[Buddha-l] Article: The Death of the Scientific Buddha

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 3 06:13:15 MDT 2012


You may have won the prize for the largest number of factual errors in a 
short buddha-l post ever -- a truly remarkable achievement considering the 

> I'm surprised that Dan, who claims to have some expertise in the field of 
> phenomenology, still has these old New Age thoughts about science and 
> spirituality (whatever that may be).

That's the first time anyone anywhere has accused me of anything new-agey. 
Your earlier post showed some confusion about science and scientism, and 
that has now leaked over into strawman rhetoric. As for phenomenology...

>Not only Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have written convincingly 
>about the differences between a scientific and a philosophical discourse,

You seem to be under the sway of new-age dichotomies, Erik. Husserl's last 
major work was titled _The Crisis of European Sciences_, in which his 
intention was to provide a surer epistemological to science, not to claim 
philosophical or methodological distance from science. Merleau-Ponty, 
already in Phenomenology of Perception, incorporated many scientific studies 
on perception, psychology, etc. into his phenomenology, taking them as 
serious data for philosophical thinking long before many other 
"philosophers" in the 20th c. (and apparently there are still some European 
holdouts in the 21st). Oh the other hand, Heidegger, to the delight of 
new-agey magical-mumbo-jumbo thinking folks, did draw a sharp line between 
what he considered philosophy (but some others wouldn't) and "science," 
which, esp. as "technology," he feared and condemned. Don't reduce 
phenomenology to Heidegger. Reductionism (pace Richard) *is* a fallacy (esp. 
when it pretends it is not being reductionistic).

>ut also living philosophers as Bruno Latour and those of the new 
>phenomenological movement make clear that causal explanations don't tell us 
>anything about what it means to be human.

That's because they are under new-agey influence (it's easy and fun to 
denigrate everything to be dismissed as "new-agey"). And NOT Buddhists. For 
Buddhists, the ONLY explanation that carries any weight is a causal one.

Now it is the case that philosophy at the beginning of the 20th c made a 
major turn, casting aside age-old requisite notions like causality and 
certainty in favor of "description" and "probabilities", and so on. Husserl, 
in particular, sought to develop expositions that avoided recourse to 
causality (for instance, when investigating what in a daydream or fantasy 
allows the images to appear in such a way that one knows they are not real) 
because appeals to causal explanations tended to reiterate and reify 
metaphysical presuppositions rather than shed phenomenological light; but he 
did not consider causal understandings a priori illegitimate or something 
not worthwhile pursuing under other circumstances. His willingness to 
"bracket" causal explanations is one of the major differences between the 
Husserlian and Buddhist approaches (which otherwise -- esp. from Asanga to 
Dharmakirti -- have incredibly rich and evocative resonances and parallels).

>The Mind and Life circle is a group of friends who still have the same New 
>Age thoughts as Dan, but no clue what philosophy is about.

Ok, so your strawman has an address, but it's not mine. I never heard of 
these people, so don't know whether you are characterizing them accurately 
or not. Everything else in your post opens the strong possibility that you 
are not. But if you are, then address your grievances to them, and stop 
confusing us with them.

>They still think that Descartes introduced dualism in a happy world being 
>the culprit who in 1650 spoiled life for all of us and that the Dalai Lama 
>has to rescue us. The Dalai Lama on the other hand thinks that if you learn 
>Tibetan monks quantum physics they will understand what's going on in the 

Silly cartoon, which, like some cartoons, resembles real life but in a 
drastically reduced and myopic way. Cartesian dualism is what it is -- it 
has become entrenched and has led to many wonderful and good things, while 
posing problems elsewhere (doesn't everything?). Its entrenchment is a 
problem, but certainly not the only one facing humans today. Eliminating it 
won't solve all problems. That HHDL would like to bring Tibetan culture and 
thought out of the dark middle ages is to be lauded, not sneered at.

