Friday, September 28, 2012


Our world consists of many objects of various types. There are physical objects like automobiles and cell phones, illusory objects like rainbows and reflections, imaginary objects like hobbits and unicorns, institutional objects like corporations and nations, philosophical objects like truth and beauty, and many others. Both the objects and their types have ill-defined boundaries. One fundamental boundary is temporal, the birth of a thing and the death. A particular automobile comes into existence at some point in time, and goes out of existence at some later point. Beyond particular automobiles, there is the general class Automobile to which these belong. The notion of a birth and death of such a general class is harder to pin down. Was the invention of the Automobile a discovery of an eternal class or the creation of a new class? Whatever heaven might house such eternal classes, it must be a very crowded place to contain every possible invention. A more useful way to think of such classes is as patterns of human thought and communication, which would then have invention a creation of a new such pattern.

When Charles Darwin was studying barnacles, he realized that the division of particular barnacles into species, and into higher taxonomic classes, was to some extent arbitrary. When does the variation within a species cross into variation across species? There are some general rules to be applied, but just how the rules should be applied to particular cases can get thorny enough to become a taxonomer's judgment call, in the last case an arbitrary decision. And it is just this interpenetration of intra- and inter-specific variation that makes evolution possible. If there were an uncrossable chasm between species, evolution would be impossible.

Science is another general category whose ultimately undefinable frontiers enables evolution. What sorts of propositions and activities should properly count as scientific? Evolution of such a category is not likely to happen through wholesale redefinition, but instead through incremental shifts at the frontiers. One notion of the frontier of science is where new scientific propositions are created or where their truth value is in an active process of determination. This frontier corresponds roughly to the regular introduction of new models of automobiles. This is an evolution of the various things that we class in the category of Automobile, but it is not a change in our very notion of what makes a thing an Automobile or not. The rise of electric bicycles is a bit more interesting, as it puts in question the boundary between bicycles and motorcycles. The evolution of the category Science is pushed where there are propositions or activities that we're not quite sure should properly called scientific.

A collection of phenomena becomes recognizable as a pattern, can be seen as an object, when it repeats itself often enough across a long enough time, which then requires some regularity or stability in its environment, the associated phenomena that are causally intertwined with the object. As conditions shift, the object responds, evolves. Science is an evolving category in just this way. For example, the use of automated experimental observation and mathematical calculation and deduction have raised the question of whether scientific activity is properly limited to human activity and the acceptable degree of indirection.

Rather than gambling on any particular forecast of future conditions, a wise strategy is to look at a family of most likely futures and to position oneself to be able to respond effectively to any of them. A major fork in the road ahead for the world is whether energy production can continue growing or whether instead we are facing declines as precipitous as the advances of the past century. Given the fundamental role that energy consumption plays across the full range of our patterns of living, a significant decline would have a huge impact on all of our institutions, including science. Already with impeded progress in experimental particle physics and space exploration one can see some of the early effects of resource limitations.

What kinds of science will we need in an era of declining resources, and what kinds will we be able to afford?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Challenge

Ran Prieur posted part of a letter he received from one of his readers:
It seems me that the space and time for critical thought is increasingly shrinking in our world... a result of people being increasingly integrated into and identifying with systems and not an issue with particular systems. Having been out of West Point for three years and now in medical school, I can say confidently that the field of medicine is far more hierarchical, self congratulatory, malicious towards "the other", and dogmatic than I find even the American military to be.
Of course there are many soldiers, physicians, scientists and engineers who are exemplary opposites of malice and dogmatism. But how can we change the character of these subcultures themselves?

A good starting point is to begin to dismantle the mechanisms that currently encourage malice and dogmatism. One approach could be to broaden the distribution of support. If there were a way to break through to the ultimate nature of reality by concentrating enough talent and resources on the right project, then perhaps that ultimate achievement could justify the neglect of projects less likely to strike such gold. But if the rainbow is better enjoyed by viewing it from many perspectives rather than by a concentrated push to reach the pot of gold at its end, the wiser approach could be to cultivate as many open eyes as possible.

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.

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.