Buddhism and Science: Knowledge Acquisition, Refinement, and Application (KARAS)

Buddhism and Science: Knowledge Acquisition, Refinement, and Application (KARAS)

 A few days after posting this, it occurred to me that the discussion might seem rather abstract to most readers, who cares about this comparison of Buddhism and science anyway?  Is there a practical dimension to all this?

Yes, there is a very practical dimension which I should mention here at the beginning.

Like all human beings, I am strongly interested in increasing my satisfaction with life and decreasing my suffering.  I think that one important component of decreasing my suffering and increasing my satisfaction is having a better and better understanding of the way reality works, so I can live in a more and more effective manner.  One way to look at Buddhism then, indeed a primary way for many Buddhists, is that it’s a conceptual system and set of practices intended to reduce human suffering.

So how effective has it been?  Well, since it’s still around after 2500 years, I would say it’s worked very well for at least some people and at least fairly well for a large number of people.  But is it perfect?

Two of our outstanding human qualities are that we like things to “make sense,” and we like to be effective, to have our ideas work when we apply them to life.  A major human problem, though, is we are extremely good at rationalizing, at creating patterns of thoughts that make sense out of things, but which later scientific advances might show our not really the way things are.  The early chemical theory of phlogiston seemed to make a lot of sense out of combustion for a long time, but nobody takes it seriously nowadays.  It’s just rationalizing, retrospective fitting of ideas to what we’ve seen so far, but a set of ideas that doesn’t accurately reflect the undermining underlying laws of reality.  That’s why, when you come up with a scientific theory, you feel wonderful that it makes sense out of things, but, if you doing science properly, you have to realize that any theory needs testing in new areas, which may lead to the need for revision or perhaps a whole new theory.

So how about Buddhism?  Is it the ultimately correct knowledge about the nature of the human mind and human experience, the best possible way to reduce suffering and increase happiness?  Or, a possibility to be taken seriously, is it a quite good one that has worked very well for many people for a long time, but it’s still just a partial view of reality and better understandings and practices are possible?

Science has developed what we might think of as “error correction techniques,” ways of keeping us making progress instead of becoming overly attached to theories and practices which are only partially correct.  My main purpose in comparing Buddhism and science is to eventually see how these error correcting techniques might be applied to Buddhism, so we can come up with even more effective ways to understand human experience and reduce suffering.  That’s what the following discussion is a beginning of.



I’m a proponent of Progress, and believe that an important part of progress comes from  accurate knowledge of reality, reality including both the reality of the “outside” world and our own mind and nature.  Here I want to share some brief thoughts about how we make progress, thoughts about Knowledge (K), its Acquisition (A), its Refinement (R), and its Application (A) Systems, especially in comparing what I know about Buddhism and science.

I’ll outline eight aspects of these KARASs in the following table.  The convention I’ve used is a bold checkmark indicates something is quite important in that KARAS, the smaller ± indicates you can find that something, but it’s not usually central or important.

science and Buddhism table

Because of my research in parapsychology, a field that has been prejudicially and viciously attacked for more than a century as being “unscientific” because it dares look at things that are not supposed to be there, I’ve gotten very sensitive to scientific methodology and how we go about acquiring and refining knowledge.  I believe my understanding of what basic, essential science is all about is widely accepted among scientists, also, because while many scientists couldn’t believe that I proposed we could learn to do science in altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in my 1972 article (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 176, 1203-1210), no scientist reader has ever criticized my basic characterization of scientific method.  In this table, I’m doing a rough comparison of Buddhism (the selected versions I’ve been exposed to, undoubtedly contradicted by the practices some [many?] particular versions of Buddhism) and Western science.

The area inside the oval is methods of acquiring/discovering and refining knowledge that are common to both Buddhism and science.  Both Buddhist and scientists, e.g., have our natural human, unaided sensory inputs and processing circuits, the latter probably built into the hardware of the brain, to transform certain kinds of input into certain kinds of experience, what I’ve called biological-psychological virtual reality (BPVR) constructs.  I look to my right, for example, and immediately see a bookshelf, and the particulars of this automatized perception are due to my human bio-hardware and cultural conditioning.  So we all look around and have a “common sense” view of the world.  We can all also reason, in the sense that there’s some kind of basic logic, probably hard-wired in our brains, plus cultural training to be “logical” by cultural standards also.

Now we get into the interesting differences between Buddhism and science.  Again, I put a big check mark in a table cell to show that something is very important in a KARAS discipline, and a small ± to show that you can find some instances of that in the other discipline, but it’s not at all central.

