Using Science to Market Buddhism

This post is a censored comment of mine.  I made the censored comment on an excellent Buddhist blog called Theravadin. The author of the post was  Brian Ānanda Johnson, who teaches about Buddhism at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Valdosta, Georgia.  In his post he wrote that:

“The Buddhist worldview, which is heavily supported by Quantum Mechanics…”.
— Brian Ānanda

When I briefly challenged Brian’s comment, he wrote back with a long rebuke and a few questions but he did not allow my reply.  I was surprised at the censor — well, only partially surprised.  Such embracing of Quantum Mechanics by Buddhists is common.  As an example, on the right is a book by two of my, otherwise, favorite writers who try and sell Buddhism with Quantum Mechanics.   Heck, I even some liberal Christians try to make Quantum Mechanics their own and here is why:

Most religions eagerly grab new science discoveries to show how they confirm their faith’s essential insights.  Some resist, of course, but we all know that eventually resistance is futile and the smarter move is to reinterpret and incorporate.  Evolution, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics are just a few of the most recent theological incorporations that are attempted by many religions. Heck, back in the day, believers scramble to incorporate the metaphor of X-rays into their apologetics.

This apologetic reflex retrofits a “science mentality” back into iron age ideologies where it did not exist — it is a strain at best. Yet since science is such a powerful voice in our present lives, one can understand the enthusiastic theological gymnastics.  I have read several sites that painful show their believers (Christian and Muslim in these cases), how their holy scriptures were prescient the insights of evolution.  Buddhism has, and is still doing similar contortions.

In chapter 4 of David McMahan’s book, “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“, he tells of how science is used to sell Buddhism. Here is a quote from Dharmapala one of the first outspoken famous Theravadans to introduce his brand of Buddhism to Americans at the Parliament of the World’s Religion in 1893:

“The message of the Buddha that I bring to you is free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths. The Buddha taught to the civilized Aryans of India twenty-five centuries ago a scientific religion of life built on psychological mysticism and cosmology which is in harmony with geology, agronomy, radioactivity and reality.
(Dharmapala, 1893)”

To which McMahan then comments:

“Even a cursory knowledge of Sinhalese Buddhism on the ground belies this portrayal of Buddhism as free from rituals, priests, ceremony, heavens and hells; yet early apologists repeated this sentiment often, and its echo continues today.”
(McMahan, pg 96)”

I want to keep this post short but maybe I can later explore this theme more.  What do you think?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

31 responses to “Using Science to Market Buddhism

  1. I would love to see the stuff about Christians using X-Rays. Christians often use bad science to attempt to bolster the claims of Christianity, and it bothers me. I’ll note that even con-men like Deepak Choprah use ignorance of quantum mechanics to attempt to sell their system.

    A month or two ago, I saw a philosophy paper that attempts to show how libertarian free will might be possible, in the context of QM. I don’t believe in free will, but I found that paper to be persuasive, and I intend to write about it. It was the first QM-related argument I didn’t find to be complete bunk.

  2. Boz

    in popular culture, ‘quantum’ is a euphemism for ‘science-flavoured-magic’.

    e.g, in JS Allen’s comment: “libertarian free will might be possible, in the context of QM.”


    libertarian free will might be possible, if you use magic. I’ll give it a sciencey feel to attract more readers/believers.

  3. Hi Boz,

    I take it you don’t believe in libertarian free will?

    I said, “it was the first QM-related argument I didn’t find to be complete bunk”. Instead of asking why I thought this one in particular wasn’t bunk, you just baldly assert that it is bunk, without having read the paper.

    That’s a remarkable level of certainty. It takes a special kind of person to be completely impervious to anything that might challenge his preconceived prejudices.

  4. The temptation to haul science in to support your chosen religion is almost irresistible for the reasons you state. I’m not sure I’ve always resisted it. I can say I’ve (almost shamelessly) enjoyed other people’s efforts to bolster Buddhism with science. But I do have some shame. I think it’s best to allow Buddhism to infuse scientific investigations and science inform Buddhism and see what results.

    To say Buddhism as practiced in Asia is free of priests, rituals, heavens, and hells is just not true.

