Ajahn Brahm on science: Jigsaw pieces at all the wrong places

by Hor KC, Penang, Malaysia, The Buddhist Channel, April 19, 2007

With due respect to Ajahn Brahmavamso and what he has written in "Buddhism, the only real science", I would like to make some pertinent comments; and my views also stand to being corrected if they are incorrect.

I am not disappointed or appalled by Ajahn's article. Instead, Ajahn has expertly come up with a piece of jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces at the wrong place. Let me try to point out the flaws.

Hey, at least we Buddhists can practise our discerning skills. I am not sleeping, you know. I am paying attention, and I am sure Ajahn agrees with me that I have to do some work to show where the flaws are. Thanks Ajahn for giving us readers a go at our scientific and philosphy training. Here goes....

Never mind my education, but theoretical physics and statistical mechanics, and the physical sciences are not new to me.

For ease of reading, I would like to put some order in my content. My comments are structured into 3 headings as follows:

1) Loose contextual setting in use of some important terms.
2) Serious unjustified generalizations
3) Bio-physics, meta-physics, psyche-physics

1) Loose contextual setting in use of some important terms:

To discuss something so 'factual and serious' as science and so 'deep and sublime' as the Buddha Dhamma, the last thing anybody would do is to fall into neglecting a definition of a context in the use of words.

For instance, the word 'science' was tossed here and there throughout the article; where at times the word was even snatched away from the 'scientists' and then given back to them briefly; only to be owned by 'Buddhism' at the end of the article.

It gives me the impression that Ajahn is trying to justify the real 'owner' of the word 'science' while at the same time trying to show that the word is so seemingly fraught with issues fundamentally.

Like every word, 'science' has various contexts in terms of its historical maturation, its schools of thought, its affiliations with interest groups (sympathisers and vilifiers), and even its philosophy.

As far as I know, 'science' is actually a term with its concomitant meanings, methodologies, terms and conditions conscientiously agreed upon and duly adhered by those in the scientific fraternity. 'Real science' is within the context of reality as observed by the human five senses; which was at that time taken to be equal among humans: What we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch cannot be vastly different. The term 'objective science' was later used by a great majority of scientists who set out to establish the fundamentals right so that they can move forward to work with hypotheses, theories, and laws.

The above being said, as in some fields, especially in philosophy, arts, and science, some terms have mainstream context and non-mainstream (or unofficial) context. The way the word 'science' is used in Ajahn's article, I would rather take it as referring to a school of thought not of main-stream science. Why? Because Ajahn brand such people who professed to be practitioners of science as being cynical, having closed minds and dogmatic.

Again, there are so many disciplines in science and their respective progress vary from one another. While some disciplines are at the frontiers like nanotechnology, information technology, robotics, some fields are still groping for a worthwhile direction. Never mind the vested interests and partisan support for certain disciplines, but the fact remains that Ajahn fails to demarcate the boundaries where his opinions are directed at. I do not think that Ajahn's comments are directed to the entire scientific fraternity. I, for one, do not believe that the computer-technologists are seeing the "world in a very narrow microscopic way" as alleged by Ajahn. The progress in mobile technology and miniaturization are in leaps and bounds and soon a wireless world is within control in the next ten years.

Let it be understood clearly that 'science' did not grow out of a bed of roses in its early years, as much as some history of science would like to paint a rosy picture. There were 'thorns' in the early definitive years and there were, of course, clash of opinions and arguments. Anyway, dogmatism and foolish pride were not exempt from the scientific fraternity. Fortunately, the whole juggernaut of 'science' was able to move forward despite its teething problems.

Mind you, the freedom of an inquiring mind as so desired by the sincere supporters of 'science' in its early days ran against the norms at that time where the influence of the orthodox Church was sort of overpowering.

A discerning reader will at the end of the article come away without any clear conclusion: It is not clearly defined by Ajahn whether it is 'science' which is problematic or is it the 'scientists'. At one part of his article Ajahn said "Modern science gives a low priority to any efforts to disprove its pet theories..." Note that the target in this statement is 'modern science'. Later Ajahn says, "..fortunately, many scientists with integrity and humility who affirm that science is, at best, a work still in progress."

Yes, I know 'science' is man-made and thus so-called 'scientists' may be faulted for creating a 'science' which at one moment is progressive and at another moment stifling itself to a halt. It seems more like Ajahn is talking about the history of science and the troughs and crests in its life-cycle.

