the old man in the sky is a caricature.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What is your definition of "God"?

celticpassage's picture

Like enlightenment God cannot be defined.

Dominic Gomez's picture

God defined: the supreme or ultimate reality: a: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe, b: (in Christian Science) the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit
So is enlightenment and God the same thing, being that neither can be defined according to you?

celticpassage's picture

Correct. God cannot be defined.
But I don't think enlightenment and God are the same thing.
I would think that to a Christian, enlightenment would just be a form of culturally inculcated self-delusion.
I only included enlightenment because it would presumably be a more familiar concept.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Conceptually familiar yet understood differently per each school. As well, enlightenment is attained via as many different forms of practice. At least (the concept of ) "God" is understood commonly enough among the many and varied Abrahamic schools and sects.

celticpassage's picture

I would disagree.
Enlightenment is achieved through probably thousands of hours of effectively trying to live in the moment. Regardless of the specific approach or people's understanding of it, enlighenment is reached in only one way.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"enlightenment is reached in only one way": But you say it cannot be defined. How can you tell you've reached it?

celticpassage's picture

A man looks at his watch and realizes it's lunch time.

Dominic Gomez's picture

A broken clock is right but twice a day.

janettaylor11's picture

From my perspective, there are different levels of the Dharma to be taught. I lead a Buddhist community within a liberal church here in the midwest, and I have many people who arrive at my doorstep as unbelievers of any religion and skeptical of spirituality at best, but still willing to explore the possibility that meditation and mindfulness might help. I have found by taking the more secular approach at first, gives more people a doorway that they can enter easily. Then, once they gain their footing, they become more willing to explore the more transcendent aspects of the Dharma. Individuals practicing the Dharma have always experienced different depths of awareness, so what we're seeing happening now should not be surprising or so dualistic.

Dominic Gomez's picture

How do they react to the teachings of the interconnection of all phenomena, the eternity of life, cause and effect, et al?

Jonathan.s's picture

I too think this is an excellent article, having just noticed and read it. I have been through many decades of both Buddhist Studies, having just completed a Master's degree in the subject, and also philosophy and comparative religion. And I honestly feel my spiritual home is not in the secular west any more. I understand and respect the scientific outlook, but the attitude of scientific materialism is another matter altogether. In fact one of the things I am learning is that some traditional (as distinct from modern) forms of Western philosophy, are also quite consonant with the vision of Dharma. I refer in particular to Christian Platonism, which has many things in common with Mahayana Buddhism (albeit with some cardinal differences too.) But this has helped me to re-interpret my own Western heritage in such a way that I can now see the spiritual side of Western thought. (I think I was first alerted to this possibility by W Y Evans-Wentz' extensive notes on Plotinus in his ground-breaking edition of the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation.)

Anyway I just wanted to add my thoughts to this, it is an excellent article and a subject that we all need to be aware of especially in response to the growing influence of secular forms of Buddhism which eschew anything truly spiritual.

Kevin K.'s picture

This is one of the most beautifully-written and timely articles I've ever read in Tricycle - which is saying something considering the high caliber of the magazine overall. I particularly appreciate its thoughtfulness in the context of the two very weak Stephen Batchelor pieces in the same issue, which are intent (as usual with Batchelor) on excising anything transcendent from the Buddha's teachings. One of the greatest concerns expressed by many Dharma teachers who know Western ways well (I'm thinking in particular of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Thanissaro Bhikku and, earlier, Ajahn Chah) is that students and teachers alike will be tempted to settle for secular and therapeutic approaches to the teachings. Thanks for addressing these complex issues with such clarity and balance.

heartjewel's picture

"I think many Buddhist throughout history have taken the truth of Buddhism to be one of radical immanence, not one of the transcendence of samsara by some kind of pure consciousness. The dharma remains the same, but the conceptual stumbling blocks to achieving it are very different."

