Secular Buddhism: scientistic versus interpretive

May 1, 2013

This talk was given at the Secular Buddhist Colloquium, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, USA, in March 2013.

Secular Buddhism has barely announced its name, yet two divergent tendencies already seem to be developing among its sympathisers. What seems to be the dominant one in the USA aligns with scientistic atheism and the recent claims of the life sciences, it spends a lot of time debunking beliefs and prejudices associated with Abrahamic monotheism. Yet both Abrahamic religion and science play the same language game, as Wittgenstein would say – they speak in revelations. A point I’ll return to.

The other secular Buddhist tendency, found mainly in the rest of the English-speaking world, abandons the language of revelation altogether, be it Abrahamic or scientistic, in favour of post-metaphysical, interpretive language – that is, a first-person discourse arising out of the conscious experience of engaged human agency.

Let’s provisionally call these tendencies of secular Buddhism scientistic and interpretive respectively. In this context, scientism stands for an idolatrous relationship to science that is widespread in today’s western culture. And let’s note that the geographical division is no accident.

US society exhibits qualitatively higher rates of Abrahamic belief and religious adherence than other western societies, so here ‘that ole-time religion’ retains a lot of cultural prestige and political clout. Thus it’s no wonder an atheism industry, with a penchant for scientism, has grown up in the US to deal with the problem.

In the wider west, by contrast, unreconstructed Abrahamic religion has lost prestige and clout to the point where ‘God-botherers’ don’t really bother the rest of us any more. And post-metaphysical thought seems to provide a much closer fit with the Buddha’s own teaching.

Moreover, some of us are making friends with secular Christians who, by and large, have been speaking our post-metaphysical, interpretive language longer than Buddhists have.

How the tension plays out in contemporary western philosophy

The nascent scientistic/interpretive divide within secular Buddhism coincides with the sectarian fissure separating the Anglo-American or ‘analytic’ wing of western philosophy from the Continental’ one. Brutally summarised, the first of these pursues knowledge in the form of truth-claims, and prioritises metaphysics and epistemology; whereas the second pursues wisdom and embraces such post-metaphysical schools as phenomenology, existentialism and pragmatism.(1)

The analytic wing upholds the necessity of an ‘objective’ view-from-nowhere (or God’s-eye-view) and the truth claims – both religious and scientific – that it spawns. It sees language as mirroring (representing) ultimate realities, and so capable of expressing something called ‘truth’. The post-metaphysical, interpretive schools, by contrast, focus on the perceptions of situated agents, and see language as ‘anti-representational’ or ‘non-realist’ – as a tool for expressing and achieving human needs and interests, not as a mirror to objective reality.
In this second case, speech acts can be more or less useful (just like other tools – saucepans, screwdrivers, aeroplanes etc.), but not ‘true’ or ‘false’. Utility trumps truth. And interpretation – hermeneutics – can enhance the productiveness (usefulness) of speech acts, as Gianni Vattimo suggests.(2)

Take the most obvious example of the divergence in question, the God problem, which sells so many books at airports. In Anglo-American/analytic vein, atheists have battled theists for decades over whether s/he/it exists or not as an objective reality. From a post-metaphysical perspective, though, the questions would rather concern when the God metaphor arose, whose needs and interests it served, and has it remained useful or been creatively repurposed.

In the late nineteenth century Nietzsche, and then the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, suggested that God was now a dead metaphor, one that had outlived its usefulness, and should be laid to rest with all the other dead metaphors. This is what Nietzsche’s ‘the death of God’ announced: the death of a metaphor. He was not promoting atheism, which – just like theism – proposes an ‘objective’ truth-claim divorced from needs and interests.

This debate leaves the engaged human agent none the wiser. Secular Buddhists, I’m suggesting, don’t have a dog in this fight, and should avoid entering the lists in debates like this one that lead nowhere.

The travails of scientism

One of Buddhism’s first selling points in the west in the late nineteenth century was that it was supposedly ‘the scientific religion’ in two senses: it did not resist evolutionary biology as Christianity did; and it shared a research object – the human mind – with that other emerging glamour science of the time, psychology.

Then as now, scientistic publicists seemed strangely unaware of empirical science’s origins in western Christianity: it began as ‘natural philosophy’ with a remit to study nature as a way of understanding how the Creator’s mind worked, something that could be read off natural phenomena closely observed. So science learned the language game of revelation on its progenitor’s knee.

But having forgotten its origins, the adherents of scientism have declared war on science’s ecclesiastical  parent, now its competitor in the revelation market.

