The Scientific method originated in early Buddhism.
Posted on May 30th, 2016
By Bodhi Dhanapala, Quebec, Canada
[A shorter version of this article appeared in the Island Newspaper:
Shelton Gunaratne (SG), an emeritus Professor of communication at Moorhead, Minnesota, USA has written in the Saturday Magazine of the Island (28th May, Island) that both Prof. Carlo Fonseka (CF), and Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) are wrong in viewing Buddhism as “scientific” in spirit. SG says that
“Contrary to Upul W’s view, Buddhism is not a science but a phenomenology, a method that enables one to use his/her mind to test the truth of the Four Noble Truths and the three characteristics of cyclic existence through mindful concentration. Thus Buddhism shuns false objectivity and as in Kalama Suttta, often cited by Carlo F, calls on everyone to test the veracity of Buddhist teachings through personal experience. Why science fails to see the embodiment of mind seems to stem from its denigration of Oriental philosophies”.
As a science teacher and a popular-science writer, this is an opportunity to discuss the scientific method, and belief systems, also as posted in some of my internet blogs (see for example, http://this-life-buddhism.blogspot.ca/2011/08/early-buddhist-sermons-are-independent.html?spref=tw ).
SG and many other writers claim that eastern thought is “cyclic”, while scientific thinking “is linear” and Cartesian. SG also claims that Science “denigrates Oriental philosophies”, when in reality, science is an off-shoot of some of the basic teachings of the Buddha. SG uses “quantum physics” to claim that Buddhism is indeed like modern science, after having already denied such links between Buddhism and Science.
The Kalaama Sutta is not the only place where the Buddha has advised the populace to follow an approach based on personal experience, rather than on tradition and authority of “sacred texts”. Bhikku Bodhi, translator of many Pali texts, says that the Kalama sutta should be taken in the context of other Buddhist texts as well. Whether it be the “Ummmagga Jathaaka”, the “Dhadabba Jatahaka”, the “Chulla-Haththi-padopama sutta”, “Brahmajaala Sutta”, etc., etc., the Buddha emphasizes the evidence-based rational approach. “Brahmajala” literarily means “Brahamin tricks”, and these include astrology, claims to being able to get information from divine sources etc. The Buddha rejects such methods. In one episode the Buddha says that if “you wish to determine if a metal is a base metal (like lead), or a noble metal (like Gold), you should not just ask others, but TEST the piece of metal in question on a touch stone! This is surely the very FIRST clearest expression of the experimental method, stated some three centuries BEFORE Archimedes.
The 5th to 6 th centuries BCE in India were a time of free intellectual ferment. Many scholars have noted how Greek science began closely after Buddha’s India. The Buddha strategically preached his first sermon in Benares, at the cross-roads of the Silk Route and the North-South route of the ancient world. His enlightened and rational message was brought to Greece via the Silk Route. An open society without an authoritarian priesthood flourished in Greece where intellectual discourse was openly practised, in the same way as it was as in Buddhist India. Is it a coincidence that Heraclitus also preached that everything is subject to incessant change? Thales called for natural explanations, rejecting mythology, just as in the Brahmajala Sutta. The most famous Greek thinker Socrates came a century after the Buddha. He believed in a logical approach to everything, while believing in “rebirth” and “Karma” as embodied in Orphism. His pupils, Plato and Aristotle pushed the rational approach towards mathematics. The perfect form in geometry was the sphere, and they believed that everything happened cyclically. Ptolemy, the famous Greek astronomer explained the motion of astral bodies with cycles and epicycles. To claim that western thought is linear, while Eastern thought is cyclic”, is to falsify history. To claim that science is based on “Aristotelian logic” while Buddhist thinking is based on the “Catuskoti logic” (of the Madyamika school), as has been repeatedly stated by a one-time Professor of Mathematics at the Kelaniya university is to reveal his utter ignorance of logic, mathematics, information theory, as well as Alan Turing’s famous theorem about universal computing machines.
Indian ideas about cyclic processes probably came to Greece along the Silk route, while the Greeks gave a geometric justification for the existence of cyclic processes in nature. This tradition of the scientific method of the Buddha, via Thales, Socrates, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy and others produced “Western science”. Today, when studying the mechanics of levers, pulleys, laws of floating bodies etc., we mention Archimedes and other Greek scientists who discovered those basic laws. The collapse of the classical civilizations and the rise of obscurantist and mystic belief systems, culminating in the sacking of Rome by the “barbarians” was followed by the rise of Christianity. The stranglehold of the church trampled the rise of science but also provided a repository for Greek texts, till the coming of the renaissance. The latter was triggered by the mass movements of people arising from the Crusades.