well said

Jan Newman MD's picture

I think the author's points are well taken. Unfortunately much of the "Westernization" and "Science " of Buddhism is neither good Buddhism nor good science. Many studies have neither been duplicated nor revalidated. Practitioners are both subjects and advisers on projects very intimately attached to the results which is both nonscientific and non-Buddhist.Traditional Buddhist definitions have been ignored such as the difference between lovingkindness and compassion.
Some of the previous discussions are all head and no heart and quite honestly both miss the point and cause one to get lost in their own specious reasoning.To say that the Dalai Lama is "all compassion" means that the writer has not attended the Dalai Lama's teachings nor read his works which are extensive. The Dalai Lama is both wisdom and compassion and embodies the teachings. He is probably one of the finest if not the finest Buddhist scholar alive today.
All that aside, the reason that meditating for health benefits is specious is because at the beginning meditation usually is relaxing, helpful, but that stage passes rapidly and then one has to deal with their own demons, delusions and emotions which is equally as difficult as living in samsara. Buddhism in its many forms and paths gives us ways to deal with those demons.Whether one is dealing with jnanas or levels of satori or Bodhisattva bhumis, what we can say is that we are not yet at the first level in any of these traditions in Western practice and science is at its infancy. We need to keep these things in perspective.If we look at the very beginnings of Buddha's teachings, the way to enlightenment is the 8 fold path. If we abide by that path we will both be happier and healthier and eventually reach enlightenment.No matter the form of Buddhism, both wisdom and compassion are required.

heartjewel's picture

". . . at the beginning meditation usually is relaxing, helpful, but that stage passes rapidly and then one has to deal with their own demons"

and unfortunately this experience is often left unaddressed or worse, swept under the rug, as if the point of practice is to avoid such a confrontation. Thanks for pointing this out. It is far too easy to remain at the fringe of our own complacency rather than, as the author suggests, hold our assumptions (realizations?) up for examination.

celticpassage's picture

Confrontation, examination, addressing, etc., is way over-rated.

Much better to be financially rich and as happy as anyone else and happier than many.

If any problems come up, buy some companionship and good times.
If there is any residue left then just sweep it under the rug and move on.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As metaphors, the liberative possibilities spoken of in the Buddhist sutras point to very real experiences by human beings. The life-condition of enlightenment (Budhhahood) is just one example. The life conditions of hell, hunger and animality are also quite real as the thoughts, words, behavior and posts of people whose lives are trapped in those lower "metaphoric" worlds.

lifestyle_obsession's picture

This is a fascinating article. Thank you very much for writing it. :-)

A thought about some of the assertions here:

"Reason demands one-to-one correspondence: either water is H20 or it isn’t. In contrast, symbols work with multifaceted meaning; the water offered on a Tibetan altar is at once flowers, incense, and light. Symbols govern intricate patterns of meaning. They condense many meanings into one. They expand one meaning into many. And they can even hold together discordant or contradictory meanings."

I believe you underestimate, or misunderstand, "science" and "reason" here. Quite rationally and factually, light is both particle AND wave. Schrödinger's imaginary cat (shades of Nansen?) can be both alive AND dead. Actually "things" can exist as fields, or waves, of probability.

Honest eyes can look at the world, and honestly perceive & record--as you see on your Tibetan altar--the "many meanings" there, including ones that might be considered "discordant or contradictory..."

I believe the distance to be bridged here, if any, perhaps isn't nearly as wide as you suggest. Reality--ultimate as well as conditioned--is reality, no matter what eyes we observe it with.

