Thursday, September 6, 2012


A Buddhist practice of science is not fundamentally different from a Buddhist approach to any other mundane discipline. David McCarthy in his essay The Six-Fold Economics of Compassion uses the six perfections (generosity, ethical discipline, tolerance, diligence, focus, wisdom) to elaborate what an economics of compassion could be. My project here is to sketch out what compassionate science would look like. In large part, though, compassionate science is just compassionate action and no extraordinary analysis is required. Just be a compassionate person who happens to be a scientist, or who happens to be involved in some sort of scientific activity.

But perhaps, after all, scientific activity does have some special features that create challenges and opportunities worth examining. Of course, what it is exactly that distinguishes scientific from non-scientific activity: that is a curious philosophical puzzle. Perhaps science is distinctively objective, or quantitative, or mathematical. Science is devoted to publication and preoccupied with priority. Science is the fruit of the interplay of theory and experiment, each driving the refinement and enhancing the range of the other.

One of the cornerstones of science is its collective nature. Science is a group activity. Many of its features are consequences of this basic property. Quantitative measurements using institutionally maintained standards and the public recording of results in journals and conference proceedings: these are the means by which a scientific community's exploration can be kept coherent. Objective phenomena are essentially those which can be observed consistently by all the members of the group.

If there is a kind of group mind whose investigation of the world we call "science", then what is special about compassionate science is that it also must be a group activity, a refinement and transformation of this group mind.

Being sensitive to the moral consequences of actions, Buddhist practice in general puts special emphasis on the intent behind actions and the contribution of this intent to the formation of habitual patterns. If I try to help someone, it is certainly best if my actions actually benefit that person. But even if my effort fails, I am reinforcing a tendency to act helpfully, a tendency that can bring positive results again and again in the future.

In these modern times, it is hardly just the mutual refinement of theory and experiment that is dominated by large organizations. How can an organization cultivate a calm clarity, come to see the illusory nature of its own identity, and dedicate itself to the welfare of others? How can an organization cultivate kindness?

Another perspective from which to approach this challenge is to ask: what prevents an organization from behaving kindly?

Most organizations already have regular reviews of policies that have been put in place to prevent abusive behaviors of various types. One classic principle of Buddhist practice is the constant return of attention to the here and now. Somehow the attention to kindness needs to be an integral part of the regular work of the organization, rather than an annoying interruption. Making the transformation of the organization a top priority, no less than its immediate effectiveness, ought to create space for such attention.

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