Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why I Keep Bashing Scientism

     Shortly after setting up the website, before this blog was born, one person made the observation that I lament way too much over unquestioning scriptural dogmatism, especially considering that Buddhists in the West are hardly dogmatic at all. With regard to Dharma this turns out to be obviously true; most Buddhists in the West appear to be practically the opposite of scriptural dogmatists, as they freely dismiss any parts of the Tipitaka that they don't have any use for, which is most of it. I can relate to that, as I'm a Westerner too. But in Burma, where I wrote most of the articles now on the website, scriptural dogmatism prevails, not only with the Burmese, but also with many Western monks, a few of whom I corresponded with in a rather frustrating manner. Western monks tend to reject Abhidhamma and other presumably later texts like fable collections and commentarial literature, yet they may be Bible fundamentalists with regard to all the rest of it. So I would sometimes get letters back from a Western monk with remarks like "That's wrong because in M__ (pick a number) the Buddha says otherwise," and generally assuming axiomatically that if anything is stated in the "core texts," then it necessarily is true, authentic, and reliable. My frustration, as well as my intuition that dogmatism is a case of "binding oneself without a rope," occasionally motivated me to attack this point of view. Dogmatism easily forms an entrenchment that is very difficult for the dogmatist to get out of, even temporarily, even just for fun.
     But in America the case is different. Two of the most surprising and obvious (to me, anyway) characteristics of the American Theravada that I saw were lukewarmness and materialism, with little actual mention of Pali texts, American laypeople preferring to read books on Buddhism written by other American laypeople than to read ancient texts, or anything very monastic. In America, Theravada, "the doctrine of the elders," has been transformed into something very Western, modern, and secular. 
     Both lukewarmness and Western-style scientific materialism (let alone several other outstanding characteristics of American semi-Buddhism that I won't belabor here) are serious obstacles to spiritual development, probably more so than the rut of rigid dogmatism in the East. There's not much I can do about the lukewarmness; I'm not fiery enough and motivated enough, and am probably too lukewarm myself, to inspire people to apply themselves deeply and energetically. Or so it appears. But Western-style scientific materialism, or Scientism, is so easy to bash, and such an obvious handicap to anyone trying to practice Dharma, that I figure I might as well. It ought to be bashed. It is good to challenge points of view. Plus there's that frustration issue again. 
     One fundamental point—and if I'm wrong on this, then somebody out there please explain how—is that if Scientism is true, and scientific realism therefore really does reliably explain Reality, then Dharma must be untrue, since true Dharma leads to Nirvana, and is oriented to Nirvana, and Scientism deals only with Samsara, apparently considering Samsara to be the only Reality there is. Scientism attempts to explain all Reality within the context of what the Hindus especially call māya, the illusion. Science deals of necessity only with what can be objectified and measured; and since any Absolute, like Nirvana or "God," cannot really be objectified or measured, it is dismissed by those who dogmatically consider science to be THE correct explanation of the Universe, and that is symptomatic of the faith of Scientism, not of mere science.
     Consequently we have "Dharma" teachers in the West, many of them considering themselves to be Buddhists, who reject any aspect of Buddhism that is not in harmony with a scientistic objectification of Reality. They reject such notions as karma and rebirth, and if they don't reject the notion of Nirvana altogether, they are compelled to identify it with mere cessation, nonexistence. Some Buddhist intellectuals even of the fundamentalist tendency prefer to identify it likewise, for lack of appreciation of anything that cannot be intellectualized. But if Nirvana is nonexistence, then becoming enlightened in this very life becomes rather problematic; and furthermore, if there is no rebirth possible anyhow in a materialistic world, then we all automatically become "enlightened" at the moment of death. Thus if Western Dharma students, teachers, and practitioners who disbelieve in karma and rebirth, yet still consider the First Noble Truth to be true are right, then we would all literally be better off committing suicide. 
