Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dazzling Visions

During the question and answer session of last weekend's teachings by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche at Kunzang Palchen Ling, a question came up about theories of physics presented in the Nova series Fabric of the Cosmos and how these theories relate to views expounded in Buddhism. I confess that I haven't watched the Nova episodes yet, but I expect that a general approach to such questions will likely apply. Modern science is filled with dazzling visions of the nature of reality, and certainly the Buddhadharma has similarly dazzling visions. So perhaps these might coincide somehow or perhaps some mutual adjustment is called for; it is surely a ripe field for exploration.

Buddhism and science are both magnificent traditions that present multiple visions of reality, so many visions that in either case one could never realistically expect to master but a small fraction of them. For example, in Buddhism we can see the world as composed of the six classes of beings from those trapped in hell to those soaring in the heavens, or we can see the world as composed of a network of experiential events which can be classed under five headings, from form to consciousness. In science, the notion of the selfish gene underlying Darwinian evolution gives us one grand vision of the unfolding of nature; another point of view comes from a cosmologist like Brian Greene, a view growing out of the shapes of space-time drawn by general relativity combined somehow with quantized interactions of elementary particle theory.

While Buddhism and science are similar in the way they cultivate such surfeits of dazzling visions, they differ in how they propose this surfeit should be understood. This question is not really a scientific one at all, but rather one of the philosophy of science. While science itself can boast of countless extraordinary accomplishments, the philosophical understanding of its practice has a more difficult time making similar boasts. As scientists work to harmonize their various visions, the philosophers of science seem to splinter into ever narrower factions. And this splintering has real consequences: for example, the way that biological evolution or anthropogenetic climate change are sometimes dismissed as mere "theories". If there were some consensual notion of the relationship between scientific theories and scientific facts, perhaps such debates could progress toward reasonable conclusions.

But where philosophy of science is much the down-trodden Cinderella of the scientific world, the analysis of the status of the various views of Buddhism is rather the honored Princess. The various views are understood as being structured by their boundaries, by their limitations. One can move through a progression of views, each succeeding view providing a perspective from which to analyze the limits of the preceding view. But this series of perspectives is unbounded, or rather ends at a realization or wisdom that transcends any structure or view or perspective.

The value of the various views of Buddhism lies in their tendency to lead to this wisdom that transcends views. How do views support or permit or suggest this transcendence of themselves? Might scientific views, at least sometimes, also work in such ways?

One general answer follows a medical analogy. Progress along the Buddhist path is a matter of curing diseases, of eliminating confused habits. Views are medicinal: they can enable us to overcome our various patterns of self-imprisonment. But views themselves can have self-imprisoning side-effects. The best medicines let us simply let go of the treatment once their work is done. Lesser medicines may require further stages of subtler treatment to work through those side-effects. Of course the relationship to medicine is not merely one of analogy. A healthy body certainly can help provide one with better opportunities to progress along the path. At the very least, scientific views are compatible with Buddhism to the extent that they promote health and happiness.

Grand cosmological theories, such as those of Brian Greene, are rather far from application to practical human welfare. Perhaps one valuable use they might have is as a challenge: is every view really limited, or might some such grand cosmological theory really reflect the nature of reality in an unlimited way? Perhaps we need such fresh challenges if we are really to confront that question rather than treating it as an academic exercise.

Alternatively, we might observe that as scientific theories progress to encompass vaster ranges of phenomena, they bring ever more fundamental shifts in perspective. These theories drive us to let go of ever deeper assumptions. If we see that every assumption will similarly fall at one stage or another of such theoretical progress, perhaps we can infer whither this process leads, and simply let go utterly.

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