Life as a Laboratory
School of Natural Sciences
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA
What can be the stage for a dialogue between Buddhism and Science? Calling Buddhism a religion is not a very accurate description, and the very notion that science might produce a world view is not correct, since there is still so much that is left out from a scientific description. At this point, it might be more prudent to start talking about mutual respect and inspiration between science and Buddhism, with an eye toward future more detailed discussions. One way of phrasing a possible middle ground between both is to start by viewing life as a laboratory, as an opportunity to examine ourselves and our world, using working hypotheses rather than doctrines.
1. Buddhism and Natural Science
When I was asked to write a paper for a book on Buddhism and Science, I was quite reluctant to agree to do so. I very much appreciate the body of knowledge that science has established, over the last few hundred years. I also very much appreciate the body of knowledge that Buddhism has established, over the last few thousand years. And I definitely see both types of knowledge as pertaining to the same reality, with potentially large areas of overlap that could lead to fruitful dialogues. My reluctance, however, stemmed from the lack of a proper framework within which to carry out such a dialogue.
The last few years have seen an increasing popularity of discussions around the relation between science and religion. After decades during which it was extremely unpopular among scientists to even mention the word `religion', now the tide seems to be turning. I have seen many colleagues `coming out of the closet', so to speak, as I have done myself by writing papers and attending meetings on the general topic of science and deeply felt human experience, with a nod toward spirituality. At the same time, I feel a deep unease with the way in which many `science and religion' dialogues are framed.
Already the very terms `religion' and `spirituality' I find deeply problematic and, frankly, I wish I could avoid using them altogether. Instead of using those lightning rods, I would prefer to focus on an authentic attention for what it means to live a life from a deep respect for the full human condition, with head and heart and guts and all our faculties, in a fully integrated way. Most any culture has placed the cultivation of a full and all-round form of personhood at the top of their agenda. In China for example, Confucianists and Taoists alike, notwithstanding all their differences, focused on the cultivation of our full humanity, the former starting from our societal embedding, the latter from the way we are still part of nature. Our contemporary western culture is strangely lacking in this respect, which makes a discussion of the relation between science and religion even more difficult.
First of all, the word religion is a European term, a category that has been used to compare Christianity with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other ways of life. In practice, talking about `other religions' implies an immediate comparison with Christianity. No longer are these `other religions' labeled as heathen, but by default they are considered to play a role similar to that of Christianity. In academia, Christianity has traditionally occupied the slot assigned to theology, and in the last century or so a parallel slot has been assigned to departments of comparative religion. By definition, then, the study of Islam and Buddhism and other ways of life are confined to one academic compartment, as opposed to other compartments such as physics, psychology, law, etc.
In practice, though, this classification is highly problematic. As anthropologists know, importing and imposing one's own culturally bound classification system on a different culture precludes a fair and respectful intercultural comparison. Distorting even the most basic terms at the start of a dialogue, in favor of your own way of using those terms, is not a good way to gain understanding of the other side. By putting a shaman healer and a Buddhist meditator and a Muslim mula all in the box of religion, rather than medicine, psychology, or law, we severely limit the possibilities for meaningful comparisons.
Secondly, even if there is a willingness to search for terms more fitting than `science and religion', it is hard to find good alternatives within the English language. Spirituality, mysticism, and contemplation are three terms that I would prefer over religion, in a comparison with science. However, each of those has its own problems. The word `spirit' in `spirituality' has no clear place when we discuss Buddhism. I personally like the word `mysticism,' since I feel that at least some forms of Medieval mysticism form a better starting point in a dialogue with Buddhism than contemporary Christianity. However, the word `mysticism' is often used to indicate something vague and deliberately unclear, which doesn't help start a dialogue. Finally, the word `contemplation,' perhaps the most innocent of the three, may sound too passive, even though some traditional contemplative movements in Christianity could also provide a good starting point in a dialogue with Buddhism.