Perhaps we simply need to look...without the cages of judgment, duality, or conceptual categories? Including "science" versus "religion"? :-)

Just a thought.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One of the benefits of practicing Buddhism is the freedom to see life as if you were flying 20,000 feet above the landscape. Of course you may focus on the little tiny cars on the highway but the bigger picture always presents itself.

wtompepper's picture

Light is not "factually" both a particle and a wave; metaphorically, we can use different models to predict what will happen to light, but they are always metaphors, not "facts." Schrodinger's point was that the cat could NOT be both alive and dead, that the quantum probability does not apply at the macro level, that probability is just a measure of our level of ignorance. Things don't "actually" exist as fields, or waves--those are metaphors we use to predict the behavior of the world. We always look at the world with judgment, and if we didn't we could never get anything done. What we have to do is avoid mistaking our metaphors for what is "factually" there. When we do that, science becomes a religion instead of a useful human practice.

ianjbarton's picture

Evidence is accumulating that quantum effects do apply at the macroscopic level. As an instance I refer you to: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2010/mar/18/quantum-effect-spot...

heartjewel's picture

the universe is a metaphor

thom's picture

Mathematically, light exhibits the attributes of both a particle and wave depending on how and when we measure it. I would be very cautious about the using the word "metaphor" as light quite empirically behaves as such.

wtompepper's picture

I don't think you understand what "metaphor" means. A model which predicts behavior mathematically is a metaphor. We do not "empirically" observe light as a particle or a wave--empirical means with the senses, and we do not have perceptions of little balls of light or of "waves" of light, these are only metaphors we use to comprehend what we cannot possibly observe physically.

thom's picture

A model which predicts behavior mathematically is an isomorphism to the behavior of the given system. A metaphor is literary device used to illustrate similarities between given representations.

Additionally we can physically observe these differences using something as simple as Young's double slit experiment. Any university physics lab has the tools to do so.
Any name we give to the phenomena is just a language game being employed to simplify cognition. Whether we call them "balls" or "shy little bear cubs" is irrelevant to the correlation between understanding and physical description.

wtompepper's picture

Exactly! Any name we give is just a language game to simplify cognition: that is what a metaphor IS!! When one does the double slit experiment, one does not "see" a "wave" or a "particle," right? Those terms are metaphors used to simplify cognition. Your definition of metaphor is simply incomprehensible--any "representation" of something is always already a metaphor, so to say one can only use the word metaphor when one is dealing with comparison of two metaphors is the kind of useless nonsense you get from online dictionaries, and is not what the word means.

Not that this is all that important, since what you just said is exactly my point. Light is not "factually" or "empirically" sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave (although most high-school physics teachers will tell you that it is); instead, those are simply metaphors to simplify our understanding of mathematical models (another kind of metaphor) so that we can predict what will empirically happen.

And some metaphors are better than others. "Shy little bear cubs" would not be helpful to our conceptualizing a model of the behavior of light, unless you have a very odd idea of how bear cubs might behave!

thom's picture

Hmmm… I'm sorry, but you didn't understand what I tried to say
Your claim is that things don't exist as "fields" or "waves". Naming does not invalidate phenomena it merely places said phenomena into categories. It doesn't matter what categories we choose as long as each category references a model of predictable behaviors that map onto the phenomena in question. Are you saying that placing something into a category invalidates predictability?
Light is observably a wave or a particle depending on how we measure it. Walk over to the physics department and have them show you. You could argue from the decoherence standpoint that this behavior is the result of another phenomena, and I think that is reasonable, but calling these behaviors "metaphors" that have no existential properties is not correct.

If you are saying that "wave" and "particle" are just names for some experiential phenomena that exists outside of language, then that's fine, but it doesn't change the fact these phenomena still exist.

Regardless, mathematics is absolutely not a metaphor. I have to ask, but how far did you get in your studies of math? Have you had any graduate level Group Theory?

wtompepper's picture

No, I am saying that placing things into categories is exactly how predictability is possible.

No, we really don't see a "particle" of light, ever. That doesn't happen. The model of light as a particle predicts is behavior in some situations, but it is a model, we are not "seeing" a "particle" of light. Nobody has ever "seen" a photon, or a "wave" of light.

