Knowledge in Buddhism and Science
Posted on December 30th, 2011

Prof.N.A.de S.Amaratunga

The quest for knowledge in India in the pre-Buddhist period had been quite intense and had continued with vigour during the Buddhist era. The methods that could be employed for gaining reliable knowledge had been the topic of discourse among the intelligentsia of that time. The Vedic writings had been the earliest to discuss several theories on means of knowledge. The Early Upanishads recognise three main methods of acquiring knowledge; scriptures, reason and perception. Middle and Late Upanishads have described yogi and meditation as a new way of gaining knowledge. The idea that knowledge must be based on valid grounds was introduced in the Late Upanishad period. Anguttara Nikaya too makes reference to the fact that knowledge must be supported by valid grounds.

 There were other thinkers who opposed Vedic theories. The Sceptics such as Sanjaya Bellattiputta questioned the very possibility of knowledge and said that nothing could be known. The Materialists like Ajitha Kesakambala did not agree with the Vedic position that scriptures are a reliable source of knowledge and they put forward their theories of knowledge based on perception, verifiable inference and empiricism. They also questioned the metaphysical method of gaining knowledge by intuition. Some materialists carried out experiments to prove their theories. The Sceptics meanwhile developed their logic of four alternatives which though not identical, have a resemblance to the Catuscoti of Buddhism and they used this system of logic to nullify theories of other thinkers.

 Two other schools of thought that evolved during this time were the Ajivikas and the Jains. Ajivikas were followers of the teacher Makhali Gosala. They had put forward the idea that reason is a reliable means of knowledge. Gosala claimed he had mystic powers of intuition which could derive knowledge. They also had theories on cause and effect relationship. Their logic was based on three alternatives which they used to prove or disprove various theories and ideas that came up among the thinkers of the day.

 The Jainism led by Niganta Nathaputta (Mahaveera) developed as a religion and they adapted a cautious, critical approach towards the theory of knowledge. They developed a relativism to counter the arguments of Materialists and Sceptics. Instead of pronouncing something true or false they argued that it could be true from one point of view while being false from another. Their logic based on seven alternatives helped them in their arguments.

 The non-acceptance of authority as a means of knowledge advocated by Materialists and Sceptics may have influenced both Jainism and Buddhism. Further there is evidence to suggest that Jainism and Early Buddhism may have influenced each other in their approach to the theory of knowledge.

 At the advent of the Buddha there were several nascent concepts and ideas about the means of knowledge and he identified three categories of thinkers based on their methods of acquiring knowledge; (1) the Traditional way which depended on authority and scriptures (2) the Rational method which depended on reason and speculation and (3) the Experientialist (Empiricist) method which depended on perception both sensory and “extrasensory”. The Buddha said he belonged to the third category of thinkers. However he did not totally reject authority and reason as means of knowledge but pointed out that these methods by themselves are unreliable to arrive at the truth. The Buddha in his preaching to the Kalamas and to the Lichchavi explains why authority and reason are unreliable as means of gaining knowledge and says that one must accept a theory only on “personal knowledge”. The Buddha also used analytical methods to arrive at conclusions. He identified four types of questions that need to be dealt with in four different ways; (1) questions that need to be answered categorically (2) questions that need to be answered with a counter question (3) questions that need to be set aside and (4) questions that need to be answered analytically. He also used the Catuscoti logic of four alternatives mainly to reject or negate certain theories put forward by other thinkers and schools. He did not however claim omniscience unlike some of his contemporary religious leaders such as Niganta Nathaputta, and Makhali Gossala.

 The Buddha had developed a method of gaining “higher knowledge” by his own effort which involved “seela”, “samadi” and “prangna”, a gradual process of training in purification of the mind of all defilements and intense concentration for the development of the mind. By this method he gained the knowledge of “nirvana”. There was no mystic power or transcendental phenomenon involved in this natural process. This was a causal process involving training and extraordinary effort. This is clearly stated in the Anguttara Nikaya.

 During this time there were other religious leaders who claimed they too have the ability to acquire a kind of “higher knowledge”. The difference between these religious leaders and the Buddha was that these thinkers said their special ability had been endowed by god. It was god’s wish that they came to posses this special ability and they did not acquire this ability by their own effort. These religious leaders are mentioned in the Late Upanishads.

 There were also thinkers like Purana Kassapa and Niganta Nathaputta who did not believe in a god but claimed they too had this ability of gaining a “higher knowledge”. The difference between these thinkers and the Buddha was that they did not attribute this special ability to a causal process like the one adopted by the Buddha. They said the presence of knowledge or the lack of it cannot be due to a causal process. This shows that Buddha’s method was unique and natural and he did not claim to posses any form of mystic power. In fact he rejected the possibility of anybody possessing such powers.