How, then, to begin a dialogue between Buddhism and science, especially natural science? Which aspects of Buddhism to start with, and how to classify those aspects? These questions deserve a detailed study all by themselves. I hope that they will be addressed patiently, and in great detail, over the years to come. My guess is that it would be a full-time job for a number of Buddhist scholars in conversations with several scientists, over a period of years, to lay appropriate foundations for a meaningful and ongoing dialogue. The current volume can only give a hint as to a possible direction for the construction of a foundation for such a long-term project.
In this paper, I will try to address a much simpler question. By asking myself what type of inspiration I have received from those forms of Buddhism with which I have had contact, over the last thirty years, I hope to provide a case study of how Buddhism and science can come together, at least in the life of an individual. To be precise, let me emphasize that I do not call myself a Buddhist. Although I have great sympathy for many aspects of Buddhism, I have a similar sympathy for aspects of many other ways of life, especially the mystical/contemplative sides of many traditions. And if I were forced to accept a label, I would be hard pressed to choose between Buddhism and, say, Taoism or Hinduism.
For me personally, I would summarize the overlap between Buddhism and science in my own life through the expression ``life as a laboratory''. My main theme in the rest of this paper will be to try to convey a sense of what that phrase means for me. In the final section 6, I will explicitly address this notion of a lab life. Leading up to that, I first discuss some methodological issues in sections 2 and 3, of a more epistemological character, followed by the much harder ontological questions pertaining to the relation between Buddhism and science, in sections 4 and 5.
2. Buddhist Inspiration
I am not a specialist in Buddhism, and I have never attempted to make an exhaustive study of any particular aspect of any Buddhist tradition. Rather, I have read widely in the available literature in search of practical guidance for personal exploration. Within Buddhism, this has led me first to Japanese Zen Buddhism, and later to various forms of Tibetan Buddhism, especially Nyingma Buddhism and within Nyingma to Dzogchen. This exploration started when I was at the end of high school, and has been continuing for more than thirty years.
The original inspiration that I drew from Buddhism rested on the fact that I recognized an experiential approach to the structure of reality that seemed to be akin to the experimental approach in science. The meditative techniques in Buddhism that I came across were relatively simple and straightforward, and they were presented as tools for exploration, rather than tasks to be undertaken by true believers who had already bought into particular creeds, to be accepted in blind faith. The superficial simplicity of these tools quickly turned out to be deceptive; I realized through my own experience that it took years to get enough sense of these tools to begin to appreciate their deeper effects -- not unlike the training required to play a musical instrument well, to learn mathematics, or to really master a sport.
This is not the place to go into a detailed discussion of the various meditative explorations that I have engaged in. Let me just mention two aspects of those journeys that I have found to be particularly useful in all aspects of my life. The first is a type of meditative exercise in which you are expected to just watch whatever arises in your mind stream, without any form of judgment, without holding on to pleasant thoughts or emotions or images or whatever may occur, and without avoiding unpleasant ones. Such a systematic exercise of withholding judgment I found enormously helpful. Over the years my growing ability to abide with this shift to a nonjudgmental attitude has become a form of shelter for me -- not so much a protective armor as more a form of delicious transparency to life's temptations to pick and choose and grumble.
The second lesson I learned from Buddhist meditative pursuits is to hold something lightly, to hold it in the palm of your hands, so to speak, without latching on to it too tightly. Rather than looking at something with a fixed stare, this light attitude calls for an exercise of a more peripheral form of vision, both literally and figuratively. It is as if one is more concerned with the space around an object or idea, than with the usual focus of attention. I'm struggling with words here, to try to convey what I mean, and once again I wish we had a vocabulary. Ah, the joy of physics in which you know what momentum and energy are, and in which you know that other physicists know what they are, and that they are linear and quadratic, respectively, in velocity, and so on. If only we had such clarity of terms in meditative pursuits! Note that the peripheral nature of what I am trying to describe here by itself poses no obstacle for precise terms. In science we have learned to talk about chaos and nondeterministic differential equations and uncertainty relations in very precise terms. One can certainly use clarity to talk about twilight and darkness!
