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On using science to support/weaken Buddhist doctrines
October 4th, 2016
On using science to support/weaken Buddhist doctrines

It's often ridiculous when Buddhists try to pretend that Buddhism is scientific, but it's also often ridiculous when others use 'science' to naïvely attack some Buddhist ideas. Sure, Buddhist doctrines should be submitted to examination and enquiry, but rigour is called for, be it 'philosophical' or 'scientific' rigour.

I previously wrote on Secular Buddhism and pseudo-scientific attacks on rebirth ( and on Certainties, skepticism or Grand Relativism? ( Unfortunately, pseudo-science remains fashionable, for it provides a veneer of credibility, of authority, of truth…

Attached is a report on one such pseudo-scientific attack against rebirth… and it's a good illustration for how ridiculous the whole affair can be: it relies on an extremely poor, caricatural, understanding of science!

Of course, to start with, one may note that science doesn't necessarily lead to atheism. Serious scientists understand enough about the limitation of one's knowledge, to admit unknowns and therefore to usually consider agnosticism rather than atheism. And some major scientists —like Stokes, Maxwell, Kelvin, Planck, Einstein or Sagan to cite modern pillars— believe(d) in some form of God. So when someone considers that atheism is scientific, it already is a huge hint that 'science' is misused.

« The problem with this, or any analogy with science for claims about rebirth, is that rebirth claims are not testable. »

Nor is the big bang, the big crunch, etc. Nor is black holes formation. The idea that only testable claims are part of science is erroneous. Sure, we do like to be able to test things, that's most convenient, but regularly we can only observe things without controlling them, and we simply seek to find enough observables to become able to discern what causes what… so that we can discern a hypothesis from a theory with usable predictive power… but in fact we also use Occam's razor when we cannot discern this! Then we just tend to use the 'simpler' theory, until we find an observable it doesn't fit.
For now, various "string theories" have not offered testable claims that would predict something different from other theories, but this doesn't make it less science… Similarly, dark matter is very poorly understood for now, and most ideas are untestable, but that doesn't make it less science, it just makes it early days.
And that's before we even start considering that history, economics or psychology don't really offer testability either, but they can nonetheless benefit from formalism, quantified studies, etc. and might prove useful and usable!

« There are no experiments we can use to test [rebirth] and no awakened being has stepped forward in the age of science and volunteered to, upon death, reincarnate and as quickly as possible make his (or her) way to a lab to describe the whole process to awaiting scientists. »

Cf. above (incl. previous posts).
Moreover, we're here facing a classic misunderstanding of rebirth, presented as trackable identity through rebirth, aka. reincarnation. Reincarnation is not what the Buddha taught, and is not particularly compatible with selflessness (which is what the Buddha taught!). So the criticism is not scientifically sound, but it's also a straw man, a mis-representation of a Buddhist doctrine.
Moreover, no one scientifically explains the apparent arising of consciousness. There are theories, but untestable so far. And some theories used were seriously wrong for a very long time, in spite of being backed by science… like the idea that animals or children did not need anaesthetics during operation because supposedly they couldn't feel pain! Talk about 'testable' again? The author demands to track consciousness through many lives but isn't able to scientifically describe consciousness here and now! Trying to run before being able to walk? Does it mean there's no consciousness? Does it mean there is no scientist working on understanding consciousness, its 'causes', its 'laws'? Of course not! But first things first…

« The hallmark of scientific theory, such as that of the atom, is that experiments can be replicated again and again. »

No. And it's fortunate because if that was the case, then we'd rarely have any breakthrough in understanding the universe! Science explores the usability and predictive power of models, and some models apply to objects we cannot manipulate (but might nonetheless affect us). Quite often, it cannot even identify 'causes' but the model is still 'usable': cf. the second law of thermodynamics! Sometimes we don't replicate tests for obvious ethical reasons, e.g. we want to understand how psychological trauma works (so that we can help victims) but we're not ready to repeatedly traumatise people just for the sake of studying how trauma works…

« And to my knowledge that is exactly what scientists have been doing for the last 90+ years, digging deeper and deeper into the nature of reality on the very small scale. »

And yet nuclear physicists are still struggling to find an arrow of time (and are questioning causality in relation to time, cf. EPR)… and still struggling to link general relativity and quantum mechanics… and still incapable of finding a meaningful estimate for the energy of the void, even though this 'energy' (and the associated particle-antiparticle pairs) is 'used' to explain other phenomena (like the Hawkins radiation of black holes)… and still not knowing which is the right 'interpretation' of quantum physics, what makes the wave function 'collapse', etc…

Now, we're also digging "deeper and deeper" in how consciousness works, but the work started a lot more recently so the maturity of the discipline is obviously not comparable to physics. Some people are simply rushing to conclusions here, and doing so is neither scientific nor buddhist really!

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #science  
by Justin Whitaker:
Can Buddhist ideas of rebirth survive modern science? If so, how?