Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

Karl Popper: A Buddhist Response

Posted in: Philosophy, Science
This article is part of the series Karl Popper. Articles in the series are:
Popper

Introduction

The idea that scientific theories cannot be proved, only disproved, now seems so generally accepted that it is easy to overlook the man who came up with it. To be sure, as with the theory of evolution, there were cultural currents flowing that way. The notion of ‘falsifiability’ was presaged and necessitated by the seismic shifts that had recently taken place in the realm of theoretical physics, in which over two hundred years of Newtonian dominance was overturned twice in as many decades, first by Relativity and then by Quantum Mechanics. But again, as with evolution, it took an outstanding intelligence to give an inchoate and implicit idea a formulation so clear that it is now taken for granted. This was provided by Karl Popper.

Like all the best ideas, falsifiability can be expressed quite simply. But Popper’s greatness as a thinker lay not only in his formulation of this important principle, but in the robustness of his defence of it and the thoroughness of his working through of its implications. And those implications are far-reaching indeed. As I shall explore further in part two of this article, the process of ‘conjecture and refutation’ is not merely important for scientific enquiry, but runs throughout evolutionary history, may be found in any human activity, and has profound implications for the collective life of humankind.

In an article of this length we cannot hope to do justice to the richness of Popper’s ideas, and must be content with an overview of the most important of them. Nor will I draw attention to the criticisms that have been made of them, but will concentrate rather on the question of a Buddhist response. This response will consist in a number of elements. There are significant points of convergence between Popper’s philosophy and that of Buddhism, which I shall try to identify. And there are the equally interesting questions firstly of what, if anything, is lacking in Popper, and whether Buddhism can fill the void; and secondly whether there is anything in particular in Popper that Buddhists would do well to take heed of, especially in present times. First, however, we must look at his most important idea, in the context of the two major philosophical problems he was concerned to address. 

Two Problems

Popper suggested his theory of falsifiability as a solution to two problems of great significance in Western philosophy: The problem of induction and the problem of demarcation (between science and metaphysics). The first problem is associated particularly with Hume, the second – which Popper considered more fundamental – with Kant.

The discipline of logic recognises two major forms of inference, the deductive and the inductive. Deduction is, one could say, inference proper. Through it, a particular statement is inferred from one or more general statements. The validity or invalidity of a deduction is seen to be a matter of necessity, equal in universality to the laws of mathematics, and not requiring empirical examination. Thus, if a general statement is true, a particular statement, validly deduced from it, must also be true.

Inductive inference, even according to the traditional view (which Popper attacks) is very different. Induction takes place not from the general to the particular, but from the particular to the general. A finite number of concrete observations are used as a basis from which to infer general laws of which they are instances. X being observed to follow Y a number of times, it is inferred that there is a causal connection between X and Y, such that if X arises, Y also arises.

Until Popper, the dominant theory of scientific method was that of induction, as formulated particularly by Francis Bacon, and developed by the likes of J.S. Mill. But it was one of David Hume’s great contributions to philosophy to establish that induction is a flawed method, and this being the case, that the entire edifice of scientific knowledge rested on an insecure foundation. No matter how many times two phenomena are observed to correlate, Hume argued, a causal connection is never observed, nor can reason ever ultimately justify assuming one.

The impact of this insight on Western thought was immense. It was this that awoke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumber’, and led him to formulate the most radical and influential philosophy of the modern era. But for Kant, the question was of how a supreme and unchallenged theoretical system – i.e. Newtonian physics – was justified, if not through inductive reasoning. For Popper the situation was different. In a remarkable instance of science following philosophy, early in the twentieth century the foundations of Newtonian physics were not only questioned theoretically, but overturned experimentally. This pointed Popper towards a rejection of induction that was more radical even than Hume’s, and to his own distinctive theory of how science progresses.

