What is the “scientific spirit”?

Image for post
Image for post

We live in an age of science denial, false skepticism, misinformation, political propaganda and “alternative facts.” At the same time, the general public seems to sorely lack a sense of scientific literacy. True, high school students are learning more and more about scientific facts. But knowing the facts is not the same as knowing how to reason critically and scientifically. I spent four years teaching scientific reasoning and research methodology to nursing students. I know that understanding what constitutes a valid scientific method is much more important than just knowing the scientific facts. But teaching scientific methodology is time-consuming. It also requires much discipline on the student’s part. In light of the shortage of time, perhaps we should first introduce the scientific attitude or the scientific approach to inquiries.

Several days ago, I posted an article on Facebook titled “Science versus Religion.” Many of my friends challenged my position. Is there a basic incompatibility or irreconcilable difference between science and religion? For many people, the answer is “No.” This includes some well- educated people, philosophers and scientists. It is certainly true that many prominent scientists in history, including Newton and Darwin, are Christians. But that does not mean that there is no basic conflict between religion and science? I am asserting that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the scientific spirit and the religious spirit. It appears that many of my friends are not familiar with what the scientific spirit entails. In what follows, I will do a short introduction.

Many people think of Buddha as the founder of a religion in India. But they are totally mistaken. Quite the contrary, Buddha embodies what it means to be an anti-religionist. The reason is that he promoted the scientific spirit roughly 2500 years ago and he based his entire teaching on that rational and critical attitude towards life. This can be clearly seen in his speech to the Kalamas, as recorded in the well-known Kalama Sutta in the Pali Canon. Buddha did a lot of traveling throughout his teaching career. He once passed through the village of Kesaputta and was greeted by its inhabitants, a clan called the Kalamas. India has always been a country full of gurus. Before Buddha’s arrival, the Kalamas had encountered many other gurus and spiritual teachers, each claiming that he was the best, the most powerful, etc. So, the Kalama asked Buddha, “Whom should we believe?” This is Buddha’s answer:

Yes, Kālāmas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kālāmas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O Kālāmas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up … And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them. (Wapola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught)

Allow me to highlight Buddha’s message in a few bullet points:

1. Don’t be gullible. Be skeptical. It is fine to have doubt in Buddhism. Buddha did not demand blind faith. He actually said that doubt is proper.

2. Don’t appeal to or rely on authority — just that something is written in some sacred books, handed down by tradition, even statements made by one’s own teacher does not mean that it should be taken for granted.

3. Don’t go by what you have heard — reports, hearsay, rumors, etc.

4. Don’t go by speculation. Don’t surmise.

5. Don’t go by appearance. Appearance often deceives.

6. Don’t simply follow logic or inference. There are many good and seemingly convincing theories. Some of our inferences may seem reasonable or plausible. But all these have to be tested.

7. Do test things out yourself. Do your independent verification. Of course, we are talking about a time which is over 2500 years ago. Buddha was not aware of modern scientific methods. Buddha did not specify a testing method. But the idea is that we cannot take anything for granted. We have to test things out, using whatever knowledge or method at our disposal.

I would consider Buddha the first rationalist and first scientist, just because he had the scientific spirit. The scientific spirit is to embrace skepticism, use doubt and questioning to find out more about what is true and what is not. Dogmatism does not belong here.

It is in this sense that the scientific spirit is opposite to the religious spirit, which frowns on doubt and pressures people to believe and conform, all without verification. The religious spirit prizes the herd mind. The scientific spirit, on the other hand, encourages independent thinking.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store