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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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.https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html
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.
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.