Of course, light actually exists, but we always predicts its behavior with models, and a model is the very definition of what a metaphor is. If you start to think that you are actually "seeing" fields or waves or subatomic particles, then you are reifying you model, and not likely to make any further advance in understanding.

And yes, mathematics is always a metaphor. Math is a symbolic system for describing reality. That's why it is useful. Really, take a look at any calculus textbook, they generally explain this--math is very often used as a way of producing a simplified model of a complex reality. This is what metaphor means. I have to ask, how far did you get in your study of the philosophy of language and semiotics? Have you had any graduate level semiotic theory?

But seriously, why are you so terrified of the word "metaphor"?

thom's picture

Gonna have to argue with your science there, yes, we have images of individual photon and electron impacts as well as the interference patterns generated by them.
We have observed single atoms and stored and retrieved data from a single photon. We have indeed observed the direct effects of these things and in some cases viewed them directly.
Again, mathematics represents an isomorphic relationship between testable reality and cognition, it is not a metaphor.
As for my studies: my undergraduate work was in Mathematical Philosophy, with a focus on language and aesthetics. I had a single graduate semiotics class during that course work, no others were offered unfortunately. My graduate work is in pure mathematics.
Also, I just completed a seminar lecture on cognitive nominalism and the relationship between language and mathematics in the brain, though it has not been delivered yet.

None of the five Calculus textbooks on my shelf say that mathematics is a simplified view of reality.

wtompepper's picture

Really, you literally have a picture of a photon? You must have very good eyes! They're awfully small. Of course you have images of "interference patterns generated," but again, that is the observable effect that the photon model is meant to predict. Of course there are measurable effects of these things, but no, you really can't "see" a neutron or a quark or even a photon--just the macro-level effects which the model predicts.

I can't make this any clearer; it is an unfortunate really that some second-rate scientists forget their models are only models, and become very attached to the idea that they are sort of "blown up" images of what is really not visible. Such reification can get in the way of scientific progress.

And, again, a (more or less) isomorphic relationship between reality and cognition is what a metaphor is. Why are you terrified of this simple word? Are you just afraid that the very word would shake your ability to reify your models?

I only have two calculus books on my shelf, and they both do say that the purpose of calculus is to produce a simplified model of reality in order to make predictions. You have five that say no such thing, though, so I guess you win!

thom's picture

I meant Images of photon impacts, sorry about that, it did not read well. Would have made more sense to write "images of photon impacts and electron impacts." My bad.
The eye can detect single photons, it is easily within the capability of the retina, however the brain only responds to small bundles of them in order to reduce "noise". Of course, no, you aren't going to see it traveling orthogonal to your gaze, but the rods in your retina can detect it if it hits the retina.
Also, this article makes several points that contradict your position: “Towards Quantum Experiments with Human Eyes as Detectors Based on Cloning via Stimulated Emission.” Physical Review Letters 103, 113601 (2009).
As for the others, no, you cannot see a sub-atomic particle, but you can experimentally detect its presence, behavior and effects.

I'm leaving this discussion, I see where this is going and, for me, it is an utter waste of time. There is no point in attempting to unite nominalism and your positivist stance. Have a nice night Tom.

wtompepper's picture

Thanks for that reference--it looks interesting.

Yes, this isn't going anywhere--I am obviously not able to make my point clearly here; I am absolutely an opponent of positivism, and my position is realist, not nominalist. If I seem to be attempting to unite nominalism with positivism, I'm just not being clear enough about what I am saying. '

I do take it to be an important point in the modernization of Buddhism, though. There is a long tradition in the West of trying to find "proof" of Buddhism in Western science, in order, it seems, to make that science function as a kind of religion. The different "scientific truths" that are purportedly asserted in Buddhism and proven by science range from mesmerism to the positive effects of "bare attention" on blood pressure.

