BUDDHISM, THE ONLY REAL SCIENCE
By Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso
I used to be a scientist. I did Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University,
hanging out in the same building as the later-to-be-famous Professor Stephen
Hawking. I became disillusioned with such science when, as an insider,
how dogmatic some scientists could be. A dogma, according to the dictionary,
is an arrogant declaration of an opinion. This was a fitting description
the science that I saw in the labs of Cambridge. Science had lost its
of humility. Egotistical opinion prevailed over the impartial search for
Truth. My favourite aphorism from that time was:
eminence of a great scientist, is measured by the length of time that
they OBSTRUCT PROGRESS in their field"!
understand real science, one can go back to one of its founding fathers,
the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 - 1628). He established the
framework on which science was to progress, namely "the greater force
negative instance". This meant that, having proposed a theory to
some natural phenomenon, one should try one's best to disprove it! One
should test the theory with challenging experiments. One must put it on
trial with rigorous argument. When a flaw appears in the theory, only
does science advance. A new discovery has been made enabling the theory
be adjusted and refined. This fundamental and original methodology of
science understood that it is impossible to prove anything with absolute
certainty. One can only disprove with absolute certainty.
example, how can one prove the basic law of gravity that "what goes
comes down, eventually"? One may throw objects up one million times
them fall one million times. But that still does not prove "what
comes down". For NASA might then 'throw' a Saturn rocket up into
explore Mars, and that never comes down to earth again. One negative
instance is enough to disprove the theory with absolute certainty.
misguided scientists maintain the theory that there is no rebirth, that
this stream of consciousness is incapable of returning to a successive
existence. All one needs to disprove this theory, according to science,
to find one instance of rebirth, just one! Professor Ian Stevenson, as
of you would know, has already demonstrated many instances of rebirth.
theory of no rebirth has been disproved. Rebirth is now a scientific fact!
science gives a low priority to any efforts to disprove its pet
theories. There is too much vested interest in power, prestige and research
grants. A courageous commitment to truth takes too many scientists out
their comfort zone. Scientists are, for the most part, brainwashed by
education and their in-group conferences to see the world in a very narrow,
microscopic, way. The very worst scientists are those who behave like
eccentric evangelists, claiming that they alone have the whole truth,
then demanding the right to impose their views on everyone else.
people know so little about science that they can hardly even
understand the jargon. Yet, if they read in a newspaper or magazine "a
scientist says that?", then they automatically take it to be true.
this to our reaction when we read in the same journal "a politician
that?"! Why do scientists have such unchallenged credibility? Perhaps
because the language and ritual of science has become so far removed from
the common people, that scientists have become today's revered and mystical
priesthood. Dressed in their ceremonial white lab coats, chanting
incomprehensible mumbo jumbo about multi-dimensional fractal parallel
universes, and performing magical rituals that transubstantiate metal
plastic into TV's and computers, these modern day alchemists are so awesome
we'll believe anything they say. Elitist science, as once was the Pope,
know better. Much of what I learnt 30 years ago has now been proved
wrong. There are, fortunately, many scientists with integrity and humility
who affirm that science is, at best, a work still in progress. They know
that science can only suggest a truth, but can never claim a truth. I
once told by a Buddhist G.P. that, on his first day at a medical school
Sydney, the famous Professor, head of the Medical School, began his
welcoming address by stating "Half of what we are going to teach
you in the
next few years is wrong. Our problem is that we do not know which half
is!" Those were the words of a real scientist.
evangelical scientists would do well to reflect on the (amended) old
saying "Scientists rush in where angels fear to tread" and stop
pontificating about the nature of the mind, happiness and even Nirvana.
Neurologists are especially prone to such neuroses (Neurosis: an undue
adherence to unrealistic ideas of things). They are claiming that the
awareness and will, is now adequately explained by activity in the brain.
This theory was disproved over 20 years ago by Prof. Lorber's discovery
the student at Sheffield University with and IQ of 126, a First Class
in mathematics, but with virtually no brain (Science, Vol. 210, 12 Dec
1980)! More recently, it was disproved by Prof. Pim Van Lommel, who
demonstrated the existence of consciousness activity after clinical death,
i.e. when all brain activity has ceased (Lancet, Vol. 358, 15 December
there may be correlation between a measurable activity in part of
the brain and a mental impression, such co-occurrence doesn't always imply
that one is the cause of the other. For instance, some years ago, research
showed a clear correlation between cigarette smoking and the non-occurrence
of Alzheimer's disease. It was not that smoking cigarettes somehow caused
immunity from Alzheimer's, as much as the tobacco companies might have
wished, it was only that many smokers did not live long enough to get
Alzheimer's disease! Thus a co-incidence of two phenomena, even when
repeated, does not mean that one phenomenon is the cause of the other.
claim that activity in the brain causes awareness, or mind, is plainly
is more scientific than modern science. Like science, Buddhism is
based on verifiable cause-and-effect relationships. But unlike science,
Buddhism challenges with thoroughness every belief. The famous Kalama
of Buddhism states that one cannot believe fully in "what one is
tradition, hearsay, scripture, logic, inference, appearance, agreement
established opinion, the seeming competence of a teacher, or even in one's
own teacher". How many scientists are as rigorous in their thinking
Buddhism challenges everything, including logic.
