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Buddhism as the Foundation of Science

Bhikkhu Prayudh Payutto

National Science Day Lecture, given at the University of Chiang Mai,
Northern Thailand, on August 16, 1991.


A doubtful progress

AT THE OUTSET we must acknowledge the innumerable blessings bestowed on us by science. Nobody will dispute the enormous value science has. In order to be able to give this lecture, I have travelled all the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in only one hour. Back in the days of King Rama I, you would have had to wait three months for me to get here, and for that matter I probably wouldn't have come at all. We must acknowledge science's contribution to travel, be it by plane, train or car.

Looking around at communications in the present day, we see radio, telephone, fax machines, television, video, satellites and so on, all of which have arisen from scientific and technological advances.

Other obvious areas of development are in the medical world, where so many contagious diseases have now been virtually eradicated. Cholera is now quite rare, in Asia it is almost extinct. Bubonic Plague no longer exists. Smallpox has all but vanished. We no longer have to fear these infectious diseases. In olden times a person could die with only an infected appendix, but nowadays an appendectomy is a relatively simple operation. Even brain operations are getting easier. Sophisticated tools for accurate examination and diagnosis are more and more accessible. X-Ray machines are being replaced with computer X-Ray machines, and now we have ultra sound and MRI. It's almost no longer necessary for the doctor to examine the patient, the machines do it for him. These are all examples of extremely valuable technological advances.

Then we have electricity and countless labour-saving devices. Printing and publishing have progressed astonishingly. Machines which were once thought to be quite complex, such as clocks, are now considered trifling. House clocks used to be very large, heavy and difficult to use. You had to rewind them or reset their weights every day. Now we have quartz clocks. They are simple, cheap, and much more accurate than the old clocks. Writing implements are so common and cheap: twenty years ago you would have to really look after your pen, but now they're so cheap you just use them and throw them away. Everything is so plentiful and convenient. Now human beings are going into space and developing computers, which are at the cutting edge of technology.

The field of biology has seen the development of genetic engineering, which may produce new or specially adapted species of plants and animals. It's almost impossible to list all the technological advances we have with us today.

But on the other hand, when we really look into it, we find that science, and in particular technology, has created a great many problems for humanity as well. In the present time, particularly in the highly developed countries, there is even a fear that the human race, and indeed the whole world, may meet destruction at the hands of this technological progress. It might be a very instantaneous kind of destruction, at the flick of a switch, so to speak, or it could be a slow and gradual kind of destruction, as the gradual deterioration of the environment, a very critical problem at this point in time.

Even within the immediacy of our everyday lives, we are threatened by dangers. We can't be sure whether our food has been soaked in chemicals or not. Sometimes plants and animals, our food supply, are treated with hormones to boost their growth. Pigs are given special additives to make their meat turn a pretty red colour. Poisonous substances are sometimes used in foods as preservatives, flavour enhancers or dyes, not to mention the uncontrolled use of pesticides (x). Some of the people who sell these foods wouldn't dare eat them themselves!

(x) All of these practices have occured in Thailand in recent years.

The alienation of science and nature

In this light, science seems to have intruded onto the natural world. Our perception is that science and nature are separate entities, in spite of the fact that science is the study of nature and has always existed alongside it. Science is essentially one with nature, but these days most people feel that what we call science is not natural. Products of technology are often called 'artificial': we have 'artificial lungs', 'artificial kidneys' and so on. Science seems to be an intruder on nature.

This 'manipulation of nature' implies that the world of nature may in due course become a world of science. When science has completely invaded the world of nature, we may be left with only a scientific, or 'artificial' world. Human beings are natural beings, living in a natural world, but in the future we may find ourselves living in an artificial world. If we want human beings to live harmoniously with this artificial world it may be necessary to adapt the human body, becoming artificial people living in an artificial world. At the present time this isn't the case, we are not compatible with our environment. When we are out of touch with nature, we are bound to experience problems.