     As I've pointed out elsewhere, especially in the article "Buddhism and Scientism" on the Nippapañca website, the scientistic interpretation of Reality relies on several articles of faith which cannot possibly be proved, and which are, as a general rule, universally overlooked by those who endorse such an view. An important reason for this is that one fundamental article of faith of the religion of Scientism is that it is not a religion. Articles of faith should not be accepted. But if they cannot be avoided, then they should not be acknowledged.
     One such article of faith is that the human brain, a material object consisting of organic tissue with the consistency of soft, raw tofu or an overripe avocado, somehow has the capacity to figure out Ultimate Reality. Another is that "figuring out," i.e. symbolic, intellectual thought, can really understand anything in a physical universe, or maybe even in a mental one. A symbol is radically different from whatever it presumes to represent; so symbolic thought, as ancient sages have been wont to say, is more a distortion of truth than a discerning of it. 
     One very big assumption of Scientism is that physical matter, which is mainly what scientists try to observe, exists at all. As I have pointed out again and again, there is no way actually to prove this. The existence of a universe of physical matter is a matter of faith—which is rarely acknowledged as such, since Scientism is supposedly not a religion. What happens every time, as far as I can recall, is that I point out to a follower of science/Scientism that the existence of physical matter cannot be proven at all, and they simply shrug off the statement, like a duck shakes off water, and blandly continue to base their arguments upon the axiom that physical matter exists. This same thing used to happen when I would controverse with Western monks in Burma: I would remind them that I do not consider any particular Buddhist scripture to be necessarily authoritative and reliable, but they would often seem incapable of coping with this, insisting upon clinching their arguments with appeals to revered authorities that I did not consider to be necessarily authoritative. The argument becomes circular, like that of a Bible fundamentalist: X is true because the Bible says so. How do I know that? Because the Bible is the infallible word of God. How do I know that? Because the Bible says so. Scientism likewise involves one humungous case of begging the question. For example: Consciousness is generated by brain biochemistry because a corresponding physical function of the brain exists. How do I know that? Because the biochemicals are observed and measured. How do I know that? Because physical matter exists. But the existence of physical matter cannot really be proven.
     Yet materialism in and of itself is not necessarily an obstacle. Even orthodox Theravada asserts that physical matter is ultimately real, as do many other ancient Indian systems like Sankhya (on which Yoga is based). It is true, though, that most advanced dharmc/yogic systems dispense with the notion of physical matter. Even Roman Catholic theology, or so I've been told, declares that matter is not ultimately real, since only God is ultimately real—all of His creations or "creatures" being only relatively real. The mere relative reality of the phenomenal world seems to have been a fundamental teaching of the Buddha also, although the Abhidhamma philosophers interpreted this along ancient Indian materialist lines. The obstacle arises in insisting that everything must be explainable in terms of objectifiable, symbolizable phenomena, namely in terms of objectively observed matter and energy, of particles, waves, and fields. Or in other words, the trouble lies in the insistent belief that if something can't be objectively observed, counted, and measured, then it can't be real. But the exact opposite of this may be the case.
     Let's return to the idea of enlightenment or Nirvana. Scientism would presumably insist that if enlightenment is real, then it must be explainable in terms of neurophysiology and brain biochemistry. Obviously, an enlightened being could go into a laboratory, consume something containing a radioactive glucose "tracer," sit under a PET scanner (or whatever is state of the art nowadays), and voila! Scientists see the brain areas that are active and inactive and thus "understand" what enlightenment is—without, of course, ever having experienced it for themselves, and without having a flying, freaking clue as to what it is all about. But if Nirvana is explainable in terms of brain biochemistry, then practically by definition it is NOT Nirvana, since Nirvana is unconditioned. It is formless. It has no beginning and no end, no cause and no effect. So it can't possibly be measured. And so, according to the principles of Scientism, there is no Nirvana.