Popper agreed with Hume that induction is logically invalid. But Hume allowed it a psychological role in governing assumptions about how things work. We cannot prove that any particular observed regularities will persist, he said; but we cannot help but assume that they will. Popper regarded even this as illegitimate, and allowed no role for induction in the development of human knowledge. Instead, he described a procedure of ‘conjecture and refutation’. I suggest it would be helpful to think of this as ‘conjecture, deduction, and refutation’, since the process is in fact threefold. The following is my attempt at a summary.

For any individual, at any moment in time, there is a given state of theoretical knowledge of the world. This knowledge is an approximation to the truth, which explains certain things and not others. The progress of knowledge begins when an individual recognises the limitations of the current theory, and hypothesizes another that does a better job of explaining things – explaining more things, in more detail. But in order to know which of the two theories, the old or the new, is in fact better, they must be tested. This is done as follows. A theory consists of one or a system of general statements – statements of unrestricted universality. From these general statements, particular statements (Popper called them ‘basic statements’) may be deduced. Among the many basic statements that are deducible from the new theory, some will not be deducible from the old theory; and it is these that are of greatest relevance, because tests may then be performed in which the truth or falsity of the basic statements of the respective theories can be observed. If a basic statement deducible from the new theory is found to be true, but is incompatible with the old theory, the new theory may be said to have been corroborated, and the old theory has been falsified. This does not mean that the new theory has been proved; it means that it is a better approximation to the truth than the old theory. But the new theory will then open up new areas of exploration in which it may eventually itself be shown to be limited, and replaced by a theory that has better withstood testing. And so the process continues.

A classic example of the above is the way Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity superseded Newton’s theory of gravity. An experiment for testing the two theories was derived by Sir Arthur Eddington, and involved observing the position of light from stars during a solar eclipse. Newton’s theory predicted the starlight to appear in one position, Einstein’s in another. Relativity passed the test, and classical physics was falsified.

It is important to note that induction has no place in this procedure. The only form of inference required – and according to Popper the only form that is valid – is deductive. General laws are proposed, from which particular testable predictions are deduced, those predictions being favoured that have the potential to falsify one or other of the theories being tested. This banishing of induction from our understanding of scientific method allows a much more open and creative approach to the growth of knowledge. Theories are far from being an outgrowth of the accumulation of facts, and are in fact products of human creative imagination, akin, as Popper explicitly says, to myth and poetry.

The Problem of Demarcation

Popper claimed that his theory of falsification solved not only the problem of induction, but the problem of demarcation too. It was one of Kant’s most outstanding achievements to explore the limits of the use of reason, and to restrict its (non-mathematical) use to ‘sensibility’, or direct experience through the senses. Anything else, he said, leads inevitably to empty metaphysical speculation. Popper built on this legacy, and his theory allows us to say more precisely what should and should not be considered as science. In brief, a theory or statement is within the realm of science if it is falsifiable. Imaginative speculation has its place in the formation of theories, but from a scientific point of view these are generally useless unless and until particular predictions can be made on their basis, predictions which potentially have the function of falsifying the theories.

This is Popper’s central idea, and the one from which everything else in his philosophy flows. Following all the branches that grow from this central stem would be beyond the scope of this essay. But what I would like to do now is focus on certain points of intersection between Popper’s philosophy and Buddhism. Many more aspects of his thought may be touched on in the course of doing so, and I hope some mutual illumination found in the relations between the two sets of ideas.

Regularities

Let us start with what is perhaps most fundamental. The entire scientific method depends entirely upon an idea that is equally central to Buddhism. I mean the existence of regularities. For convenience of exposition I left this out of my account of falsification, but of course, singular falsifying observations are not sufficient. It must be apparent that these are replicable, which means that they must be in accordance with an assumed orderliness of the universe. ‘Thus a few stray basic statements contradicting a theory will hardly induce us to reject it as falsified’,1 for such may be the result of faulty measurement, of a freak occurrence from some unknown cause, even some kind of miracle (the existence or otherwise of which has nothing to do with science). An observation is only potentially falsifying if it is repeatable.

