The scientific approach to Buddhism


The scientific approach to Buddhism

Francis Story

The eminent scientist, Bertrand Russell, has summed up the position of present-day philosophical thought follows: ” Assuming physics to he broadly speaking true, can we know it to be true, and if the answer is to be in the affirmative, does this involve knowledge of other truths besides those of physics? We might find that, if the world is such as physics says it is, no organism could know it to be such or that, if an organism can know it to be such, it must know some things other than physics, more particularly certain principles of probable inference”. (“Physics and Experience “, Cambridge University Press)


That position requires a little preliminary explanation. In the days when science was believed to hold the key to all the secrets of the universe, the unrealistic interpretation of life held undisputed sway. The scientist, it was thought, had only to turn the key-in other words, open up the atom for investigation-and the basic principle of all material phenomena would be exposed. All life and thought-processes were believed to have a material origin and foundation, and there was no room for the supernatural concepts of religion. Everything was a mechanical process of cause and effect, with nothing beyond.


The evidence oh physics, so far as it went was overwhelming ; it was supported by the findings of astronomy,psychology and Darwinian evolution. Scientists believed that they understood the nature of atomic processes so well that, if the relative positron, direction and force of all atomic units in the universe at any given moment were known, every future event in space and time could be accurately predicted. It was only a question of obtaining the data.


In course of time the key was turned; the construction of the atom was analysed, but it was found to resolve itself into energy, a process of transmutation from one form of radiation into another, a continual cycle of arising and passing away of electronic particles. With the discovery of quantum mechanics another modification entered into the accepted scheme of rigid causality.
It was found that, although the law of predictability held true of large numbers of atomic particles it was not valid for individual atoms The law of deterministic causality was not absolute ; it could only be applied statistically or quantitatively, where large groups of atoms were being dealt with. This new concept opened the way for what is called the uncertainty principle. ”


From the philosophic viewpoint, which is, strictly speaking, no concern of the pure scientist, who is only engaged in the investigation of phenomena, not its implications, this uncertainty principle made room for the idea of free-will, which had necessarily been absent from the idea of a universe entirely determined by causal principles that admitted of no variation.


With the change over from a static to a dynamic concept of matter the scientist did not alter his materialistic theory, because science by its nature has to assume the sub stance or reality of the material with which it is working, but a radical change took place in the attitude towards knowledge itself. Man, and the working of his mind, is a part of the universe, and his examination of its phenomena is like a person looking into the working of his own brain. He is looking at that with which he is himself identified he cannot get outside and view it objectively. The picture of the universe presented through his senses is quite different from the picture given by physics . where his senses tell him there is solidity, form and substance, physics tells him there is nothing but a collocation of forces in a perpetual state of flux, of momentary arising aid decay and, moreover, that solid forms are really nothing but events in the space-time continuum, and that the so-called material object is itself mostly space. There is no such thing a ‘solid’ as we understand the term; it is merely a convention of speech based upon the deceptive data provided by the senses.


Our senses, however, are the only possible means of contact with events outside ourselves, and the data of physics, similarly, has to reach us through these senses. So the problem arises, can we ever be certain that the picture presented by physics is a true one ? This picture, it must be remembered, is a purely theoretical one , it is a matter largely of mathematical formulae, from which the mind has to make up whatever imaginative approximation it can. The universe of physics is an entirely mental concept; we cannot make tip any picture of the space – time manifold of Einstein, so we have to rely upon the evidence of mathematics, which reveals a new dimension entirely outside the range of our normal experience But the physicist has come to distrust even the working of his own mind, since it is itself a part of this quite illusory fabrication and so he has been forced to ask himself the revolutionary question, ” If physics is true, is it possible for us to know that it is true ?” The whole subject-object relationship is thus brought into question. When the mind registers the impression which we call ” seeing an object, ” can we be certain that the object seen really exists outside ourselves, or that there is any event taking place in space-time that bears the slightest resemblance to what we think we see ? Science can give us no assurance on this point.


The scientific view of the phenomenal universe has reached this stage, and does not seem capable of going beyond it. To view the picture in its completeness, a mind is required that is not itself involved in the phenomenal process, a transcendental mind that is outside the realm of causality and the subject-object relationship. It must know some things other than physics. So far, science has helped us, in its own way, to understand the Buddhist principles of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, for the account it gives of’ the universe is completely in accord with Buddhist philosophy. ‘The process of universal flux arid the inherent substancelessness of matter is a fundamental of Buddhism More than that, the process has actually been observed in tile coarse oh Buddhist meditation; the atomic constituents have been seen and felt, and the Dukkha of their arising and passing away has made itself known to the mind which has stopped identifying :he process with what we call ” self”, the illusion of Sakkaya-ditthi. The supramundane knowledge of Buddhism begins where science leaves off but because Buddhism is based upon direct perception of ultimate truth, it is only natural that the discoveries of science should confirm it as they are doing today.
The whole process of’ the deceptive arising and passing way of phenomena may be comprehended in the word ” Maya”. This word is usually translated as ” illusion but that is not entirely correct. The sphere of Maya is that of relative reality ; that is, it is real on its own level, but not real in any absolute sense. To the consciousness functioning on the same level, or at the same, vibrational frequency, a solid is a solid exactly as it appears through the Panca-dwara of the senses. But to a consciousness operating on a different level, the solid would be seen in a different way ; it would appear as physics tells us it is, a collection of atomic particles in continual movement. The ”solid” object would be seen as predominantly space, with the atomic constituents widely separated, like the stars in the night sky, and only field in place by the electronic forces of attraction and repulsion, in just the same way chat the planetary systems of the universe are held together. From an other level it would be seen simply as the operation of’ a law, and from yet another plane of consciousness it would be found to be non-existent; there could be only the void, or Asankhata-dhamma. That plane would be outside the sphere of’ causality, a state unthinkable to the ordinary mind, which depends upon events in space-time for its consciousness, and we may consider it to be equivalent to the ultimate state of Nibbana, in which there is neither coming-to-be nor passing away. The space-time continuum of phenomenal perception would be transcended and the timeless, unconditioned state would then be reached.
These ascending levels of consciousness in which the solid object is seen in different aspects, each one more immaterial than the one preceding it, may be likened to the four Brahma-viharas, where the consciousness is freed from the illusion of gross matter, and perceives instead the law that governs it, coaling to know, ultimately, that ”matter” is only the expression of that law, appearing in a different aspects on the various planes of cognition. To the Kamavacara-citta, form, or Rupa, appears solid, and on that level it is what it appears; but to the consciousness which sees it in the light of Dhamma, the law of cause and effect becomes apparent, and in the place of Rupa the Three Characteristics of Becoming, Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, are recognised.


There are indications that man has reached the end of his development on the intellectual plane ; he has come to rock-bottom in the analysis of physical phenomena, yet still its ultimate secret eludes him. There is more beyond, which the mind is not capable of exploring, because the circle of causality in which it moves has been completed. The next state of development must lie in a different dimension. Enough has happened to bring about a complete re-orientation of all our ideas concerning man and his place in the cosmic pattern, and this represents a great advance on both the animistic and materialist views that prevailed formerly. Like everything else, reason revolves in a circle, bounded by the limitations of conceptual thinking, and the point around which it rotates is the difficulty of distinguishing the process that is being examined from the “self” that is examining it. This is the fundamental obstacle, Sakkaya-ditthi, because in reality there is no “self” apart from the process. In the modern view there is no such thing as “I”, the word is merely a grammatical convention. Everything we know now about the process of thought can’. be expressed without the use of the word. We have this also on the authority of Bertrand Russell and others.


