A Buddhist Perspective, Zach Van Houten

Science: A Buddhist Perspective

By Zach Van Houten

This series is focused on providing a Secular Buddhist perspective on the most influential ideologies in the Western world. It is not intended to be antagonistic, but rather comparative.

Science is impressive. It has given rise to so many useful technologies which have transformed our lives. Some believe it is the answer to our problems, and some believe that it has answered, or will answer, the most important questions we have about life.

From a Buddhist perspective, we want to be skeptical of all beliefs and concepts. In this post I will be exploring what is known as Scientism.

Scientism is the view that science and the scientific method are the best or only objective means by which people should determine normative and epistemological values.


I have never heard anyone claim that Scientism is true. It is an extreme position usually held by people who aren’t aware that they hold it as an assumption. Many people live as if it is true, while not knowing they are doing so.

I will modify this definition of Scientism for the purpose of this post. I will define it as the belief that scientific advancement should be a primary focus of society.

Scientific advancement has many benefits. It provides us with mechanical understanding, which aids us in developing useful technology. This technology has the potential to make our lives more comfortable and to aid us in accomplishing our goals.

Yet, adherents of Scientism make further claims. They believe that science doesn’t just provide us with technical knowledge, but that it can actually give us answers in terms of what is important in life.

Can science solve all or most of our problems?

Science can answer a lot of “How?” questions. It doesn’t however answer most “Why?” questions. Some may disagree, but here is what I mean.

How did humans come to be the way we are? Science can more or less tell us information about that. Evolution by natural selection, fundamental physics and cosmology, chemistry, etc. Many of the mechanical processes of life can be explained by science.

But the question arises: why should I value or focus on science? This question cannot be answered by science. It points to something related to why we care about some things and not other things. Why should I focus on science and not art? Why should I care about new technology? Why should I think in terms of physical properties as opposed to religious language?

All of these questions belong more to the domain of philosophy than science. Which points to something important.

In Buddhism, we consider all things to be interdependent. This means that science, does not exist independent of it’s causes and conditions. It is intimately related to everything else.

So in trying to say that science alone can solve our problems, we must first acknowledge that there is no such thing as science in isolation to begin with. Science arose out of philosophy, and remains interconnected with it. Science is also dependent upon mathematics, and language, as well as cultural-historical context. Also, Scientism is not itself a scientific theory but a philosophical/metaphysical position about the nature of science and the scope of it’s application.

If we removed the non-scientific elements from science, science would not exist. So science must show respect to non-scientific disciplines.

Science is built on an idea in philosophy called empiricism.

empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience


Now, this has been a very successful approach when it comes to our ability to harness the power of the objective world. But is it a coherent or complete approach to knowledge?

I will point readers to the problem of perception and Donald Hoffman’s work on perception related to evolutionary game theory. I won’t go into it here for the sake of brevity.

If we observe phenomena but do not reason about it, we do not gain any scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is built on the marriage of sensory observation and reasoning. Empiricism emphasizes the sensory data, but it cannot dispense with reason otherwise no science would be produced. So science is not merely examination of the world, it is also our thoughts about it. And science cannot verify the reliability of logic for example, because logic must be employed to prove logic is accurate. At a certain point we just trust in our ability to both observe things accurately, and understand them accurately. Without that basic, pre-scientific trust in reason, science cannot function.

On the topic of the limits of logic and reason, I will direct readers to the problem of induction, Münchhausen Trilemma, Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

We know now that our bodily senses are very limited in terms of what we can perceive. Technology has been able to augment our ability to observe and measure things, and mathematics has enabled us to make precise predictions. Many things we believed in the past turned out to be false when we acquired new technology to measure and observe more of the universe.

It is important to note that the science of what we consider to be fundamental reality has been through many revolutions, which have successively replaced previous modes of thinking.

We should remain highly skeptical of any claim that science has figured out fundamental reality. Not only is science constantly revising itself, but reality also contains many subjective qualities which cannot be measured and examined in the way we examine external phenomena. Scientism is a very objective approach to life, which if left unchecked can choke out and deny the subjective aspects which are equally important, just more messy.

Imagine you could map out and predict all the behavior of a person using scientific terminology. Would you feel like you know the person just by studying the mechanics of how they operate? Probably not. You know a person not merely by understanding the mechanics of how they behave, but also by directly engaging with them. So science can’t give you a relationship with life. You must do that yourself. And you will learn things that go beyond science if you cultivate an intimate connection with yourself and the world.

Furthermore, no game would be enjoyable if we knew all the moves in advance. So the quest for a perfect understanding of life can have diminishing returns. We know a sense of wonder is important for psychological health, and wonder stems from encountering the unexpected. We wouldn’t want to know everything even if we could.