In this light, scientific progress does not seem to have been very harmonious. Science, in its attempts to 'improve on' the human environment, seems to have turned it into a scientific world. Many new and exciting inventions have been made, but science has not been able to adjust people's lives to meet them. The progress of science has transformed the external physical environment into a scientific, or artificial, world.

For human beings, possessed of both body and mind, that part which should correspond to the external physical world is the body. But what we find instead is that the mind has adapted. Science has transformed people's minds into artificial minds: minds which esteem science and aspire to artificial things, minds that are alienated from nature. There is conflict here, both internally and externally. Internally, the mind and the body are at odds with each other, while externally, this biological, physical body is at odds with the scientific world. While still a purely natural organism, which needs pure air, pure water and pure food, the body is experiencing problems with these very things. The air, water and food are not pure, they have been altered by science.

At this juncture it may be necessary for humanity to decide on a course to take, whether for a natural humanity living in a natural world, or whether to attempt to make a 'scientific human' for the scientific world.

Two kinds of technology

That application of science which effects the changes in the natural world, changing it into a so-called artificial world, is that which we call 'technology'. However, technology is dependent for its existence on the knowledge obtained through science. Technology is the tool, or channel, through which humanity has worked to manipulate nature in the pursuit of material comfort, but at the same time, the dangers which threaten humanity are also contingent on this technology. Technology is thus both an instrument for finding happiness and a catalyst for danger.

Now in answer to all this, scientists can counter that the word 'science' refers to Pure Science. Pure Science seeks only to discover and tell the truth, it is concerned only with the search for knowledge. Whatever anybody wants to do with this knowledge is their business, it is no concern of science. Pure Science tends to shake off responsibility in this regard.

Science tends to accuse technology of using the knowledge gained by science for its own ends, but technology hasn't used this knowledge exclusively to its own ends. Technology was initially aimed at bringing benefit to humanity, but nowadays we have two kinds of technology. One is the technology which is used to create benefit, while the other is used to seek benefit. What we need is technology that is used to create benefit, but the problems of the present time exist because modern technology is of the kind that seeks benefit.

If we can constrain ourselves to creating benefit, the repercussions arising will be few and far between. But whenever technology is used to seek benefit, problems arise, as we can see in the present time. Therefore we must clearly distinguish between technology for the creation of benefit and that which is used to seek benefit.

The place of ethics

It is a matter of utilization, be it the wrong utilization of scientific knowledge, the utilization of technology for seeking benefit, or even utilization in order to destroy the earth. The problems resulting from technology have arisen entirely as a result of its utilization by human beings. Because the problem arises at human beings, it boils down to a matter of ethics, or morality.

These problems can be simply and directly solved, in the most decisive way, only when people have morality. Only then will technology and science be used for constructive purposes. Even though there may be some harmful consequences, arising from lack of circumspection or ignorance, their prevention and rectification will be on the best possible level.

Mankind has looked to science and technology to bring benefit to human society, but science and technology hold no guarantees that they will bring only the benefit that humanity hopes for. These things are entirely at the disposal of the user, to create harm or benefit, depending on how they are used.

If we ignore morality or ethics, instead of creating benefit, the most likely result is that science and technology will bring problems, stressing as they do the unrestrained production and consumption of goods with which to gratify the senses, feeding desire and greed (raga and lobha); escalation of the power to destroy (dosa); and increasing the availability and intensity of those influences which lure people into delusion and carelessness (moha). In so doing, technology tarnishes the quality of life and pollutes the environment. Only true ethics can alleviate these destructive influences.

Without ethics, technological progress, even the beneficial kinds, tends to increase the propensity for destruction. The more science and technology advance, the more keenly does destruction seem to threaten mankind; the more they are developed, the more is ethics necessitated, and the more will the stability and well-being of humanity be dependent on it.

In any case, this subject of ethics, although a simple and straightforward one, is largely ignored in modern times. Most people want to live without problems, but they don't want to solve problems. As long as they do not want to solve problems or deal with ethics, they must be prepared to suffer problems.

Science and technology cannot be separated

Science and technology have always supported one another. It's not only Science that has fostered technology's growth - technology has also been a decisive factor in the development of science. What is it that has enabled science to progress to where it is now? The scientific method. An essential part of the scientific method is observation and experiment. The earliest forms of observation and experiment were carried out through the five senses - eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, particularly the eyes for looking, the ears for listening and the hands for touching.

However, human sense organs are limited. We can see a limited number of stars and a limited portion of the universe with the naked eye. As technology developed, the telescope was invented. The invention of the telescope enabled science to make a Great Leap Forward. Microscopic organisms, invisible to the naked eye, were made visible through the invention of the microscope. Science once again made advances. Pure Science, we can see, has relied heavily on technology for its progress.

It is obvious how these two disciplines have affected each other. The tools used for scientific research are products of technology. That is why science and technology have been inseparably connected along their path of development. In the present day, scientists are looking to the computer, the instrument of the future, to further their quest for truth. The computer is capable of collecting and collating vast amounts of information, much more than the ordinary human mind would be capable of. In the future, the computer will be indispensable in the testing of hypotheses and the formulation of theories.

All in all, the benefits created by science appear to the mass of people through their technological manifestations. Humanity must, however, learn to choose between technology for creating benefit and technology for seeking benefit.

Reaching the limits, finding no answer

At the present time, the advances of science have been so vast that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe. Science has limited its investigations to the physical world, but as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the psychic world. Quite a number of scientists are becoming interested in the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source? Or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about. This indicates that science is beginning to encroach on the boundaries of the mind.

Looking at modern methods of observation and verification, we see that they have transcended the limitations of the five senses. Previously, the five senses on their own had been sufficient instruments of observation - the naked eye, the ear and the hands. Later we relied on instruments to expand their limited capabilities. Whenever the senses became incapable of perceiving any further, we resorted to these technological instruments.

But now, even with these instruments, we seem to have reached our limit. At this stage, scientific investigations are reduced to mathematical symbols. The language of mathematics is used to convey the meaning of scientific concepts, reducing the universe to a world of symbols.

As observation, experimentation and analysis enter the sphere of the psyche, science retains its basic attitude and method of experiment, and so is reduced to guesswork and belief. There is a lot of belief, or preconception, in this kind of observation. As it approaches the borders of the mind, it remains to be seen whether science can in fact enter into it, and by what means.

Values and motivations

Let us go back now and look at the birth of science and how it has developed to its present state.

Even though Pure Science would like to be distinguished from Applied Science and technology, nevertheless Pure Science shares some of the responsibility for the harm resulting from these things. In fact, in the last hundred years or so, Pure Science has not really been so pure. This is because there is a set of values implicit within Pure Science, one which the scientific fraternity is not aware of; and because it isn't aware of this set of values, science unknowingly becomes a subject of its influence.

What is the source of science? All sciences, be they natural or social sciences, are in fact based on sets of values. Take economics for example. What is the origin of economics? What is its source? Want is the source of economics. What is want? Can it be observed with any of the five senses? No, it can't. It is a quality of mind, a value. The discipline known as science claims it is free of values, but in fact it can never be truly value-free.

Now, where is the source of physical science? The source, or motivation, of science is the desire to know the truth of nature, or reality. This answer is acceptable to most scientists, and in fact it was given by a scientist. The desire to know nature's truths, together with the belief that nature does have constant laws, and functions according to cause and effect, are the two basic premises on which science bases its quest for the secrets of nature.

The foundation of science is within this human mind, at the desire to know, and at faith. Without these two mental qualities it would be impossible for science to grow and develop.

The motivation which drove the early developments of science, and which still exists to some extent, was the desire to know the truths of nature. This was a relatively pure kind of desire. In later times this desire to know was suppressed by the Church during the Dark Ages. The Christian Church established a court for appraising the extent of people's faith, known as the Inquisition. Those who doubted the word of the Bible, or who made statements which cast doubt on it, were brought before this court and put on trial, and if found guilty they were punished. Galileo was one of those brought on trial. He had said that the earth revolved around the sun, and was almost put to death by poisoning for this teaching. At the last moment he pleaded guilty and was absolved; he didn't die, but many others were burnt alive at the stake.