The existence of regularities is expressed in Buddhism through the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda  – conditioned arising – the principle that whatever arises, arises in dependence upon conditions; or in Richard Gombrich’s neat encapsulation, ‘non-random process’. So central is this idea that it has been described as the root doctrine of Buddhism, and as the primary formulation of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of things. But while I see no major incompatibility between Popper’s view and the Buddhist one, there are very great differences of approach and perspective.

The key difference, on this and all points, is that Popper is interested in the development, criticism and improvement of theoretical knowledge; whereas Buddhist thought is founded on the claim that the Buddha attained a state of spiritual liberation – the highest imaginable, in fact. Following this, for Popper the existence of regularities is a precondition for theoretical knowledge – or even the concepts that make it up – to have any purchase. For a Buddhist, however, an understanding of pratītya-samutpāda is promised that is not merely theoretical, but consists of an insight into, rather than a merely theoretical understanding of, the conditioned nature of phenomena. Sangharakshita goes so far as to explicitly repudiate any similarity with scientific understanding.

… we must clearly understand that this insight is a purely spiritual attainment, and that it has nothing to do with any kind of conceptual construction. Though described by the Buddha in terms comprehensible to the intellect, it would be a mistake of the most disastrous kind to imagine that it was even remotely akin to the intellectual understanding of phenomena possessed, for example, by students of physical science.2

While I have never encountered Popper expressing a view on Buddhism, let alone on its central doctrine, I am quite sure that he would have regarded a statement of this kind with suspicion, or even dismissed it as ‘mystical’ – a term that is, in his usage, far from complementary. This difference – that Popper is dismissive of mysticism, whereas Buddhism is, in a sense, mystical to its marrow – may be seen throughout what follows, though I won’t address the issue directly until later in the paper. (The reader is at liberty to object to the application of the term ‘mysticism’, but it cannot be denied that the practice of Buddhism involves the cultivation through meditation of mental states such as bliss and universal love, which closely resemble the reported experiences of figures from other traditions who are commonly referred to as ‘mystics’.)

Another point of difference is the kind of phenomena to which the principle of conditioned arising is applied. Popper’s emphasis was on elucidating the correct method for understanding physical phenomena. Essential to Buddhism is the idea that regularities also constitute the real nature of individual human consciousness, especially as governed by the principle of karma. This is too big a topic to do more than touch upon, but in brief we may say that karma describes regularities in the mind of the individual as it is affected by a sensitivity or otherwise to certain moral principles. It is in understanding and working with such principles, as they manifest in the transformations undergone by the individual, that spiritual development consists.  

Essentialism/Nominalism

The second point of convergence concerns the function of words, and their relationship to reality. Both Popper and Buddhism prefer what Popper calls a ‘nominalist’ rather than an ‘essentialist’ approach to language. By this is meant that a word is an arbitrary designation, whose use is for convenience merely. One’s use of language should be instrumental, and, whilst of course one should try to express oneself clearly, one should not let words and their meanings be a distraction from the more important business of understanding the phenomena of which the words are symbols.

While both could be described as ‘anti-essentialist’, and I see no fundamental incompatibility between the two, again we find a difference of perspective. Popper’s anti-essentialism was related to the function of definitions in philosophical and scientific thought. In brief, he thought as little energy should be spent on them as possible.

Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact, and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses; the problems they solve; and the problems they raise.3

Here, as much as anywhere, one sees the iconoclast in him, and how radically he broke from much of the Western philosophical tradition. He thought that Western philosophy had got into a very bad habit of treating definitions as though they described essences of things, which led to an inordinate obsession with the meanings of words. It was a habit that began with Aristotle, and continued to bedevil the philosophy of his own day.

