Buddhism is more scientific than science?

The following essay is a reaction to the article http://sundaytimes.lk/090503/Plus/sundaytimesplus_13.html with the heading “Buddhism more scientific than modern science - Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso reflects on Buddhism’s enduring significance”


I could not pay much attention to the works of the Ven Ajahn Brahmavamso but always wanted to; as so many people that I respect do. When I had my first look; alas! What a disappointment. I am wondering whether the journalist who interviewed the thero correctly put Thero’s words in to the article, or whether there was a communication gap between the Thero and the journalist. Just look at this quote from the article [quote]“Some misguided scientists maintain the theory that there is no rebirth, that this stream of consciousness is incapable of returning to a successive human existence. All one needs to disprove this theory, according to science, is to find one instance of rebirth, just one! Professor Ian Stevenson, as some of you would know, has already demonstrated many instances of rebirth. The theory of no rebirth has been disproved. Rebirth is now a scientific fact!”[unquote]. What a blatant contradiction to the points that Thero maintained in the content above and below that quote the article.

As a layman having hobbyist’s interest in quantum theory, I cannot claim that I have understood different interpretations of the theory comprehensively. However, from the little that I know, I believe that I am entitled to comment that Buddhist scholars (the likes of Ven Ajan Bhramavaso) are using the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory to attack science in the same vein that Christian lobby is using the ‘gaps’ in Darwinian theory of evolution (theory of natural selection) to attack science. The Christian lobby is bigger in numbers and wealth that they can make a bigger impact with quite simplistic arguments (i.e. “Intelligent Design”) whereas Buddhist lobby is not so powerful to be heard outside of Buddhist intellectual circles. All these religious lobbies have quite interesting ‘love and hate’ relationship with science. They attack science but they don’t reject science either. Christian lobby is claiming that science is originated by those who were inspired to find more about “Gods creation” and the aim of the science is to explore the intelligent design of God. The likes of Ven Ajan Bhram claim that Buddhism is more scientific than science (whatever that means).

It is evident from Ven Ajan Bhram’s comments that he is rejecting science not because of the science per se, but due to the bigotry of some of the practitioners (that might have rubbed him wrongly?). Is Bigotry of the practitioners a good reason to reject a system?

It is also questionable whether Thero is up to date with the discourse within science regarding many interpretations of quantum mechanics. Ven Thero is quite entitled to run away from science and hide behind Buddhist doctrine when confronted with apparent contradictions brought forward by quantum mechanics. However, it is not the only option available. There are scientists that seek comfort in God hypothesis when they are confronted with gaps in theory of natural selection. The theory of natural selection cannot explain the extreme complexity that evolved within relatively short period of time unless we rely on several extremely lucky accidents. As Dawkins put; the ‘gaps’ in Darwin's theory does not lend credibility to even more dubious theories that seem to fill these gaps with gods.

Something that prof. Nalin De Silva repeatedly say comes in to my mind. Most western intellectuals are only exposed to the ‘two valued logic’ and Cartesian spatio-temporal worldview. They are only familiar with using the methodology of reducing complex systems to the interactions of its constituents. This is perhaps the only methodology available to the science until the turn of the 20th century. With the advent of quantum theory -and specifically the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics- the scientific worldview changed. The quantum theory dictates that we cannot separate the observer and the observed and treat them as separate systems. They are part of the same system, and every observed phenomenon is influenced by the act of observation. At the sub-atomic level, this concept has remarkable and non-intuitive implications as demonstrated by the famous “double-slit” experiment. In the double-slit experiment, the behavior of a subatomic particle (like an electron) tends to vary in a remarkable manner when not being observed vs. when being observed. The results of this experiment shook the very base of classical notions such as "particles", "waves", "location", and "movement from one place to another".

Despite the implication of quantum theory, when science is taught in classroom, students are forced to think within the classical framework and use the classical methodology of reducing complex systems to the interactions of its constituents. In Sri Lanka, the likes of Professor Nalin De Silva, has been very vocal critiques of the western intellectuals who were taught within Cartesian spatio-temporal worldview and who does not seem to be aware of any other worldviews outside of it.

We can live with science with multiple theories of the universe and multiple methodologies as long as we do not seek ‘absolute truths’ or ‘God’s eye view’ of nature. The reason that Ven Thero sought comfort in Buddhism seems to be the fact that he sought absolute truths within science.

The methodology of separation and methodology of wholeness has to complement each other. The extreme adherence to any one of these is not going to help us. The intuition driven wholeness approach and rationality driven separation are two methodologies we unconsciously use in our daily lives. When a newborn baby cries, mother takes quick intuitive decisions rather than analyzing the situation, which is the most appropriate methodology in that situation. The day-to-day moral decisions that we make are mostly based on intuition, rather than analysis. The practitioners of traditional medicine use a mix of analysis and intuition. Practitioners of scientific (western?) medicine are supposed to use analysis mostly, but they also tend resort to intuition based on the scenario (which is perfectly acceptable). However, I have seen examples of MBBS medical doctors who overuse intuition (due to their cultural upbringing) when they should actually use analyses. For example the environment factors that influence a patient can be temperature, humidity and air quality. Western medicine suggests that we isolate and understand the influences of these elements separately. However, in our culture, elders often boil down all these three factors to just one vague “Air” element. An MBBS doctor who heavily influenced by the culture is at a disadvantage here being unable to isolate an incident of ‘pollen allergy’ affecting a patient.