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.

Don’t Be Like Me

By Zach Van Houten

I don’t want you to follow me. I want you to find your true path. The inward yearning you have will lead you if you trust it. Your fate will be an expression of your soul. I wouldn’t want to interfere with what you are becoming. I accept you just as you are.

You can learn from me if you want. Take what you like about me and discard the rest. Use me as a mirror for yourself. Dialogue with me if you want to work out your ideas, or if you simply want someone to listen and empathize.

There is no need to be triggered by what I write or say. My thoughts are my own, and reflective of my very particular journey and my individual perspective. They don’t have to be your thoughts, unless you want them to be.

I wouldn’t want a world full of people like me. It would be hell. There would be too many tasks uncompleted, or done poorly. My limited skillset would not be enough for the world. We need people who are fundamentally not like me. And we need a lot of them.

I want my friends and family to know I appreciate them as they are. When I become judgmental or narrow-minded, I don’t intend to. I just sometimes get frustrated and project that onto other people. In the end there is so much I gain from others, it is amazing.

When I look at the world, it is easy for me to judge others for their failings. Especially those in the public eye. But who am I to judge? Could I do what they do? Do I know what their work requires of them? No. I can’t know the situation. It is not my place to assume I could do better than them.

Are my values superior to the values of others? No. My heart dictates what I value, and I am devoted to the service of those values. They are for me, not for everyone. Some may share my values, which is wonderful. But the world would fall apart if everyone valued the same things I did.

My life is a work of art, and every day it is being created. It is unique, and personal, and amazing. I am lucky to be in love with it. Not because it is easy, but because it is expressing my soul. And that is where true beauty emerges.

How could I imagine the work of art that your life is becoming? I want to appreciate your soul as it grows and expresses itself in a unique way. I don’t want to take your paintbrush away. I want to honor your creative process.

I want you to be able to find inspiration in my work, if it speaks to you. That is the joy of expressing myself. To be authentically real and see what happens. Welcome to my gallery!

Thank you for reading.

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels


Why I Don’t Have Faith In Politics

By Zach Van Houten

There are few things as essential to being human as politics. Any time there are groups of people cooperating together, there arises the need to make group decisions.

The necessity of making collective decisions can lead to a great deal of tension. The hatred between left and right has been getting worse it seems, and the internet seems to highlight this.

One thing is certain: politics is one of the things that defines the internet. Increasingly so as participation in organized religion declines. The void left by religion seems to largely be filled by political participation. Although it isn’t exclusive to the non-religious by any means.

Here is where I want to make a confession: I no longer have faith in politics.

Is believing in politics a bad thing? Who am I to say? I can only comment on what I have found is healthy and unhealthy for myself, and what my own personal journey has taught me. It would be profoundly ignorant for me to say others should follow my example. We need people to engage in all areas of life, and humans tend to be specializing creatures. So what works for me is mostly reflective of how I am learning to contribute to the world. Others will contribute in different ways than me. That is healthy and normal. Still, my views may be helpful for someone who is still forming their worldview. That is who I write this for.

I have many friends on both sides of the culture wars. Over the last six years or so I have tried to balance myself between the left and the right in order to dialogue with people on both sides and understand where I am on the spectrum. For the most part I find myself lacking a political home. In terms of temperament I tend to be more similar to leftists, but when I actually break down the ideologies that drive both the left and the right, I find I don’t really trust either of them.

And the third category, libertarians, I consider to be for the most part a non-factor in the culture wars. I resonate with libertarianism and anarchism on certain ideological levels, and also don’t in certain ways. For the most part this subset of the population has yet to be a major force in the culture wars so I am not going to really comment on them in this post.

The Moral Calculation Problem

The number one reason I do not have faith in politics is what I will call the problem of moral calculation. What I am referring to here is related to philosophical ethics. In order to make good decisions, we must start with good philosophy. Most people have never delved into ethical philosophy, yet want to claim things are “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad” without any clear understanding of what those terms mean, objectively.

Philosophy is rooted in how we think, in terms of language. A good thinker is precise with their words, and has spent much time considering what words mean to them, and the process by which he or she arrives at logical conclusions. If you are not a good philosopher, you will not be a good intellectual. It is that simple. Because philosophy is the art of thinking.

