Not Religion

I just came back from a week at Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery, and when I was there I casually referred to Zen Buddhism as a “religion” a few times – to which, other people often responded “oh, I never really considered Zen a religion.”  Wikipedia refers to Buddhism as a “religion” within the first five words of the article, which at least points to the fact that most non-Buddhists probably consider Buddhism to be a religion. However, I suspect many Buddhists do not. I also suspect many Buddhists do not consider themselves Buddhists, which makes them a lot like bisexuals.

According to the Dharma talk I went to (given by Greg Fain,) if I’m remembering correctly, “Buddhism” is really a Western translation of something that reads more like “the Buddha way” in Chinese or Japanese. The “ism” is a Western concept, perhaps an indicator of the framework we’re using when we talk about belief systems. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist – I just go to the Zen center and meditate one two times a week.

How would a similar statement read, “I don’t consider myself a Christian, I just go to Church and pray two or three times a week?” Would you consider that person Christian? Do most of the people who go to Church on Sundays think of themselves as Christian? I think so. Do most Christians consider Christianity a religion? Again, I suspect that they do.

One of the big differences between Christianity and Buddhism is that Christianity seems to be defined by what you believe. If you don’t go to Church, but believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, then you still count as Christian. The Western Zen centers I’ve been to have tended to say something more like “why not just start meditating, and see what happens?” There has never been a request to believe any of their metaphysical ideology, or even a solid description of what that metaphysical ideology may be.

While we’re on the topic of fruitlessly categorizing religions, where would “science” fall? Some people call science a religion, but like Buddhists, I suspect many scientists do not consider science a religion. And, perhaps unlike most Buddhists, I think most scientists would be offended by the idea that science is a religion. And, although I’m all for offending scientists, I personally don’t believe science as correctly understood is really a religion, but science as implemented in our society is practically a religion.

If we change “believing in a metaphysical ideology” to be “believing in things a higher authority tells you to without calling on your personal experience” then science is a religion. Practically, for most people. Sure, some of my friends at MIT replicated some of the classical physics experiments – and I, myself, have personally seen the double slit experiment thus providing personal evidence for the wave/particle duality of light. Yet, most of the scientific things I believe, I believe without personally examining the evidence. I believe it because someone I consider reliable told me it was true.

And, in a way, that’s the way it has to be. Unless you have a big mirror, and can bogard two mountains to measure the speed of light for yourself, you’re going to have to take someone’s word for it.

However, the danger comes in dropping science into a culture that’s basically primed for Christianity. Christianity is still the most prominent religion in the west, and it definitely was – say – 200 years ago, and Christianity as implemented was essentially a perpetual appeal to higher power. I mean, maybe not *real* Christianity (I have no idea what the experience of Christianity is like for Christian nuns) but practical Christianity as exists in the world. People use it to prove themselves right, by appealing to a higher authority (God, if you get all the way to the top) the same way many people use science now. Not *real* scientists, of course, not the people who actually ran the experiments and are likely aware of the fallibility, and limitations in what they have discovered.

Consider, for example, the entire vaccine/anti-vaccine debate that’s happening as more parents choose not to vaccinate their kids. I don’t really care which side people come down on this debate because we’re all going to die anyway*, but the fascinating thing is that both sides are intent on *clothing* their arguments in the *appearance* of science, or appealing to scientific authority.

Check out this article on Jenny McCarthy on hollywoodlife. Actually, you probably shouldn’t, but checkout a few choice quotes:

despite all the medical research and recommendations by the World Health Organization

Even though she doesn’t have a medical degree or any medical training

Jenny clearly feels that she and other parents know better than doctors

There is an appeal to scientific/medical authority with no real attempt was made to actually disseminate information about vaccines. Conversely, on the other side of the argument “Studies Prove Without a Doubt That Unvaccinated Children are Healthier.” (Pro-tip, basically nothing can be proven “beyond doubt.”) This article digs up quotes from some scientific study done in the 90s to prove its points.

Thing is, scientific papers are sort of like the Bible – you can really dig up a section that supports your point of view on anything if you want. Yet, most people seem deeply disconnected from anything approaching actual science, which is, essentially, being open minded. Having an opinion, then hand selecting evidence to support it is not “science” even if it looks like it. You have to start with a hypothesis, do a fair test, and then check if your results supported your hypothesis. To be fair, it’s actually really hard to do science. Most scientists don’t even do it right. And, that’s ok – but, there is no authority. No one *knows* – there is no safe path, no way to do it “right.”