Buddhism strives to change the functioning of ordinary consciousness (“purify” it) and/or get into one or more altered states of consciousness.  Two of the principal tools for doing this are greatly enhanced concentration abilities via particular kinds of meditation practice and enhanced insight abilities via other particular kinds of meditation practice.  All three of these things (ASCs, concentration, insight) are not central to ordinary Western science.  In all my years of graduate school, e.g., no faculty teacher even mentioned, much less taught, how to concentrate better, how to have enhanced insight, or how to get into altered states, and there was only a certain grudging admission that some advances in science have been made by “creative” people who might have been in an ASC, like a dream, when they got a basic idea.  But then, of course, after inspiration the real scientific conceptual work was done in ordinary consciousness.

Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, is also very big on Authorities.  In spite of the Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas (see below), which I greatly admire as paralleling essential science, I get the impression that reasoning in Buddhist practice is primarily to get you to agree with what the Buddha and various Buddhist authorities of the past said.  That is, whatever you experience in meditation or ASCs is shaped and selected both at the time and retrospectively by what the Authorities have said about it.

You could raise an interesting question as to what degree various kinds of “enlightenment” are specific states that are a natural part of being human, independent of particular cultural beliefs, and to what degree they are constructed as they are by the influence of past Authorities.  In science, as I’ve heard Shinzen Young point out so aptly in one of his talks, if a first-year graduate student attending a seminar gets up and points out a mistake in the reasoning or data interpretation of world-famous Professor so-and-so, and she is correct, Professor so-and-so has to change his ideas.  I’m not sure I can recall an instance of an official Buddhist teacher I’ve heard or read ever talking about how, as great as he was, the Buddha was wrong about certain things.

Another major difference from Buddhism is that in science, the worldview is primarily influenced by instrumentally enhanced sensory perception,  Measuring devices give us detailed knowledge of the physical world that simply is not available to the unaided senses.  I wouldn’t completely rule out some kind of clairvoyant perception of the normally invisible being possible, but I wouldn’t expect bacteria, for example, to be discovered by anyone who had greatly developed their meditative skills alone. The human eye simply won’t resolve anything that’s so small, and I doubt there is a priori knowledge of the existence of bacteria genetically passed it on to the human brain.

One other major difference I’m thinking about, well, two actually.  One is the big or long-term worldview.  Buddhism, as it’s been presented to me, either is not interested in ideas about where reality came from and where it’s going (we are suffering now and need to do something about it now, not worry about why we are suffering or where the future is going), or it specifically sees our times as becoming more and more degenerate, more and more beings (Oops!  I almost said selves…) becoming more and more deeply lost in samsara.  Most scientists, though, think that we are going to continue learning more and more about the nature of physical reality, and, since most are materialists, as we learn more more about physical reality, we will understand more and more about the mind.  We expect there’ll be progress.

There is a second thing that I haven’t figured out how to represent in the table yet.  If your primary data gathering methods are enhanced concentration, enhanced insight, applied in ASCs, it certainly tends to make you think that what you can experience is reality.  Thus if you can’t find any “self” looking inside with your altered abilities, you are tempted to conclude that there is no such thing as a real and permanent “self.”  I find that a huge conceptual leap.

I would not argue that there are no bacteria because no meditators have ever found them: their “data-gathering equipment,” unaided senses, is inadequate to discover bacteria.  Just because I can’t find a “self” when I’ve looked inside, I don’t know whether that means such a “self” doesn’t exist or that I simply can’t find it.  Intellectually, at least, I am agnostic about the ultimate nature of the “self,” while certainly acknowledging that its presentation can change drastically and that too much attachment to it can create a lot of otherwise unnecessary suffering.

Of course as I hinted at in a previous posting, this ability to not find a “self,” to deconstruct it, as it were, is an extremely valuable tool for reducing suffering, but just because I suffer less may or may not tell me more about what reality really is.  I guess I’m a realist terms of philosophy, at least most of the time, I assume there’s universe out there that existed before me and will exist after me, no matter what I think or don’t think about it.  And I acknowledge that my usual (and unusual) perception of and thinking about such a universe is enormously influenced by my psychology, and if I want to understand that external reality I have to find ways of studying it that are not inherently biased by my internal nature.

As human beings, we love success.  Give us a new gadget that does a lot of things (my Swiss Army knife immediately springs to mind, and I always carry it with me!), or an explanatory system that usefully organizes observation and experience and allows us to have increased control over some things, and we’re very pleased.  We then, however, tend to get overly attached to that which has been successful, and to start applying it everywhere.  Buddhism has been successful for many people in making a kind of sense of the world to them and, in a practical way, reducing or eliminating most of their personal suffering.  Thus it’s psychologically pretty easy to use the experiential knowledge of the mind gathered through Buddhist practice and doctrine to explain everything, but, where do bacteria and radio waves fit it?