The development of thought since Aristotle could, I think, be summed up by saying that every discipline, as long as it used the Aristotelian method of definition, has remained arrested in a state of empty verbiage and barren scholasticism, and that the degree to which the various sciences have been able to make any progress depended on the degree to which they have been able to get rid of this essentialist method.4

He thought that the attempt at precision in definition was a red herring, and led to an infinite regress – since the concepts used in any definition themselves require to be defined, and so on. In any case, in science it is not precision of definition which matters, but precision of measurement. Words need only to be defined adequately for a particular purpose. It is when we are flexible in our use of terms, but precise in our attempts at measurement (within an acknowledged margin of error), and rigorous in our application of tests, that science can progress.

While this is a very useful elaboration of the correct use of words and their definitions on a theoretical level, the Buddhist critique of essentialism is less to do with the meaning of words and more to do with the relationship of language to the phenomena they are supposed to denote. In later Buddhism the principal doctrinal term was śūnyatā, which literally means ‘emptiness’, but more fully could be described as a lack of essence. But it is not merely words that are empty of essence. Words are empty because the phenomena to which they are supposed to correspond are also empty. This means that even the doctrines of Buddhism should not be treated in a literal-minded manner. Sangharakshita again:

To the extent that the conceptual formulations and verbal expressions of the teaching are treated as though they possessed not relative but absolute validity, and are regarded as being not symbolical indications but scientific descriptions of reality, the way to the actual realization of their transcendental import is cut off.5

Furthermore, Buddhism offers a more existential and psychological perspective on the origins of essentialism. It is not merely a mistake that certain philosophers happen to fall into, but the natural state of human beings who have not attained the spiritual insight taught by the Buddha. This fundamental spiritual ignorance is, as Garfield put it, ‘not, on the Buddhist view, the consequence, but rather the source of bad philosophy.’6 On the basis of an ignorance of the nature of things that is deeper than the intellect, we cling to the objects of perception as though they were real. And on the basis of this clinging, we treat the concepts whereby perceptions are organized as describing the essence of a truly existing thing, rather than as being a convenient shorthand for a temporary state of relative stability amidst a flux of conditions.

Theory and Truth

Buddhism asks us to look into the mind and into its relationship with the objects of perception, which lies at the base of all theories. But Popper, always the rationalist, would, I suspect, have had little time for this, and was more interested in nominalism as a method of testing theoretical knowledge. Despite this difference, however, in both cases we are led to another point of convergence between the two. Theoretical knowledge is always and only an approximation to the truth.

We can consider this using a simple but illuminating distinction that Popper makes between three ‘worlds’.

First, the world of physical objects or of physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioural dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially of scientific and poetic thoughts and works of art.7

Popper insisted on the autonomous existence of world 3. A scientific theory, for example, comes about as world 2 requires some framework for its interaction with world 1. But having come about, it is independent of the consciousness of the person who produced it, and can be understood and criticized inter-subjectively. Thus world 3 is a human creation; but it is created as an approximation to world 1, which is the objective truth that the products of world 3 must be measured against.

Popper was a realist, and eschewed the radical epistemological subjectivism of Kant – he did not, for example, regard time and space as purely subject-dependent. But he nonetheless considered the independent existence of World 1, while real, to be not directly knowable. For one thing, it is necessarily perceived through the sense apparatus we happen to be born with. But more importantly for this discussion, he said that ‘All observations are theory-impregnated’.8 There is no pure state of knowledge that is independent of theoretical presupposition. It is not merely that we cannot validly reason from particular observations to general theories; we also cannot make observations that are free from theory.

Here again Popper sets himself against much of the Western philosophical tradition, especially Plato and Aristotle. He did not believe, as they did (in their different ways), that there was some kind of pure, rational knowledge of essences, which could serve the elites who had access to it with a sound foundation for their philosophizing. He thought that all perception came packaged in assumptions about how the world works, and the best we can do is to make those assumptions conscious, in order that we can better subject them to criticism, and improve upon them.

Buddhism, I suggest, offers another option. It would agree that for the un-Enlightened (those who have not followed the Buddha’s path to spiritual realisation), perception is distorted by something resembling ‘theory’ – the Buddhist term would be dṛṣṭi, or ‘view’, and it denotes fundamental spiritual ignorance, as well as the interpretations that arise from it. However, the aim of spiritual practice is a state of what one might suggestively call pure perception, in which things are seen as they really are, free from view. But importantly (pace Plato and Aristotle) this does not consist in perceiving essences, but in perceiving the lack of them. Therefore, there is no question of pure rational knowledge being accessible to elites. Rather, this perception – or state of perceiving – to which Buddhists aspire, is inaccessible to reason, being ultimately a seeing-through of all thought constructs whatsoever. However, a correct understanding of Buddhist theory – known as samyag- dṛṣṭi, or ‘right view’ – is seen as an indispensable prerequisite for spiritual insight. So while the truth cannot be adequately conceptualized, it can be approximated to sufficiently for a supra-conceptual understanding of things to arise for one who practises in the right way.

Anti-ideology

This point, of theory being merely an approximation to truth, leads to a final point of overlap between the two systems. Both may be described as anti-ideological. Although the term ‘ideology’ can be used neutrally to mean a body of ideas associated with a particular collective, it has acquired a pejorative connotation (in which sense I am using it) of simplistic explanations, uncritically accepted and dogmatically asserted. Popper thought that no idea should be beyond criticism, since it is only by subjecting ideas to the most rigorous criticism possible that we stand any chance of rooting out the bad ones and identifying those that are worth preserving. For this reason he advocates an ‘open society’, by which he means one in which there are the minimum of impediments to the flow of criticism, so that ideologies cannot take hold unopposed. And he points out, surely correctly, that societies approaching this ‘open’ condition are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, I hope I am not over-simplifying to say he thought that the tradition of criticism was more or less a uniquely Western invention, that it was discovered by the pre-Socratics, buried under Platonic mystical elitism and Christian dogma, and rediscovered in the Renaissance.

For Buddhists, the source of views is deeper than the rational mind. The clinging to objects of perception is accompanied by assumptions which are generally only partially articulated, if at all. But the result of this on the rational level is the creation of speculative theories, which themselves can become objects of clinging. It is in this sense that Buddhism can be said to be anti-ideological: it is opposed to the clinging to speculative theories which are products of a mind that has not seen into the roots of delusion. Such theories, in Sangharakshita’s words, ‘build within the prison of the senses a second and stronger prison of the mind.’9 They are not only unconducive to spiritual development, but they are the cause of division and strife.

This question of the pernicious influence of ideologies is obviously a very relevant one to our own times. It is also too big a topic to deal with adequately here. For a discussion of Popper’s criticisms of one ideology in particular, which unfortunately seems to be undergoing a resurgence in popularity – namely Marxism – I refer the reader to my forthcoming sequel to this paper. 

Such are what I see as the main points of agreement between Buddhism and Popper’s philosophy. Both are founded on the existence of regularities, are nominalist in their approach to language, see theories as approximations to truth, and are anti-ideological. (There may of course be others that I have missed.) What remains is to ask if there are any points of disagreement, and whether each can learn something from the other.

The Limitations of Popper

Details aside, I see few points of actual disagreement between the two systems. But as I hope is already clear, there is a huge difference in orientation. Popper’s thought aims towards an effective theoretical understanding of the world, Buddhism’s towards the spiritual development of the individual towards a state of understanding that is not accessible to the intellect.

But this lack of actual points of disagreement may be seen to reflect something of a limitation of Popper as a thinker. Let me explain what I mean by reference to Kant.

The philosophy of Kant stands always in the background to Popper, who often acknowledges his debt to him. The range of Kant’s thought may be seen represented in his three ‘Critiques’. The first, and probably most important, A Critique of Pure Reason, largely covers what was described above as the ‘problem of demarcation’, or the nature, jurisdiction, and limitation of reason. The second, A Critique of Practical Reason, deals with the philosophy of ethics, and the third, A Critique of Judgement, with aesthetics. Kant’s intention was to integrate these aspects of reality into a single philosophy, and the brilliance of the attempt is what makes him arguably the greatest thinker the West has produced. Popper also admired, and not infrequently referenced, Schopenhauer, who with his own system of ideas made contributions to every major area covered by Kant.

