The Attributes of the Sciences, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1731.

In view of Western Buddhists’ eagerness to collaborate with the scientific study of Buddhism, it might be a good idea to consider whether this collaboration is likely, in the long run, to affirm or prove injurious to the very values and understandings that make one a Buddhist in the first place. In so doing, we might cast an eye to academia, where interdisciplinary cross-fertilization between the humanities and the sciences is all the rage. With a brain-science model moving into traditionally non-scientific realms like aesthetics, ethics, and literature, how have the humanities fared?

If you are interested in finding out, I recommend following the swelling media tsunami set off by a recent essay published in The New Republic by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “Science is not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” (August 6, 2013). Pinker declares the present era—on the basis of its stunning scientific and technological advancements—to be “an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition.” He expects his colleagues in the humanities should share his delight and be “energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences.” He observes that instead, “the intrusion of science into territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.” Pinker appeals to these colleagues to come to their senses, cross the fence, and submit to the scientific worldview.

The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier slammed back against what he calls Pinker’s “scientism” with “Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen” (September 3, 2013). Tufts Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett responded to Wieseltier’s piece, accusing Wieseltier of “name-calling and sarcasm,” which, writes Dennett, “are typically the last refuge of somebody who can’t think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn’t understand and can’t abide.” The wave of high-brow mud-slinging has even reached The New York Times. (See “The Scientism of Steven Pinker” and “Science’s Humanities Gap.”)

Pinker touts the increasing convergence of the humanities and the sciences as “an infusion of new ideas” into the humanities. But to Wieseltier, it is “not so much a convergence of the sciences with the humanities but a convergence of the sciences upon the humanities.”

The key question to ask is: What is meant by knowledge?

The validity of science is not at issue. Pinker’s colleagues in philosophy, literature, or history aren’t calling for a rejection of germ theory or evolution. All the participants in this debate accept, honor, and appreciate the primacy of science as an extremely effective means of gaining objective knowledge about the physical world. At issue is the presumption that this is the only kind of knowledge there is and whether the scientific model should be considered the only valid model for understanding the human condition—in other words, scientism.

Wieseltier writes:

Pinker seems to be saying that reason is essentially scientific. This is…one of his definitional tricks. Reason is larger than science. Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship also espouse skepticism, open debate, formal precision…and—at the highest reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests….Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.

This battle between Pinker and Wieseltier is one front line of a civil war that is currently splitting Western intellectual life. The war involves a clash of academic disciplines, with scientists generally on one side, and on the other, humanists, literary critics, artists, and those in the social and behavioral sciences who take a qualitative, interpretive approach. Even more than a clash of disciplines, it is a confrontation of cultures. Scientific culture assumes we are human organisms (or, of late, that we are the human brain) living in an objective universe in which the questions worth asking are literal matters concerned with the explanation of physical processes and the discovery of natural laws and empirical facts. The method of investigating those questions is experimentation. And valid answers are singular; if two explanations contradict, only one can be right. Humanistic culture, on the other hand, assumes that we are human beings living in a world of meaning. The questions worth asking are interpretive ones concerned with qualitative value, morality, and purpose. There are many methods of investigating those questions—the appropriate form depends on the discipline, the context, and the particular question. And these sorts of questions have more than one right answer.

Buddhists might take note that there is a predictable result when a non-scientific culture converges with a scientific one; that is, science dominates. As science begins to take on questions that were previously humanistic ones, the world of lived experience becomes the objective universe. The human being becomes the human body. Meaning, beauty, value, and ethics (not to mention the nature of consciousness) are reduced to matters of objective fact. This same fate awaits Buddhism.

Indeed, the Western Buddhist community is implicated in this war. If you browse the pages of Buddhist publications or visit the Eastern Thought section of your local bookstore, you’ll see many articles and books advocating a scientific understanding of Buddhism. You might also begin to see others that criticize this approach, claiming—like the humanists—that knowledge in Buddhism is about understanding lived experience, not explaining physical processes. Any method of study that turns Buddhism into a simple set of technical operations is bound to mislead; to study Buddhism as a natural science is to remove it from the realm of meaning, to reduce it to something it is not, and to miss out on what about it really matters.

Does this new collaboration actually serve the cause of the advancement of knowledge? We need to ask whether translating non-scientific discourse into scientific discourse actually answers non-scientific questions or merely takes them off the table—rendering them invisible by sleight of hand. Wieseltier invites us to a scientific explanation of a painting:

…a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.

Likewise, can scientific investigation of attention, emotion, compassion, or meditation really answer any important questions about our practice? Buddhism’s collaboration with science risks taking off the table the things we really care about—like morality and spiritual purpose, including purposes such as liberation from suffering. Morality and purpose belong to the realm of human meaning. In conflating the investigation of human meaning with the investigation of the physical body, don’t we, in gaining the brain, rather obviously stand to lose the mind? What then, would be left of our “Buddhism”?

For this reason, Western practitioners might think twice about presenting Buddhism as a science of mind or as fully science-compatible. We should ask ourselves, is the kind of truth embodied in Buddhism actually scientific? Some aspects of Buddhism might well be compatible with science, but ethics, values, and purpose are simply not matters of scientific fact; they are matters of human meaning. Many of us are trying to pass off our spiritual endeavors as “scientific,” because that is the only category of truth that prevailing attitudes of exclusivity recognize. Rather than aligning with scientism, we might be better served by standing with the humanists, literary critics, scientists, historians, and artists who are challenging it.

With support from the John Templeton Foundation, Tricycle’s Buddhism and Modernity project is initiating a conversation between Buddhists and leading thinkers across the humanities and social sciences. Tricycle is exploring how perspectives drawn from research about the nature of religion, culture, science, and secularism can shed light on unexamined assumptions shaping the transmission of Buddhism to modernity. This project offers Western Buddhists new ways of thinking about their spiritual experiences by demonstrating how reason can be used as a tool to open up—rather than shut down—access to traditional faith.

Further Reading

The Scientific Buddha,” by Donald S. Lopez

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters