In this post I argue that the popular science ‘priesthood’ of celebrities, journalists et al are serving a similar function to the spiritual leaders within organised religions who have traditionally interpreted scripture for the masses. However, there’s a big difference between believing the truth and knowing it. Just as reading about science is no substitute for actually conducting experiments and applying the data to solving practical problems, so too one’s reading of suttas and commentaries is no substitute for actually practicing the Buddha’s advice…
‘Two Roads to Freedom, Intersecting at Identification: A Comparative Analysis of Nietzsche and Buddhism on Process of Transforming Suffering’  is an interesting article that was recently recommended to me on Google+. As I was reading the author’s observation that the theory and practice of both Buddha and Nietzsche are inclusive and open to anyone who’s interested, it struck me that the opposite can be said for the theory and practice of modern science, which is the preserve of experts who basically tell the rest of us what to believe.
Seems to me, celebrity scientists, popular science journalists and others within the scientific community are servinga similar function to the spiritual leaders within organised religions, who have traditionally interpreted scripture for the masses. Modern-day members of the scientific ‘priesthood’ are acting as some kind of intermediary or bridge between the laws of nature and mere mortals, re-interpreting and spoon-feeding the findings of their learned brothers and sisters to the less well-informed general public.
My experience is, there’s a big difference between believing the truth and knowing it. For example, if I asked a scientist what water is I’d probably get a lecture about hydrogen and oxygen atoms and covalent bonding. But if I asked a Zen priest s/he’d probably tell me to take a drink or go swim in it! The truth of water requires both understandings, I would suggest.
No matter how many science publications one reads, whether popular journalism or primary research, one can never understand science like the men and women who conduct the experiments and record the observations or the engineers who apply this scientific data to solving practical problems. And no matter how many suttas and commentaries one reads, one can never understand Dhamma like the men and women who put the Buddha’s advice into practice.
The average non-scientist has little hope of directly realising the truth or otherwise of scientific claims and must heed the balance of opinion as reported in popular science media when deciding to accept or reject or sit on the fence. At least with Buddhism and, presumably, the mystical traditions within Christianity, Islam and other religions, the experimental resources (e.g. meditation, prayers, rituals, commentaries etc.) are available to those who wish to experience and fully understand the alleged ‘spiritual truth’ for themselves. But even if they wanted to, non-scientists are unlikely ever to experience and fully understand the alleged ‘scientific ‘truth’ themselves – because normally they don’t have the necessary financial backing or technical know-how either to replicate the original scientific experiments or to devise new ones. As an interested lay person without any real understanding or direct experience of the Higgs Boson, for example, I can only use my gut instinct to accept or reject or put aside what celebrities like Prof. Brian Cox et al tell me about it. The object of my intellectualising and speculating just doesn’t have that quality of certainty about it, unlike the object I can see, hear, touch, smell or taste directly with my own senses.
Of course, my saying all of this should not be construed as an anti-science stance – I’ve never rejected science as a method and it’s actually possible to maintain a middle way approach without falling into either ‘scientism’ on the one hand or the kind of extreme ‘scepticism’ where all scientific theories are rejected. One can accept an evidence-based theory provisionally, without clinging to it as the ‘truth’, until experience suggests otherwise.
Neither am I trying to assert the superiority of Buddhism over science – they both have their merits and problems. I’m merely pointing to yet another apparent difference between the two approaches to understanding what we are and our place within the universe.
With regard to Buddhism, my approach is to regard the Buddha’s spiritual teachings as skilful means for the cessation of suffering and not to treat the ancient scriptural accounts (of devas or realms of rebirth, for example) as redundant scientific hypotheses or ‘reality statements’. The Buddha emphasised knowing through experience the causes of suffering; unlike modern day scientists, he wasn’t interested in explaining the universe and most probably would not hold peer-reviewed science papers in high regard if he was alive today. I see Buddhism and science as having different objectives; they offer us two very different – but complementary – approaches to knowing as opposed to merely believing what’s real, and I reckon there’s no benefit in elevating one over the other.
NB: This revised version replaces the original that was posted on 17 July 2013.