or: Gawd It Seems Like I Just Can’t Stop Bashing Scientism
One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. —Karen Armstrong, in A History of God
A few years ago, before the inception of this here blog and before I was even sure what a blog was, not long after I put on the Internet the articles that I had written in Burma, someone offered the feedback that I indulge in too much lamentation over the evils of scriptural dogmatism. He further pointed out that such lamentation is practically pointless, since Western Buddhists are almost totally immune to scriptural dogmatism. This turns out to be true, mostly; but at the time when the articles were written I was in Burma surrounded by devout scriptural dogmatists—most of them Asians, although included in the multitude were a few Western monks associated with the Pah Auk tradition. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; and consequently I laid siege to the fortified ramparts of Theravadin scriptural dogmatism, occasionally beating my head against those stony walls in absurd frustration.
After returning to the West and attempting to teach some Dharma here, I found that trying to get a dharmic point across to most American students of Buddhism can be at least as frustrating! Sometimes even more so. The pitfalls are different, but just as real, and there appear to be more of them, largely because the underlying culture is more complicated and much less Buddhist. “Spiritually bankrupt materialism”; lukewarmness, jadedness, and apathy; virtually mandatory insincerity and hypocrisy, accompanied by an aversion for excess of truth or reality; alienation; a chronic state of being “too busy”—all of this runs rampant in the West, or at least in America it does. And I found that, evidently, most American Buddhists, rather than embracing Dharma because they have outgrown the foregoing list and are turning toward something better, follow along with it, more or less, and try to modify Buddhism to make it compatible with this relatively non-dharmic orientation.
This has little if anything to do with scriptural dogmatism of course—the thing is, though, that it’s still a matter of dogmatism. In fact, not only is it a case of dogmatism, or even of non-dharmic dogmatism, but in many respects is a case of anti-dharmic dogmatism, dogmatism which flatly denies some of the most fundamental aspects of Dharma, of a deeply spiritual approach to life. So I occasionally find myself beating my head against an armored wall that most people in the West cannot even see.
You can’t build a temple on a plot of land already crowded with an insurance office, an espresso shop, and a Walmart. Converting an extra room at the back of the insurance office into a meditation room is better than nothing, but it is a poor substitute for sacred ground. It’s just so much attempted dual service of God and Mammon, with Mammon taking precedence. So to speak.
But fortunately it’s not really necessary to build temples. In Dharma, tearing down (walls, fences, locked doors and gates) is much more important than building anything up, even if the unenlightened mind does not feel comfortable with the resultant vacuum-induced disorientation. And we Westerners are actually better at tearing down than devout Asian Buddhists are. Consequently, we have a good chance with Dharma after all.
So anyhow, once again the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I toss a few more rocks at the titanium alloy-hardened walls of the modern World Religion of Scientism.
The literal meaning of the word “metaphysics” is “beyond physics.” That is, metaphysics deals with what lies beyond the reach of physics, or of science in general. Metaphysics is an attempt to understand, intellectually at least, the nature of ultimate reality, the fundamental essence, or essences, from which all forms arise. Physics, on the other hand, is a study of the arisen forms; it deals with what can be observed, distinguished, counted, and measured. Thus an essence, which virtually by definition is formless, and which cannot be counted, measured, or even really perceived, as opposed to apparent form, is largely if not wholly beyond the scope of the discipline of physics.
In modern Western culture, which has a strong tendency toward extraversion and superficiality, this results in some philosophical confusion. Many Western intellectuals, let alone non-intellectuals, are incapable of distinguishing essence from form (water from waves, glass from bottle, consciousness from mental states), and assume, or even categorically assert, that what can be objectively observed and distinguished intellectually is necessarily all there is. Thus such folks naturally assume that physics, and science in general, describes reality as it is, and not just some perceptible manifestation of it.
This points to one of the primary, fundamental differences between pure science and impure Scientism—the former makes no metaphysical claims, except perhaps in the form of explicit hypotheses, whereas the latter considers metaphysics to be obsolete nowadays, since nothing, supposedly, is beyond modern physics; or else it attributes unwarranted metaphysical assumptions to science itself, considering them to be necessarily self-evident and axiomatic. A typical example of this is that everything in nature exists as science describes it, even when no perceiving mind is present. (Another axiom/example which, however, is not quite so metaphysical, is that everything in the Universe necessarily obeys perceptible laws, at least at a macroscopic level.)
