At Barbara’s Buddhism Blog popular columnist, journalist and long-time Buddhist practitioner Barbara O’Brien in the posting Dear Scientists: Let’s Talk has taken to task scientist, professor and science fiction writer Athena Andreadis for misrepresenting Buddhism in an opinion piece. Professor Andreadis article “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.” was taking to task spiritual folks who were misrepresenting science by attempting to tie elements of science to religious concepts. Comments have ensued on both sites and on both sides of the debate.
My kneejerk reaction was to agree whole heartedly with Barbara’s assessment. And then I recalled the 30 years of discussion between myself and a close friend with a PhD in biochemistry about the virtues of science versus religion/philosphy/psychology/etc. And I read Professor Andreadis’ article again with a little more care and with that kind of understanding memory and full mindfulness can bring. So now it’s a mixed reaction to both of these articles. Here’s why.
Generally both articles exhibit a type of righteous indignation that slightly undermines their arguments. This is not a big issue but it clouds some of the very reasonable points that both have to make. So for the purposes of my discussion I will attempt to sift that chaff from the kernels within.
As Professor Andreadis article sparked the reaction I would like to deal with the content of that first.
She begins with a summary of the Sokal affair in which scientist Alan Sokal had submitted a bogus paper to a prominent cultural studies journal only to find it both accepted and the nonsensical ideas contained within it embraced by its editors. This scandal was (and still is) indicative of some of my qualms with social sciences, religion, both orthodox and reformed and academia in general, as well as the level of acceptance by the general public of just about any sort of gibberish that spouts forth from the mouth of someone labeled an “authority”. And that which comprises “authority” these days is becoming pretty dodgy. As Professor Andreadis writes “We’re also awash in instant experts, courtesy of the Internet.” Quite so.
In the article religion is introduced with a few sentences describing the continuing turf struggle between church and state or religion and science if you prefer. The pivotal sentence
As a result of this, religions from Christianity to Buddhism have been attempting to show that their tenets are compatible with concepts of reality developed through science.
contains several points which are of interest. Firstly and this may just be a semantics quibble, the orthodox versions of most religions would rather co-opt science to prove their own validity than water down their various doctrines to accord with science. That is what is happening in Christian Fundamentalism with the “intelligent design” mythology that is finding its way into science courses in some areas of America. And even various reformed or “modern” branches of many mainstream religions prefer to accept science on it’s own terms rather than attempt some awkward amalgamation.
But there are always fringe elements. The New Age movement is one of those. It is propelled by amorphous popular culture rather than any sort of historical or doctrinal foundation and appropriates elements from such diverse sources as institutional religion, aboriginal religion, folklore, world-wide cultural practices, Hollywood, advertising, psychology, astrology, martial arts and certainly science. This patchwork of belief is further promulgated by naive irrationality hyped by media and consumer culture. It’s easy to believe this pretty pastiche because there is nothing too deep to believe in. This shallow lifestyle makes it easy to grasp any new and intriguing jargon, understood or not and graft it on. Everything else from Buddhism to Quantum Mechanics is viewed as equally shallow and available for appropriation.
The video that set off Professor Andreadis’ article does purport to show where science and Buddhism meet. Link I cannot speak much to the content regarding Quantum science but the Buddhist sections are woefully lacking in understanding. The video states at the end that the concepts of science and spirituality are interchangeable just to give you a taste of this mishmash. The creator of the video even states at the beginning “While these ideas are not exclusively Buddhist…” Further in he equates the Buddhist concept of sunyata with the Hindu concept of Brahman and the Tao. The concept of Brahman for example is quite different than that of sunyata. Nor is emptiness like “a blank page”. There is no page! The monist theory (the universe is one) is not a pre-eminent Buddhist teaching. There are some writings which touch on this but there are serious qualifications to it. Interdependence recognizes a diversity though not an independent diversity.
Throughout the video the narrator continues to talk of reality in metaphors that consider it to be a dream. There is a sharp contrast between the material and the non-material viewpoints which are absolutely not reconciled. There are just so many things wrong with this video from a Buddhist standpoint one could go on at some length. I won’t. Suffice it to say the Buddhist scholarship is as poor as the science scholarship.
Professor Andreadis addressed the tangled science presented and concluded
…when people who are not conversant with a scientific concept use it to lend credibility to shaky or shady conclusions, they become demagogues and/or charlatans. And before anyone trots out the elitism hobby-horse, all I can say is, just have the next person you meet on the street repair your car or give you a haircut. The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.
I do agree with the sentiment.
As for her comments and criticisms regarding contemporary Buddhism and what she considers Buddhism to be, the reaction is a little more mixed. My hypothesis is that she has only been exposed to Buddhism as fashion accessory which is something of a trend in North America. My responses to each of her points of Buddhist criticism are:
- Zen is not a philosophy of interior design
- reincarnation as is stated in the article is principally of Hindu origin,
- universe-toting turtles are part of several North American aboriginal creation myths (including the Iroquois) not Buddhism,
- suffering is not a result of “bad past karma” but of attachment,
- oppressive political policies of both religious and secular governments have been and are evidenced in abundance in the world-it is not necessarily due to their Buddhist affiliations,
- the teacher student relationship whether in a Buddhist monastery or in academia has always been subject to the abuse that differential power relationships can engender.