The sciences, applied intensively to the external world, have discovered bacteria and allowed us to generate and use radio waves, so it’s very tempting to think everything will eventually be explained in those kind of terms, but the basic nature of the mind tends to be ignored, with the belief that someday they will explain it in physical terms related to brain functioning, rather than understanding it the way Buddhists or practitioners of other spiritual disciplines might.

I think these two knowledge acquisition and refinement systems can contribute a great deal to each other, but we have to start from recognizing their limitations.  If, using the example above, I have been unable to find any kind of a real and permanent “self” through my meditative practices, and people much more skilled at Buddhist meditation report the same thing, it makes perfect sense to say that using this tool of meditative practice, influenced a priori to unknown degrees by a Buddhist cosmology, leads to a “reasonable” conclusion that there is no real and permanent self.  But what light other tools, other knowledge acquisition and refinement systems might cast on a question like this, is still open.

TO BE WORKED OUT:  Application of above to personal spiritual growth…

Gautama Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

(from Gates, 1989).





  1. Another tool which can be used to disarm stress and prevent its detriments is the practice of meditation. Meditation is practiced in many forms and with different approaches and goals but is seldom used to address stress in a constructive manner. Instead it often serves as just another approach to facilitate flight from the unpleasantness of anxiety. Practitioners will usually assert that are seeking to reach a higher consciousness plane. If this is true and they do reach such a plane, it could be helpful in dealing with stress. But whatever state the practitioner reaches, it would appear that in most cases he/she is seeking temporary relief from stress in this esoteric state rather than an approach to resolving those issues which have caused the stress. If the practice is to have more than an anesthetizing effect, the clarity reached during the process must carry over into our everyday functioning. But we seldom see practitioners operating in the same mindset outside their trancelike state. That said, I do not deny that meditation can be a powerful tool in realigning the various levels of consciousness, with the right motivation.

    This brings to mind another metaphoric comparison revolving around analog television transmissions. As purchased, an analog TV has access to a few dozen local channels via the antenna provided. The reception of this antenna can vary based on location and objects acting as obstacles or providing interference. Usually, with proper tuning, excellent antenna reception can be provided for most of the local channels.

    Typically, when cable TV is installed hundreds of channels are fed into one of the TV’s regular channels, usually #3, and a converter box is used to fine tune that TV channel and select the actual desired viewing channel. In order to make the cable connection, the antenna must be disengaged. Afterward, if one were to try to change channels using the TV selector and move from channel 3 they not only lose the cable connection, but they cannot receive any clear signal from the local channels. Amidst the heavy snow and hiss one can sometimes see outlines of the programs on a few channels, but little more. Return the channel selector to channel 3 and clear cable reception of several hundred channels is instantly restored. The human consciousness operates similarly. Akin to the way a TV functions, human beings evolve with a cable-like hookup which is meant to be fed by higher consciousness. This connection takes time to develop. However, unlike a TV, human consciousness was not designed to function with an antenna. After conception occurs, as the fetus begins to grow it is preparing to house a direct hookup which will feed it input from innumerable sources, not just a few dozen. But almost immediately it finds the environment surrounding it hostile to this development and the connection does not grow as intended, leading to a very stunted and shrunken center of awareness. It is from this shriveled perspective that we are faced with coping with our world.

    If the proper hookup had been established and strengthened right from our gestation, once our intellect reached the potential where it could provide reason and context to our lives, at around age 3 ½, we would then begin to explore the hundreds of “channels” available to us. These would take the form of different perspectives of reality. Just as the universe seems limitless, the number of our perspectives of it would also be virtually limitless and we would potentially have access to all of them. But being disconnected, as our intellect develops it is faced with mainly hiss and snow and maybe a few shapes. And from this, most of us try to perceive and explain our world.

    Philosophers, teachers, sages, gurus: all have spent their lives analyzing these shapes, trying to clear up the snow and the hiss on, at most, a few of these channels. Keep in mind that these individuals must go through the same birth and maturing process as all of us. Unless they were raised by evolved parents who nurtured them and protected them from outside negative pressures, they have suffered to varying degrees the same primal pain and must struggle with the same perceptual afflictions. If this primal pain is not dealt with, even these individuals, who have spent enormous time refining their mental approach to life, will have had their “wisdom” distorted. After all, how can one hope to diagnose one’s own affliction when it greatly debilitates the main diagnostic tool–the consciousness?

    It is like an ophthalmologist trying to peer through his own detached retina in order to determine what course of treatment would be necessary to repair it. Signs of general dysfunction would be clear to him, but he would have been functioning at a seriously diminished level of perception for so long that he would likely view it as “normal.” We can only gain the awareness of the abnormality of our condition by quieting that which is causing our consciousness to swirl–anxiety. Most of the aforementioned individuals show no indication of having done so.

