Does Buddhism Need Scientific Validation?

This may be opening a can of worms but here it goes!

I keep seeing this idea that Buddhist knowledge needs to be scientifically validated to hold value. Science is an inherently Western concept coming out of the Age of Enlightenment and the investigations of the universe that followed it. If the scientific method is the only universal method then it invalidates all other forms of knowledge production and relies upon Western traditions of inquiry. Which leaves an Eurocentric taste in my mouth. Buddhism claims to help its practitioner to understand the human condition of suffering by offering a path to end suffering and many people have claimed it works to reduce or eliminate their suffering. It manages to support its own claims anecdotally in this way. It is not like Buddhist methods of inquiry intent to explain the physical world in detail, as science does, it just intends to explain why we experience suffering and how to end it.

So why does Buddhist knowledge production need to be validated by the scientific method instead of its own methods? Not that there is anything wrong with the two finding overlaps, but can’t Buddhism be accepted under its own merits for its own purpose?

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I would say that according to the Dhamma itself, it only needs personal, experiential validation (paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī).

Sometimes, the suttas may contradict what we seem to know of the universe today, but I think these contradictions, even though they may weaken the Dhamma’s credibility for those who haven’t experienced it yet, can be brushed aside.

Maybe the Buddha wasn’t scientifically speaking omniscient, or ideas contradicting science have been inserted in the suttas during the transmission process (although proving the latter would require a lot of converging evidence). Whatever the case may be, the important thing is that the Dhamma is visible in this world, having immediate effects, inviting to come and see, and leading onwards.

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What do you mean by ‘Buddhist knowledge’? liberation? meditation? or also that Mara went into Moggallana’s stomach? or everything written in any sutta?

Oh, I think the observation of stars, seasons, production of weapons and plough, geometry, mechanics, algebra, etc. were a tad before enlightenment, and also not in the West.

says who? are there any people telling you that your headache doesn’t exist because you haven’t proven it to exist scientifically? Is anyone demanding to base your election choise on science?
Why indeed do you throw such a can of worms into the ether?

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I would say that Buddhist knowledge focuses on suffering and the liberation from it. While “meditation” would be an aspect of knowledge production. I am not saying that science is thrown out the window and replaced with Buddhist mythology. I wouldn’t say that dealing with every aspect of the mind is within Buddhism’s strong suit of knowledge but some people argue it is.

The scientific method as is a Western concept especially in its modern form, since it followed the Scientific Revolution. The components of the method can’t be attributed to one culture just like you say. The theme of challenging science, particularly in areas where people are involved, is very common with epistemological decoloniztion. Gurminder Bhambra is an excellent example of this challenging the idea that sociology purely scientific, unbiased, and universally applicable field.

The main idea I meant to get across is that you cannot fit everything into in a clean scientific procedure. Buddhism covers a lot of areas that science struggles with (particularly with the mind) and people claim to benefit from follow its guidelines. I find that enough to leave it to stand on its own without having to follow the scientific method to back up the claims.

So you object to ‘the idea that Buddhist liberation needs to be scientifically validated to hold true’. Who are those ‘people’ with this idea? They must be of a pretty significant number, otherwise you wouldn’t have felt disturbed by it. Quote please.

And where is this major force again that wants to fit everything into this clean ‘scientific procedure’?

Unless you can show with sources these ‘scientific enemies of Buddhist liberation’ it looks like a strawman argument.

Obviously it’s not enough for you otherwise you wouldn’t have started the topic.

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Does Buddhism Need Scientific Validation?
No I say but it wouldn’t hurt. A bit of a tangent but are you familiar with Wilbur’s book The Marriage of Sense and Soul?

He suggests there is a way for contemplative disciplines to be explored within “a context of broad science”. He points out two primary objections (from the scientific perspective) to an integration of science and religion :

  • …interior domains have no reality of their own; thus there are no “interior” modes of knowing that cannot be explained away, literally."
  • “Even if there were other modes of knowing than the sensory-empirical, they would have no mean of validation and thus could not be taken seriously.”

Wilber reasons that if “empirical science rejects the validity of any and all forms of interior apprehension and knowledge, then it” must also reject “its own validity as well”. This is so because “a great deal” of this knowledge itself, already “rests on interior structures and apprehensions that are not delivered by” and hence can’t be confirmed by, “the senses (such as logic and mathematics, to name only two).” Likewise, " (i)f science acknowledges these interior apprehensions , upon which its own operations depend, then it cannot object to interior knowledge per se . It cannot toss all interiors into the garbage can without tossing itself with it."

I read the book years ago and I feel he makes some important points. The wikipedia article linked to above covers the topic quite well.

The scientific method is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as:

a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

Two words stand out in the definition:

  • measurement in Buddhism is necessarily subjective. There is currently no universally recognized “suffering meter”. Even in medicine, patients are asked to gauge their own pain and suffering.
  • “hypotheses” equate to “views” in Buddhism. We tend to trust science, but in that trust we can miss a very important point that scientific theories, no matter how well substantiated by experiment are ultimately still hypotheses at their core. To this day scientists keep testing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and results are always reported with a margin of error.

So just as one can conduct experiments on the Theory of Relativity, one can also conduct experiments on the Four Noble Truths:

AN3.53:1.3: In what way is the teaching visible in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves?”

My approach to physics is the same as my approach to Buddhism: learn and test hypotheses. Even today we have Nobel scientists retracting papers whose hypotheses were questionable. So “scientific validation” is a rather peculiar phrase that improperly implies inviolable certification of truth. Pragmatically, it’s cumbersome to always prefix every scientific statement with “as far as we know”, but that prefix should be understood by all of us. As far as we know, science and Buddhism work and are verifiable by each of us.

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You can’t put nibbāna in a test tube. Personally I work in science, specifically biomedical science. The scientific method is a great way to examine the material world and it’s great at finding solutions to certain problems of that world, but the scientific method can’t address everything. It has its limits. Subjective realities, which is what the Dhamma ultimately deals in, are beyond the reach of science for science can never address the subjective. It’s simply beyond it’s reach.

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The problem is when fans or followers cannot distinguish between their proclivities and a more sober observation. If someone is a bhakta then by all means compose inspiring poems, the EBT are full of them. But then again when it’s convenient some followers say “The Buddha was a scientist!” (especially in comparison to other denigrated religions), and when another convenience arises “Don’t belittle Buddhism with your petty reductionist western science, it’s much grander than that” or “It cannot be measured like that”. Well, didn’t the Buddha use inference, deduction and induction?

Didn’t he use metaphors from the science of agriculture (fields of merit…) and medicine (poisoned arrow), physics (oil swimming on water), engineering (construction of a cart). Oh, but right, these were good sciences, non-colonial, nice genuine innocent Indian sciences. I guess in contrast literature sciences, or comparative religious studies, or neuro-physiology are per definition forbidden. In short, why complain about people who want to investigate Buddhism in their way - let’s see what it brings.

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