On Buddhist doctrine there are further misunderstandings
- Buddhism’s ultimate goal is not to suppress desire or anything else, it is to realize the truth of it
- reality is not an illusion. This is as off the mark as the video presenter stating that Reality is a dream. Reality is reality.
- Western religions “figures of defiance” who are “striving for something larger than one’s puny self without letting go of one’s individuality.” are well paralleled particularly in Mahayana Buddhism with the Bodhisattvas as well as many documented historical figures. The Buddha himself was certainly defiant of conventions.
In the final paragraph I had to laugh at the sentence.
I’m often told that science strips away comforting illusions or the mysteries that add beauty and meaning to life.
So many people who convert to Buddhism initially say the same kind of thing!
In response to the article by Professor Andreadis, Barbara O’Brien had several pointed comments. The principal among them was the apparent lack of understanding of Buddhism on the part of the professor. While the professor criticizes those who would misuse scientific concepts she herself misrepresents Buddhist concepts. I have elucidated several of these misrepresentations above. Ms. O’Brien responds with:
Dear Ms. (or is that doctor?) Andreadis, there’s an old saying in America — “practice what you preach.” What you have written is arrant nonsense. It is dreadfully ignorant to pass judgment on things we do not understand, isn’t it? I admit I don’t know quantum mechanics from eggplant. You, on the other hand, don’t know Buddhism from chickens. Every sentence in the paragraph above reveals gross misunderstanding of Buddhism. The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.
The final sentence above is a quote from the professor’s article. I am inclined to agree with both, each in their separate criticisms. It is helpful to know what you know well and become informed of that which is not known well before uttering something.
Another point from the Buddhism blog that is well taken is
Science and Buddhism do not need each other to be credible…
And that is one of the points I will take up in the next section.
While the professor laments the co-opting of science for mystical purposes it should be remembered that many prominent members within the scientific community have been some of the most avid in attempting to tie religious concepts to advanced science. I am thinking here of physicists Fritjof Capra and his book Tao of Physics and Niels Bohr who even added a yin/yang symbol to his family crest.
This genre of literature is labeled quantum mysticism and was in fact first created by physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger who was a student of Vedanta as early as the 1940s. That they have been amplified by such unqualified personages as Deepak Chopra and others only stretches any credibility further.
Truly these theories are easily debunked as the Sokol affair demonstrates.
That science has an element of wonder to it is undeniable. It does stand on its own without the need to add some sweet sappy icing of mysticism on top.
But if scientists have strayed into the fields of faith and philosophy perhaps their disciplines didn’t provide all the answers to the big questions of life that they had hoped to find.
And Buddhism does not require scientific validation. I say that rather ironically since there are numerous efforts currently underway in the scientific community to study the neurological effects of meditation among other things. And many Buddhist meditators as participating enthusiastically.
It may seem that the religious are a superstitious lot, believing in imaginary beings or unprovable hypotheses. That religious sentiments arise from something other than sensory input is problematic to science. Yet science is not problematic to many with religious sentiments. It seems to depend upon the criteria used for the measurement and validation.
Much religion, including Buddhism has an irrationality to it that is hard to digest. I find this problematic myself. Faith is one of the few things that are proven after the fact. In the case of Buddhism at least the results are possible in this lifetime but others aren’t so lucky. But faith also has a place in science. I am not referring to religious faith but theoretical faith. Ideas and hypotheses are part of the scientific endeavor. Initially unproven they nonetheless persist, sometimes for the lifetime of the thinker.
The human being is fraught with faith at every turn. One has faith in their own knowledge, skills, abilities, talents, viewpoints and even emotions. Faith underlies our everyday existence. We have faith in our families, neighbors and communities. We have faith that the earth will keep spinning. We believe many things that are unprovable. Here are a few more examples of that unprovable faith:
- I will wake up tomorrow
- my partner will not suddenly divorce me
- my neighbor will lend me his lawn mower
- I will go to the beach and not encounter a tidal wave
- my airplane won’t crash
None of these things is knowable, provable or testable. It is only after the fact that they are proven or not. The leap from the rational to the irrational is not nearly so large as one might imagine.
There does not need to be a competition between science and religion. And there is no need to join them in any attempt at a grand unified theory of everything. And there is also no need to assert the dominance of one over the other. Such attempts are only exercises in ideological power brokering.
Religion, particularly Buddhism and science do make a lousy cocktail. While one of their purported purposes may be something like looking into the nature of reality the methodology, perspectives, points of origin and even definitions of reality are radically different. That there may be some points of contact is a possibility and those points lie only in what underlies both-the fact that both are products of the human mind and both at some point rely on faith.