At that time there was overt suppression of the search for truth. But the stronger the suppression, the stronger the reaction. So it came about that this suppression and constraint of the Dark Ages had the effect of intensifying the desire to know the truths of nature, and this desire became instilled into the thinking of Western cultures, where it has remained until the present day.

Even so, this drive can still be considered a relatively pure desire for knowledge. The science we have nowadays, however, is no longer so pure. The science that has developed in the present time has been influenced by two major value systems, or preconceptions, which have impregnated the progress of science and controlled the direction of its research and learning.

What are these two values? They are:

l. The drive to conquer nature, or the understanding that the prosperity of mankind hinges on the subjugation of nature.

This way of thinking stems from the Christian belief that God created mankind in his own image, to take control of the world and have dominion over nature. God created nature, and all of the things within it, for man's use. Mankind is the leader, the hub of the Universe, the master. Mankind learns the secrets of nature in order to manipulate it according to his desires. Nature exists for man's use.

One Western text states that this idea is responsible for Western scientific progress. The text states that in ancient times, the East, particularly China and India, were scientifically more advanced than the West, but owing to the influence of this idea of conquering nature, the West eventually overtook the East, and has remained ahead up to the present time.

So the first major value system is the belief in Man's right to conquer nature, which provided the incentive (and the justification) for such actions. Now we come to the second major influence:

2. The belief that well-being depends on an abundance of material goods.

This line of thinking has also exerted a very powerful influence on the West's industrial expansion. Originally, industries in the West were created to address the problem of scarcity, which is found throughout Western history. Life in Western countries was beset by hostile elemental forces, such as freezing winters, which made farming impossible. People in such places had to live exceedingly arduous lives. Not only were they subject to freezing cold temperatures, but also food shortages. Life was a struggle for survival, and this struggle led to the development of industry.

Now what is the opposite to scarcity? The opposite of scarcity is plenty. People in Western countries thought that when the problem of scarcity was solved, they would be happy. This, then, was the impulse behind the development of the Industrial Revolution - the awareness of scarcity and the desire to provide sufficiency, which in turn was based on the view that material abundance was the prerequisite for happiness.

This kind of thinking developed into materialism, which in turn became consumerism, to which a significant contribution was made by the industrialists, under the influence of the first line of thinking mentioned above. The first idea mentioned just now was the belief in man's dominion over nature. Coupled with the idea that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material goods, we have the belief that nature must be conquered in order to produce material goods with which to cater to man's desires. These two ways of thinking are interrelated and reinforce each other.

It seems as if the pure desire for knowledge mentioned earlier has been corrupted, coming under the influence of the desires to conquer nature and to produce an abundance of material goods, or materialism. When these two values enter into the picture, that pure and clean desire for knowledge becomes an instrument for satisfying the aims of these secondary values, giving rise to an exploitive relationship with nature.

The assumption is that by conquering nature, mankind will be able to create unlimited material goods with which to cater to his desires, resulting in perfect happiness. The search for methods to implement this assumption follows on from that. So much progress has taken place in recent times, especially since the Industrial Revolution. It has even been said that the science which has developed recently, in the Industrial Age, is the servant of industry.

We can probably all agree that the prosperity experienced in recent times is a prosperity of industry. At this time, however, while Thais are entering wholeheartedly into the Industrial Age, the West is outgrowing it. Thailand would like to call itself a NIC (New Industrialized Country), but the Westerners have passed through that stage now, into a Post' Industrial Age, the Age of Information. Science is the important factor in either case. Science may claim that it has paved the way for industry, but industry says, "Science? That is my servant!"

Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear.

The cause for this is these two ideas: the desire to conquer nature, and materialism. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result damaging nature on an ever increasing scale. In addition, these two impulses are the cause for mankind's internal struggles, the struggle among individuals to wrest as much material comfort for each other as they can. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.