Clearly, what is needed is a patient construction of a framework to allow a contemporary discussion of terms and processes and discoveries in the course of meditative practice. To some extent, this will be a form of reconstruction, since millennia of Buddhist explorations in a great variety of cultures have left us with a legacy of `lab reports' and analyses thereof. However, lack of continuity of many of those disciplines, together with the wide gulf between those cultures and ours, preclude any straightforward attempt at re-construction. A fresher approach to building up a contemporary reformulation based on rediscovery seems to me to be a more promising path.
One major difference that I felt between the forms of Christianity I had grown up with and the Buddhist practices that I explored later, revolved around experience. I relished the Buddhist emphasis on its view of reality as something utterly concrete and accessible, something that could be experienced and realized here and now, by anybody -- not something to be stumbled upon only in the afterlife, if one lived a good-enough life in blind faith. In short, the whole approach of Buddhism appealed to me more because of its similarity to science, where guidelines are taken as working hypotheses, rather than as dogma that one just has to accept.
Having put it this way, I realize that I am being too harsh here in my formulation. For a scientist, to work painstakingly on research based on a single hypothesis, which may or may not turn out to be right, requires more than just curiosity. Unless he or she harbors a strong belief, or at least a very strong intuition, that the hypothesis is right, it is hard to imagine someone putting in years of effort to prove the hypothesis. And for a Christian, in practice faith is rarely, if ever, fully blind. But perhaps I should be more concrete, in order to make comparisons between Christianity, Buddhism and science more authentically grounded in my own life experience. To do so, in the rest of this section let me focus on the particular brand of Buddhism that most appeals to me. For simplicity, let me call this brand the goal-as-path type. And let me make it clear right away that this brand is far from universal; my guess would be that at most 1% of Buddhists worldwide focus their world view and their practice on this type of vision. Traditionally, such views have been considered to be extremely esoteric, and not meant for mass consumption, although recently more and more has been written about them.
What I have in mind are forms of Zen Buddhism (to use the Japanese term, from the original Chan Buddhism in China), as well as Dzogchen in Tibet, and perhaps some forms of Advaita Vedanta in India. What sets these goal-as-path views apart from most forms of spiritual training, and from any type of any training in anything, is a subtle yet profound difference in emphasis. Typically, we engage in training in order to gain a certain result. We may or may not have much of an idea what that result might be, but at least we engage in the laborious training program offered in the conviction that something is lacking, and that that something can be obtained through appropriate effort. We lack the ability to speak French, or to ride a bicycle, so we learn to speak French by practicing French, and we learn to ride a bicycle by practicing bicycle riding. At least that much seems to be universal in the learning of any type of skill.
Not so for the goal-as-path forms of Buddhism. The whole idea of starting off ignorant and unskilled, and then following an arduous path of training while slowly approaching our goal, is uprooted. This whole model of progress simply does not apply. The path one follows is described not as starting at the beginning and leading to a goal, but rather as starting at the goal. Training is not seen as a trick to acquire something, but rather as a way to celebrate and cultivate in celebration what we already have, and fully have and are.
This way of summarizing may seem paradoxical at best, if not down-right silly. Let me try to give at least a flavor of the approach. In Christianity, there is a strong emphasis on surrender. Because we, as weak and limited (and sinful) creatures, do not have the ability to reach far beyond ourselves, there is no hope for us to get very far, unless we open ourselves to God's grace. Fortunately, God is always ready to bestow His grace, and the only thing we need to do is turn toward Him and accept His grace: Christ is already knocking on our door, so all we have to do is open the door of our heart. So in Christianity, too, we are not far removed from the goal of having direct communion with the divine, and living from that Source -- in fact, we are not at all removed.