My suggestion would be to instead use Buddhist thought as a caution against reifying our conceptual models. Nagarjuna argued almost 2000 years ago that we must always keep in mind that we think in conventional metaphors or models, but that reality might always be different from the conventions in which we think it. When we reify our metaphors, we wind up in delusion. If we think we really "see" light as particles or waves, that those metaphors are literally what light "is", then we lose the ability to think that instead of sometimes "being" a particle and sometimes "being" a wave, we could think of light in a different metaphor, which covers and predicts all the different behaviors we want to predict. We can't even think of a new metaphorical model so long as we are stuck on reifying the old ones.

Instead of "modernizing" Buddhism by using science to cut our all those teachings we don't like, we might be better served by using Buddhism to help us think about the philosophy of science in better ways.

Dominic Gomez's picture

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin at some point does seem irrelevant to life's more immediate issues.

Danny's picture

Those interested in understanding the points Tom is making should read his excellent article "Nargarjuna, Hume, and the God Particle" over at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site.

wtompepper's picture

If I seem to be talking about dancing angels, I'm really not making my point clearly, so it's time to give up. Maybe someday, I'll find a better way to explain this point--for now, I'll just have to keep in mind that many, many people have already done so, perhaps more clearly than I can--and none of them were foolish enough to try to do it in online comments!

celticpassage's picture

Maybe this is a bit simplistic, but perhaps you are trying to say that light is invisible. We do not Actually see light but know of it's presence by it's effect: light striking the retina.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your point is quite clear, Tom. As far as Buddhism is concerned it is but one perspective of the totality of life. The middle way addresses such tendencies of mind.

donsalmon7's picture

Hey Tom - I like what you're saying very much (if I appeared to be overly contentious in my February, 2012 comments on your Wallace book review - my apologies).

I've found that Owen Barfield's book, "Saving the Appearances", has been very helpful in getting across your point that (if i've got it correctly) much of what contemporary scientists consider to be "empirical" are actually metaphorical judgments. (I love his phrase, "residue of unresolved positivism" which he employs frequently in the book).

Christine Skarda (who has a number of excellent neuroscience articles on Linda Heuman's website) has very good essay on perception which, I think, speaks to your concern about positivist science. I've found James Corrigan's "introduction to Awareness" to be an outstanding critique of positivism and physicalism.

Also, I've mentioned before in these comments, but I'll say again, Michel Bitbol's online article, "Is Consciousness Primary" is another excellent resource.

I'll also not so modestly mention my "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor", which I posted at integralworld.net in summer, 2011. I've since realized a number of conceptual problems with it (I was attempting to speak from "within" the materialist/physicalist perspective while simultaneously questioning it; not an easy task), but I still think you might find some of it congenial.

I do wonder - this is just wondering out loud; if you don't want to get into this online, I understand - if one sets aside virtually all "Buddhist" references in Wallace's book about Buddhist skeptics, and just considers his critique of positivism, if there might not be more in the book that is in line with your own way of seeing.

Thanks, it's been nice to read you from a different perspective. (if you'd like to write, you can reach me at donsalmon7[at]gmail; i'd love to read more of your critique of positivism)

wtompepper's picture

donsalmon: regarding Wallace's critique of positivism, I did mention in the review you're referring to that I do agree with Wallace that reductive-materialism will never find the mind in the brain; I still would disagree with his assumption that in order to escape this positivist reductionism we need to accept the existence of what he calls a "substrate consciousness" which transcends this world and will ultimately reside in pure bliss once it escapes its phenomenal existence. This is James's strategy as well--since reductive positivism cannot explain the mind, the only alternative is there must be a god and our "souls" are the seat of consciousness. My concern to critique the reification of scientific models above is an interest is avoiding this false dilemma.

And there's no need to apologize for being contentious. The rejection of vigorous argument, and therefore of real commitment to any position, is one of the greatest sources of delusion in our postmodern culture. As I have often had occasion to say on the SNB blog, if you won't argue for your position, then shut up, nobody needs to hear more assertions of indefensible nonsense. Be contentious, for the good of the human race!