The discoveries of physics have their counterpart in psychology. In analyzing the mental processes a great deal of concealed activity has been brought to light, and definite causal relationships have been traced between the conscious and unconscious strata of the mind. The unconscious, in which is stored the accumulated experience of the individual, supplies the tendencies that motivate the conscious activities Thus it may be identified with the Bhavanga, or life-continuum, which takes the place of any connecting entity between one phase of consciousness and the next. Professor William James was the first psychologist to formulate the theory of point-moments of consciousness. He demonstrated that these point-moments come into being and pass away again in rapid succession, thus giving the impression of a continuous entity, whereas they are, in reality only infinitesimal units of a series, each existing for a fraction of a split-second, and then passing away to make room for its successor. They are, in fact, like the thousands of static pictures on a reel of film, which, when run through a projector, produce the illusion of a single moving picture. Furthermore, we are only conscious of each one in the moment of its passing away ; for this reason they are sometimes called death-spots, and the resultant consciousness is dependent upon memory.


These point-moments arise in obedience to the law of causality, each having its causal genesis in the one preceding it, but there is no other connection between them. Everywhere in psychology we come upon these causal processes and the continual state of flux in thoughts, mental impressions and cognition, but nowhere can we detect any permanent entity linking the succession of events together. Again, as in physics, we find only causal relationships, and the Abhidhamma analysis holds good throughout.


Freud went so far as to maintain that every overt act of the conscious mind is instigated by an antecedent cause, and no thought can arise spontaneously. This he demonstrated in his” Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” When the cause could not be found in the conscious mind he sought it in the unconscious. His researches led him to the theory that most so-called accidents were the result of a subconscious wish-that they were, in fact, engineered by the subconscious mind for reasons of its own. The theory has been disputed by later investigators, but Freud collected a formidable mass of evidence in support of it.
From the Buddhist point of view it appears to be at least a partial truth. Inasmuch as the unconscious stratum of the mind carries the tendencies and predispositions of the individual, which are his accumulated Kammic influences, it is the activity of that portion of the mind which determines the experiences and events of his life. It is not that the unconscious mind wills the events, because it has the nature only of Bhavanga, a current directed by past habitual thoughts, and lacks the quality of volition, which is a characteristic of the conscious mind ; but events such as ” accidents ” are certainly determined by the unconscious mind in the discharge of its mechanical function of projecting those situations that constitute the individual’s experience, in accordance with his Kamma. “Mano pubbangama dhamma ; manosettha, manomaya.” “All phenomena arise from mind; mind is the chief, they are all mind-made. Freud’s error was merely that he mistook a partially-understood causal process in the subconscious mind for an act of volition. That is why his theory has never been completely proved, despite the high percentage of successes in his experiments. It is another instance of science approaching Buddhism, but lacking the key that will unlock the last door.
The materialist affirms that mind and material conditions have a material basis ; the idealist, on the contrary, claims that matter exists only by virtue of mind. The evidence adduced by the materialist is that the mind is only a product of the brain, which is a material substance. Physical objects existing in space are contacted through the nerve-channels heading from eye, car, nose, tongue and skin-surface. The resulting sensation depends upon the existence of the brain, a complex material nerve-centre with its own particular function of collecting and correlating the data thus received. If the brain is damaged it operates imperfectly; if it is destroyed it ceases to function altogether. The mind, then, is considered to be a causal process depending entirely on material factors.