Currently the most common worldview in science is physicalism, the belief that everything can be explained in terms of physical processes. This is actually a matter of faith, not proof, as I will demonstrate. It is faith that eventually physics will, or at least has the potential to, explain all phenomena. Something which it currently does not do.

There are many problems with this. One is that physics is not synonymous with science. Science is not a unified theory of everything. We have many distinct branches, which all have different principles and terminology and methodologies for determining what is true in their domain. These branches and disciplines have theories within them which explain how the mechanics of phenomena operate at that level. But these theories are not necessarily continuous with theories from other branches.

For example, you can’t explain the behavior of biological systems using quantum theory or general relativity. That is why biology is a separate field. Furthermore you can’t explain the behavior of humans by using just a chemistry theory, you need psychology. There is overlap, yes, but for the most part these fields only reference each other when necessary, and tend to function rather independently.

Emergence is a word which describes how certain properties of phenomena arise which are not characteristic of the constituent parts. This is related to the need for separate scientific disciplines which deal with phenomena at different levels of perception. The most famous problem posed by emergence theory is qualia. How can subjectively experienced qualities emerge from physical quantities? It is a huge area of mystery related to the hard problem of consciousness. But emergence also applies at every level of reality (why does the universe behave differently at the subatomic level than the atomic level? etc.)

What is even more foundational than physics is actually mathematics and language, since they undergird all scientific disciplines. So we could also describe the universe as linguistic and mathematical. But this brings us to an important point. Physics, like mathematics and language, describes reality, but cannot define it. It is a way of understanding life abstractly; it is not synonymous with reality itself. So the funny thing is, physicalism is actually a metaphysical theory. It is philosophical not physical. It is a way of thinking about life. But not the only way.

Furthermore, physics isn’t a unified theory. There are contradictions between quantum mechanics and general relativity. This has led researchers to pursue a alternate theory which is often referred to as quantum gravity, because the role of gravity specifically has yet to be fully understood.

There are significant discrepancies in our cosmological understanding, such as the cosmological constant problem. There is also the fact that scientists currently believe less than 5% of the universe contains ordinary matter (described by the laws of physics). The rest is dark energy and dark matter, which has never been observed or directly measured. It is merely postulated due to the inability of our current models to predict the behavior of the universe. It is effectively the “energy and matter of the gaps”.

Source: https://public.nrao.edu/radio-astronomy/dark-energy/

So we should remain humble about how much of the mechanics are actually understood. But let’s say we understood all of the mechanics. What then?

Let’s say science were completely unified with one theory which described everything perfectly. Would we be able to predict everything? Well, according to the uncertainty principle we can’t know both the location and the velocity of a particle. So it is theoretically impossible to account for all of the behavior we observe. Quantum mechanics works probabilistically, not deterministically.

Well, doesn’t science explain causation? Isn’t everything caused by physical processes? Well, as I mentioned there is no unified theory of physics, so no it doesn’t explain causation. Furthermore we know our ideas of causation can’t be entirely true because of quantum entanglement, which violates temporal causality and locality. Entangled particles influence each other instantaneously regardless of distance. This is why Einstein had such a hard time accepting quantum theory; it broke spacetime.

Einstein himself had sort of broke spacetime with general relativity. Turns out time is relative to the observer. We actually observe the effects of this with time dilation. Spacetime cannot be absolute. Black holes warp spacetime. Leading physicist Nima Arkani-Hahmed argues that “spacetime is doomed” as a result of his experiments with the large hadron collider. The Big Bang Theory posits that space and time had no meaning in relation to the singularity which preceded the Big Bang.

So our ideas about causation (causes necessarily precede effects) appears to be untrue of reality fundamentally. So to claim that science has shown that something definitively causes something else is just a relative statement of relationship. In fact philosophers have known for a long time that our ideas about causation are flawed. We assume events have causes but we always leave out information. For instance, everything I do was caused not only by my psychology, but by my body chemistry, my social environment, my family history and genetics, the history of civilization, evolution by natural selection, all the way back to the big bang. If things had been different at any point it is almost guaranteed that my behavior would be different. And the world would be different.

This goes back to the Buddhist notion of interdependence. All things are interrelated. So to say the neurons in our brains for example, cause consciousness, is a statement that holds no ontological weight. What we know is that some events precede and predict the appearance of other events. But essentially, causes and conditions are infinite, and we do a disservice to truth if we take scientific determinism to be absolutely true.

The fact is, the things we do not understand are nearly infinite. Science is an ongoing process of learning. It isn’t a set of facts to be believed. It has mechanical theories to be used. Even Buddhist principles such as interdependence and impermanence shouldn’t be believed, but rather used as tools to analyze concepts. If you reject impermanence or interdependence, that is fine. Use your own judgment.