The challenge of course, in Buddhism as well as Christianity, is the question of how to open the door to our heart (in Christian terms), or how to realize one's true nature (in Buddhist terms). The subtlety in both cases is this: if you don't do anything, accepting the doctrine that everything is already perfect or that we are already close to God, we completely miss the point; while if we try hard to `achieve' what is already there, we also completely miss the point. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don't -- or so it seems. In Zen Buddhism this quandary has been nicely summarized in thousands of koans, presenting us with seemingly impossible situations and asking us for an answer where clearly no answer seems to be in sight.
My Christian upbringing thus prepared me for a way of thinking that was at least somewhat familiar to the Zen and Dzogchen views of practice as starting at the end of the path, at the goal rather than at the beginning. Not only that, after diving deeper into various Buddhist practices, I did find to my delight various Christian sources that seemed to have a similar approach, at least in spirit. Various Medieval mystics, like Ruusbroek, or the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Meister Eckhart, seemed to live and breathe this paradoxical view of cultivating what is already there, rather than searching for anything. And there are other examples, less directly of a goal-as-path type perhaps, but for me equally inspiring. Saint Francis for one, who lived his Christianity in many ways as a Taoist in tune with nature in the widest sense of the word, is someone whom I found deeply inspiring. He, too, seemed to breathe at least the spirit of an `already there' view.
I plan to elaborate elsewhere the various points I have touched upon here only in passing. Within the framework of a single chapter I cannot provide more than a glimpse of what it is in Buddhism that has so inspired me for so many years. So let me move on, to present a corresponding glimpse of what it is in science that has also inspired me tremendously, for an equal number of years.
3. Scientific Inspiration
As a practicing scientist, a theoretical astrophysicist by profession, I cannot help but let my daily work color my view of the world. I have learned particular approaches to problem solving in my job, and it is natural that I will fall back on some of those approaches when exploring reality in its more contemplative (mystical, spiritual) dimensions.
One such approach, which I find myself practicing in my work, is what I would call the `on-the-table method.' When I am confronted with a problem that I cannot solve, even after using the standard methods for a while, I back off a bit, and stop trying to solve anything, for the time being. Rather, I try to put all the pieces of the puzzle on the table, trying to be careful not to overlook anything, and at the same time trying to be careful not to smuggle in pieces that are unrelated, or that are based on premature guesses of what the solution might be. In order to arrive at `the truth, nothing but the truth, and the whole truth' one has to have all the pieces of the truth at hand, no more pieces and no fewer pieces.
Once I feel reasonably comfortable that I have collected all relevant pieces, I let my eyes stroll over the table, so to speak, lingering on each piece to study it as if for the first time. While I need to take time in an unhurried way to complete the first phase, putting everything on the table, I really need to take a leisurely approach in the second phase of `staring' at each piece. Any attempt to hurry would break the fragile sense of letting an overall understanding crystallize out, starting from each local piece, and hopefully growing into a more global understanding. The third phase then simply involves a sitting back and looking at the whole table, with all its pieces, letting everything `sink in'. More often than not, at the third stage new insights have emerged for me. In some cases I could see the solution of the problem in a flash; in other cases I suddenly would get an idea for a new and fruitful approach; in yet other cases I would realize, suddenly or gradually, that the problem as it was posed had no solution.
In daily life, too, I find myself using a similar approach in many situations that at first seem too complex or confusing. Almost always I realize, after taking my time to lay out a situation and `stare' at it, that my confusion stemmed from either dragging in too much or overlooking a crucial part of the situation. And also in experiential attempts to understand more of myself and my relationship with others and with the world, the same method seems to be fruitful. The term `contemplation' is a particularly apt way to describe this aspect of various forms of `spiritual' practice. And of course, there are obvious connections with what I described in the previous section as nonjudgmental forms of Buddhist meditative training.