The reasonableness of this point of view cannot be denied, but it does not account for all the facts. If the process is strictly a mechanical one, determined by physical causes which can be traced back to a material origin and obeying a rigid causal law, there is no room for the exercise of free-will. Evolution then becomes a predestined automatic process in which there is no freedom of choice between possible alternatives. Yet even biological evolution demands such a choice, since the production of specialised types is usually attributed to natural selection. Those types, such as the mastodon, brontosaurus, pterodactyl and other extinct species, which made a choice of development that suited them to a particular environment, disappeared when that environment changed; they had over-specialised, and could not re-adapt themselves. There is nothing automatic about the evolution of species; it is conducted on a system of trial and error, and shows at least as many failures as successes. There are some who consider that man himself must be numbered among the failures, since he shows a tendency towards self-destruction, due to the fact that his spiritual evolution has not kept abreast of his increasing mastery of physical forces. H.G. Wells, who saw in the Buddhist King Asoka the highest development of civilised rulership over two thousand years ago, was firmly convinced that, far from progressing, man as a spiritual being had deteriorated since that time, and would ultimately destroy himself.
The idea of a steady progress in evolution has been discarded by science, and present theories are more in accordance with what we know of evolution as it applies to the individual. That evolution requires freedom of choice between the alternatives of right and wrong actions. There is progress or regression, according to whether the Kamma tends towards good or bad, and the entire concept of Kamma is based upon free-will. It is not, as it is sometimes misinterpreted, a fatalistic doctrine. Previous Kamma determines the experiences and situations that have to be faced in life, but it is the characteristic tendencies of the individual, which are the product of accumulated acts of volition, that determine how he will deal with those situations when they arise. There is no such thing as an accident in natural law, but the “uncertainty principle” which we discovered in physics allows for the operation of unknown causes, as in the unpredictable behaviour of individual atoms. In the case of an individual, for instance, it may be possible to predict fairly accurately how the person will behave in a given situation when his characteristic tendencies are known, but we cannot guarantee absolute certainty. An honest man may, under pressure of circumstances, or because of some latent Kammic tendency, act dishonestly, or a brave man become a coward, and vice versa. This explains the inconsistencies and frequent contradictions of human nature; we can never be absolutely certain that the person we think we know so well will always act strictly “in character”. Personality is a fluid structure, altering momentarily, and only guided by certain broad principles which represent the Sankhara-accumulated tendencies or habit-formations.


Concerning these habit-formations, it may be said that Buddhism is the only system that gives them their due place of importance in the scheme of personal evolution. It is by habit-formations that we are told to eliminate bad tendencies and promote the good ones, thus moulding our own psychology through accumulated acts of strenuous effort, as indicated by the Fourfold Sammappadhana, which is one of the thirty-seven Principles of Bodhi. Now, habit-formation and the association of ideas are closely linked, as modern psychology has proved. In his experiments on conditioned reflexes, Pavlov established the relationship between associated ideas and physical reactions. The dogs he used in his researches were taught to associate the sound of a bell, or some other noise, with the idea of food. When they heard that particular sound, the dogs showed the same reactions as though they were seeing or smelling food. Their mouths watered, and they gave other signs of pleasure which proved that the sound and the idea of food had become firmly associated in their minds. The mind of a dog is a very simple thing compared with that of a human being, which makes it easier to trace its sequence of events and their physical con sequences. It works almost entirely on this system of conditioned reflexes. The reasoning faculty is rudimentary; and as we descend in the scale of living organisms we find that they become more and more instinctive or mechanical. The ant, for instance, is little more than a mechanical unit controlled by a mind outside itself. Recent experiments with colonies of white ants have shown that the directive is the queen-ant, and that the ant-heap must be considered as a single animal, with its brain and nerve-centre situated in the queen. If the queen is destroyed, the termites become confused, running frantically in all directions, and the orderly system of the ant-heap is utterly broken up. The individual ant, therefore, is not a complete organism in itself, but only a part of the whole. They are, as it were, limbs of the main body; detached from it, but functioning in all ways like the limbs of a single animal. It is believed that they are directed by a kind of radar emitted by the queen ant. When the queen is killed or injured it is as though the brain of the animal were damaged ; the limbs move without coordination, like those of a man who is insane. But the brain of the organism, the queen-ant, is a strictly limited mechanism; it performs the functions required of it for the survival of the ant-heap, according to inherent tendencies transmitted from one generation of queens to another. Within the limits of its requirements it is a perfect organism, but it has no possibility of further development. Why is this ? We can only assume that, having reached its limited evolutionary objective, it no longer has to exercise any choice between possible alter natives; it has surrendered the faculty of free-will and has become a set automatism. It represents one of the levels of consciousness dominated entirely by Kamma, in which the results of previous conditions are worked out without any opportunity for using them to advantage, and may be considered the type of consciousness characteristic of all the four Apaya planes in varying degrees. The question is dealt with in the section on Puggala-bhedo in Abhidhamma.