The Buddha once said:

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.


The Buddhist approach does not rely on the intellect alone to determine how we should live. The Buddha urged us to be skeptical of all things except what we know to be true in our hearts. This is an individual way of knowing, which can’t be turned into an absolute set of objective doctrines. It is a exploration, and Buddhism gives us the tools to do this exploration and urges us to trust our own intuition regarding what is good.

If we do not develop wisdom, the ability to know what is important in life, all the technology in the world will not make us happy. Because we will misuse it. This has already happened with modern warfare, nuclear arms, the detrimental mental health effects of social media, the hedonic treadmill and addiction, desensitization, ecological devastation, alienation, political partisanship and polarization, existential dread, etc.

Our hyperfocus on science is not healthy. We need to pivot and balance our technological expertise with wisdom. Only then will we understand how to use technology wisely.

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has identified what he calls a meaning crisis in western society. We need to revisit wisdom traditions and update them as needed.

We are suffering from a wisdom famine in the West.

John Vervaeke

Science cannot produce wisdom. Wisdom is it’s own area of study and should be cultivated on it’s own terms. I highly recommend Secular Buddhism and Stoicism, as wisdom traditions that are well suited for modern society. There are many other valuable ones too which may be a bit less palatable for the average westerner, but I would encourage you to explore and see if you can find something that speaks to you and helps you connect with your inner wisdom.

Thanks for reading.

Image retrieved on 4/30/22 from https://freesvg.org/ichtyhs-science under public domain.
Zach Van Houten

Decolonizing Our Spiritual Life

By Zach Van Houten

Society gives us ideas to believe in before we are old enough to question them. All of us are to a large extent brainwashed from birth; although not necessarily in a malicious sense. We are taught how to behave as a child, and how to act responsibly as an adult. By the time our brains are fully formed we have already ingested an incredible amount of information telling us who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.

As we become adults we may believe we are acting rationally and that our ideas are solid. Yet society has really only given us a point of reference; a set of presuppositions to adhere to. A catalogue of rules of thumb that help us navigate life.

Sometimes a person runs into a situation which requires them to question the ideas they were taught, and to form deeper, more nuanced understanding of the problem. This is a way many of us gain our own wisdom and knowledge. Not by sticking with the old ideas, but by voyaging into the unknown. When the old stops working, the new must be born.

In spirituality and philosophy we are experiencing such a crossroad. Christian religion for the West is struggling to maintain its dominance. And materialist philosophy is found to be unable to explain the very physics it is supposed to be grounded on.

Our minds have been shaped by colonialism. The belief that our way of life is superior to the rest of the world is still embedded in our society. We are starting to see that while we have wonderful contributions to make globally, we also need to sit at the feet of global wisdomkeepers in order to learn lessons a young nation such as ours is clearly missing.

One such lesson is the universality of Spirit. God is in all things; that is a message that echoes through world religions and philosophies older than ours. The wisdom of Oneness is ancient, and there are many teachers today who have been reaching a hand out to the West in hope that we would sit and listen.

Will we listen? Hard to say. Some will. Some already have. And others will never give up the narrowness of what they were taught. For them, it is our way versus the world. A battle that must be won, rather than a riddle which must be solved. The great sages and yogis see existence more as a riddle to solve than a war to be won. Once you have solved the riddle everything else falls into place. That is the magic of deep spirituality.

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Photo: Magnifier and white puzzle on hundred dollars banknotes by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

Zach Van Houten

The Tao of Christ

By Zach Van Houten

This year I stumbled upon a Christian version of the ancient Chinese contemplative work the Tao Te Ching. What made me excited about this is that it does what I feel is often missing in our dialogues with other faith traditions: translate religious texts from one spiritual language into another.

Many westerners struggle to relate with foreign concepts such as the Tao, since the word is entirely new to us. To add new words to the Christian vocabulary may not be very helpful. But if we look closely we can easily see that Tao is simply a Chinese word that can be translated as God or Spirit, or even Christ. And this is done here by baptist minister Marshall Davis in The Tao of Christ: A Christian Version of the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching tackles many topics in a very subtle and paradoxical way. It isn’t an easy read if you approach it with a analytical mind, but if you let the words hit you, and allow space for the paradoxical style, it reveals wonderfully beautiful nuances of contemplative life that can barely be put into words. Thankfully Marshall simplifies it even further here for readers who may find the original Taoist text daunting.

There are many great passages, and I will share one here that hit me this morning. It speaks to the way Christ lived in the gospels, and how He works in Creation:

Associate with the righteous and the unrighteous.