    Personally, I would enjoy your further exploration.

    I would say, too, that I sometimes see Buddhism get recycled and relabeled as science by practitioners of mental health arts here in Northern California.

  5. @ JS Allen & Boz ,
    I just saw an excellent video on Quantum Mechanics and Life (MIT lecture by Seth Lloyd) which talks about photosynthesis, avian compass and the sense of smell. It seems evolution has taken advantage of quantum effects.

    I wish I knew enough to understand this. But I do know enough to doubt it when religious folks rush toward it. And I must say, I heard the lecture on QM and free will and was not as impressed — but then I did not understand that either.

    @ Dan Gurney
    Yes, I agree that testing claims of Buddhism is very important. But running to support of science for your favorite club is shameful and you need to repent to Amida or Tara or someone.😉

    Yeah, Dharmapala in 1893, just like many 2010 Zen, Tibetan and Theravadan teachers … gladly exaggerate, reinterpret or distort to make their world consistent for marketing purposes. I am not saying it is conscious (necessarily) — Lord Buddha knows we all do it!

    As you Buddhism is sold to heal in California, it is sold that way hugely in Asia. So nothing new there. People are people, eh? We all want the same things.

  6. If confronted with new information that challenges what is sacred or accepted, what choices are there, really?
    – Accept the new and abandon the old
    – Deny the new and defend the old
    – Try to equate the two by all means and contortions available
    – [likely some other response is available…]

    Heck even ‘evolution’, as it was understood in the 1800s, inspires some die-hards today that cling to words like ‘fittest’ and so forth. But new information has continued to change or refine or edit what we mean by ‘evolution’ outside of any theological contexts. ‘Religionists’ aren’t the only ones going through these processes or apologetics.

    Are you going to be looking particularly at the static, unchanging side of religious truths vs the refining, editing nature of scientific truths? I don’t want to reduce this down to the religion-as-set-revelation / science-as-a-process chestnut, but if that’s where you are going, ok.

    Or are you just interested in the religious and psychological habits people have when a rigid mindset must find a place for new information?

  7. FWIW, the paper I was thinking of was written by Mark Balaguer, who is not by any stretch “religious”. He is atheist, naturalist/materialist, and even a math fictionalist!

    He doesn’t spend too much time on QM; it is not central to his argument. His argument goes like this:

    1) We cannot rule out that true randomness might exist in the universe. Maybe QM is truly random, maybe something else is. There is a lot we don’t know. I find this very plausible. It seems the height of hubris to say conclusively that we know that there is no true randomness in the universe.

    2) If true randomness exists, there is a plausible account of how free will can be built on true randomness. This part is more sci-fi, but very interesting. I don’t think we can rule it out.

    So, his central goal is to argue that science cannot yet rule out libertarian free will. I believe he has succeeded in this argument, although I remain a compatibilist.

    He wrote a book about the idea, but summarizes the account (based on the idea of “torn decisions”), in this paper.

  8. One of the most common occurances of this in Buddhism I see is when it comes to the subject of karma. A lot of Western convert Buddhists like to parrot that karma is nothing more than simple cause and effect. To me, it seem to be a type of protest against the superstitious Christian upbringing most of them had. It seems to be hard for them to admit that they could have a belief system that includes transcendent qualities and systems when the system they rejected was just as superstitious!

  9. @ Adam
    Absolutely. I see that on the web a lot too. And I had that conversation with a physician who hold the same opinion: “Karma is simple cause and effect.” That is so naive. It is like a Christian saying, “The Resurrection was just a story so people could express how they would not forget Jesus after he died.”

  10. @ Andrew,
    Sure, it could be broader. Like QM supports Socialism. Or something like that perhaps. But my point is taking unrelated things and forcing them as support for each other.

    @ JS Allen
    Thanks for the link on the Free Will paper.

  11. alycliffhanger

    Fascinating topic! What do you think of this?
    In the book “Brainstorming, Views and Interviews on the Mind (2007), Shaun Gallagher states:
    In academic and scientific circles the existence of the soul is hardly open to question – that is, science has decided that there is no such thing… Yet all of the ancient questions about the soul have been translated into modern questions about the mind, consciousness, and self. (p. 26)

  12. @ Aly
    I don’t really know what you are asking, nor do I understand the quote. Could you try to restate for me.