Behind the prosperity ...

These two assumptions are not the whole picture. There are also two major trends which have served to support them:

1. Specialization: The Industrial Age has been the age of specialization. Branches of learning have been subdivided into specialized fields of expertise. Each of these branches of learning may be very proficient in its respective field, but overall the different fields do not integrate.

The original purpose of this specialization of learning was to obtain knowledge on a more detailed level, and then to bring together all these areas of knowledge into one integrated whole, but the specialists have become blinded by their knowledge, giving rise to an unbalanced kind of specialization, an extreme view. In the field of science there are those who feel that science alone will solve mankind's problems and answer all his questions, which gives them little inclination to integrate their learning with other fields of knowledge.

This kind of outlook has caused the belief that religion and ethics are also specialized fields of learning. Modern education reduces ethics to just another academic subject. When people think of ethics, they think, "Oh, religion," and file it away in its little compartment. They aren't interested. But when it comes to solving the world's problems, they say, "Oh, my field can do that!" They don't think of trying to integrate it with other disciplines. If they really were capable of solving all problems, then they would have to be able to solve the ethical ones, too. But then they say that ethics is a concern of religion, of this or that field of expertise. This brings me to the second attitude I would like to mention:

2. The belief that ethical problems can be solved without the need for ethics. Supporters of this idea believe that when material development has reached its peak, all ethical problems will disappear of their own accord. According to this view, it is not necessary to train human beings or develop the mind. This is a line of reasoning which has recently appeared in the field of economics. Some economists say that if the economy is healthy and material goods are in plentiful supply, there will no longer be any contention, and society will be harmonious. This is simply saying that ethical or moral problems can be solved through material means, without the need for ethics.

This is not entirely wrong. Economic situations do have a bearing on ethical problems, but it is a mistake to look at the matter too simplistically, believing that if the economy was healthy, ethical problems would somehow disappear of their own accord.

It could be said, if somewhat facetiously, that this line of reasoning is true in one sense, because without ethics it would be impossible for the economy to be healthy. It could be alternatively said that if ethical practice was good (for example, people were encouraged to be diligent, generous, prudent and to use their possessions in a way that is useful to society), then economic problems would disappear.

The statement that when the economy is good, ethical problems will not arise, is true in the sense that before the economy can be healthy, ethical problems must be addressed. Similarly, the statement that when ethical problems are all solved, the economy will be healthy, is true in the sense that before ethical problems can be solved, economic problems must also be addressed.

The phrase 'ethical problems' takes in a wide range of situations, including mental health and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the solving of ethical problems through materialistic means must also entail dealing with moods and feelings, examples of which can be seen in the synthesization of tranquillizers to relieve stress, worry, depression and sorrow. But it would be a mistake to try to solve ethical problems through such means. This kind of relief is only temporary. It only soothes the problem, it does not solve it. We may come back to this point later on.

Many branches of learning would like to be recognized as definitive sciences, but the specialist perspective causes funnel vision, discord and in itself becomes an impediment to true science. The specialists are incapable of being true scientists. Even physics cannot be called true science, because it lacks completeness; its facts are piecemeal, its truth is partial. When truth is partial, it is not the real truth. With only some of the facts known, any deductions made are not in accordance with the total reality. The stream of cause and effect is not seen in its entirety, so the truth remains out of reach.

These two beliefs or attitudes (that is, specialization and the belief that ethical problems can be solved through material means) pervade the Age of Industrialization. Coupled with the two lines of reasoning previously mentioned, problems are intensified accordingly.

I have here initiated a course of enquiry. There may be some of you who are wondering what all this has to do with religion. In answer I would like to say that at this point we are beginning to approach the domain of religion. Many of the points I have mentioned so far come within the domain of religion, but in order to see this more clearly, I would like to retrace my steps and get onto the subject of religion itself. I have been speaking about science, its origins and development, now let's take a look at the origin and development of religion and try to integrate the two in some way.


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See also: Vietnamese translation by Venerable Thich Tam-Quang

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updated: 27-10-2001