In ethics there are three main branches: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Virtue ethics doesn’t really give us any detailed guidance on decisionmaking, so I won’t spend time on it (although I recommend reading up if you are interested).


Deontology is much more closely related to the political right than the political left. The basic idea is that morality comes from God, and that our moral decisions should be based on Divine revelation. This makes a lot of sense if you are someone who happens to be religious and believes that Divine revelation is not only possible, but clearly defined and applicable.

While I consider myself spiritually inclined, I do not believe it is at all obvious that we have received direct revelation from an all-powerful, all-loving being, nor that said revelation is clearly defined and applicable. A honest read of the Bible gives me the impression that Christianity is a amalgamation of many different things, and that it isn’t as cohesive as many on the right would have you believe.

Does that mean that the Bible is not applicable today? No I would not say that. I just think it lacks the coherency that I would expect from a book touted as being the end-all, be-all of ethics and spirituality. I understand that deontology is not restricted to Christianity, but in the context of American culture, this is the only real application of this current.

The most damning argument against deontology is an ancient one, put forth by Plato, known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Essentially the claim is that we can only know that God’s commands are moral if we have a predefined sense of what is moral. And if we have a predefined sense of moral we must admit it did not come from God’s commands but was prior to it. Some people counter by saying that certain commands are moral because God commands them. Which I find to just be a veiled appeal to authority, or might-makes-right philosophy.


Consequentialism is more closely related to the political left, although both the left and the right appeal to this in discourse. It is the common language of ethics in the 21st century. Even deontologists tend to claim that following Divine revelation leads to better outcomes than not.

As the name suggests, this branch of ethics is based on predicting the consequences of any given action, and choosing the most favorable outcome as a guide to our decision-making. We use this all the time in our lives, and it is essential to making decisions as a rational being.

Yet, it has it’s limits. This is where the problem of moral calculation comes in. Let’s say you want to make a good decision. You would have to 1) have a clear understanding of what a positive outcome looks like, and 2) a plan to carry out a series of actions to create the conditions for this outcome to become a reality. This seems simple enough, right?

Well, on small scales, yes. If I want to bake delicious cookies, I would merely have to know what a delicious cookie is like, then find a recipe and bake it. Presto! Delicious cookies are made. I carried out my plan and it brings joy to my friends and family who eat the cookies. I foresaw the consequences of my actions and took the steps to make it a reality.

Let’s raise the stakes. What if you didn’t just want to do good for a few people, but actually wanted to do the absolutely moral thing? Because at the end of the day, when we say something is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, the underlying assumption is that the action is either a net positive for the state of the world or a net negative for it. Otherwise, is the action really moral or ethical if you don’t know whether it will lead to a positive outcome for the world?

In politics this dimension of ethics is especially apparent. Everyone will tell you how irresponsible or damaging someone else’s ideology is. How deranged, out of touch, and dangerous it is to hold certain political views. And from a certain perspective this makes a lot of intuitive sense. I mean, the obvious example would be Nazi Germany. Who wouldn’t agree that that was bad? I know personally I would never support such a regime.

Yet we must remain objective, because the appeals to your emotions are what the political machine feeds off of. Most people are so afraid of being perceived as immoral that they will posture themselves in any way to avoid the appearance of moral ambiguity. Yet the hard reality of life is that nothing is really as it seems.

To make a moral calculation requires an understanding of all the variables involved in a particular situation. Which instantly brings us to a frustrating truth: it is impossible to account for all of the variables involved in any decision.

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect. It essentially is a mathematically derived idea which tells us that it is impossible to know the effects of an event over significant amounts of time, because the variables compound, creating all sorts of unexpected, seemingly random consequences as a result. The name comes from the observation that an event as small as a butterfly flapping it’s wings could actually cause a major change in weather patterns over a significant period of time.

We could think of it like this: if you choose to go to the grocery store, you will necessarily shift the flow of traffic on the roads you drive simply by your presence. This small shift on the roadways could theoretically lead to a traffic accident occuring that you could not possibly foresee. Or let’s say you cut someone off, and they get angry. They then go home and take out their frustration on their wife, which causes the wife to realize they are not right for each other, which causes a divorce, which affects the lives of the entire family, rippling out further and further into time.