  13. alycliffhanger

    Gallagher is a philosopher of mind who, in “Brainstorming” interviews neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers. Here he is saying that questions about meaning that were previously addressed through religion, are now being asked by science – questions about the soul are now ‘questions about the mind, consciousness and self’.

  14. @Aly

    I think it’s worse than that. We are already shifting into a period where questions about consciousness are starting to become questions about neurons and the brain. The physicalists seem to be winning, and maybe even the eliminativists, such that the only thing that is really real is the neurons; and concepts like “self” are illusory.

    However, note that questions about the “soul” are relatively recent. The concept of a “soul” wasn’t key to the religions that preceded the birth of Christ. Roughly in the 300 years surrounding Christ’s birth, there was a shift, and talk about “souls” replaced a lot of the previous religious talk. So “soul” replaced the old order, just as “consciousness” replaces “soul”.

    Owen Barfield has an amazing essay on this. Prior to 300 B.C., human language didn’t really even have the capacity to talk about “souls” in the sense that we do today. Somewhere around that time, there was a huge shift in the way that humans conceived of the world. Prior to 300 B.C., people’s brains were “subjective”. After 300 A.D., the switch to “objective” was complete.

    By the time of Rene Descartes, we were conceptually making a complete split between the spiritual and physical — the ultimate subject/object split. This paved the way for the scientific method. Ultimately, the scientific method has devoured an increasing part of what was considered subjective, and has finally begun to objectify the human mind. The last subject has become an object.

    Although I think Barfield may be exaggerating for effect (i.e. Christ may have been the effect of this transition, rather than the cause), I think he is 100% correct about the transition. But if he’s right, the discovery of souls was not necessarily the moment of liberation we imagine it to be. It was the inflection point where we went from having spirit in everything to spirit in nothing.

  15. Science confirms my beliefs every day, of course, it confirmed my beliefs when I was a Christian too. I never was much of a scientist.😉

    I find the possibility of spirituality being confirmed by science to be fascinating. Aside from the Ramtha scenes, I had a lot of fun watching What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!?, which also tried to claim Quantum Mechanics as evidence for the spiritual beliefs it was espousing.

    I really view a lot of this from a more sc-fi/fantasy/wouldn’t it be cool if… perspective.

    The book cover is gorgeous, by the way.

  16. @JS Allen and @Sabio
    “Somewhere around that time, there was a huge shift in the way that humans conceived of the world.”

    Was this the shift from oral culture to written culture? I’ve only scanned the Barfield link quickly, but your dates seem to suggest the history of scroll-to-codex-to-book. The larger population likely held onto the oral culture but priests/leaders/engineers were starting to get things down on paper more and more. The shift is from ‘heard’ to ‘looked at’, and those two senses do affect us differently in terms of subjectivity and objectivity.

    To bring this back to the original, it might make Sabio’s point all the more. Using a visual understanding to justify an oral understanding is much like taking two unrelated things and trying to force them to support each other.

    I like Barfield’s mention of the ‘immaterial language’ — today we talk about things that are not ‘real things’ — processes, ideas, states of mind, etc., compared to chair, carrot, mountain, etc. Quantum mechanics is not something we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ directly, so it’s a great example to keep in mind. Using QM to justify the ‘truths’ of a visual-written tradition that is itself based on an oral tradition can be overwhelmingly problematic… and human…

  17. @Andrew – In this example, Barfield is talking purely about the era of written language, since that’s where we have the records that support his interest in philology. However, Barfield has written more extensively in other books about the likely shift that happened prior to written language — going backwards to the time before material language, you had animism and panpsychicism, and he postulates something at the beginning called “original participation”. It would be hard to summarize here.

    I think you are exactly right about the impedance mismatch we get when we start trying to interpret each era through the lens of what precedes it. There is a fascinating debate about this exact point in the context of QM. You see, when the experimental results proved QM, the scientists were thrown into disarray, since it broke their model of the world. Several “stories” or “models” arose to try to explain the evidence. The two most popular are the Copenhagen and Multiple Worlds interpretations. Both are mutually contradictory, and both lead to weird conclusions, but both fit the data perfectly.

