Buddhist Philosophy and Critical Thinking
Posted on December 10th, 2010

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge  

The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry and judging truth are found in the Kalama Sutra of the Anguttara Nikaya. In Kalama Sutra Buddha emphasized the importance of critical thinking that involves seeing things in an open-minded way. Critical thinking helps to evaluate and challenge the thoughts and ideas   and rethink conclusions in the light of new knowledge.

Buddhism was conceived as a rational way of thought, being entirely in accordance with the latest findings of the natural sciences and Buddhism was not based on ‘dogmas of blind belief and revelation, but on rational thought and experiential examination. (Martin Baumann – Global Buddhism: developmental periods, regional histories, and a new analytical perspective – Journal of Global Buddhism 2001) 

 Critical Thinking

 In 1987, Michael Scriven & Richard Paul gave a detailed description on Critical Thinking. According to Michael Scriven & Richard Paul Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking “”‚ in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes “”‚ is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.   

 The Kalama Sutra and the Modern   Scientific Method

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques   for investigating phenomena    acquiring new knowledge    or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is based on   principles and empirical processes of discovery and demonstration considered characteristic of or necessary for scientific investigation, generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to demonstrate the truth or falseness of the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis. Scientific inquiry is generally intended to be as objective   as possible, to reduce biased interpretations of results.

In Kalama Sutra, the Lord Buddha encouraged critical thinking. These are the words of the Lord Buddha in Kalama Sutra

Do not go by revelation or tradition, do not go by rumour, or the sacred scriptures, do not go by hearsay or mere logic, do not go by bias towards a notion or by another person’s seeming ability and do not go by the idea “He is our teacher”. But when you yourself know that a thing is good, that it is not blamable, that it is praised by the wise.

(Come Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,” abandon them.‘Kalama Sutta -Translated from the Pali by Soma Thera The Wheel Publication No. 8 )

According to Bertrand   Russell   Buddhism is a combination of both speculative and scientific philosophy. It advocates the scientific method and pursues that to a finality that may be called Rationalistic. In it are to be found answers to such questions of interest as: ‘What is mind and matter? Of them, which is of greater importance? Is the universe moving towards a goal? What is man’s position? Is there living that is noble?’ It takes up where science cannot lead because of the limitations of the latter’s instruments. Its conquests are those of the mind.

Gay Watson of the University of London makes a comparison between modern science and Buddhism. He further says that the Buddhism, based as it is upon experience and a psychological understanding of body and mind, is one of the oldest systems of thought yet most in tune with contemporary neuroscience and with other strands of contemporary discourse.  

Scientific methods are the procedures, or steps used to gain information on something previously unknown. It is a method for investigating phenomena and acquiring new knowledge. The Scientific Method helps to organize thoughts and procedures within limited parameters.   However, there are explicit differences between science and Buddhism. Ven Walpola Rahula highlights this fact more elegantly in his writings. Ven Rahula states that   Buddhism aims at the discovery and the study of humankind’s inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual. Buddhism is a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals with humanity in total. It is a way of life. It is a path to follow and practice. 

3 Responses to “Buddhist Philosophy and Critical Thinking”

  1. gunarat Says:

    In my view, science is limited to tangibles. It can never be used to explaining intangibles.

    One absurdity of science is the use of an independent variable or variables to explain a dependent variable. The Newtonian paradigm presumes that universal laws can explain all phenomena. A uyniversal law law is equally applicable to the past, the present and the future. Thus, time is reversible.

    The millions of adherents of the three Abrahamic feligions believe that God created the world/universe. Yet science can never prove the existene of (the intangible) God. Therefore, it cannot explain the First Cause. Nor can it explain the force/s that created the universal laws. It seems to me that science itself is founded upon an intangible supposition.

    Buddhism does not attempt to explain the origin of the universe/s because it is beyond human comprehension. Howvever, it says that the cycle of birth, death and rebirth is applicable to the universe/s as well. This cycle arises friom the dormant existence of matter (energy) and conscience for all time. A cycle has no beginning or end.

    Buddhism explains the world/universe as an interdepedent, interactive and mutually causative network of a variety of networks. Thus, it is the precursor of what the West belatedly discovcered as the systems theory.

    Buddhism is not a religion in the strict sense. Neither is it a philosophy in the Western sense. It also cautions that rationality does not always lead to truth.

  2. De Costa Says:

    I agree with gunarat. Trying to prove Buddhism using science in unncessary and somewhat inappropriate.

  3. Leela Says:

    I too agree with gunarat and DeCosta. Modern science may have been successful in tackling many things. But science does not give a satisfactory explanation with regard to the development of the mind. Where science fail, Buddhism comes in. That’s what I think. So how could one explains Dhamma with science or correlate with science. Beside, Scientists say one thing today but come out with another explanation tomorrow. Stephen Hawkins latest visualisations to solve the mysteries of the universe is the best example.

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