Here we must ask why the scientific method, originating in North India did not flourish there. The growth of science in India failed for two reasons.One of them was Brahminic power which banished Buddhism from India. The other was the Brahmin tradition of “Guru-Mushti” or ownership of knowledge by the family of the Guru. New knowledge was not shared and discussed among Indian scientists , unlike in the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Knowledge was secret, and passed from teacher to trusted pupil who married the teachers daughter! There was no room for innovation, critical improvement etc.
In the West, during the renaissance, open discussion and public presentations were revived by newly formed “learned societies. The “Royal society” of Hooke, Newton and others had their counterparts in other European capitals. These learned societies insisted that every “discovery” was publicly authenticated at a “Royal society meeting” for all to come and see (the “Ehipassiko” principle) for one self. Inventions were protected by Royal Charter (patents), minimizing the need for trade secrets or keeping them “in the family”. The renaissance had to struggle against the dogmatic Christian Church, although today churchmen take credit claiming that most of the early scientists were Christians. Indeed, born and raised in that society, it was natural, especially when because professing heretical views was extremely dangerous. Heretics were burnt alive and new opinions were crushed. The early innovators of the Renaissance covered themselves by always claiming that they were merely returning to the classical ideas of the Greeks, and not innovating. A similar development could not happen in India, and no “Royal societies for open discussion could be founded”, as the Brahmins controlled knowledge and society through a virulent caste system, and innovative scientists had to remain in their caste, subservient to the Brahmin “Rishi” who claimed to get his knowledge from the Gods.
Those who, like SG, think that the Buddha did not herald the scientific method fail to appreciate the fullness of the Thathaagatha’s teaching. The Buddha taught that a hungry person cannot listen to “Bana” (sermons). He did NOT neglect material well being but regarded it as essential. He realized that contentment cannot come ONLY with material well being, while the latter is a mandatory necessity. His most important and urgent mission was to save the world from suffering. The parable of the arrow says that saving the person pierced by an arrow has priority over asking questions about who shot the arrow etc. However, this does NOT mean that “Ehipassiko”, or the exhortations to the Kaalaama apply only in the moral sphere. All the Buddhist discourses point to its strongly positivist, empiricist approach, as emphasized by the pre-eminent Buddhist philosopher, the late Prof. K. N. Jayatillke, in his books.
Prof. SG claims that Budhism is simply a “method that enables one to use his/her mind to test the truth of the Four Noble Truths and the three characteristics of cyclic existence through mindful concentration.” He must not forget the “Simsapa incident”, where the Buddha plucks some Simsapa leaves from a tree and asks “Oh Bhikkus, are there other leaves besides Simsapa leaves in the forest”? The monks answer “Indeed Sir, there are many more leaves of many other kinds as well”. Then the Buddha says that, in the same way, the “Thathagatha has discussed only a few truths, and there are many more truths, and many other kinds of truths, that govern the world”.
Many popular writers make a mystery of quantum physics and relativity, claiming that they are “weird”, or counter-intuitive. However, Quantum Physics can be recast in a completely Newtonian framework as shown by Professor David Bohm in 1952, while working with Einstein. This “common-sense” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is rarely mentioned by journalists as they prefer to shock the reader with “weird” interpretations using the so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation”. Prof. SG claims that Quantum Physics supports his views about Buddhism! Really? Quantum Physics applies to the subatomic world, and seamlessly reduces to old-fashioned physics at the human scale of things. Quantum Physics denies that a definite effect follows a definite cause. All we have are statistical laws of “quantum” chance. But Buddhism firmly asserts a fully causal “Karmic” moral law, and a “dependent origination”. These apply at the macroscopic level, and not at the quantum level where there is no causality what so ever. Einstein was unhappy about this, and said that “God does not play dice” even at the quatum level. But God (i.e., nature for Einstein) does seem to play dice. Einstein was completely wrong on this.
Prof. SG should look up the “Bohmian Interpretation of the Quantum theory” on the internet, or in a suitable textbook. Simply put, there are many interpretations of Quantum Physics, and it is useless to claim that Buddhism, or Christianity, or some “spiritual system” is supported by the new physics which has “many interpretations”. It is not surprising that Dr. Polkinghorn may claim that St Paul and the Anglican Church, with their hell fire for the sinners or even un-baptised babies is perfectly consistent with Physics. But an Islamic writer will no doubt interpret the Quantum theory to prove that the Holy Koran had it all figured out, long before Newton and Einstein.
When Einstein favourably spoke of a “cosmic religion” akin to Buddhism, he was referring to the non-dogmatic (“Kalama concepts”) and rational nature of Buddhism. It is precisely this that Prof. SG denies and claims to be not a part of Buddhism. Dr. CF and Dr. UW are in unison with Einstein on this, and I think they have good reason. The scientific method is just one aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, as applied to the physical world, while its application to elucidating moral questions to control Dhukka (suffering) for all beings is the main content of Buddhism practice.