 Knowledge in modern science according to Western thinkers is defined as belief which agrees with facts. It was the great philosopher Emanuel Kant who formulated the modern theory of knowledge. Modern science would not accept any theory without significant evidence though total certainty and precision is not possible by these means. This system acquires knowledge by means of data and inference. Two types of data are identified, physical and mental. Physical data are what we perceive with our senses and mental data are derived by introspection. There are two means of inference; deduction and induction. Deduction is applicable in the fields of mathematics and logic, while induction could be used in other forms of science.

 What is meant by induction is that when something which has certain characteristics is present, another thing which has certain other characteristics is also present on several occasions, it may be inferred that on other occasions also these things would be present together. It may not happen always but there is a probability that it would. So in Western science all knowledge derived by induction may have a degree of probability and it also attempts to give this degree of probability a mathematical value using statistical methods though these methods too do not guarantee precision. Western science attempts to categorise the degree of certainty according to the means of obtaining data; it is high with direct perception, low with memory and still lower with testimony and so on.

 It is seen that Buddhist theory of knowledge and Western scientific method have similarities as well as differences. Both methods consider empirical evidence as more reliable than reason and speculation and both use analytical systems. Buddhism has a practical approach to everyday life so does western science. Scepticism was considered as having very little practical usefulness by both systems. In fact Kant’s theory of knowledge is supposed to be a response to Hume’s skepticism. Buddhism has a unique method of achieving a “higher knowledge”, a higher status of a purified and concentrated mind capable of seeing things as they are without getting attached to what one sees and achieving ultimate peace which the Buddha called “nirvana”. There is no parallel method discovered by science. Practical value of the Buddha’s method applicable in lay life could be demonstrated by empirical methods; the benefits of Buddhist meditation are well established.

 Though the Western method of deriving knowledge lacks absolute certainty and precision it is almost impossible to live without this knowledge in modern times. It is true that this knowledge has not been of equal benefit to everybody always and has been destructive at times. But science cannot be blamed for that. Knowledge of the atom for instance could be beneficial if used properly or could be disastrous when used as a weapon. On the other hand recent advances in Western medical science could be seen as a tremendous success which could benefit everybody if it is made accessible to all. Particularly the advances in molecular biology, stem cell technology, genetics and nano technology are so promising that sooner than later it would be possible to cure or successfully manage diseases that were considered incurable in the recent past; cancer, major congenital deformities, degenerative conditions of the nervous and other systems, coronary disease, strokes etc.

 It is true that Western science has caused major disasters including new killer diseases but science cannot be blamed for these ills. Fault lies not with science but with the people who control it. At present it is the Western countries and to be precise their capitalism and imperialism that control science. Science does not have an intrinsic mechanism to control itself and avoid being used for evil purposes.

 Prof.N.A.deS.Amaratunga

 

10 Responses to “Knowledge in Buddhism and Science”

  1. Dham Says:

    Simple anlysis and the truth without added spectulation forwarded by Prof. Amaratunga.
    Problem is foolish people discard the teaching of Buddha as “not proven” without following the path Buddha described to obtain the proof. These individuals normally ask stupid questions like,
    1. Where is the Devya Loke ( Devine Worlds ) ?
    2. What is the proof of rebirth ?
    3. Is Nirvana extinction ?
    Proof of science is not always theoritical. Most medicines still depend on speculation and testing. Science has not disproved rebirth nor it has proven it.
    Gon Siva’s comments will follow with same old cry of Nalanda Buddhist.

  2. Dham Says:

    Dear Gon Silva,
    Do not just keep on pressing the rating negative like a kid.
    Listen to Prof. Amare
    “By this method he gained the knowledge of “nirvana”. There was no mystic power or transcendental phenomenon involved in this natural process. This was a causal process involving training and extraordinary effort. This is clearly stated in the Anguttara Nikaya.”
    Why not put some effort to learn Buddhism first before your write your next wiki-science writing to Lankaweb?

  3. Ariya Says:

    Its a pity that our so-called professors have to bring in Western thinkers, when “trying” to say something about Buddhism. Why should we have to care about what Kant said, when we have Dhamma? This is one of the biggest problems of our “learned” people, and the other one is if they don’t write prof or dr or whatnot in front of their name, they think no one would read their articles. That is an inferiority complex. What actually happens is no one would read their ramblings.

    Who cares about what Sanjaya Bellattiputta and/or Ajitha Kesakambala thought or said about? Remember, all these “thinkers” came after Gauthama Buddha and they try to take parts of the Dhamma and distort it. Why do we have to worry about the Indians on Buddhism? The Gauthama Buddha was born in that land, but he was NOT an Indian.