    Finally, Richard Feynman came along and argued, “What do you need the models for? Why not just keep the math, and throw out the models?” It’s a brilliant point. QM is just math, and the ontological models don’t seem to add any value. Why do we invent all of these complicated and bizarre models?

    There was a funny thread about this last November on Lubos Motl’s blog. He’s a theoretical string physicist, and had some commenter on his blog try to argue about the need for an ontological “interpretation” of QM. Lubos’s first reply was rather dismissive:

    On the other hand, you think that the explanations shouldn’t be obvious, and in order to make them non-obvious, one should “refuse” proper physics, using your verb, and instead, he should go “beyond” quantum mechanics and look for a more “ontological” explanation.

    It only got better from there (you’ll have to click on “comments” to read it all).

    The point is that now in physics, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s all about math and statistics, and the linguistic-level stories mostly get in the way. We’re don’t even use what Barfield called “immaterial” language, we’re way beyond that. I don’t know what he would call this phase, but I think it’s as far from “original participation” as we get.

  18. alycliffhanger

    @JS Allen
    hi, just yesterday I read a really wonderful summary of the history of the concept of self in the book ‘Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying’, edited by Francesco Varela. The summary was given by Charles Taylor, who wrote ‘Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity’.
    Very interesting to read the history of language for concepts that are assumed to be reality…

  19. Thanks, Aly. The book wasn’t available on Kindle, but I found the chapter you’re talking about on Google Books. Very interesting! I wasn’t familiar with Taylor, but have now ordered his most recent book on Kindle. It seems that he is similar to Edward Feser, another one of these “new Aristotoleans” I intend to check out. Sadly, *none* of Feser is available for Kindle, so I am waiting. There is no way I would read a book that meaty without being able to instantly store and index my highlights.

    The google books link for “sleeping, dreaming, and dying” is at:

  20. @JSA
    Thanks for the Lubos link.

    Some of the QM details were above my head, but the conversation was definitely worth it. A gem that might relate back to S’s post:

    Any attempt to interpret quantum mechanics is an admission of ignorance. We, as sentient beings, have an innate desire to understand.
    “Interpretation” is something we do with phenomena whose cause and broader context is not understood. So if someone wants to keep on “interpreting” things, then he wants to keep this fog and ignorance (or deny knowledge when it’s actually known) – so the desire to “interpret” is the opposite of “understanding”. [slight paraphrase from original]

    The idea that “the linguistic-level stories mostly get in the way” is intriguing. I don’t know if such a thing could work on the more mundane levels of everyday living, but it would be an interesting experiment, to live without models, or without “original participation”…

  21. we are on the fore-front of quantum mechanics. it all seems pretty magical. there is an element of magic in most religions… and any reason to support them or draw things from science is not a bad thing. it opens the doors to thinking and using science, being interested in science and being taught by it. so what if they misuse it to their own ends. i doubt those who are doing so aren’t going to be the religious zealots and through science will they turn into such a follower.

  22. @ Ghost

    Sure, I guess you could say, “Well, if you want people to like science, than misrepresenting it doesn’t matter as long as they like what they imagine it is.”

    But that is not my disposition. I don’t want people to just like the word “science” or scientists or stuff like that, I want them to like the principles of “science” and part of that mean valuing correct representations of reality which is the constant struggle of science.

  23. i agree with you. i don’t like the misrepresentation of science or of Christianity. i see science being misrepresented by the certainty of the gnu atheists and Christianity by the certainty of the fundamentalists. but the misrepresentation of science in this way is tolerable to me compared to the other extremes. but this is the view from 4,000 feet, a more focused probe on this issue could cause me to think otherwise.

  24. You know, you constantly try to poke at Dawkins, Hitchenson, et al. but it only makes me smile. Please give one example where they “misrepresent science”.

    You seem to be mixing complaints again and just trying to say too much. Keep focused, stay on topic.

  25. alycliffhanger

    @ JS Allen, great that you found Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying. I’m learning so much from it, great resource!