    I believe that individuals have existed, past and present, who have developed unusual mental powers in spite of enduring the same psychological challenges as the rest of us. They seem to have demonstrated impressive discipline and command over both thought and physical endurance. Returning to the TV analogy, it is as if they have achieved success by being able to rig a substitute antenna to clear one or more of these frequencies. This makes them appear to be masters of a narrow medium, although they must wage a constant struggle to maintain the antenna in position. To reach the “higher plane” to which they lay claim, many of them use meditation. But the focus of their meditation is upon resisting the effect of the forces that threaten to reduce the conscious clarity they are seeking to establish and maintain, rather than addressing the forces themselves. It would be like the alcoholic who, while continuing to drink, tries, through the force of concentration, to maintain balance as he is walking rather than focusing his concentration on ending his alcohol intake. When these “enlightened seekers” do achieve clarity, they tend to proclaim that they have found “the way,” not realizing that they have accessed, at most, a few local channels and that hundreds more are out there–perhaps far more than that.

    In the process of using meditation and various other mind expansion techniques, these practitioners sometimes manage to circumvent, partially and temporarily, the anxiety straightjacket. The relief they experience often encourages them to delve even deeper into the search for “higher,” esoteric powers of consciousness. But, in reality, what they are pursuing is relief of anxiety, not higher “wisdom,” as they profess. Usually they don’t see this, for not only do they feel somewhat relieved of pain and anxiety in a subjective sense, but they can justify their “progress” by measuring themselves against those who are swallowed by cultural conditioning. This, of course, is a completely deceiving comparison since even a tiny match, whose light is barely noticed in broad daylight, can appear as a bright beacon in a fully enclosed cavern. If they do embrace this comparison and see themselves as “advanced,” not only have they accepted a distorted view of themselves, but their perception is tempted to drift even further out of touch with reality.

    The relatively early deaths (life expectancy of an individual in harmony with him/herself should be well over 100) of so many of these “consciously evolved” individuals seems to point to a lingering internal disharmony rather than their having voluntarily chosen to move on to another plane, as their followers often maintain. This disharmony cannot help but raise questions as to the complete authenticity of the views these individuals have expressed. As with the rest of us, it would seem that they have been peering through a dense fog of anxiety and suffered at least some of the same damage to their instrument of perception–that through which they’ve sculpted their views. As the title of a popular book states, “Your Body Doesn’t Lie.”

    1. Right, you’ve got it!

      “Meditation” is used for so many different procedures with different goals and outcomes that I’d like to ban the word. If someone tells me they “meditate,” unless they get a lot more specific I know almost nothing about what they do.

      And many types of meditation can be employed as an escape, which is not good in the long run. We call it spiritual bypass in transpersonal psychology, not dealing with a real problem. I have no objection with occasional escape. After all we sleep every night, we watch movies, etc., that’s usually escape. But when you do it all the time, it’s, as you point out, not healthy!

      The kind of mindfulness I’ve written about in my 3 books on that is about mindfulness in life, developing a clearer perception of what’s actually happening and your reactions to it, moment by moment. Generally with a clearer understanding of a situation you can deal with it more effectively.

      I also have to be careful, though, not to put people down because they might be escaping. Most of us are doing the best we can. Building up from there is good, just condemning yourself is seldom helpful.

  2. I’d like to add that it’s not only Buddhists who can’t find selves through experience. It is both a theme in western philosophy (Hume being a famous example) and more recently a common idea in the mind sciences (emergence, neural networks, distributed cognition etc).

    In “The Embodied Mind” Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch claims one of the reasons there could be a common ground between Buddhism and science is exactly this point. And cognitive scientists making the discovery of no-self could benefit from training in Buddhism to embody this understanding, instead of being left feeling they’re condemned to believe in something they know is not real.

    Love this blog and the honesty of your writing!

    1. First we need to drop he idea that the “self” is a fixed thing. Whatever it is or isn’t, it’s a constantly changing process. Further, we clearly get too fixated on beliefs about our selves and that creates trouble as belief gets in the way of perceiving reality. But as to Buddhist no-self…well I understand it’s important to get less fixated on self, and I understand that in various altered states, which might be reached via meditation methods, you can have vastly different experiences of what your “self” is…but they Buddhism does work with the idea of your karma, so something travels from one lifetime to the next. I think there is considerable possible confusion (or I just don’t get it) in Buddhist literature here as they try to logically (ordinary waking state logic) try to reconcile no self with personal karma. My suggestion to develop state-specific sciences may eventually help. Good comment.

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