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Certainties, skepticism or Grand Relativism?
July 11th, 2013 (May 13th, 2015)
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Certainties, skepticism or Grand Relativism?
and Buddhism in all that?


Scientism is the irrational belief in some absolute 'explanatory' power of science. It often is accompanied with materialism, the irrational belief that everything might be explained as a physical process.
Both are the opposite of science: dogma, or mere beliefs without justification.


Classic attacks on others from proponents of scientism or materialism include the veiled insult "I don't believe in what I can't see": unicorns, father Christmas, God… 'dogma' in general terms.

Funnily people issuing such attacks will go on thinking it is 'science' that
• "visible matter" is only a small fraction of the universe;
• we don't see "dark matter" and have no clue whatsoever about what it might be and that when we pretend to 'map' dark matter, we're actually simply mapping where our equations don't match observations;
• we don't see "dark energy", it explains nothing, is not qualified in any way, is not mapped, and is simply an adjustment to our equations to make them fit our observations: an adjustment so unjustifiable in terms of explanatory power that Einstein had initially rejected it… The "dark energy" adjustment might allow a better description of the observation, but it doesn't explain anything.

"I don't believe in what I can't see" doesn't justify that dark matter and dark energy exist, merely because one can 'see' a mismatch between expectation and observation: it might just as well justify that our expectations / equations are wrong!

"I don't believe in what I can't see" also bumps into the "Big Bang"… as it is 'conceived' from backtracking the observed expansion of the Universe. In scientific terms, for now, we can backtrack to a point pretty early in the life of the Universe, but not to the initial moment (notably because of temperature thresholds). Our models collapse (cf. video —with subtitles— at gplus.wallez.name/g7achUU7wci). This doesn't have to be a problem, we simply accept limits about what we currently know; but many proponents of scientism would want to believe that the Big bang is a scientifically established fact.

And from what we observe of the accelerating expansion of the universe, our descendants might one day become incapable (no matter their technology) to detect any other star than the one they orbit around (because of a red-shift of such magnitude that the light coming from the other stars will be physically undetectable). If they still have access to the data we currently collect, they might indeed conclude we had some kind of collective illusion and were very fond of overly complicated descriptions of mythical phenomena!


This is important in terms of debates about consciousness, karma, rebirth, etc. 


For now, the scientific model doesn't explain in any way how consciousness would emerge from the brain, just like it doesn't explain how life arose from non-life elements… Scientism flies in the face of scientific knowledge.

Believers in materialism would insist that a brain seems needed for the manifestation of a consciousness to exist, which I agree with, but this doesn't prove in any way that consciousness arises or exists within the brain: it simply makes the brain a requirement for the manifestation (or 'measure') of consciousness, just like we need other equipments to measure other physical phenomena: we need particle accelerators to 'see' Higgs bosons but this doesn't mean Higgs bosons exist only in particule accelerators!

Of course, we cannot just use any random hypothesis without any evidence and claim it's the truth. But we do have hints about mind processes: are we not conscious?
Should we think the evidence is not enough because it is not captured in any scientific notion? Is that a limitation of science, or should we blame the universe for being too contingent for us? Actually, even science has hints about the existence of a mind, by the collapse of the wave-function in quantum mechanics, a collapse which requires an observer (which is not physically described, or it becomes part of the system and the 'collapse' disappears)…


While it is clear that a modern form of Buddhism should not promote blind certainties and religious dogma (gplus.allez.name/BPjDZiQpdhT), blind scientism is not good enough to just dismiss what one doesn't like, e.g. 'rebirth' (gplus.wallez.name/5TdUYdV23SZ): establishing truth is not exactly a matter of taste… Pretending to know what's useful for you to sort out your suffering in your existence is also a total delusion: it assumes you figured dukkha out already, if you know what's relevant and what's not!


Another classic attack is on 'myths': call anything a 'myth' and consider it holds no truth whatsoever!

Discard the fact that the narrative of the Greek king of Thebes, Oedipus, captured what later became a foundation of modern Western psychology! What sense is there in "surely a myth couldn't possibly narrate in poetic terms some observable phenomena"? If a description should never be considered unless it's 'accurate', then Newtonian gravitation was a worthless blip in the history of science?