    This may be a bit off topic for the original post, but has anyone here read Science as a Spiritual Practice by Imants Baruss? It’s very good. Baruss doesn’t use science to prove anything else, but rather, suggests that science itself can be a deeply transformational practice.

  26. Interestingly:
    Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying“, according to Amazon, “this unique exchange between the Dali Lama and philosopher Charles Taylor”.
    Charles Taylor is quoted over and over in “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” by McMahan. Especially his book: “Sources of the Self“. Which is on my book list.

    That coincidence convinces me QM hears my prayers! 🙂

  27. i think the misrepresentation comes in with what he thinks science can tell us and that tends to set me off on rants. and his anti-accommodationist and total disregard for “religion” without defining it or discussing any thing but the bad points really shows a ton of bias in his reasoning. but those are my issues, do you see any?

  28. @ Ghost
    This post is about how religions try to use current science “Wow”! stuff to support their ideology.

    I have not read Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris’ works on religion. I have read reviews and I have watched videos of their talks. I also have read some of Dawkin’s science and Dennett’s philosophy books.

    From my limited exposure, those boys have lots of fantastic criticisms of religion. My impression is that they overgeneralize because there is such a huge variety of Christians. But their criticisms for the vast majority seems very valuable.

    So, this thread is not about their view of religion.
    But, I think it would be a cool project for you to go through the reading of some of these atheists or others (and there are several more) and see what you DO agree with. See if your only disagreement is with overgeneralization.

    I personally think that their contribution to the world of though is possible far better than not. But such a calculus is difficult of course.

  29. “This post is about how religions try to use current science “Wow”! stuff to support their ideology.”

    yeah, sorry, i need to focus. on this subject i think that there are places where science and religion support one another. like, for example, the role of human touch in medicine and healing or that we are all brothers and sisters and come from “the same family” so to speak as the human genome project has already shown the linage of humans goes back to a single female (mitochrondrian “Eve” as the researchers call her) and a single male (nuclear “Adam” as these peeps call him). but to support the magical parts or “woo” of religion i think is a useless cause.

    i think we’re drowning in rationalism and people misrepresenting science to support their ideologies or people claiming science has an ideology are both evidence of it.

    rationalism is the idea that everything can be worked out by the human mind and that progress is inevitable and there is no place for the inexplicable. i don’t believe this is true, we will never have it all figured out and must learn to live with uncertainty. the result of rationalism is an over-mechanized, over-organized society characterized by conformity, where imagination was devalued (Brave New World anyone?). we see this in our failing schools that were built to effectively teach factory workers the basics, not produce philosophers. there are somethings that humans do that don’t produce anything, art, music, poetry, etc. but it changes everything… not in measurable ways. so religion has elements of irrationality and i no longer feel the need to explain these things by using science or any other means.

    that’s my two cents. hope that’s more on topic and more focused and ya get where i’m at.

  30. @ Ghost:
    As you know, I don’t like to speak of “religion” in broad terms. I find that attempts to attack something called “religion” and attempts to defend something called “religion” are both highly mistaken and lead to no fruitful dialogue. You seem to be leaning toward gross generalizations about something called “Religion” which is so fuzzy, that valuable dialogue is impossible since people will only talk past each other cheering only for their side.

    I understand that you think some of your Christian beliefs are verified by science. But your claims are far to broad to address in this thread. I think, again, you are trying to claim way too much in one little comment. Maybe you could do a post on your site like:
    — “Eve was our true Mother. Why Humanity is One.” or
    — “Laying on of Hands — God taught us how to heal.”

    But again, we can talk about those on your site — and see if you are falsely trying to pull science into your arena. So please do post, if you are so inspired.

    As for the role of science and rationalism: those are important subjects and I think I understand your particular allergies. Again, not the topic of this post though certainly worthy of dialogue. Go ahead and post on your blog. But though I understand you hesitancies, I still may not agree with your particulars which I would rather address on your blog if you make a focused, careful statement instead of putting your opinions out there like a painting or a hymn with lots and lots of fuzzy claims.

  31. Hi, Sabio,

    A great book on the topic: Donald S. Lopez Jr.: Buddhism and Science



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