Science purports, through the rigorous, empirical methodologies that it employs, to tell the ‘ truth ‘ about our world. It sets up working hypotheses to make statements about how it operates. When these hypotheses are rigorously supported, in a repeatable, systematic manner, they eventually become laws that take their place in the accumulated body of scientific knowledge. Where no support is evident, then the hypotheses can be re – worked and re – tested to find fresh support. If this is unavailable then the hypotheses can be abandoned because they are deemed to be false. This then, is the traditional perspective on science and its relationship to truth. A perspective that has become embedded in our world view to influence all our lives.
Not everyone, however, has accepted the scientific canon in its entirety. Karl Popper ( 1902 – 1994 ), the Austrian philosopher, systematically studied the nature of scientific inquiry only to be led to the conclusion that science was, in fact, a myth.’ We can only refute scientific laws, we cannot confirm them ‘ is Popper’s basic message. To use the nature analogy – we may accept the statement that: ” All crows are black. ” ( because in the history of ornithology, no one has yet spotted a crow that wasn’t black ) but this doesn’t mean to say that a white one is not hiding in a hedgerow somewhere, awaiting to be spotted. Because scientific laws have always proved to be right in the past ( and the balance of probability is on their side considering the weight of evidence ) it doesn’t mean to say that they will ALWAYS hold up in the future. One authentic sighting of a white crow is enough to seriously challenge our knowledge.
Popper, in his quest for metaphysical clarity and understanding, extended his arguments into many fields. For instance, he challenged Freudian psychoanalysis, arguing that all the clinical observations that Freud undertook, to support his theories, had no rigorous, external validity “…… as for Freud’s epic of the ego, the super ego, and the id, no substantially stronger claim to scientific status can be made for it than Homer’s collected stories from Olympus.” Despite Popper’s remarks, however, we must not infer from them that he was somehow anti – Freudian, because he wasn’t. Indeed he felt that Freud had made important contributions to our understanding of human behaviour. He just wanted to make the point that Freud’s clinical observations and conclusions could not, in themselves, be objectively validated. Any findings, Popper argued, were open to a number of different interpretations, all of of them warranting attention.
” In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty and to the enormous magnitude of the questions asked.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Popper asked uncomfortable and awkward questions at times. Fundamental questions about the nature of truth and how it comes to be established within the context of the scientific paradigm. He had ventured into an intellectual territory that many scientist have since acknowledged as being inspirational for their work, but when you consider the critical, scientific and philosophical ferment in which he lived, you realize that he could do nothing else……
BUDDHISM AND REALITY
Buddhism has much to offer us in our understanding of truth. It does not deny the power of scientific discovery in uncovering truth, but what it does argue is that this very ‘ truth ‘ is provisional and tentative. This is the same conclusion that Popper had reached, but Buddhism approaches it from a different angle. Rather than focussing on the possibility of refutation, as Popper did ( the accurate sighting of one white crow would refute the statement: ” All crows are black.” ), Buddhism outlines the nature of impermanence ( annica ) in our universe.
We live in a vortex of change, indeed it could be argued that the only real constancy in the known universe is change itself. So if change is all powerful, touching everything, then it must touch the very ‘ truth ‘ that science offers up. There is no fixed, permanent truth that science can reveal to us, Buddhist teachings argue, because there is no fixed, permanent world from where it could arise. Buddhist teachings also argue that because ‘ truth ‘ is partly a product of subjective interpretation, science, with its exclusive focus on objectivity, is rather one – sided and limited.
Buddhism, traditionally, speaks of other truths, perhaps greater truths that science cannot touch. These truths however, are not necessarily validated externally by scientific ‘ objectivity ‘ but they are validated internally. They are the truths WITHIN us. The truths that need no external supports. The truths that we reach when we tread a spiritual path and develop our wisdom mind through meditation, the study of sutras and reflective, considered thought ( Yoniso Manasikara ).
” If you do not get it from yourself, where will you go for it ? “
THE PRAJNAPARAMITA SUTRAS ( THE PERFECTION OF WISDOM )
Within the Mahayana tradition there is a collection of texts, the Prajnaparamita Sutras, in which the concept of Sunyata is given much consideration. Sunyata ( ultimate reality ) is seen as going beyond the dualism of subject and observer, objectivity and subjectivity ( the very substance of science ), going far beyond our world of mundane, conditioned existence and understanding, onto a transcendental journey that takes us to the heart of mystery…..
Sunyata is seen as an infinite ‘ emptiness ‘, but not a ‘ nothingness ‘. It is devoid of dualism, devoid of the conditioned and unconditioned, devoid of any form of conscious awareness that supports the notion of a real self, devoid of time and space. Sunyata is simply way beyond anything we can grasp because the mind cannot operate outside of its conditioned existence. It simply cannot confirm what is beyond itself.
Because sunyata is beyond our experience, beyond scientific scrutiny, beyond support or refutation, Popper would have had a problem with it. Anything conjectural or speculative must be treated very carefully he would say. But how do you prove the unprovable? How do you test the untestable? In the spiritual life we are, of necessity, placed in a position where we have to accept somethings at face value, and in Buddhism it’s the teachings of the Buddha.
A WORKING BLUEPRINT
After his enlightenment, which made him confront directly the nature of ultimate reality, the Buddha turned his life to the Dharma ( teachings ) and the alleviation of suffering. When a group of the Kalama people approached him, asking how they could tell when the truth was spoken to them, the Buddha replied:
” Come Kalamas, do not be satisfied with hearsay, or with tradition, or with legendary
lore, or with what has come down in your scriptures, or with conjecture, or with logical inference, or with weighting evidence, or with liking for a view after pondering it over….
When you know in yourselves ‘These ideas are ( unskilful ), liable to censure, condemned by the wise….leading to harm and suffering’, then you should abandon them…..When you know in yourselves ‘ These things are ( skilful )….’ then you should practice them and abide in them….”
This discourse from the Buddha ( which puts the onus on individuals to seek out the truth for themselves, in a systematic and rigorous way ) is still relevant to our modern lives, I believe, as it was in the Buddha’s time, 2,500 years ago. It provides a pragmatic guide for all of us to to follow that will take us down a life path of skilful living. It will bring truth into our lives to develop us and enlarge us. And if the scientific exposition of today ( which is already under ‘ attack ‘ in our post – Einsteinian world ) can endure and still serve us as long as the Buddha’s exposition has, then we will be the richer for it
Popper may not have been a Buddhist but my feelings are that the Buddha’s discourse
would have found an appeal with him because it is coherent and testable on a personal level – where it really matters. Popper’s training as a philosopher, like the Buddha, was forged in the fire of experience and he was very careful not to reject anything out of hand.
Within us all there is a strong desire for some form of permanence. It’s our secret craving, buried deeply, that never really leaves us. We cling to the people we love, we cling to the things that give us pleasure, we cling to life because it is emotionally difficult to conceive of change – emotionally difficult to conceive of loss….Yet impermanence is the reality of the cosmos that sweeps everything away eventually, including you, me, and the very ‘ truths ‘ that we cling to in our understanding of the world.
But we are HERE, and it is NOW, so we must use the best guiding principles that we can, to help us on our spiritual journey, to make our lives richer, fuller and more skillfully led. My personal commitment is to the Buddhist path, but I do recognize other paths, others teachings, other truths that can nourish and sustain individuals. There is no real ‘ best ‘ path for everyone, only ‘ your ‘ path so whatever one you have chosen in life, have a wonderful journey and may you find truth, peace, joy and inner contentment along the way.