While sitting in Drupon Kehnpo’s lectures on the views of the various Buddhist schools, I frequently find myself understanding his explanations by means of modern scientific understanding. In my experience over the years, the cautious critical combination of these systems of explanations consistently gives rise to deep clarity of understanding that advances my ability to work with, explore, and discuss either system. I’m prone to become exuberant when I see how this blending of insights has helped me, and when I see how it could also be fruitful for others.
In these cases, when I look carefully, I see that what excites me is the possibility that the incredible system of post-enlightenment western science, which has made unbelievable progress in a mere few hundred years, actually has the capacity to express insights about mind, cognition, reality, and experience that align with those of Buddhism but are formulated using language that arises entirely from the axioms of the western scientific viewpoint.
From the time of the enlightenment until now (though with roots going much further back), there has been a fairly strict division between so-called “hard” science and metaphysics in the west. This division, partially arising as retaliation against the hegemony of the Christian church, has been extremely fruitful. To study the philosophy of science is to study the pracitcalities of a concerted communal effort to circumvent self-deception in the strident pursuit of truth. Now we’ve reached a point in history where some fields, particularly cognitive science, neuroscience, and physics, find themselves being forced to grapple with topics that were previously categorized as metaphysics but they’re addressing them with grounding and language that come from scientific method combined with observations accumulated over centuries of scientific exploration.
When you look at the history of ideas in Buddhist philosophy, particularly the mahayana schools’ progressively refined analyses of phenomena and the mind that observes them, and compare their observations and explanations with those of modern cognitive science or post-Einstein physics, you find clear parallels along extremely important lines. In those cases I’ve found my western-educated mind naturally prefers the explanations coming from western traditions. In fact, the novel observations from western traditions sometimes sidestep sticky points that have harangued Buddhist philosophers for centuries, or provide explanations whose grace, simplicitly and completeness makes it much easier to find an intuitive understanding of the patterns being explored. This does not, however, mean that western science has outdone and overtaken the Buddhist traditions; it means that western science is able to offer its own graceful explanations of many aspects of phenomenal reality. In other words, Western science is excellent at explaining phenomena on both a coarse and extremely subtle level — even better than the most refined Mahayana schools — but when it comes to the most important questions about the mind that experiences those phenomena, western explanations falter and quickly descend into a confused space on the boundary between science and metaphysics. That thrilling space is where all the interesting action occurs and where the most strident explorers are continually honing, revisiting, and reimagining their assumptions about how to make observations that are not deceptive.
Some people think that this means western scientists need to loosen their standards and welcome outside views with a warm embrace. I think the opposite. Western scientists need to make their standards more strict than ever, then with an open mind and a precise understanding of what we do and don’t know they need to apply those standards equally to all assumptions including their own. Meanwhile, what’s really needed is for people within older traditions, ones that never shied away from metaphysics, to also apply their most thorough scrutiny to explanations coming out of the west and see how much mileage they can get. I’m certain that in both cases, we will find that each tradition has profound improvements to offer to the other especially in the domains of pedagogy, vocabulary, and praxis.