Did my exploration of Buddhist (and other) forms of practice shape my approach to scientific problem solving? Or was it my scientific curiosity that drove me to explore the fabric of reality also through the lense of Buddhist investigations? Or does it simply reflect aspects of my temperament and personal history, that somehow drove me to study both science and Buddhism? I find it impossible to give clear answers to these questions. I certainly don't see the connections as a one-way street, neither from science to Buddhism, nor the other way around. If I were to guess, I'd bet on a mutual process of sensitizing, of learning to make more and more subtle distinctions and thus inviting more clarity, examining my own life and the world around me. I can't very well test such a guess, since I cannot go back to my childhood to try out a life of only doing science and another life of only focusing on Buddhism.
Another approach that I stumbled upon in my work, over the years, also seems to carry over in other aspects of life. This one I would call the `space-around' method. It relates to the way I have learned a piece of mathematics or physics, something that always seems to happen to me in three stages. At first, I study the individual parts of the method or theorem, and I familiarize myself more and more with each part, until I can clearly see how it works, or in the case of mathematics, why it has to be correct, based on the axioms. After some time, I then naturally reach a point where I begin to see the whole structure of the method or theorem.
This second stage feels as if one explores an object by studying each side separately at first, and only later obtains a full three-dimensional sense of the object. The emergence of the `Gestalt', this full presence of the object, can happen gradually or suddenly, and even if it happens suddenly, it can then be refined and deepened further in a gradual way. Another example is the learning of a language: after having learned words and grammar, there comes a delightful moment in which one realizes that, for the first time, one just spontaneously spoke a whole sentence, or could understand a whole sentence being spoken.
Depending on the complexity of the concepts and the intricacy of the method or derivation, this first phase may last anywhere from hours to days to weeks or months. The second phase typically lasts much longer, and often is the end point for me of any given engagement with a problem, because I will have moved on to a study of another aspect of the field in question, or even a different field. However, there are occasions where I keep coming back to the same problem, for whatever reason. Perhaps I am teaching a specific concept or method a number of times; or I happen to use the same method in a variety of different applications in my research; or my curiosity drives me to return to a particular method with no obvious motivation other than that I feel a form of intellectual attraction.
In such cases, often many years after I learned the method or derivation for the first time, it may happen that I begin to get a sense for the `space around' the situation at hand. In the second phase, the problem had become fully embodied and more or less transparent, with all its parts blending harmoniously and functionally together, but the whole problem was still hanging in the air, so to speak, without a clear context of neighboring problems and approaches. Only in the third phase would I begin to see some of the richness of the variety of all possible approaches to this problem -- using a mathematical metaphor, I would begin to see more of the space of all possible approaches. Richer dimensions would unfold in which I could `see' the problem as being embedded.
One way in which such an insight would translate itself was that I could now clearly imagine, for the first time, how someone might have proved this theorem or found this solution for the very first time. Seeing a solution fully and clearly is one thing; but seeing how one could have derived it without any prior knowledge is quite something different. And another way in which this third phase would announce itself is more practical: often I could see wholly new approaches, either to the same or to different problems, now that I had tapped into the type of creativity needed to have solved the problem for the first time. So far from this being a useless exercise to `deeply feel' how one could discover something that had already been discovered anyway, this lifting of the fog `around' a problem has always been profitable for me for other applications.
As with my earlier example, I have found this `space around' method to be extremely useful, both in daily life and in experiential contemplative quests. In both cases, a long-term familiarity, over many years, coupled with a stubborn return to feeling out the problem and going over the same terrain again, has often resulted in an unexpected dividend in terms of opening new horizons. And yes, there are clearly connections with what I have described in the previous section as a form of peripheral attention. I have even used the same term of `space around' to try to describe both ways of deepening and ripening insight. Again, it is hard for me to answer questions concerning the chicken and the egg, and I really don't know in detail how these two approaches, meditative and scientific, evolved in my own life. But I do know that for me they live together in a comfortable complementarity; so much so that attempts to view science and religion as pertaining to wholly different domains strike me as patently incorrect.
