John Horgan’s Dilemma
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/10/03
A few years
back John Horgan wrote 1 of the silliest books to be published in the last
couple of decades. It was called The End Of Science. In it JH
pontificated about how we puny humans are nearing a total understanding of
almost all the major science. No matter that countless others have uttered
similar sentiments for eons, that did not deter JH from declamations that this
generation is far beyond earlier generations in its total mass of knowledge, so
‘critical mass’ is being reached on many scientific fronts. Of course, the
very discovery in the last decade or so of extrasolar planers, the value of
‘junk’ DNA, the recognition that problems with predicting gravity’s effect
may belie the existence of other universes, etc. has proven such fears
A few months back in an online article called Why I Gave Up On Finding My Religion was posted on Slate [http://slate.msn.com/id/2078486/]. It was sort of a wishy-washy defense of atheism. I will excerpt parts & comment on why it seems to tie in to JH’s views on science. 1st off he declares that others state Buddhism is copacetic with science, like no other religion is. He also tries to imply that Buddhism is religion for the Mensans among us- as opposed to the troglodytes who religiate in other directions. Quoth JH: ‘As many as 4 million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians. Of these Buddhists, half have post-graduate degrees, according to one survey. Recently, convergences between science and Buddhism have been explored in a slew of books—including Zen and the Brain and The Psychology of Awakening—and scholarly meetings. Next fall Harvard will host a colloquium titled "Investigating the Mind," where leading cognitive scientists will swap theories with the Dalai Lama. Just the other week the New York Times hailed the "rapprochement between modern science and ancient [Buddhist] wisdom."’ 1st off, Buddhism is claimed as- at least according to most of its adherents whom I’ve spoken to- a philosophy, not a religion. As for its synchronicity with modern science- only in spots- but many a pagan ritual could claim the same tenuous links with science. & how many of these heathenistic rites were absorbed into Judaism, Christianity, & Islam? This is a typical example of true believers trying to align something with another less frightful thing that is perceived as better.
Then JH reverses fields & declares Buddhism is no better than (yikes!) Roman Catholicism- from which he’s a spurned lamb. Quoth JH:
For many, a chief selling point of Buddhism is its supposed de-emphasis of supernatural notions such as immortal souls and God. Buddhism "rejects the theological impulse," the philosopher Owen Flanagan declares approvingly in The Problem of the Soul. Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the "G" word. Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.
This is a good point most of the Buddhists I know tiptoe around. Anything that takes credibly the afterlife (or more accurately the afterdeath) has made its 1st major break from anything scientific. JH parries that Buddhists in the West view their faith this way: ‘As the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman put it, Buddhism is an "inner science," an empirical discipline for fulfilling our minds' potential. The ultimate goal is the state of preternatural bliss, wisdom, and moral grace sometimes called enlightenment—Buddhism's version of heaven, except that you don't have to die to get there.’ & Buddhism does not require death to reach its heaven- merely some devout meditation. Here’s where JH takes off:
The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.
The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.
Much more dubious is Buddhism's claim that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate. Ideally, as the British psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore writes in The Meme Machine, when you embrace your essential selflessness, "guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, and fear of failure ebb away and you become, contrary to expectation, a better neighbor." But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation.
It’s still up in the air as to whether the mind is an emergent phenomena- merely the byproduct of the multiple drafts of reality that impinge upon & overload our cognition. But JH is right about the unease experienced whenever people they are lifted out of the ordinary. JH then argues that feelings of selflessness may actually lead 1 to feeling that suffering is trivial. This is a dubious posit since Buddhists have never stormed a nation & imposed their will, & most sensations of feeling above remorse or sympathy are more properly seen as originating in psychopathy- not, at worst, Buddhism’s philosophic delusions. Yet, JH justifies his view thusly:
To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous.
But, is this a real point against Buddhism, or its abusers? American Catholics defend their church even as they claim the pedophiles who dominate the clergy are aberrations. I don’t know, as I know far less of Buddhism than Roman Catholicism, but the argument, at least in its framing, seems a red herring. He then states Buddhists accept abuse from their leaders as ‘hallmarks of a "crazy wisdom" that the unenlightened cannot fathom.’
Yet, after all this handwringing, JH gets to the very nub of his gripe- & the most viable:
But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha's first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual. From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped.
Yet, this is the essence of all religions- at least in principle. Buddhism seems, to me, merely the most severe expression of that particular peculiarity. JH continues that most ‘enlightened’ Buddhists become de facto agnostics. He sums up his treatise this way:
All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'ętre of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.
I agree wholeheartedly with JH’s conclusion, but having almost laughed myself silly over his book The End Of Science I am left to wonder what JH intends to do when the end- as he sees it- is reached? This is why his book is so disturbing in its conclusion. Damn religion all you want, but if you see no future for science, to me, you see no future. Period. The real question JH should be asking is how will the end of religion, whose demise is a few centuries off, affect science, which will keep on readjusting itself to the paradigmic parallaxes that sprout all about? That’s a thought disturbing enough to kickstart even the scientific bandwagon jumpers like JH!
Return to Bylines