What almost all scientists do, along with their hundreds of millions of unquestioning devotees, is to interpret scientific observations in accordance with metaphysical assumptions that are not grounded or warranted scientifically, without even realizing that they are doing this, so that their assumptions are not merely hypothetical—and thus, to that extent, are not really science. In their dogmatic, unreflective, human, culturally conditioned philosophical naïveté they consider these axiomatic assumptions regarding the nature of science and reality (like the intrinsic self-existence of physical phenomena independent of a perceiving mind) to be obvious, self-evident facts to be taken for granted, to be reality, which really they are not.
Science is science—that hits the bedrock of logical certainty; A=A; but most of what passes for science in this world is vulgar Scientism. That is, mainly what we’ve got is science confounded with scientifically unverified and unverifiable metaphysical assumptions considered to be facts, or else accepted, without fully realizing it, at a subliminal level. And to the extent that modern science is Scientism, to that very extent it is pseudoscience. The calculations may work out the same either way, but the implicit assumptions combined with the results of those calculations, and the resultant world view based on that combination, may be utter hogwash. Furthermore, the human need for something to believe, and for the emotional security of certainty, combined with the great limitations of the human primate psychology which generates scientific theories, practically guarantees that science will always tend toward the pseudoscience of Scientism, now and forevermore. In most branches of science, such as biology, the overall approach is emphatically Scientistic from the very get-go. And most scientists simply can’t tell the difference.
Just a few moments’ reflection should be sufficient for one to see that all this is really very likely, at least within the confines of what Buddhists call “conventional truth”: 200 years from now, assuming that we humans still exist and that civilization has not collapsed, it is very probable that educated people will look at today’s scientific “wisdom” as pathetically superstitious, containing some real sense, and even genius, but nevertheless heavily based upon primitive assumptions—much as we look back upon medieval Christianity or ancient paganism. And it may be that the cultural world view 200 years from now won’t simply be a refined, improved form of Scientism, or even purified science (which after all seems to require some unscientific metaphysics backing it up for purposes of interpretation); it may be that our mechanistic interpretations of reality will be replaced by something radically different, possibly even unimaginable to us primitives. Our modern Scientistic “reality” may be no more real than that of a medieval Catholic or ancient votary of Apollo.
It appears that the situation of science today, or at least of Scientism, is somewhat similar to the situation of geometry back in the days when it was universally Euclidean. Everyone assumed, considered it plainly obvious in fact, that geometry had to be the way it was—that parallel lines never meet, for example, or that there is one and only one straight line passing through any two points. It was totally obvious, plain as day. Then along came non-Euclidean geometry and turned it all inside out. (To help demonstrate how stubbornly in the box we all are, or most of us are, it may be pointed out that non-Euclidean geometry was discovered, or invented, pretty much by accident. Some geometers were attempting to prove that parallel lines never meet by assuming that they do meet and then searching for some kind of reductio ad absurdum in the modified system, which, however, they never found. The new system turned out just as logically consistent as the Euclidean one. One early pioneer of non-Euclidean geometry kept his work a secret for years because he wished to avoid, in his own words, “the hue and cry of blockheads.”) And now, if Einsteinian physics can be taken seriously, in this world of ours Riemannian geometry is more “true” than Euclidean, and there are two distinct lines passing through any two points (or so I have read).
And so the next stage in Scientism may be more radically “non-Euclidean,” involving essentially the same scientific method, but with radical modifications to the scientifically unwarranted metaphysical axioms which are almost invisible, yet crucial to the interpretation of scientific observations. Some wiseguy physicists are no doubt already doing this kind of stuff, although it hasn’t come anywhere near the materialist mainstream of general Scientism yet. For instance, what happens to a scientific interpretation of reality if we assume that physical phenomena cease to exist when nobody is looking? Or here's one that is very reminiscent of non-Euclidean geometry: What if two different explanations for the same phenomenon, which logically are incompatible, may nevertheless both be true?