As for the idea that science can't tell us much about meditation, only 
actual meditators can (a methodological strawman since most scientific 
studies focus on meditators), this too is false. Practitioners of Yoga sutra 
styled meditation call their practice samadhi (as do Buddhists) and describe 
the hightest achievement kaivalya, which could be translated as "isolation." 
Everything becomes non-other than the self (cosmic reductionism, or 
expansionism, as you wish). Do these Hindu practitioners develop and 
cultivate the same "state" as, for instance, Zen meditators? Ask the 
practitioners themselves and they will answer either from a sectarian basis 
("No, the others achieve a different state, inferior to ours in some way"), 
a theosophical basis ("Yes, all paths lead to the same reality"), or an 
acknowledged limitation ("I don't know, since I don't do *their* 
meditation"). Even if someone samples from a fuller spectrum of the 
spiritual supermarket, the seeming similarities and differences one or 
another practitioner experiences with different techniques have no more than 
subjective, anecdotal weight, and may indeed be heavily influenced by that 
person's background, current stage of development, etc. So the question, 
while leading to an interesting conundrum of plausible (predictable) but 
contradictory responses, can have one chasing one's tail like a cat instead 
of finding an answer.

Enter science. That question was asked half a century ago by scientists with 
their newest tools, to wit: eeg, which measures and records brain waves. 
Strapping measuring devices on meditators in India and Japan they found not 
only answers to that question, but confirmed some previously intriguing 
claims  (i.e., they can now be considered fact, not merely weak-minded 
gullibility). A hindu meditator, following the Yoga sutra techniques, enters 
kaivalya. Eeg becomes very stable. Any outside distraction is not only 
ignored, it is not experienced. When a pin or other sharp device pierces the 
skin, the meditator is not "pretending" to not feel it; nothing whatever 
shows in the eeg, indicating they literally don't feel it. That is real 

With zen monks, on the other hand, an entirely different phenomena takes 
place. Normally humans habituate, which means any stimuli that is constant 
(a single color, a constant sound, etc.) will fade from one's attention.

While most of us are unaware of this, our eye makes rapid tiny movements, a 
thousand or more a second, because of habituation, since, if our eye didn't 
move and nothing changed in the visual sphere, the world would disappear 
from sight until something moved or changed. Scientists devised a light that 
could focus on a small portion of the back of the eye, stimulating a limited 
number of rods and cones on the retina, with the beam designed to move with 
the eye's movements, so it would continually strike the same rods and cones 
directly. When first shining it is clearly in the visual sphere; the light 
disappears from view after about 45 seconds, which is the average time (we 
now know, thanks to science) for habituation to take over. Most of us are 
more aware of sonic habituation. A constantly clicking clock, that we "tune 
out" after a short while (roughly 45 seconds); or a loud refrigerator or 
air-conditioner, etc., that we didn't "notice" until it suddenly shuts off. 
What eeg-s show is that habituation is not simply a psychological process of 
"not noticing," but a physiological one in which the constant stimuli 
declines gradually (the eeg waves get smaller) until they fail to register 
at all.

In the case of the zen monks, a clicking clock was placed in the room while 
they did zazen. Its initial clicks registered in their eeg waves. Normal 
habituation would have shown declining waves and after 45 secs. or so, no 
registering reaction to clicks at all. What eegs of the zen meditators 
actually showed was different. Their eeg waves never declined. Even after 45 
secs., even after several minutes, their eegs registered a wave reaction as 
large as the first, in every way equivalent to the first time they heard it. 
In other words, they were NOT habituating to it, but hearing it fully as if 
for the first time, each time. New-agey types like Erik will call that being 
in the moment. We usually habituate because constant attention to the same 
is (1) annoying and (2) distracting from other, more important tasks to 
which one can turn one's attention. The eeg-s also showed that the zen 
meditators did not become aggrevated or annoyed by the clicking. They heard 
it and let it go. Did it distract them from other things they might be 
considering during zazen? That you would have to ask them.

Even if one could have solicited explanations from the hindu and zen 
practitioners about their meditation, the stark contrast, and the degree to 
which their claims were justified would not have been as clearly established 
as by these simple scientific experiments, reported long ago by the same 
Charles Tart recently mentioned by Franz.


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