Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Justifying the faith

[continued from a previous post] Buddhism is certainly pretty. It is non-sectarian (in a deep sense), has tolerance built right into it, doesn't rely on a God, requires rational inquiry, and proponents and practitioners have used the findings of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas to develops techniques to calm and focus the unstable mind and energize the body. However, (my favorite word, ever!) there is one aspect that I must claim that I have not quite grasped. If, as the Buddhists claim (strong disclaimer:: my experience with this whole business is not more than a few months and a couple of books worth) that Buddhism is like Science, then where is the Technology? Why is this important? Well, because of the Strong Programme. Briefly, this is the notion some social theorists came up with, according to which science is just a social construct. And by this they do not mean that there are gender disparities in science or that the funding of scientific projects is often driven by what is the 'current fashion'. Instead, since human knowledge is born out of human cognition that operates inside a human society, all scientific theories are just social constructs. In response (the funniest being the Sokal Affair), what I thought was the clearest answer to such an attack was technology. Because, if theories about light, materials, semiconductors, electrons, drag coefficients, wind resistance and so on are false, there is no way to get something as complex as an aircraft off the ground (so to say ;). So, if Buddhism is to be like science, it should manifest some technology. It should be able to apply a theory of the world to create something material. I heard it said that the most enlightened ones are able to essentially transform matter at will. But this is far too close to an idea of 'miracles' for it to sit easy with me. What are the alternatives? One possibility is that Buddhism is solely a science of the mind; and for the rest it is purely 'theoretical'. This could be because of the heavy emphasis in Buddhism on improving the human condition. One of the things that I read early on (and heard several times over) was that in this tradition, unlike (unfortunately!) in science, ethics and morality necessarily go hand in hand with understanding the world. If this is the case, then understanding the human condition, and thus the human mind, becomes paramount. Looked at in another way, technology might not be expected to advance when it is not felt that having a thin-screen tv trumps the handpainted wall hanging of Tara. So, I was immensely pleased when I recently read an article by the Dalai Lama, "Science at the Crossroads", based on his talk at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2005. I think the article is best left to be read and experienced by the individual :) All I can say is, it justifies a faith in Buddhism as a possible better model for science than the current one. Nothing is left behind; all of the science done in the past is taken along, minus unclear thinking, bandwagonning, and the other negative effects of the human psyche being added into the science equation. I like to think that this has always been the ideal model of science, at least for me. What is added is a more ethical treatment of human understanding. In a previous post I ended with science:1, buddhism:0. I think it is still true for the material world alone. But, in a more holistic sense, it is the combination of the western-style empiricism and the Buddhist style of dealing with the world that promises the most satisfying condition of human understanding.

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