     Furthermore, if enlightenment can be invalidated or trivialized by explaining it in terms of mere neurophysiology, then certainly so could everything that we human beings could possibly experience—love, compassion, honesty, goodness, and every noble and uplifting experience could likewise be reduced to a mere product of brain chemistry. Does knowing how neurons fire in this or that lobe of the brain cause a head-oriented scientist to know what love really is, or compassion? A 13-year-old girl might know better than him. For that matter, scientific knowledge itself could be equally trivialized by "explaining" it in terms of brain chemistry, turning the whole system into a black snake devouring itself tail first.
     Spiritual systems conducive to enlightenment, assuming that they exist, are started (and sometimes maintained) by people who are spiritual adepts, meditation masters, people who have perfected the arts of virtue and of experiencing consciousness directly, not just intellectually figuring things out about it. They are arguably the happiest, saintliest, wisest, best, most trustworthy people who have ever lived. On the other hand, scientists are on average more intelligent than the average person, but are just as emotionally messed up and unhappy. (I've lived in the scientific community myself, so I know that firsthand.) So it should be no surprise if Scientism, a world view conceived by philosophically naïve members of the scientific community, conditions a messed up, unhappy world, despite its satisfying objective explanations and great technological conveniences. It may be said that the primary purpose of spirituality is happiness, while the primary purpose of science is objective, intellectual knowledge—and we live in a strange world where the latter is assumed by many to be more important than the former. That apparently includes even some teachers of "Dharma."
     Science, obviously, can be extremely useful and powerful in a samsaric, worldly context, but it almost necessarily degenerates into vulgar Scientism since people in general must cherish belief in something; and although advocates of hard science claim it to be merely hypothetical, and not religious, even in strict scientific practice only the hypothesis to be tested is really hypothetical, with the rest of the foundation of assumptions on Reality being taken for granted. So if science can acknowledge that it applies only to apparent phenomena, without being able to explain those fully, if it can accept its limitations, then it could still be compatible with deep spirituality—but it should be held within a context of Dharma, not the other way round. Dharma is of wider scope than science, and science cannot fully account for it. What is samsaric cannot account for Nirvana. (Similarly, if there is a Devil, he is an atheist; and when a pickpocket meets a saint, all he notices are his pockets.) So believe in enlightenment first, and in particles and energy fields second, or maybe third, if at all.  
     If one is a scientific materialist first and a Buddhist or any kind of spiritual seeker second (or third, or fourth, or fifth), then one is simply degrading spirituality into worldly, unenlightened rubbish. "Buddha" becomes a brilliant and charismatic social reformer; "Dharma" becomes elementary psychological techniques for stress reduction and the enhancement of a worldly existence; and "Sangha" becomes a group of uninspired people enslaved to their own brain chemistry. If one is a materialist first, then one is a materialist, not a Buddhist or any kind of genuine spiritual seeker. One may amount to a "Dharma hobbyist." That's not a total loss.
     Even if Scientism were true (and I really don't think so, and apparently have some of the wisest beings who ever lived backing me up on that), I'd still probably bash it, since, as Ajahn Chah used to say, even Right View becomes wrong view if one clings to it; and a great many Western "Buddhists" are clinging to it mightily.
     Is bashing Scientism an exercise in utter futility, a lost cause? Well, I've always rooted for the champions of lost causes. I have sympathy for them. For example, Julian "the Apostate" is one of my favorite Roman emperors. He was the last pagan emperor, who strove diligently to prevent Christianity from taking over the Empire. He failed of course, but still I root for him, kind of like rooting for King Kong when you already know how the movie is going to end. I root for the passengers and crew of United Airlines flight 93, too—they fought for their lives, back on 9/11, and failed, but they may have saved hundreds or even thousands of others by doing so. I love them for that. But, if anti-Scientism is a lost cause, then the evolution of human civilization, and of the human spirit, may be a lost cause too. 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Bhante,

    Some believe in evidence, and some take on blind faith (of which there are many).

    After all, we can't be sure about what the historical Buddha (if He existed) has said and meant.