Recently I participated in a panel on science and religion in the Netaji Subhash Institute of Technology. The students who were brought up indoctrinated with Western stories of the conflict between science and religion were dumbfounded when I asked the following question. If science and religion were at war, why then did the church bring science to India? For the manifest fact, contrary to the story of a conflict between science and church, is that the best science colleges in India are still mostly church institutions. The students appreciated it, though it is hard for them to get out of the mental frame imposed by the story. Hopefully, it will set some of them thinking about the use of scientific authority to impose church dogmas.
There was little time to explain it during the panel, but Buddhism accepts only the two principles of pramana (proof): namely, pratyaksa (empirically manifest) and anumana (inference). Those two means of proof are also the basis of (real) science. Specifically, Buddhism rejects authority-based proofs, such as the authority of editors of Western scientific journals, based on secretive refereeing, and their ranking system. Buddhists point out that authority must either be manifest or based on inference. Therefore, what possible source of conflict can there be between Buddhism and (real) science?
Clearly, the only source of conflict is similar to that between science in theory, and science as practised, for science in practice relies heavily on authority, such as editorial authority. It also relies on secrecy (such as secretive refereeing) to preserve authorised knowledge in the manner of the church. Finally, most people cannot judge the validity of science on their own and rely on stories about who can be trusted, and who not. Naturally, they get taken for a ride.
There are other differences. Thus, for example, ethics is an important aspect of Buddhism. (Those interested in seeing how Buddhist ethics relate to present day science may like to see my paper on “Harmony Principle”, in Philosophy East and West and elsewhere.) Practising scientists, however, often disregard ethics. A whole lot of Nobel prizes were given to people who participated in the Manhattan project and then coolly washed their hands off the blood of millions affected by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same thing can be said of medical practitioners today who are almost totally sold out to the pharmaceutical companies, and care little for patients. Thus, practising scientists are required to be loyal to their masters, the state or capital, and suppress ethical objections.
Though there is no conflict between Buddhism and real science, there can be a conflict between Buddhism and science as it exists, because of intrusion of church dogmas in the content of present-day science and mathematics. I have commented on this intrusion of dogma into science in the context of Stephen Hawking, in the my paper on Science and Islam, and in the public debate with a Christian evangelist with a PhD from Cambridge, intent on turning the classroom into a pulpit. In all cases, the attempt was to use the authority of science to impose dogmas of Christian theology, as in claims about eternal laws of nature, or “causality” (meaning mechanistic causality), or Hawking’s singularities interpreted to suit creationism. The above paper on the harmony principle also briefly indicates why the correct scientific position is not mechanistic causality but very similar to conditioned coorigination (that the future co-originates, conditioned by the past, but not decided by it). That is also the central Buddhist principle of paticca samuppada. (more…)