Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wealth and Theology

Somehow Buddhism and Science both address the ultimate nature of reality, both dig beneath appearances to discover the underlying truth. Somehow the truths they discover must be related. In any case, a Buddhist living in modern industrial society has good reason to relate them. We live in a world constructed by science, a world that at every turn advertises the power of the truth discovered by science. For most of us, the discovery of the truth of Buddhism is much more a work in progress. Buddhism does not build airplanes and cell phones, Buddhism builds, transforms, people. This transformation is principally a matter of the notoriously elusive mind. However inescapably intimate our experience of mind is, it is the hardest thing to subject to quantitative, objective, scientific scrutiny. Relating the truths of Science and Buddhism turns out to be problematic.

One approach to solving this problem is to bring the remarkably powerful apparatus of scientific investigation to bear more directly on the mind. If we can land probes on distant planets, surely we can probe something so much closer to home, something that is practically the very essence of home. On the other hand, a bit of caution is called for. Descartes, one of the founders of the modern scientific project, put mind in a category totally separate from the locatable objects that science can grasp. Indeed, the ungraspable nature of mind is a fundamental truth discovered by Buddhism.

Graspable phenomena are never ultimate. This perspective provides another way to relate the truths of Buddhism and Science. Science always confronts a receding horizon in its quest for the ultimate nature of reality. Is this just an accidental feature of our time, a sign of the imperfection of our understanding, an imperfection that can be and will be repaired as the scientific project is brought to completion? If the project is inherently impossible to complete, if the quest for the ultimate truth is like racing for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, if the scientific project is inherently futile… but how can that be, given its overwhelming success?

What kind of success have we achieved through science? We have learned an extraordinary amount about the world, given ourselves powerful tools for changing the world, and indeed changed the world in many profound ways. If all these are mere by-products of a futile quest for the ultimate, perhaps it is a worthy quest despite its futility.

Of course, all these marvelous accomplishments are not entirely attributable to the modern scientific project. Many significant discoveries are stumbled upon in quests for much more mundane ends, some noble and some less so. To what extent our remarkable technological progress can be credited to the modern scientific project and to what extent it is more a matter of a less coherently thought-out series of developments across many dimensions spanning the full planetary ecological system. Our wealth is not good proof of our theology!

I am not arguing that wealth and theology are totally disconnected: I am merely arguing that they are not totally connected, either. Should we choose that theology that maximizes our wealth? There are intractable challenges in any sort of experimental check. For example, if word were to leak out of preliminary findings, the latest get-rich-quick theology, the competitive landscape would instantly shift, invalidating later trials. But the difficulties are far more profound. Our theology supplies our framework for evaluating our wealth. This is akin to the challenge involved in measuring inflation, Should we apply a theology-relative hedonic correction for each trial? Does a miser's accumulation constitute true wealth?

What if we let go of the scientific quest to get to the bottom of things, recognizing its futility, and instead return our attention to the here and now, redirecting our work to understand and change the world. If Science is collectively refined relative truth, the appropriate compass by which to steer it is moral. We must collectively refine our sensitivity to the help and harm brought by our work.

And what are the truly profound challenges of science in our time? Of course there are vastly diverse technical challenges across the entire frontier of science. But when is our technology something that helps people and the planet, and when does it become harmful? There is no sense in weighing the help or harm of technology as a whole. This project is a matter of details, of each here and each now. Resigning from attentive work is just as delusively apathetic as diligent work that refuses attention to moral consequences.

Engaging in the Buddhist path is a matter of self transformation. The truths of Buddhism don't relate so much to the bright shining side of science, its spectacular achievements. The first steps on the Buddhist path are usually rather uncomfortable, as we start to see how deeply caught we are in the cycle of delusion, grasping, and suffering. This is the work that is needed now in science, to see how we have been caught up in greed, violence, and delusion. But to see, too, the unbounded positive potential opened up by the path of self transformation.

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