Science and Buddhism III: Investigating Reality

by Ratnaprabha

How do you find out what is the case? Consider the criteria of the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha provides a list of what he regards as unreliable sources of knowledge or advice:

  • something asserted repeatedly
  • tradition
  • hearsay
  • scriptural texts
  • sophistical reasoning
  • logical inference
  • prolonged consideration
  • getting carried away by a view that you identify with
  • indulgence in the pleasure of speculation
  • a person who makes a plausible impression
  • your respect for a spiritual teacher

None of these are reliable sources of knowledge. Instead, he says, ‘when you know of yourselves that these teachings are skilful, blameless, recommended by sensible people [viññugarahitā], and that followed through and practised they lead to welfare and happiness, then practise them and stick to them.’[1]

We can investigate:

  1. Our surroundings — the material world. Here, science is paramount, and manipulating things using what is learnt leads to technology.
  2. Ourselves — our ‘inner’ experience, character, drives, aspirations, abilities, pathologies; how this state of mind has come about. What to do about it.  There are some Western insights, but Buddhism is way ahead.
  3. Other ‘selves’. But also,
  4. we can investigate how all these three fit together. 

Science supremely respects objective investigation, so that only ‘objects’ can be investigated — separable, isolatable things, or at best processes. So its natural tendency is to reduce 3 and 2 to 1.

Buddhism makes 2 paramount, but doesn’t reduce 3 and 1 to 2. Instead, it offers two ways of apprehending the totality of 1-3 — how they fit together in a single nondual universe.

Direct apprehension

The first way is said to be direct apprehension, with no mediation of descriptions, or models or framework etc. You can’t prove this is possible, though you can intuit whether a holistic grasp of the situation (being completely present, with no need for divisions or discriminations — jñana, not vijñana) is in a sense already available, but overlain by rather nervous and insecure habitual colourings, enhancings, ignorings, and mental concepts.

It seems unlikely that this kind of insight could directly answer questions relevant to the physical sciences. But when it comes to the mind and human life, Buddhists would tend to privilege their personal insights over the findings of science. However, as soon as an insight (assuming such a thing to be possible) is reduced to a conceptual explanation, which it presumably has to be to be conveyed to another person, it has switched to the same objective level that science operates on. This is the reason that the Dalai Lama is prepared to expose the teachings of Buddhism to scientific scrutiny, and to alter them if they are falsified.[2]

An intimation of the outcome of insight in is valuable to science. Buddhism tries to gradually accustom one to the fact that there are no things, no essences, nothing ultimately exists, but neither are things nonexistent, and one has no core-self, and so on. At first, this attitude is rather disturbing — it feeds in to one’s sense of insecurity.  But if a scientist can become accustomed to it, I think that it will help them to ponder the significance of their results more effectively, not distracted by essentialist or dualist assumptions. Our intellect gives a certain form to the phenomena that we are trying to make sense of; but this is not the form of the things in themselves.

Conditioned arising

The second way of apprehending the totality of inner and outer experience is to find what might be the most simple and austere framework for accounting for reality, when conceptual structures first come in — very aesthetic, calm, vivid, elegant.

This is the way or ways that someone with considerable insight will use to try to give an account of their perspective — attempting to be as helpful as possible for others to achieve insight. The account is known as pratitya samutpada.

It starts from the insistence that:

  • Nothing is fixed.
  • There are no independent entities (including oneself).

So all phenomena are an interconnected flow.  The Buddha put it like this:

‘This being, that becomes. From the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not become. From the ceasing of this, that ceases.’ 

Whatever we think of as a thing or event wells up from the past on a wave of supporting conditions, and only remains so long as the conditions remain. And that thing itself is a factor in other things or events arising.

The Buddha’s image is of a fast-moving river, with froth and eddies: structures in the water which form and vanish, merge, stay or move swiftly on…. But their formation and evolution and movement and interaction are all completely law-governed.

The number of factors is too great for exact predictions, in most cases. And you can’t reduce the number of influences on one entity to a manageable number — other small influences might become appreciable (as in the butterfly effect). But according to this view, nothing is completely fortuitous. And there is no need to invoke a supernatural personality who runs the universe, or who decides to bring it into existence.

The natural laws of conditioned arising apply to the objective world, to one’s own mind, and to other people.

Is the world made up of things?

Buddhism has very fully investigated the laws of conditioned arising in human mind and life. Science has done so in the material world. Science does take this process approach, but often forgets it, in ‘discovering’ some fixed entity.

There is a strange contradiction in science. It is supposed to be about the hard and objective material world. But nearly everything it talks about is actually invisible — atoms, subatomic particles, pressure and electric current, distant galaxies, black holes and the Big Bang, continental drift, evolution over millions of years, genes and instincts in animals. These all have to be inferred using very sophisticated theories working on the data from very sophisticated equipment.

We tend to believe it all a bit too easily! We are very respectful and credulous when we hear about genes or atoms, even though we’ve never seen one. The theories are wonderful, and are very fertile ways of understanding the universe, but we should not think that they are true. We shouldn’t take them too seriously. They are just very effective models, ways of coming to an understanding of the world for minds that work like ours do. A different being would have a very different science, and we will have, I suspect, a very different science in 100-200 years. It’s all a wonderful story, with vividly imagined and extremely weird characters in it. But don’t be too solemn about it all as if it is some sort of absolute reality. 

To put this in Buddhist terms, there is a radical consequence of everything being interrelated, mutually conditioned. Complete mutual conditioning means that there are actually no things being conditioned. We can provisionally label parts of the tangled flow with names, thinking of them as real entities, but soon they have vanished and turned into something else. So none of the names we use refer to anything which has the properties that one assumes that things must have. There is no entity that exists in isolation, and no entity can give rise to or sustain itself, no entity can remain the same. Conditioned coproduction shows that everything is shunyata, and therefore that every situation is open — it can evolve into something quite different. You can’t say that all these categories that science talks about are somehow protected from shunyata. Atoms and genes have no existence of their own; neither does gravity or natural selection. They are just helpful descriptions that pick out parts of that flowing tangle, so that we can make some kind of sense of it while we wait until we can have insight into the whole thing.

[1] Ratnaprabha’s translation.

English (UK)