Popper has nothing like this breadth of thought. His focus is almost always on the nature of the development of human knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, in relation to which his contribution is outstanding. But it is as though, standing on the shoulders of giants, he uses the height advantage thus obtained not to survey the panorama, but to gain a clearer view of one distant horizon only – a beautiful horizon, but not the most beautiful.

Nor can one attribute these lacunae to limitations imposed by Popper’s philosophy itself. There is nothing in his system of ideas that denies a transcendental perspective – a perspective that includes the existence of a reality beyond the senses and the rational mind – and in fact, one is sometimes implied. Let us look at how.

Critical Rationalism

Although describing himself as a rationalist, Popper distinguished between ‘uncritical’ or ‘comprehensive’, and ‘critical’ rationalism, and advocated the second kind. (He also attributed ‘pseudo-rationalism’ to Plato, and considered this the most dangerous.) Uncritical rationalism consists of the view that anything that cannot be supported by argument or experience should be discarded. This Popper regarded as relatively harmless, but nonetheless untenable because it fails its own test. This can be summarized as follows:

Since all argument must proceed from assumptions, it is plainly impossible to demand that all assumptions should be based on argument.10

Or spelled out more fully:

The rationalist attitude is characterized by the importance it attaches to argument and experience. But neither logical argument nor experience can establish the rationalist attitude; for only those who are ready to consider argument or experience, and who have therefore adopted this attitude already, will be impressed by them…. We have to conclude from this that no rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude. Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable. 11

Critical rationalism, on the other hand, freely acknowledges that its presuppositions cannot ultimately be demonstrated. Its adoption results from ‘an irrational faith in reason’.12 Moreover, the decision to adopt it is not a rational, but a moral one, based on a consideration of the consequences of doing so. But morality itself is something that has no rational basis.

…although there is no ‘rational scientific basis’ of ethics, there is an ethical basis of science, and of rationalism.13

Dualism

Popper was not a materialist. He believed in the independent existence of human consciousness, but said little about its nature or higher potentialities.

Here I beg leave for an exasperated digression. Thanks in part to propagandists of scientism such as Richard Dawkins, a materialist view has become so closely associated with science that it is often taken for granted, and terms such as ‘rationalism’ and ‘atheism’ have become tainted through connotation. This despite the fact that not only Popper, but virtually all the greatest scientists and philosophers of science – from Galileo and Newton, through Einstein and Bohr, to Freeman Dyson and Roger Penrose – were not materialists.

Imagination

Finally, let us consider again Popper’s view of how science progresses. It does not come about through the accumulation of facts and the mechanical process of inference. Rather, it advances through the creation of new theories, which cannot be arrived at by merely rational means. Theories are the products of the human creative imagination, and the best of them, such as those of Einstein, require creative leaps that are akin to artistic genius.

Where does all this leave us? Popper believed in the independent existence of mind, among whose products are scientific theories. These are initially products of the creative imagination, functioning without constraint by reason or empirical data. The role of reason is limited to the testing of such theories through examining logical consistency and comparing predictive deductions with empirical data; but the decision to use reason thus is motivated by an adherence to an objective moral law that itself is not rationally demonstrable. All this is implicit in Popper’s ideas, yet regarding the nature of consciousness, the creative imagination, and the moral law to which it is subject, he has very little to say; and this I regard as a serious limitation.