These are just minor examples of how small, non-deliberate actions can set off chains of events unknown to the actor. Now imagine how much more consequential and multi-variabled political decisions are. It is a calculation nightmare.

Furthermore, there is the problem of values. Not everyone values the same things, and values often conflict. It isn’t so simple as ‘always tell the truth’, since most people would lie to protect those they love from serious harm. Because care in many cases supercedes honesty. It also isn’t clear that freedom is always good, because the freedom of one person may cause harm to many others. And ultimately all laws are curtailments of freedom.

If you study ethics seriously, you will find that no one has come up with a real clear theory of moral calculation that can withstand scrutiny. The factors involved in any decision in life are endless. It is actually impossible to predict the full effects of any given action. So why do we pretend that we can?

Simple. It is a myth that society operates under to maintain order. This order isn’t necessarily good or bad. It is just moral order. It provides a sort of consistency to society. It is to some degree an essential delusion for most. But I believe that those who are capable of seeing through the delusion of righteousness have a chance at greater personal freedom to live their lives according to their personal values rather than those given them by society.

Another difficulty in moral calculation is separating fact from fiction. Again, things are not always as they seem. And in politics this is especially true. The degree of corruption and mind-games being played is astounding. Propaganda is essential to politics, and anyone who has watched corporate news should by now be painfully aware that there are people who will intentionally lie in order to push an agenda.

Most people are not specialized or well-versed in the topics of national policy. Democracy has taught us to believe that our opinions are important which to some degree is true. But it also leads to a false confidence that we can actually understand the complexities and nuances involved in issues ranging from geopolitics to macroeconomics, and lately even virology. These subjects are, for the most part, beyond the scope of the average person’s ability to understand. This includes myself.

Another thing most people won’t touch with a ten foot pole is the proven existence of powerful secret societies and secretive government agencies which work behind the scenes, unaccountable to the public. Just do some reading up on the history of Skull and Bones (see this CNN video about them). Research the CIA’s mind control program MKUltra. Look at the history of NASA and the Nazi scientists we adopted (see Operation Paperclip). Before you dismiss me as a conspiracy theorist, have the basic decency to at least check the links and see if these things are properly documented public knowledge or not. Then make your own decisions.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what goes on with the elites behind closed doors but there is plenty of evidence that the world of power is very weird. And most people won’t acknowledge it because they are afraid of how crazy it all seems and how acknowledging it may make them look crazy too. It also makes it so much harder to actually trust the mechanisms of power once you see that they are likely corrupted.

The Deterioration of Dialogue

Another reason I prefer not to engage in political discourse is because it makes people defensive. Want to see someone shut down? Bring up political views different from their own and play devil’s advocate. In most cases you will see a significant drop in the degree of openness and warmth in the conversation. People on average just don’t know how to separate their emotions from their ideas, so to question their ideas and beliefs is to set off a chain of emotional reactions. I find this tiresome personally.

What I really desire is to have conversations of depth about what is truly important. Which for me, lies much more in the spiritual and psychological domains. Politics is an endless source of strife and cultural warfare. It sucks people dry. Look at anyone deeply involved in politics and I can assure you it has taken a toll on their emotional well-being. I know from first-hand experience as a former political junkie.

How do we really improve the world? First of all, I have no damn clue. It isn’t at all obvious my actions will be a net positive for the world. But I do know that what resonates with me most at this point in my life is heart to heart and mind to mind connections with people in love and honesty. Do I still have a desire to help people think better? Absolutely. But do I need to change others? No. I just want to be authentically myself and let the chips fall where they may.

Control is an illusion. And politics is like crack for a control freak. Letting go of our expectations of life allows us to open up to the experiences of this imperfect world. It will never be as good as we want it to be, no matter what anyone tells you. The healthy and rational response is to get used to that imperfection and find some way to give back to the world that resonates with your soul. It should feel right internally. Give up the need to get externally validated by a ideological tribe. Screw what others think. Live your own values with integrity.

In conclusion. Politics leaves most people feeling mistreated and abused. Helpless and fragile. Heartbroken and enraged. Is it worth it? For some, it may be. And it may be necessary to have people engage in it. As I mentioned earlier, each person has to follow their own heart and do what feels most right to them.

Thank you for reading.