is worth noting that Quantum Theory appeared quite illogical, even to
such great scientists as Einstein, when it was first proposed. It is yet
be disproved. Logic is only as reliable as the assumptions on which it
based. Buddhism trusts only clear and objective experience.
experience occurs when one's measuring instruments, one's senses, are
bright and undisturbed. In Buddhism, this happens when the hindrances
sloth-and-torpor and restlessness-and-remorse are both overcome. Objective
experience is that which is free from all bias. In Buddhism, the three
of bias are desire, ill will and sceptical doubt. Desire makes one see
what one wants to see, it bends the truth to fit one's preferences. Ill
makes one blind to whatever is disturbing or disconcerting to one's views
and it distorts the truth by denial. Sceptical doubt stubbornly refuses
accept those truths, like rebirth, that are plainly valid but which fall
outside of one's comforting worldview. In summary, clear and objective
experience only happens when the Buddhist 'Five Hindrances' have been
overcome. Only then can one trust the data arriving through one's senses.
scientists are not free of these five hindrances, they are rarely
clear and objective. It is common, for example, for scientists to ignore
annoying data, which do not fit their cherished theories, or else confine
such evidence to oblivion by filing it away as an 'anomaly'. Even most
Buddhists aren't clear and objective. One has to have recent experience
Jhana to effectively put aside these five hindrances (according to the
Nalakapana Sutta , Majjhima No. 68). So only accomplished meditators can
claim to be real scientists, that is, clear and objective.
claims to rely not only on clear and objective observation, but also
on measurement. But what is measurement in science? To measure something,
according to the pure science of Quantum Theory, is to collapse the
Schroedinger Wave Equation through an act of observation. Moreover, the
"un-collapsed" form of the Schroedinger Wave Equation, that
is before any
measurement is made, is, perhaps, science's most perfect description of
world. That description is weird! Reality, according to pure science,
not consist of well ordered matter with precise massed, energies and
positions in space, all just waiting to be measured. Reality is the broadest
of smudges of all possibilities, only some being more probable than others.
Even basic 'measurable' qualities as 'alive' or 'dead' have been demonstrated
by science to be invalid sometimes. In the notorious 'Schroedinger's Cat'
thought experiment, Prof. Schroedinger's cat was ingeniously placed in
a real situation where it was neither dead nor alive, where such measurements
became meaningless. Reality, according to Quantum Theory, is beyond measurements.
Measuring disturbs reality, it never describes it perfectly. It was Heisenberg's
famous 'Uncertainty Principle' that showed the inevitable error between
the real Quantum world and the measured world of pseudo-science.
how can anyone measure the measurer, the mind? At a recent seminar
on Science and Religion, at which I was a speaker, a Catholic in the
audience bravely announced that whenever she looks through a telescope
the stars, she feels uncomfortable because her religion is threatened.
commented that whenever a scientist looks the other way round through
telescope, to observe the one who is watching, then they feel uncomfortable
because their science is threatened by what is doing the seeing! So what
doing the seeing, what is this mind that eludes modern science?
Grade-One teacher once asked her class "What is the biggest thing
world?" One little girl answered "My daddy". A little boy
said "An elephant", since he'd recently been to the zoo. Another
girl suggested "A mountain". The six-year-old daughter of a
close friend of mine replied, "My eye is the biggest thing in the
world"! The class stopped. Even the teacher didn't understand her
answer. So the little philosopher explained "Well, my eye can see
her daddy, an elephant, and a mountain too. It can also see so much else.
If all of that can fit into my eye, then my eye must be the biggest thing
in the world"! Brilliant.
she was not quite right. The mind can see everything that one's eye
can see, and it can also imagine so much more. It can also hear, smell,
taste and touch, as well as think. In fact, everything that can be known
fit into the mind. Therefore, the mind must be the biggest thing in the
world. Science's mistake is obvious now. The mind is not in the brain,
in the body. The brain, the body and the rest of the world, are in the
is the sixth sense in Buddhism, it is that which encompasses the five
senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and transcends them
its own domain. It corresponds loosely to Aristotle's "common sense"
distinct from the five senses. Indeed, ancient Greek philosophy, from
science is said to have its origins, taught six senses just like Buddhism.
Somewhere along the historical journey of European thinking, they lost
mind! Or, as Aristotle would put it, they somehow discarded their "common
sense"! And thus we got science. We got materialism without any heart.
Onecan accurately say that Buddhism is science that has kept its
which hasn't lost its mind!
Buddhism is not a belief system. It is a science founded on objective
observation, i.e. meditation, ever careful not to disturb the reality
through imposing artificial measurements, and it is evidently repeatable.
People have been re-creating the experimental conditions, known as establishing
the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, for over twenty-six centuries
now, much longer than science. And those renowned Professors of Meditation,
the male and female Arahants, have all arrived at the same conclusion
as the Buddha. They verified the timeless Law of Dhamma, otherwise known
as Buddhism. So Buddhism is the only real science, and I'm happy to say
that I'm still a scientist at heart, only a much better scientist than
I ever could have been at Cambridge.
8th February 2004