Mysticism

This would be easier to forgive him were he not also inclined to use the term ‘mystical’ disparagingly. Commenting on the mystical strand of Greek thought, he goes so far as to suggest that ‘It is the yearning for the lost unity and shelter of tribalism which expresses itself in these mystical elements within a fundamentally rational approach.’14

His response to philosophers of his own day who dealt with such matters, such as Bergson, could also be a little sniffy. This is not to say that any humbug must be allowed to pass as philosophy so long as it is under the guise of mysticism (as, sadly, is too often the case). But I suggest that an even greater thinker than Popper would not be satisfied to leave these supremely important areas of human life unexamined merely because, being beyond the rational mind, they are hard to talk about without sounding woolly.

These areas that are implicit but neglected in Popper’s thought are of the essence of Buddhism. The mind, its higher potentiality, and the moral law and imaginative development that leads to the realisation of that potential, are the Buddha’s central message. Moreover, at its best Buddhist philosophy has a clarity regarding what may and may not be said from the perspective of spiritual realisation – a clarity that is hard to find in the mystical strand of Western thought, and which saves Buddhism from the obscurantism of which Popper was clearly so wary. Sangharakshita goes so far as to say that

the Dharma states with a precision and clarity which in Christian lands are considered the prerogatives of science rather than of religion, those universal laws in accordance with which the attainment of Enlightenment by a human being takes place, and, therefore, the conditions upon which it depends and the means by which it must be achieved.15

Popper’s Relevance

So much for Popper’s limitations, from a Buddhist perspective. What, then, of his importance? How may we benefit from him today? Much may be said, and I shall confine myself to a few points. 

Most generally, I recommend reading Popper to anyone who wants to see intellectual rigour exemplified. The thoroughness and clarity with which he pursues his points, leaving no stone unturned in the refutation of error, is remarkable. More specifically, his contribution to the understanding of scientific method is very significant. Science is one of the major elements of what Popper calls the ‘problem situation’ of our times. For anyone who undertakes a serious philosophical understanding of the world, the question of the nature of science cannot be ignored. And if Buddhism is truly to be established in the West, the nature of its relationship to science must be contended with. And this means that Popper, as perhaps the greatest philosopher of science of the twentieth century, should not be neglected.

There are numerous popular misconceptions about science that acquaintance with Popper’s thought is useful in dispelling. Too often science is seen as an unshakeable, timeless body of knowledge, and scientists as some kind of priestly caste, united in their understanding of this arcane lore.

The truth is more interesting and complex. Science is not only a body of facts, but also an assortment of more or less well-tested theories, none of which is sacrosanct, and many of which may be superseded at some unknown time. Perhaps because the history of science tends to be told through its successes, it is easy to assume that there was a steady accumulation of understanding, each generation adding stones to a cairn that now towers formidably. While this is not exactly wrong, the part of the picture that gets left out is that the accumulation of knowledge involves not only the provisional acceptance of theories that pass tests, but the rejection of those that fail them. As Popper says, ‘The way of science is paved with discarded theories which were once declared self-evident.’16

As for scientists themselves, a few observations may be helpful. Firstly, beyond a basic level of general scientific education, most are knowledgeable largely within their particular field of specialisation. This means that on many topics they will have no particular advantage over the rest of us when called upon to make a judgement. Secondly, the scientific community is often far from unified. There is, as there should be, often fierce competition among the adherents of competing theories. When we are told that there is a consensus among scientists and therefore there is no further need for debate, it is a sign that we are no longer in the realm of science. And when we see a particular theory championed but not vigorously contested, there are grounds for suspicion regarding how well established it really is. Popper warns us, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’17

Thirdly, not all scientists are created equal. There are those who make a career of using the techniques of science, and there are those for whom science is a seeking after the truth – with no doubt many shades in between. Popper offers us an inspiring ideal of the scientist as one who is willing to discard his own preconceptions and enter into the unknown at every possible opportunity. But the reality is that scientists are human, and subject to the general frailties that are the lot of our species. Not all scientists are of the type that Popper so admires; not all of them will be following his methods: not all of them will be trying to falsify their own theories. They will be subject to ‘confirmation bias’, in seeking evidence that demonstrates their presuppositions rather than challenges them. ‘If scientific objectivity were founded…upon the individual scientist’s impartiality or objectivity, then we should have to say goodbye to it.’18 This is why it is important that competition between theories is encouraged – because scientists cannot always be relied upon to provide the necessary self-correctives to their own biases. 

