Brad Warner's recent post about skeptics and their take on the Buddhist concept of emptiness reminded me of something I wanted to write a blog post about, but forgot; I was, you know, pretty busy as of late. Ven. Warner pretty articulately says:
I believe that this conclusion about the doctrine of emptiness negating the law of identity (A=A) therefore no rational statement can be made runs something like this. I'm guessing here, because this is so foreign to my understanding of the doctrine of emptiness that I have a hard time getting my head around it. But here goes nothin'.
1) The doctrine of emptiness says everything is empty of self nature (so far so good).
2) If everything is empty of self nature then every thing in the universe is its exact opposite. White is black, war is peace, The Beatles are The Bee Gees. (This is already going wrong)
3) Since every thing is its opposite no rational statement can be made.
4) Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists are all crazy because they believe that good is evil, chocolate is peanut butter, and Charlie Sheen is the Dalai Lama*. You can't even argue with people like that!
The actual doctrine of emptiness bears no relation to this. Even if your buddy the Buddhist at the coffee shop down the street claims it does and even if he ought to know because he read a book by Alan Watts six years ago...
Buddhists do not think pink is orange, fish are elephants and Paris Hilton is the entire London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Things are what they are. Zen texts like the Sandokai (Harmony of Equality and Difference) are not trying to refute the law of identity. Things are different from each other. Yet ultimately all things are of one substance.
I'd add at the end of the last sentence, "without an inherent essence, and yes, this statement is also self-referential." That does not mean 1=2. That too would be trying to pin down reality like a butterfly pinned in some collection. Can't do it. Nope.
Which brings me to this:
That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.
This was the era of the culture wars, the years when the conservative University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom warned in his book “The Closing of the American Mind” of the dangers of liberal know-nothing relativism. But somehow, in the passage from Bush I to Bush II and beyond, the politics changed. By the mid-1990s, even some progressives said that the assault on truth, particularly scientific truth, had gone too far, a point made most famously in 1996 by the progressive New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who managed to trick the left-wing academic journal Social Text into printing a tongue-in-cheek article, written in an overblown parody of dense academic jargon, that argued that physical reality, as we know it, may not exist.Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”
I often feel like a dual fish out of water: Having to explain Buddhism as philosophy to rationalists, and at the same time having to explain to Western Buddhists that most New Age garbage is just that.
Alan Sokal's article can be read on-line. I think Alan Sokal might be a bit proud of what he did with his Social Text hoax, but I could be wrong. Regardless, if you actually read Alan Sokal's article he actually never goes anywhere near refuting the fact that science is fundamentally open; that good science can't be done unless one is open to the possibility of falsification. This, while not a parroting of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (not to mention the premise of deconstruction as a method) is not at all incompatible with it. Sokal's hoax allowed for a politicization to creep into his paper - which should have raised a red flag to the reviewers from Social Text - but did not.
Facts are not made up. Things are as they are. The fundamental emptiness of all things not only does not negate the fundamental outlook of the scientific method, but is in fact highly compatible with it to the point of being a reflection of the emptiness of all things.
Does that clear things up?
One could say this is a typical Times "Both sides do it too!" bit of nonsense. One probably would say it. But the fact remains, regardless of your politics, the scientific method is the best tool we have for describing the behavior of nature that can be observed, measured, and for which effects can be separated. And the nature of existence itself appears to be fundamentally empty.