In itself, one might object, a similarity in method does not prove that we are dealing with an overlap in area of applications. Agreed. A similar mathematical formula may describe the frantic dance of electrons and ions in a glowing plasma in the laboratory and the majestic dance of stars moving through a galaxy (electrostatic and gravitational forces both fall off according to the inverse square of the separation between two particles). This does not imply that electrons and stars are players on the same stage (well, they are, but on such vastly different scales that effectively they seem to live in a different world).
In contrast, science and Buddhism are not talking about vastly different objects, such as a star that is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times more massive than an electron. Rather, both science and Buddhism are dealing with the same world we live in, with our human bodies and minds as they appear in the world we live in. If in addition the methods of investigation show significant similarities, it is hard to avoid the question `what contains what'. Is science a precise form of exploring and describing a specific facet of a wider reality that Buddhism claims to cover? Or is Buddhism a way in which humans have learned to cope with the complexity of mind and world, and as such subordinate to applications of neuroscience and physics, for example? Granted that there are epistemological similarities, which of the two can legitimately claim ontological pride of place?
In the remainder of this chapter, I will try to address these questions, albeit with considerable trepidation. I feel that currently neither our scientific knowledge nor our understanding of the relation between Buddhism and western academic knowledge is deep enough for a comprehensive attempt to come to terms with these questions. So in what follows, I will limit myself to make only a first attempt at an attempt to grapple with these issues.
4. The View From Science
Let us return to the question of the relation between science and Buddhism, or more generally, science and other ways of knowing. Buddhism seems to have remarkably little trouble accepting the results of scientific investigations, and incorporating scientific insights into a Buddhist world view. In contrast to Christianity, there seems to be little concern with Darwinian evolution, for example, and the emphasis in physics on the central role of cause and effect reflects is familiar to a Buddhist as well: it plays a major role in Buddhist descriptions of the world, both on physical and the psychological levels.
Whether a scientific world view leaves room for a Buddhist way of looking at the world is a more difficult question. In fact, the very question is already wrongly posed, since there is as yet no scientific world view, and I don't expect there to be one for at least a century. For an approach to reality to be comprehensive enough to be called a world view, at the very least such a view should have room for human life, meaning, dignity, responsibility, and other aspects of what it means to be human. Mythologies can provide a world view. Religions can provide world views. But the current scientific description of reality leaves out far too much to deserve the name `world view.' As for future developments in science, let us postpone that question to the next section.
Scientists do have views about the world, though, and they sometimes express their views emphatically. When you listen to the voices of spokespersons for science, you hear a wide variety of opinions about the extent to which science covers all of reality, in practice and/or in principle. And they hold a similarly wide range of opinions concerning the amount of room that is left for other ways of knowing, such as those advocated in Buddhism. As to whether scientific and Buddhist views can co-exist, some scientists will answer in a widely affirmative way, whereas others are adamantly in opposition.
When you probe coffee table conversations among practicing scientists, the picture is yet different: by and large questions about the relation between science and Buddhism, or any other world view, are simply not asked. Until recently, it was implicitly understood that such questions were not proper. It just was one of the many unwritten rules of the guild of scientists, to keep a clean separation between your personal views and the objectivistic atmosphere in which science was performed.
Fortunately, this climate of denial is beginning to change now, for a variety of reasons. Whether it is the end of the cold war, the decrease of science funding, the generational turn over of scientists, the shift of emphasis from physics to biology, the rapid progress in neuroscience and the questions triggered thereby -- whatever the reasons are, it is certainly a positive and liberating experience for those of us who have been suppressing our real interests for so long.
An ironic aspect of this tacit suppression of spiritual and contemplative values is the fact that science never has been able to stand on its own, as far as world views go. There simply never has been anything close to `a scientific world view'. Whether there ever will be is a different question, but for now at least, science is still far too young to weave a full story about the world we live in, about what it is to be human, about values and meaning and beauty and responsibility. The recent attempts of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to put together narratives that aim at analysing and `explaining' values, etc., are not much more than `story telling.' Sure, there are elements of truth in what they put on the table, and there are many interesting threads worth following. However, to suggest that such stories could replace a full world view in the near future is simply preposterous.