There is an approximation to this automatic type of consciousness to be found even in some human beings, and the ant may be taken as a warning to those who sacrifice their independence of thought to become slaves to authority and tradition; they give themselves an ant-consciousness, and if they re-manifest as ants, it is their own choice. To deliver oneself up to authoritarianism is an easy and comfortable way out of the hazard and pain of having to make an independent choice. But man is a free agent, and to be born a human being is a tremendous responsibility. Having earned that responsibility we should not lightly throw it away. By showing us exactly where we stand in relation to the universe around and within us, Buddhism gives us a clear insight into the divine potentialities of our nature ; it is the most emphatic assertion of man’s freedom to choose his own destiny.


The Western philosopher of to-day is bewildered by the confusion into which his speculations have led him. He sees a universe of amoral forces with no fixed centre, a changing phantasmagoria in which all is shadow but no substance, and he is obsessed by the futility of what he sees. His intellectual position has been fairly defined as one of “heroic despair “. Discovering no ground for belief in moral values he has come to question whether they have any absolute meaning or whether they are, after all, only products of mankind’s collective imagination. Life, for him, has become “a tale told by an idiot ; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing “. Abstract ideas, such as those of justice, benevolence, wisdom and truth, seem to him only relative qualities, dictated by circumstances and differing from age to age. So ethical standards tend to give way to the demands of expediency.
Only Buddhism can provide the missing element of higher knowledge-the “some thing other than physics”-which causes all the other elements to fall into place and form a complete and intelligible picture. Seeing the world as the Buddha taught us to see it, we can weigh its values according to the highest standards known to us. And in the process of weighing and assessing, Buddhism encourages us to analyse all the factors of experience, not to hedge ourselves about with dogmas, or cling to preconceived ideas. The Buddha Himself was the first religious teacher in this world-cycle to apply strictly scientific methods to the analysis of our own being and the cosmic phenomena in which we are entangled, and His voice speaks to us as clearly to-day as ever it did 2500 years ago. It speaks to us, not only through His teaching preserved over the centuries, but through the discoveries of modern science also. The teachings, as we have them, may contain something added by later interpreters, but the central truths the Buddha taught are sufficient in themselves to give us the vital clue that has eluded present-day thinkers. When we add their discoveries to the doctrines of Buddhism we find that the whole makes a complete pattern, so far as our rational minds are capable of appreciating it. The remainder we must find for ourselves on the higher planes of Buddhist Jhana.
At present it may look as though man has only searched out the secrets of the universe in order to destroy himself with the power he has acquired ; and of that there is certainly a danger. But I believe that a change in outlook is beginning to dawn, and that science itself, having destroyed the basis of much wrong thinking, is drawing us ever nearer to the realisation of the truths proclaimed by the Enlightened One. That is what I mean by “the scientific approach to Buddhism” without being aware of it, the modern scientist and philosopher are being propelled irresistibly in the direction of Buddhism. Their uncertainties and doubts are spiritual “growing pains”; but a time will come, and let us pray that it will come quickly, when they will realise that, although they have had to reject everything on which their ordinary religious and moral beliefs are founded, there is a higher religion – one based upon systematic investigation and the sincere search for truth, which will restore their lost faith in the universal principles of justice, truth and compassion. Those who now believe that man has come to the end of his tether will then see the opening up of vistas into the future that they only dimly suspect, and will recognise, beyond it all, the final Goal of ccmplete emancipation from the fetters of Ignorance and Delusion.

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