You are always open to being wrong, and no *one*, no *ideology* can save you from that. And, as long as that’s where our energy is focused, we’re always going to be wasting time to some degree.

That doesn’t mean science is useless – I am using a machine to type this right post now that owes its entire, complex creation to science. I’m just trying to point out that, as a culture, we tend use science and religion similarly, to either justify beliefs we already have, or to get someone else to tell us what to think.

In Greg’s Dharma talk, he said one of the things that a lot of people new to meditation want to know is what to think. What should I be doing with my brain, when I meditate? I think that’s a big part of our current Western cultural heritage – even though we have, to some degree, in some parts of society, dropped our “Christianity,” the type of structures it lends itself to still permeate throughout, and those structures permeate deep into our minds. When I go meditate, even though I have been an atheist or agnostic most of my life, and even though both my parents are atheist/agnostic, I cannot escape the deep structures of Christianity. Even to call it Christianity is itself likely wrong – Christianity is probably an expression of a pre-existing cultural tendency that is without name.

Don’t believe me? Check out this Last Psychiatrist article, he’s really smart, AND a psychiatrist, so maybe you can believe him instead.


*fwiw, if I had kids, I’d vaccinate them, and ideally send them to a school that mandated vaccines – but, I respect the right of people not to vaccinate. On isolated hippy communes. Far away from me.

Physics and Ignorance

Physics! And science, and consciousness! All up and about, getting in each other’s business.

In the words of Wesley Crusher, “Space, and time, and thought aren’t the separate things they appear to be.” Whenever we stop to think about things, we have this sense that it doesn’t all add up, somehow – and many people from many different directions are coming up with possible answers.

Quantum mechanics points to some explanations of previously inexplicable phenomena, but in some ways it rips open more questions than answers. To top it off, most people – including myself – do not have an understanding of even basic level quantum mechanics. This leads to the desire to abuse it, to use it to explain things it cannot explain, by relying on ignorance of the underlying theories.

For instance, the idea that “the act of observation will change what is being observed” to many people has deeper implications that may not actually apply. There could be a temptation to apply it to consciousness, that somehow if we look at something our conscious mind may change what is happening. However, all it might be saying, is phenomena on the quantum level are so small, we can not observe them if they do not interact with something else in the environment. Hence, we can never see anything in its “natural” state, we can only see things once they’ve interacted with something else – perhaps “interfering with what we want to observe is necessary to observe it.”

Recently, I’ve come to the readings of many spiritual thinkers who have taken to studying quantum mechanics. I haven’t read many of their theories on quantum mechanics specifically, although I am interested in looking into it, but I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical, the same way scientists were used to be skeptical of the idea of the “birth” of our universe (an idea that was originally officially supported by the Catholic Church.) It actually turned out to be true, most scientists now believe in the big bang, but the Church’s official support of this didn’t lead to a deeper understanding. It just muddied the waters, with them casting their vote on something we don’t get to vote on.

Similarly, I’m skeptical of spiritual people who want to borrow from science to add an authority to their spiritual beliefs. In fact, I’m skeptical of anyone who pretends they know too much. I just saw this beautiful video of Richard Feynman, which seemed to me to be a key to understanding what made him an effective discoverer of physics.

Sure, he probably had a brain full of brains, and good training, and whatever else. But, without this willingness to be open to not knowing, he could easily have squandered it on trying to prove the arbitrary things be believed instead of trying to discover things he didn’t know. There are people out there with higher IQs than Richard Feynman, and Einstein or whoever you want to list, who do not figure out nearly as much as they did. Clearly, people who figure shit out have something we can’t measure going for them – possibly, just luck.

Still, it’s very rare to find someone who admits their ignorance, especially someone high up and fancy like Richard Feynman. Nearly everyone I meet spends a lot of time trying to convince other people “I’m right!” I don’t think you need to be doing physics to benefit from allowing yourself space not to know.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it’s why I trust science above other forms of discovery. It’s not even the methodology, but the top scientists tend to admit “I don’t know everything,” whereas the top religious figures tend to say “I know the mysteries of the universe.” Unfortunately, they all seem to have different explanations for them.