Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Buddhist Inquiry

In a post on his blog, my friend John gave a response to my blog post on spiritual traditions. John has made a total of three replies to my series of posts on his blog; here, I am responding to another he point he made in his first post (as you can see, I am pretty far behind).

In the post on spiritual traditions, I criticized the methodology used by Buddhists (and others) for generating and testing beliefs. John's response is that the Buddhist method is actually the same (or nearly the same) as that of natural science, namely rational inquiry and controlled experimentation:
Buddhism is primarily a mystical religion with a strong intellectual support. Prince Siddhartha Gautama reported to have achieved an ineffable state of consciousness that we term “enlightenment.” He further reported that this state of consciousness eliminates suffering and produces a host of other benefits. And, he taught a set of beliefs and practices (the Dharma) whereby others can achieve this same state of consciousness also. Hence, there is in Buddhism an emphasis on monasticism as the most complete means for achieving this state of consciousness. Hence too, there is an emphasis on independent inquiry to prove or disprove those statements. In that regard, Buddhism can be regarded as a 2,500 year long investigation –by many people from different times, places and cultures — to prove or disprove Siddharth Gautama’s claims and methodology. The results have been quite a lot of adaptation for local conditions and for different personality traits, but a consistency nevertheless: his claims and his methodology work for those who choose to employ them.

So, on the one hand, Buddhism certainly has its own methodology. On the other hand, that methodology is rational inquiry and controlled experimentation to prove or disprove Siddhartha Gautoma’s claims.

And, there is no obligation to make this inquiry into the Buddha’s claims — especially if one does not find those claims to be particularly credible. For example, I remember reading one such account. The Buddha had just become enlightened, and he was on his was to the city of Benares to tell his friends of this when he came upon a forest monk. They said hello to each other, and then (as was the custom among monks) the forest monk made a polite inquiry into which school of thought the Buddha practiced. The Buddha replied with enthusiasm (perhaps too much enthusiasm?), “I’ve just become enlightened !” The forest monk replied, “Hmm. Maybe.” And then he left. :-) .
I object strongly to the claim that the method used by Buddhists to generate and test beliefs is rational inquiry and controlled experimentation. This claim is often made by those who attempt to portray Buddhism as a rational religion or as otherwise compatible with the worldview of scientific naturalism. In part, these rationalist defenses of Buddhism have their origin in Sri Lankan Buddhist apologetics from the late 19th century, when Sri Lankans were attempting to counter assertions by Christian missionaries that Buddhism, unlike Christianity, was incompatible with modern science (an odd argument for the missionaries to be making, to be sure). (David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism is an excellent history of this trend within Buddhist thought and apologetics.)

Now, it's true that, from the Buddhist point of view, knowledge is only salvific if one sees the truth of it oneself. It's not enough to simply know the four noble truths as abstract propositions, for example; one is supposed to be able to see these truths directly, by gaining penetrating insight into the nature of samsara and nirvana. This is at least part of the reason why Buddhists often talk about the importance of seeing the truth of things for oneself. It's also true that the Buddha was surprisingly tolerant of questioning or dissent among his followers, at least in comparison to some other religious figures. While, on the one hand, he explicitly condemns (with little argument, and much name-calling) the so-called 62 wrong views, on the other hand, he was open-hearted enough to ask on his deathbed if any of his followers had any doubts (DN 16), or wished to ask any questions relating to the dharma he had taught.

But neither of these facts implies that Buddhism employs a methodology based on reason and controlled experimentation. One is only supposed to put the four noble truths and other parts of the dharma to the test in that one is supposed to see the truth of them in one's own experience. A Buddhist cannot reject any part of the dharma (or at least, the core of the dharma, such as the four noble truths, karma, rebirth, no-self, and so on) and remain a Buddhist. That is why the Buddha spent so much of his time disputing with brahmins and others who disagreed with his views, such as in his dialogue with Khemaka, who denied the doctrine of no-self. Like members of other religions, Buddhists seem to presume that the Buddha is infallible, at least with respect to beliefs and assertions relevant to the religion itself. Buddhists will thus, in practice, and despite their protestations to the contrary, only use reason and experience to try to justify what the Buddha taught, and to explain away apparent objections or inconsistencies. There is no internal mechanism within Buddhism for carefully testing and revising theories based on new evidence or new analyses of old evidence, unlike in the empirical sciences. If one uses reason or experience to reject a doctrine taught by the Buddha, then one is no longer a Buddhist. Of course, individual Buddhists have the power to question the beliefs of their religion, just like memebrs of any other religion, and the culture of Buddhism may be somewhat more tolerant of this than the culture of other religions (though I dispute that this is the case in most, perhaps all, traditional Buddhist sects), but, at the end of the day, one's beliefs have to remain consistent with those of the Buddha if one wishes to remain a Buddhist. This is in contrast with the empirical sciences, in which one can question the beliefs of other scientists, even and especially the founders of one's discipline, and still count as a scientist. I therefore conclude that they have different methodologies for testing beliefs.

Not only are the core beliefs of Buddhism not revisable (from the Buddhist point of view), it seems inaccurate to describe Buddhists as using a method of "controlled experimentation". John may be thinking here of the self-discovery and inquiry that occurs during and as a result of Buddhist meditation practice. I would disagree that this counts as controlled experimentation, however. Whatever one learns as a result of meditation, it's really no better than anecdotal evidence, unless one is scientifically studying meditators. Now, anecdotal evidence can be very useful--after all, we use it every day, and in fact life would probably be impossible without it. But controlled experimentation, at least as it is understood by empirical scientists, is a far cry from any of the "experiments" conducted by Buddhists during meditation or dialogue. Scientific experiments are quantified, and controls are in place so that only one variable is manipulated at a time. This is the reverse of the case with the information one learns from meditation. Now, this is not to knock meditation--I think it is potentially very beneficial, but a method of controlled experimentation it is not, nor even of rational inquiry.

So far I have focused on how Buddhists don't do a good job subjecting their views to impartial testing procedures. Buddhists also do not adopt a rational means of generating the core beliefs of their tradition. Like other religions, the core beliefs of Buddhism are generated based on the fact that they're stated in the scriptures by the founder or his immediate disciplies, and are therefore regarded as true (and non-provisionally true at that). Now, Buddhists may offer further evidence and search for arguments in support of these beliefs after the fact, in order to reduce the doubts of the faithful or to convince unbelievers of the error of their ways, but this is not the same as generating beliefs through sustained, impartial empirical inquiry, nor subjecting theories generated in this way to further tests using truly controlled experiments. It's something of an insult to scientists to suggest that they are using the same method used by Buddhists who are engaged in apologetics or even Buddhists who are earnestly attempting to discover and experiences the (presumed) truths of their religion for themselves.

I could go on, and indeed I may in a later post, but for now I would simply like to recommend Donald Lopez's book on a related topic, entitled Buddhism and Science. I have only started to read the book, but Lopez provides a compelling account about the perceived relationship between Buddhism and modern science, which gives insight into the reason why many westerners and Asian Buddhists have sought to portray Buddhism as compatible with science, when in many ways it is not.
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