I say this not to denigrate the noble vocation of scientist, but to caution against a simplistic understanding of what it consists of. When ‘the science’ is invoked by politicians to justify policy in a way that shows that either they themselves have a too credulous understanding of science or they are relying on a public having one, a knowledge of Popper can be a helpful thing.

Popper and Buddhism

Another point about the value of being acquainted with Popper’s ideas pertains to Buddhists in particular. Knowing the difference between science and non-science can help us be clear that Buddhism is not a scientific theory. In connection with this I agree with Evan Thomson, who in his book Why I am not a Buddhist talks of ‘Buddhist exceptionalism’. The phrase refers to the attempt of some Buddhists or sympathisers of Buddhism (Sam Harris is particularly named) to exempt Buddhism from the criticisms often made of religions, by claiming it to be an application of scientific method to the mind. But although Buddhism shares an empirical orientation insofar as it invites us to examine our experience in the light of the Buddha’s teaching, it does not invite us to falsify that teaching, or to hypothesize an alternative. This is because Buddhism does not claim to be based upon theory but upon transcendental realisation.

It happens that I agree both that Buddhism is exceptional – that it does, at least at its best, avoid the pitfalls to which religions are generally prone – and that its metaphysic (insofar as it has one) is more easily reconcilable with science than are those of theistic religions. But neither of these can rely upon the claim that Buddhism is itself scientific, and to claim that it is requires a misrepresentation either of science, or of Buddhism, or of both.

Conclusion

I will finish by invoking the ideal of the scientist that Popper so admires.

…I wish to convey here a heroic and romantic idea of science and its workers: men who humbly devoted themselves to the search for truth, to the growth of our knowledge; men whose life consisted in an adventure of bold ideas.19

Although I have criticized Popper for his lack of a transcendent vision, and his unwillingness to deal with the higher aspects of human existence, his ideal scientist is surely someone to be emulated. It is salutary for each of us to reflect on how well we measure against this standard. How attached are we to our own views? How willing to see them falsified? The willingness to abandon preconceptions, even at an intellectual level, is vital for treading the path of the Buddha. In fact, the capacity to address the ‘problem situation’ with bold new ideas is something the Buddha himself exemplified at the highest level. But the problem situation he was concerned with was not confined to ancient India, being nothing less than the meaning and purpose of human life in the face of the inevitably of death. For all of us, this problem requires all the heroic but humble dedication to truth we can muster. 

Footnotes

  1. Miller, Popper Selections, Princeton, 1985, p150. Unless otherwise stated, all references are to this book.
  2. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, 2018,p88
  3. Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, Flamingo, 1986, p19
  4. Miller, p87. This compares interestingly with Sangharakshita’s statement that essentialism ‘…’.vitiates practically the whole of Western philosophy, ancient, and modern, from before the time of Plato to after that of Hegel, at whose hands it received supreme apotheosis…’
  5. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, p222
  6. Garfield, Engaging Buddhism, p9
  7. Miller, p58
  8. Miller, p58
  9. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, p88
  10. Miller, p34. Interestingly, Sangharakshita makes a similar point, as follows: ‘Reason must be supreme in all human affairs, say the Rationalists. But on what grounds do they accept the truth of this statement? If it is on authority, reason is not supreme; if on rational grounds, then they assume the supremacy of reason in order to establish the supremacy of reason.’ Peace is a Fire
  11. Miller, p35
  12. Ibid
  13. Miller, p43
  14. Miller, p33
  15. Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, p51
  16. Miller, p94
  17. [xvii] Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach
  18. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol 2, Routledge, 1992, p217
  19. Miller, p118
Vidyaruchi

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for 12 years, for the first four of which he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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