Knowledge in Buddhism and Science

| by  Prof. N.A. de S. Amaratunga

( January 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The quest for knowledge in India in the pre-Buddhist period had been quite intense and had continued with vigour during the Buddhist era. The methods that could be employed for gaining reliable knowledge had been the topic of discourse among the intelligentsia of that time. The Vedic writings had been the earliest to discuss several theories on means of knowledge. The Early Upanishads recognise three main methods of acquiring knowledge; scriptures, reason and perception. Middle and Late Upanishads have described yogi and meditation as a new way of gaining knowledge. The idea that knowledge must be based on valid grounds was introduced in the Late Upanishad period. Anguttara Nikaya too makes reference to the fact that knowledge must be supported by valid grounds.

There were other thinkers who opposed Vedic theories. The Sceptics such as Sanjaya Bellattiputta questioned the very possibility of knowledge and said that nothing could be known. The Materialists like Ajitha Kesakambala did not agree with the Vedic position that scriptures are a reliable source of knowledge and they put forward their theories of knowledge based on perception, verifiable inference and empiricism. They also questioned the metaphysical method of gaining knowledge by intuition. Some materialists carried out experiments to prove their theories. The Sceptics meanwhile developed their logic of four alternatives which though not identical, have a resemblance to the Catuscoti of Buddhism and they used this system of logic to nullify theories of other thinkers.

Two other schools of thought that evolved during this time were the Ajivikas and the Jains. Ajivikas were followers of the teacher Makhali Gosala. They had put forward the idea that reason is a reliable means of knowledge. Gosala claimed he had mystic powers of intuition which could derive knowledge. They also had theories on cause and effect relationship. Their logic was based on three alternatives which they used to prove or disprove various theories and ideas that came up among the thinkers of the day.

The Jainism led by Niganta Nathaputta (Mahaveera) developed as a religion and they adapted a cautious, critical approach towards the theory of knowledge. They developed a relativism to counter the arguments of Materialists and Sceptics. Instead of pronouncing something true or false they argued that it could be true from one point of view while being false from another. Their logic based on seven alternatives helped them in their arguments.

The non-acceptance of authority as a means of knowledge advocated by Materialists and Sceptics may have influenced both Jainism and Buddhism. Further there is evidence to suggest that Jainism and Early Buddhism may have influenced each other in their approach to the theory of knowledge.

At the advent of the Buddha there were several nascent concepts and ideas about the means of knowledge and he identified three categories of thinkers based on their methods of acquiring knowledge; (1) the Traditional way which depended on authority and scriptures (2) the Rational method which depended on reason and speculation and (3) the Experientialist (Empiricist) method which depended on perception both sensory and "extrasensory". The Buddha said he belonged to the third category of thinkers. However he did not totally reject authority and reason as means of knowledge but pointed out that these methods by themselves are unreliable to arrive at the truth. The Buddha in his preaching to the Kalamas and to the Lichchavi explains why authority and reason are unreliable as means of gaining knowledge and says that one must accept a theory only on "personal knowledge". The Buddha also used analytical methods to arrive at conclusions. He identified four types of questions that need to be dealt with in four different ways; (1) questions that need to be answered categorically (2) questions that need to be answered with a counter question (3) questions that need to be set aside and (4) questions that need to be answered analytically. He also used the Catuscoti logic of four alternatives mainly to reject or negate certain theories put forward by other thinkers and schools. He did not however claim omniscience unlike some of his contemporary religious leaders such as Niganta Nathaputta, and Makhali Gossala.

The Buddha had developed a method of gaining "higher knowledge" by his own effort which involved "seela", "samadi" and "prangna", a gradual process of training in purification of the mind of all defilements and intense concentration for the development of the mind. By this method he gained the knowledge of "nirvana". There was no mystic power or transcendental phenomenon involved in this natural process. This was a causal process involving training and extraordinary effort. This is clearly stated in the Anguttara Nikaya.

During this time there were other religious leaders who claimed they too have the ability to acquire a kind of "higher knowledge". The difference between these religious leaders and the Buddha was that these thinkers said their special ability had been endowed by god. It was god’s wish that they came to posses this special ability and they did not acquire this ability by their own effort. These religious leaders are mentioned in the Late Upanishads.

There were also thinkers like Purana Kassapa and Niganta Nathaputta who did not believe in a god but claimed they too had this ability of gaining a "higher knowledge". The difference between these thinkers and the Buddha was that they did not attribute this special ability to a causal process like the one adopted by the Buddha. They said the presence of knowledge or the lack of it cannot be due to a causal process. This shows that Buddha’s method was unique and natural and he did not claim to posses any form of mystic power. In fact he rejected the possibility of anybody possessing such powers.

Knowledge in modern science according to Western thinkers is defined as belief which agrees with facts. It was the great philosopher Emanuel Kant who formulated the modern theory of knowledge. Modern science would not accept any theory without significant evidence though total certainty and precision is not possible by these means. This system acquires knowledge by means of data and inference. Two types of data are identified, physical and mental. Physical data are what we perceive with our senses and mental data are derived by introspection. There are two means of inference; deduction and induction. Deduction is applicable in the fields of mathematics and logic, while induction could be used in other forms of science.

What is meant by induction is that when something which has certain characteristics is present, another thing which has certain other characteristics is also present on several occasions, it may be inferred that on other occasions also these things would be present together. It may not happen always but there is a probability that it would. So in Western science all knowledge derived by induction may have a degree of probability and it also attempts to give this degree of probability a mathematical value using statistical methods though these methods too do not guarantee precision. Western science attempts to categorise the degree of certainty according to the means of obtaining data; it is high with direct perception, low with memory and still lower with testimony and so on.

It is seen that Buddhist theory of knowledge and Western scientific method have similarities as well as differences. Both methods consider empirical evidence as more reliable than reason and speculation and both use analytical systems. Buddhism has a practical approach to everyday life so does western science. Scepticism was considered as having very little practical usefulness by both systems. In fact Kant’s theory of knowledge is supposed to be a response to Hume’s skepticism. Buddhism has a unique method of achieving a "higher knowledge", a higher status of a purified and concentrated mind capable of seeing things as they are without getting attached to what one sees and achieving ultimate peace which the Buddha called "nirvana". There is no parallel method discovered by science. Practical value of the Buddha’s method applicable in lay life could be demonstrated by empirical methods; the benefits of Buddhist meditation are well established.

Though the Western method of deriving knowledge lacks absolute certainty and precision it is almost impossible to live without this knowledge in modern times. It is true that this knowledge has not been of equal benefit to everybody always and has been destructive at times. But science cannot be blamed for that. Knowledge of the atom for instance could be beneficial if used properly or could be disastrous when used as a weapon. On the other hand recent advances in Western medical science could be seen as a tremendous success which could benefit everybody if it is made accessible to all. Particularly the advances in molecular biology, stem cell technology, genetics and nano technology are so promising that sooner than later it would be possible to cure or successfully manage diseases that were considered incurable in the recent past; cancer, major congenital deformities, degenerative conditions of the nervous and other systems, coronary disease, strokes etc.

It is true that Western science has caused major disasters including new killer diseases but science cannot be blamed for these ills. Fault lies not with science but with the people who control it. At present it is the Western countries and to be precise their capitalism and imperialism that control science. Science does not have an intrinsic mechanism to control itself and avoid being used for evil purposes.