  4. Dham Says:

    Ariya,
    I agree with you that there is no need to bring western thinkers or scientists to analyse Buddhism. On the other hand there is no need to discirminate between westerners of easterners when talking about Buddhism.
    What I don’t like is your envy towards someone claiming himself professor. This shows inferiority complex in you.
    But the conclusion of the writing is clear and that is the true analysis the wirter has given.

  5. Raj Says:

    The questions such as Where is the Devya Loke ( Devine Worlds ) ? are not so stupid. I would answer that question in the way I understand it, ie those ‘loka’s are the ones where there is no material/physical part (rupa). I wonder if you learned people can enlighten me if Buddha had shown a way as to how to achieve a lower ‘state’ than ‘nirvana’ in the next life. This is not a stupid question.
    Say, I am a dental surgeon in this life and I want to be a very creative person, and serve the human kind with new discoveries and inventions etc, like Steve Jobs for example, in my next life, and I am not quite ready for ‘nirvana’ yet. In other words I have unfinished work and I am not ready for ‘nirvana’, just yet. And I feel working towards personal sanity is not quite right. It’s like captain trying to escape first leaving his passengers in the sinking ship.

  6. Dham Says:

    Raj,
    You can judge yourself whether stupid or not.
    Please read Buddhism well before arguing. Buddhism is the only religion allow you to “come and see” ( eehipasskio). It says don’t believe just because your parents or teachers said or it was handed over by generations.
    But that does not mean you are free to abuse Buddhism like Gon Silva doing.
    Where is Devaloka is a stupid question simply because I cannot show you where it is.

    Buddha said,
    “by protecting oneself, one pretects others and by protecting others one protects oneself” . This is engough to answer your dislike of Nibbana. You have to ponder over it and understand. Buddhism is not for the foolish.

    You can serve the human kind or you can be a veternary surgeon and serve the animal kind next life. If you live well, without breaking five precepts you will be born in a heavenly loka, no doubt, because you serve both human and animal kind in present life and your mind is practicing loving kindness and how can you be born as fool next life ?

    “Dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth.”
    – by Mark Twain

  7. Bodhi Says:

    Prof. Amerarsekera’s article is good, but he introduces singular errors. The scietific method was first defined by Tahles the Greek, and also by the Buddha who was a contemporaray. Archimedes practiced the scientific method. Francis bacon first launched the method, long before Immaneuel Kant, and the Royal Society under Robert Hook and Issac Newton began to practice it.
    But the Buddha was more concerned with moral philosophy rather than with natural philosophy (science). He explicitly explained this the parable of the arrow where he said that it is necessary to relieve the suffering of the man shot with the arrow rather than finding out from where the arrow came. Thus, the Buddha insisted on what we “OUGHT to do”, and not issues of “what IS”.
    Prof. Amerasinghe correctly notes that the Buddha didd not claim to “know All”, i.e., ‘sarvagggna’ is the naive sense used by our villagers.

    Please see my blog: Buddhism and Rebirth http://this-life-buddhism.blogspot.com/2011/08/early-buddhist-sermons-are-independent.html

  8. Raj Says:

    Dham, calm down and you will be able to think rationally. Just because you cannot show ‘where the devoloka is’, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. For example you cannot show strings or quanta, or even electrons to someone who demands to see them, but no one seems to doubt their existance these days. Some questions may appear ‘stupid’ because you don’t either know the answer, or you can’t explain. Bad teachers try to avoid answering a legitimate question by saying ‘stop asking stupid questions boy’.

  9. callistus Says:

    How come Dham is getting so many negative ratings. If I was him, I would not make ‘stupid’ comments to attract minus ratings. His problem seems to be wanting to pretend all-knowing on Buddhism by throwing some pali words in.

  10. Bodhi Says:

    Raj, people CAN show that quanta exist, and they were shown in experiments done between 1900 and 1915 and from then on;
    and now, every time you use your GPS or cellphone etc., they work because there are energy quanta functioning in those devices.

    If there aredevaloka, what are the consequences of that assumption? and then you have to do experiments to show that the predicted consequences exist. if not they remain mere beliefs. Gods (Sakraya, Vishnu etc) are also in the mind of the person who believes them, and such beliefs can affect that person. It may even give him inner strength to do good things or do bad fanatical things. But that only establishes that such beliefs are BELIEFS and not empirical facts.

    Buddhism does not depend on such beliefs. Buddhism depends on everythin being impermanent, and the consequent suffering. See my blog where I have discussed all these.

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