Of course, many traditional world views are now considered hopelessly naive and outdated, as seen through our modern eyes. Whether such a critical attitude says more about limitations in the older views or about limitations in our current attitude is an interesting question in itself, but there is no need even to go into that question. Already, it is perfectly clear that older world views did provide a place for humankind, a role in the cosmos, a world that had order and meaning. This is something science has never aspired too, and not surprisingly therefore, has never delivered.
This is another ironic aspect of modern science. Ask a scientist whether science has anything to say about meaning and values, and chances are high that the scientist will make a point of explaining how science avoids that question, excluding that from its terrain of investigation right from the start. And then, moments later, in a full and contradictory reversal, this same scientist may be heard to speak in a denigrating way about all kinds of non-scientific views as being forms of wishful thinking and superstition, not up to the same standard as scientific views. Talk about having your cake and eating it too! To exclude whole areas of human life, and especially the most important ones, from scientific analysis, and then to use the self-assigned non-scientific character of those areas as a reason not to take them seriously is nothing but a logical fallacy.
It is not so hard to guess what is behind such irrational behavior. The implication is the belief that, first, some day science will grow far and wide enough to cover all aspects of human life and that, second, that future science will show anything non-scientific to have been a form of an unsubstantial, unreliable, and more or less superstitious way of looking at the world. Perhaps I'm putting it somewhat too sharply, but I have met enough colleagues who have reacted that way that I can testify that this kind of attitude is quite prevalent among scientists. And barring the possibility of peeking into the far future, such an attitude is simply pitting belief against belief: the belief in a clean, clear, reductionistic form of future science telling us all that is worth knowing versus the belief in prescientific ways of knowing. Note the often implied denigration in the very use of the term `prescientific,' as if that by itself disqualifies such ways of knowing, as somehow having outlived their shelf life!
A truly rational attitude would not fall back on such promisory stories about how a future science will prove the current expectations of a full scientific world view to be redeemed. But given that such an attitude is quite wide spread among scientists and lay persons alike, I would like to present an alternative. Let me sketch how I expect science to develop.
5. The Future of Science
For the last four hundred years, since Galileo introduced the scientific method of a combined, observational, experimental, and theoretical investigation, science has focused on the object pole of experience. In any scientific description, the describing scientist has taken care to step out of the picture, and to stay hidden behind the camera. In every observation, the observing scientist has systematically hidden both the subject of the observation and the lived act of observation, leaving only the object of observation as a residue. When the act and the actor are described, those two are made into objects as well, in a third-person form of description of generic actors and generic acts. Anything resembling first-person experience, let alone the presence of first-person subjects, has been filtered out.
Initiating this process was not at all a bad move. In many ways it was a brilliant way to get an inroad in the complexities of the structure and behavior of matter. Trying to analyze and understand the even greater complexities of subject, object, and experiential acts altogether might well have proven to be too difficult to have a chance to succeed. And indeed, the objectivistic turn has been enormously successful. However, success tends to lead to arrogance and narrow-mindedness, and now we have reached a point where we have to face up to the limitations of this clever move of neglecting two-thirds of the fiber of every experiential situation we normally find ourselves in.
Fortunately, there is no need to put pressure on science to change itself. Science, unlike scientists, does not get easily stuck in one mold. The wonderful thing about science is that it has enormous resilience. Scientists may, and often do, get stuck in their ways, but there have always been young rebels who showed that there are novel and better ways to make progress, given the impasses that a previous generation found itself in. The fact that science hands out browny points for new ideas that can explain the observed data in more parsimonious ways, no matter how unconventional the theoretical structures proposed are, is the condition of possibility for its progress.
It is this single fact that separates science from most types of world views, from ideologies to religions to various other ways of knowing. Very few human organized activities have this emphasis on honoring successful innovation. Note that I am taking here a long view of science, averaged over at least half a century: many individual innovators were ignored if not abused for decades, if not longer, until they were finally exonerated. However, in the long run, science, more than any other way of knowing that I am familiar with, has managed over and over again to shed its earlier skin, in order to make room for fresh growth into a larger skin.
