by Carlo Carnevale
Data-driven neuroscience from Buddhist meditation and mindfulness has gained enormous popularity recently. Yet, the transformative potential of man offered by Buddhism, under the fMRI scanner (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) - delimited as an 'object' of study - can become sterile, inanimate, and inert when it is displaced from its performative dimensions, constitutive of its meaning. This disconnection, as we often see, poses a significant preliminary challenge if one wants to pursue a philosophically grounded dialogue between science and Buddhism. It’s, therefore, worth reflecting on.
These divergent orientations of science and Buddhism reflect what Freya Mathews, an Australian environmental philosopher, describes as the difference between knowledge and encounter. An encounter is a bilateral relationship between subjectivities, contrasting with knowledge as the product of science's objective orientation: "To encounter the other is to approach it as another subject with which one can have a relationship … and from which one can obtain a response" (Mathews 2003, 77). Changing the knower-known relationship from subject-object to subject-subject, Mathews (2003, 78) explains that "knowledge seeks to uncover the mystery of the nature of the other; encounters leave the mystery intact ... Knowledge provides closure of the future and thus offers control and security. Encounter is open-ended and thus offers spontaneity and vulnerability."
Another environmental philosopher, Jim Cheney, has noted a similar disparity between modern forms of knowledge and personal encounters: "Modern conceptions of knowledge … assume that it necessarily emerges from a relationship between an active knowing subject and a passive known object" (Cheney 1999, 142).
In his reflections on the study of Native Americans by whites, Cheney associates this distinction with a difference between an unshakably performative world and descriptive beliefs or knowledge objects. He also qualifies this difference as a distinction between "knowledge or belief objects ... and ... a style of conduct, which in some sense brings a reality to light" (Cheney 1999, 149-150). Cheney's portrayal of a relentlessly performative dimension that does not fit neatly into a straightforward descriptive account draws heavily from the work of Sam Gill, who demonstrated this disjunction with the example of the Navajo prayer. When asked about the meaning of prayer, Native representatives always respond: "It's not about what message the prayer carries, but what the prayer does." This situation closely resembles scientists engaging with Buddhist practices. Gill highlights the limitations of theoretical approaches to the religious performances of Native Americans, emphasizing that "the wise men of the Navajo tradition believe that “theology, philosophy, doctrine” are generally discouraged. Such concerns are commonly understood by the Navajos as evidence that the nature of Navajo religious traditions is misunderstood" (Gill, "One, Two, Three: The Interpretation of Religious Action," quoted by Cheney 1999, 148). Regarding the science of Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practices, at least in its current state, one must wonder if the place given to science reflects a form of colonization of indigenous knowledge.
The modern assumption that neutral, unbiased, or static ideas are the only real truths is what Donald Evans (1992) has called the dogma of impersonalism. Evans characterizes impersonalism as "the dogmatic refusal of any stance that requires personal transformation to be adequately understood and assessed" (Evans 1992, 101).
"Impersonalism is perhaps more deeply undermined when we consider the question: 'Does unconditional love exist?' It seems clear to me that I cannot recognize unconditional love … unless I have had personal experience, however fleeting, as a recipient or as a giver" (Evans 1992, 107)
Actually, impersonal, neutral, facts are never truly separate from personal interests and values. An implication of this is that there is no real epistemological dualism between facts and values, and this holds true for both science and Buddhism. In other words, scientific discourses reflect socially constituted values within the culture in which scientific discourses are integrated, as well as the financial and institutional systems that enable and validate scientific practice. The assertion that the value of science is "knowledge for knowledge's sake" exemplifies a value embedded with the personal interests of a community. Thus, despite the ideal of objective and impersonal truth, not even science possesses a view from nowhere.
If the laboratory environment allows scientists to confirm and refine theories or reject outdated models, then the laboratory for a science of Buddhism is arguably still vacant. For example, the truth of suffering, a starting point in Buddhism as the first noble truth, requires the scientist to feel suffering to be adequately assessed; yet this requirement goes beyond the impersonal and disinterested gaze associated with the scientific methodological ideal. The central role of personal knowledge—embodied, active, living—inevitably contrasts with the modern ideal of detached knowledge. For Buddhists, transformative knowledge (or encounter) is the most important type of knowledge.
Yet, generally speaking, scientists are not interested in encounter and its transformative nature, but rather in knowledge. And it is important to keep in mind that scientific research on the physiological correlates of cognitive states in Buddhist meditators, for example, is led by Western scientists with the assumptions, methods, and goals of scientists. Where this comparative conversation may lead is not easy to say, but it seems evident that a dialogue can be more meaningful and honest if it is not simply composed of two monologues, but rather proceeds in a way that resonates with both voices on the field, leaving all participants open to the transformative potential of the encounter.
Sources & Further Readings:
J. Cheney, 1999, “The Journey Home.” In An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
F. Mathews, 2003, “For the Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism”, SUNY Press
D. Evans, 1992, “Spirituality and Human Nature”, SUNY Press.