But when one takes a Middle Path, without giving in to dogma about unproven capabilities of science, the next accusation is: "this is awfully close to supporting religious dogma"!

To accept uncertainty is not  to justify some "Grand Relativism", where all opinions are given equal legitimacy.

We can accept uncertainty while still ordering what model is more plausible than another, what has more evidence, or is more consistent, more coherent, more 'explanatory' (i.e. reducible to a few principles shared by many phenomena (typically not "dark energy")): there's no need to cling to a belief such as scientism.

But as a matter of fact, materialism has no support whatsoever to justify a claim on the mind for now, and there's even hints from quantum mechanics that it cannot! To pretend that among the uncertain models, materialism is the most plausible is rejecting quantum physics or at least supporting the multi-world interpretation, neither option being particularly palatable to scientists!


To accept uncertainty is not  to relinquish the power to act, or to plan (according to a model): it is simply to accept that we should monitor progress and change course should unforeseen consequences arise. It is simply to accept to review our equations in the face of new observations, instead of rejecting the observations because the model doesn't explain them. To accept uncertainty is simply to pay attention and seek progress, instead of resting on the certainty of our magnificence and perfect 'knowledge' (or worse: 'potential' for knowledge).

In Buddhism, when "conventional truth" is presented as empty of essence (i.e. context-dependent, and based on context-dependent observations of reality), it doesn't mean all narratives are equally valid or legitimate.

There are narratives that do actually appropriate things as they are here&now, and our mistake usually is to project a permanency that isn't there… For example, we describe stars that our descendants might not see. That makes the scientific description a context-dependent 'narrative', but that doesn't make such a narrative a "fairy tale".


The Yogācāra school (or Mind-Only school) analysed perception and conceptualised the "three natures" of perception:
parikalpita: "imaginary nature" or pure mental fabrication through attachment and erroneous discrimination;
paratantra: "dependent nature", through valid cognition and unbiased wise discrimination, what moderns would call 'science';
pariniṣpanna: "absolute nature", or "ultimate truth", which conceives that even science is context-dependent and not absolute.

The two truths notion (gplus.wallez.name/4gaFiv79s7d) is explicitly about truths, i.e. ignorance is not included…
Ignorance and conventional truth both take form as narratives: the 'narrative' nature is thus in no way indicative of ignorance!


"Conventional narrative" or "conventional truth" in Buddhism does not mean it's all illusory, pointless, cannot be used here&now. It actually means the opposite: it might indeed be used and be valid here&now, but maybe not tomorrow… In the future, we'll have to pay attention, check if it still applies, we should not assume that because it worked before, we can then be complacent and assume it will work again! 

"Conventional narrative" or "conventional truth" in Buddhism does not mean it's all illusory, pointless, cannot be used here&now: it actually means that any assertion of validity might be truly relevant to here&now only! What is illusory is permanent entities, not causality, not inter-dependence, not mutual influence.

The realisation of the "conventional narrative" nature of science doesn't reject science: it focuses on empirical truth and 'seeing' "things as they are", but it simply doesn't forget the role of the observer (and it's influence on the modelling, but also possibly on the observed phenomena itself).
Buddhism doesn't reject science, since it focuses on 'tendencies' and on causality: it simply doesn't pretend that 'impermanent' means "instantaneously chaotic", no more than "relatively stable" means 'permanent'.
 
The realisation of emptiness, of the "conventional narrative" nature of experienced phenomena, simply doesn't confuse "conventional truth" (conditioned, context-dependent) with unconditioned, ceaseless, ineffable "ultimate truth": it points to the need for continued awareness! It points to scientific open-minded skepticism, curiosity, continued enquiry!


To reject a blind belief in science is not to justify every stupid or magical or mysterious 'explanation' (which turns out not to be an explanation at all, but merely a label of "not understood").
To accuse skepticism, or Buddhism, of being anti-science is a serious misunderstanding of what science is based on.
To accuse skepticism of justifying religious dogma is a strawman, because skepticism equally questions the said dogma! One doesn't avoid an extreme by running into the opposite extreme, but by embodying a Middle Path.


#Buddhism  
photo: © Matt Gilbert, via http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_MAGAZINE/2008/autumn/tibet.html