Wednesday, November 10, 2010

science and faith

If it's not too far off-topic I gnawed a bit this morning on which might be a more fruitful approach to spiritual life -- scientific inquiry or flowering belief.

It's probably a false dichotomy, but I always found scientific inquiry to be more compelling... not necessarily better or more lofty or exclusive, but, for me, convincing.

Scientists of course have their sometimes unrecognized beliefs, but they do dwell in the empirical, the provable and the right-in-front-of-your-nose. Science is what guides our day from gravity to starlight to the crunch of a potato chip. If you can't incorporate the obvious into spiritual life, what use would spiritual life have?

And the answer is that belief, when pushed and prodded far enough, can tell wondrous tales that can be more enthralling than television or Victoria's Secret. Beliefs have a format and if you work hard, you can fit anything into a belief ... allowing the belief to be the arbiter of what is right in front of your nose. The beautiful flowers bloom and God did it ... that sort of thing.

The trouble with beliefs is the same as the trouble with science ... both have edges and limits and spiritual life has no such edges.

But as a means of actualizing or realizing the edgeless, you have to start somewhere. Science or faith -- is there really so much difference, assuming anyone would consent to keep on investigating, keep on knocking down conveniently cozy walls? Conclusions are tentative, answers are tentative, certainty is tentative.

A false dichotomy, yes. But I prefer the false safety of science to the false safety of belief ... assuming I had to choose one over the other.

Which, obviously, I do not.


  1. Lao Tsu observed nature and took lessons from that. Ol' Buddha man observed the nature of mind and took lessons from that. Scientists do much the same, in controlled environments. They try it, see what happens, and invite others to duplicate it to confirm or deny apparent results.

    Now there's theories being discussed that observing the experiment may somehow influence the experiment. There's a concern for the loss of precious objectivity. But Buddha taught that nothing can be separated from it's environment and correctly perceived. We, and all things, are part of the experiment. Let's carefully observe, and see what happens.

  2. In a very real sense, science is a process of inquiry much like the inquiry that occurs in Buddhism. Scientists work for the ideas that comprise the organism that is the body of scientific knowledge. This organism is unfolding as the result of inquiry. When scientists get attached--believe that the ideas belong to them--then the process falters and, with fraud, can even go badly off course. But at its best, science aims at right view and is an immensely powerful tool for awakening to what is in front of us. In my field, the intersection of developmental neuroscience and early phase clinical pharmacology promises preemptive interventions for mental illness. It is so wondrous and potentially compassionate that when I first sat at ZCMB in the early 70s I had no real sense of conflict or desire to leave science for the monostery. Now, getting older, am inclined to spend more time on the cushion at our retreat cabin and less time at the University, but then there's this science thingy where I come alive so I appreciate today's post cause it speaks right to my condition in the best possible way about the unity of science and Buddhism as an experimental method.