2) Serious unjustified generalizations

Now, like the saying in Hokkein literally put into English "One bamboo staff mows down everyone standing", there are too many statements in Ajahn's article which are unjustifiably sweeping. Physics of the order of sub-atomic particles necessitates new theories and methodologies. One must understand that Quantum physics was born from studying sub-atomic particles and electromagnetism. Newtonian physics is not made any more false than what will happen to Quantum physics in future when another more comprehensive theory will emerge. Why? Simply because it will depend on what order of dimensions we are talking about.

I can ramble on on this topic but let's go to topic 3 which is more interesting.

3) Bio-physics, meta-physics, psyche-physics

Now, here is the best part. Ajahn has skilfully injected a view which is salient to the core of Buddhism - heart (ceto in Pali) and mind (mano in Pali); but which science has been trying to grapple with from the mid 20th Century until now but without any solid headway. Serious. Science is still trying to find where mind resides. In the brain, in the heart, or in the bio-energy, or what? Questions, questions, questions; but quantum physics may not proffer any answer at all,

Ajahn said indirectly in effect that science had lost its heart and mind but Buddhism kept these all through the years. How true. However I, for one, would not go along with Ajahn to say "Buddhism is more scientific than science." I would rather say "Buddhism is beyond science" as Buddhism is not about trying to be, but rather about not trying to be.

Physical physics is easy to grapple with but not physics about the 'I' in relation to the universe. The theories from Einstein, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, etc really exposed the gaping hole within science itself. Formerly, the part of 'science' which includes the sixth-sense (mind) had been relegated to the backyard with its door affixed with this sign "Metaphysics". Metaphysics used to be a devil's workshop to some scientists (e.g. scientology, ufology, psysche-logy, and what-have-they).

However, some other scientists who were brave and forward looking tried to corroborate their hypotheses and theories with evidence from other sources outside science.

Lo and behold, scientists found that what the Supreme Master, The Sakyamuni Buddha elucidated more than two millenia ago at least console these scientists that their findings are not going to make them go mad.

Some scientists nearly wanted to tiptoe out of their profession when the theories emanating from studying of the micro-physical environment such as the positron, the muons, anti-matter, begin to say one thing: "Hard matter as we know it are all actually seemingly hard but without substance."

Certainty, substantial reality and definitive order that scientists have been so used to has become uncertainty, unsubstantial multiplicity and indefinitive chaos.

Every compounded phenomena is in a flux. Humans are part of the whole. Our six senses is not mutually exclusive when considering the whole. Our observation of the external world is as much tied to our observation of ourselves, our core, our being. The corollary to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: Reality is an illusion because each time you use your six senses to perceive 'reality' it has changed its form by the very contact with the supposed 'reality'.

This corollary is not supposed to help find any answer as to what is reality but to caution us that 'reality' may be thought to be objective at a macrocosmic level, but at a microcosmic level will become 'subjective'.

I leave you with this ponderous conversation:

Student: "Since everything is in a flux, there is nothing or no-thing."

Wise teacher: "By putting a word to it (the nothing or no-thing) it has become something."

Student: "How do I tell you of nothing or no-thing if I don't say something?"

Wise teacher: "Who is saying something?"

Student: "I... oops I mean not-I....oops I mean soul... bah!!!"

Wise teacher: "Who is saying soul?"

Student: "I.... oops I mean not-I......mmmmm I am confused. I feel like a fool."

Wise teachher: "A fool who knows himself as a fool is a wise one at least. Do you know yourself?"

Student: "Yes, I know."

Wise teacher: "At least you know. In the final analysis you know. Without saying anything, you still know. so what is the problem?"

Student: "I know I don't know and now I know I know.....Thank you."

Wise teacher: "Who says thank you?"

Student: " "

Let me point out that I am not trying to put Ajahn down, but I for one is very concerned about the way we present our case and facts. We Buddhists should learn to be erudite and also skilful in presenting the facts. I am not saying I am an expert, but like in scientific methodology of Francis Bacon of 'the greater force of negative instance', just one flaw in Ajahn's arguments in his article is enough to overthrow the premise that Ajahn's article is sound and hold its own. Sorry to say, there are too many negative instances in your article, Ajahn.

I feel that Ajahn may be deliberately coming up with a mess of facts and fiction just to test us Buddhists who claim to know 'science'. If that is the case then Ajahn is clearly a wise and sharp individual to wake us Buddhists up. I am not sleeping but paying attention, Venerable. If I don't say anything, then I fault myself as being sleeping and not paying attention to a respected teacher. The time now is 3.30am in the morning.
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