Accept people as they are without judging them.

If you love the world unconditionally, it will be like returning to Eden before the knowledge of good and evil.

The world is formed from nothing,

like a bowl formed from a block of wood.

The bowl is made of wood, yet it is the empty space that makes it useful.

So does God make and use all things.

If you try to fix the world, you will fail miserably.

The world is God’s to fix.

Can you do better than God?

In trying to make things better,

You will only mess things up.

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing.

You should act according to your nature.

Some are meant to lead, others to follow.

Some struggle, others take things easy.

Some are strong, and others weak.

Some play it safe, others take risks.

Christ sees everything as it is.

He sees God at work in all events, and does not usurp control.

Keeping in the center of the Divine will, he accomplishes all things.

The Tao of Christ, verses 28-29

I encourage everyone to order the book/buy the ebook, since it is a wonderful addition to anyone interested in, or familiar with Christianity who also wants a fresh perspective on the spiritual world. Paperback version can be purchased here. Marshall also has a wonderful podcast by the same name which can be found here.

For those who want to experience the full force of the original Tao Te Ching translated into English, I would recommend this audio version on YouTube since it is such a beautiful reading and translation. For those interested in a more introductory version using Christian terminology, I recommend The Tao of Christ.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my feed or bookmark this site for more posts like this.

Zach Van Houten

Grace Here and Now

By Zach Van Houten

I have been absent for a while now on social media. I deactivated my Facebook account and cut ties with a few different groups due to a growing feeling of claustrophobia and self-consciousness. Election cycles tend to do that to me. I feel more hesitant than ever to share my thoughts and feelings when I know tensions are high.

During this hiatus, I have spent time digging into my inner world, and uncovering wounds and neuroses that are difficult to see when actively engaging in social life. The smaller my world, the better, at times. That is at least one way I find solace.

I can’t say I am at peace, but I do have more clarity than I have had in a while. It has been easier to see patterns of self-deception and self-aggrandizement when offline. These two tend to occur when I want purpose and meaning in life, and feel I have to create it. Christianity in particular has left a void in my life that is hard to explain.

I didn’t just grow up in the church. It was my social life, and my home life. My experience of being homeschooled in a evangelical family meant that I ate, slept and breathed my religion. I wanted to be a pastor, and/or worship leader. I wanted to save souls. I studied the Bible and prayed daily. It wasn’t just a part of my life, it was central to it.

So when I broke ties with the church I tried to act as if I had moved on to something better. It is true that I had moved on to something more authentic for where I was at, but not necessarily more grounding or comforting.

The comfort of the church had begun to wear off before I left. It wasn’t all roses. I had been privately suffering from intense loneliness, insecurity, and depression. This made it hard for me to ever sink fully into grace. Although when I had, it had been a wonderful and liberating experience.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that represents the heart of God for me. In the story the obedient son, while never leaving the Father’s side, did not experience the love of the Father in the same way the wayward one did. The reason being that the prodigal son knew his imperfection, while the obedient son who never left the Father was full of pride and was unforgiving to the son who had left.

Grace can grow in us as we experience our shadow selves, and find that we are more imperfect than we had imagined ourselves to be. In fact, being an individual is to be vastly imperfect, since we are by definition considering our small sense of self as if we were separate from the entire universe.

Being human carries a sense of constant inferiority and urge towards growth. While life teaches us to evolve, the desire to transcend ourselves cannot ever be accomplished by improving the separate self. It is only when we are liberated from this small egocentric view that we can have peace.

Christ teaches me to humble myself, and relate to the mystery in a way that allows me to be me, rather than feeling I have to carry myself up some mountain of purity. I can allow myself the space for failing and know that God can still use me anyway. In fact, opening to grace helps me to be more patient with the faults of others. We are all works-in-progress.

While the idea of God is not something everyone is comfortable with, I have found great solace in making peace with my old faith through prayer and seeking the true heart of the gospel.

Prayer for me is an act of humble opening to the mystery, and to the intelligence beyond myself. I can ask and trust, and in this simple gesture I feel more connected and attuned.

I don’t feel it needs to be much more complicated than that. Christ is an example of this simple trust and active spirituality. He inspires me to see that my life here is not in vain, and that I am meant to follow this path. I am still as much a Christ follower now as I ever was. All the twists and turns only deepen my relationship with Him, and help me to see the great mystery in new ways.

I think we need more authentic disciples of Christ in the world now than ever before. Not Bible thumping or tribal exclusivism, but real deep communion with the heart of the gospel. If we get in touch with that, what a difference it would make.

Thanks for reading.


Image credit: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_in_the_Land_Bountiful.jpg