So what can we expect to happen in the future? Will science continue to be locked into its one-sided objectivistic development? I don't believe that for a moment. The signs to the contrary are all too obvious. In physics, quantum mechanics has taught us that a straightforward description of the world in terms of objects, independent of how they are being observed, is untenable. The observing subject, be it a person or a machine, plays an essential role in defining even how an object can appear. In biology and medicine, neuroscience is getting closer to being able to provide us with a translation table between objective, third-person descriptions of electrochemical events in our brain and subjective, first-person experience reported by the person whose brain is being studied. And in computer science and artificial intelligence, building robots provides us with the challenge of figuring out how to construct artificial subjects, rather than traditional tools in the form of objects.
These three inroads into a study of the subject are examples of how science naturally grows and transforms itself. While pushing the envelope of what it means to limit oneself to a study of the object pole of experience, naturally science will expand further and move by its own momentum into a study of the subject pole of experience. At first this will happen at those points of intersection where the extension into the world of the subject is simply unavoidable, as in the examples I have given above. But after a while, the study of the subject will undoubtedly become a regular part of science. How long will this take? My guess is that a full blown study of the subject will emerge on a time scale comparable to that needed to build up a detailed study of objects. If we start with Galileo, the era of the object has spanned four hundred years. Perhaps we will proceed faster now, but it may well be that a study of the subject is more difficult intrinsically. If I were to venture a guess, I would bet it would take another three hundred years before we have a well-balanced science, equally focused on subject as object.
6. Life as a Laboratory
Returning to the question of a dialogue between science and Buddhism, I see various possibilities. In the long run, such dialogues will become normal and natural, the more so when science gets deeper into the study of the subject. However, this may not happen in our life time. On a shorter time scale, individual scientists can of course find inspiration in Buddhism, while individual Buddhist scholars, monks, and lay persons can find inspiration in science. As I mentioned earlier, I have been deeply inspired by the laboratory-type approach that I have found in Buddhism, with respect to the study of mind, self, and world. Personally, I expect to continue to view my life as a laboratory, as a stage in which to examine myself and others, trying out various approaches in gradual attempts to find better ways to live my life.
Socrates' judgment that the unexamined life is not worth living is pertinent here. Now that Socrates has inspired a hundred generations of seekers who were born after him, we can ask ourselves how we can formulate his injunction in modern terms. Socrates started his rational inquiry through a search for definitions, in what I see as an attempt to use rationality to go beyond rationality, showing in a rational way the intrinsic limits of a rational approach. Following the thread of rationality, we have embarked on a detailed study of nature, which now begins to lead to a detailed study of ourselves as the human subject studying nature and living a full life as a human being. Know thyself, study thyself -- in modern terms: consider your life as a laboratory, as an opportunity to refine your understanding of all that comes your way. Viewing all our ideas and all that we have learned so far as working hypotheses, we can avoid getting glued to our own prejudices.
In addition to a future public role for Buddhism and science, and a current private role, we can of course begin to discuss possible connections in a tentative, exploratory fashion. This current volume is an example of such an approach. I hope that the next generation of scientists and Buddhists, as well as Buddhist scientists, will find ways to build up a structure and vocabulary to extend these tentative beginnings into a more firmly grounded exchange. One project that aims toward this goal uses a series of summer schools, to gather graduate students form the sciences and from science studies such as philosophy, sociology or history of science, to openly discuss issues concerning science and experience. More information about these summer schools can be found on the home page of the Kira Institute that sponsors these events (see the Kira web site ``http://www.kira.org'').
Acknowledgments. I thank Roger Shepard, Steven Tainer, Bas van Fraassen, Alan Wallace, and Arthur Zajonc for their comments on the manuscript.
Back to publications
Back to activities or to table of contents.
Back to Piet Hut's home page.