Buddhism’s romance with western natural science has waxed and waned since it first received the accolade of ‘scientific religion’. But now it’s waxing again around neuroscience, genetics and genomics, once more on the basis of a supposedly shared interest in the human mind. The findings of these now heavily commercialised branches of science are contested, but also hyped and oversold, often with Buddhists’ help.
Steven Poole comments: ‘We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences.’(3) He thus makes a crucial point, and sounds a timely warning, not least to Buddhists. One way of understanding the thrust of the earliest Buddhist teachings is that they’re precisely about the work of experiential self-interpretation as essential to assuming self-responsibility, and they eschew metaphysical revelations as a diversion from this practice.(4)

As against that dharmic thrust, a typically religious corruption is to infantilise us by wresting from us ‘the job of interpreting ourselves’. Priests do it, gurus do it, and now celebrity scientists do it.

Misunderstand me correctly (as the Swedes say). The problem does not lie with science as such. The findings of neuroscience – to take that example – contribute to our understanding of how our minds work and the sort of creatures we are.

Rather, the problem lies with the scientistic tendency to over-extend the implications of particular findings, and in this way crowd out other insights available from the social sciences, psychological disciplines, and non-empirical modes of self-interpretation such as dharma practice, philosophical analysis, and aesthetic explorations of the human condition.(5)

Ambivalence arises when I sense yet another round of biological determinism, yet another clockwork-orange moment, one more attempt to foist a reductionist framework onto us, simplifying us so as to obviate once and for all the intricate work of interpreting ourselves, afresh every day, and without presuppositions.

Warning bells also ring when I sense a lack of circumspection in those promoting particular science-based approaches to ordering human life. After all, science is a culture like any other, a culture that manifests in the laboratory among other places, and like any other culture, it has its dark corners.

The history of the life sciences over the last century and a half includes particularly dark chapters involving scientific racism and sexism, the pathologisation of women, eugenics, and their far-reaching political and social effects. We have every reason to keep our ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ about us as we affirm the legitimate new insights of these sciences.

In conclusion

Post-metaphysical secularism does not crusade against religion as such (still less against science), only against manifestations of religion and science that pretend to be true in a way that short-circuits our self-interpretation using the diverse resources that modernity makes available to us.

Aspects of both religion and science continue to prove useful in serving human needs and interests, including informing-without-disabling our work of self-interpretation. Let’s by all means engage with them, then. But with our eyes wide open, and Karl Marx’s question – Cui bono? (Who benefits?) – on our lips.


1 Simon Critchley, Continental philosophy: a very short introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), ch. 1. Appropriately enough, this chapter bears the title, ‘The gap between knowledge and wisdom’.
2 After Christianity (Transl. Luca d’Isanto. New York and Chichester: Columbia U P, 2002), pp. 62-3.
3 ‘Life’s more complicated than this’ (a review of Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Genes, cells and brains: bioscience’s Promothean claims, London: Verso, 2012), in the Guardian Weekly, 1 February 2013 The Roses’ book confirms the need to remain sceptical about the claims and motives of those making extravagant claims for the new life sciences.
4 However, in The bodhisattva’s brain: Buddhism naturalized (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2011) Owen Flanagan – who explicitly identifies with analytic philosophy – presents Buddhism precisely as a metaphysics (as well as an epistemology and an ethics). In spite of this, he too presents a useful critique of Buddhism’s and neuroscience’s current flirtation.
5 In Neuro: the new brain sciences and the management of the mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached persuasively affirm the value of brain sciences in a positive, non-reductionist relationship to other disciplines that shed light on the human condition.



2 Replies to “Secular Buddhism: scientistic versus interpretive”

Linda Blanchard

I thank you once again, Winton, for writing a piece discussing philosophy and some of its history in a way that a philosophy-challenged individual like myself can both understand and appreciate.

But I do want to check my understanding of one of your opening points. Are you suggesting that the Secular Buddhism of North America – or perhaps just of the U.S. – has a strongly scientistic bent? I ask because what I hear is folks saying that scientific research (on things like meditation, or consciousness) at the very least doesn’t contradict the Buddha’s early teachings and perhaps may even support it, but I don’t hear any indication that science is being elevated in the practice above one’s direct experience, above interpreting one’s own experience. If you are hearing something different, I’d be interested in pointers to where it seems to be coming from.

Jim Champion

Somewhat belated thanks for writing this, it’s made clearer something that I’ve only recently realised after some forum discussions on the US website.

I’m in the UK, which I now realise means I’m in a culture where (as Winton puts it) the ‘God-botherers’ largely don’t bother us. The US-based discussions and, for example, the ‘secular Buddhist podcast’ are embedded in a culture where the god-bothering is very active and belief in an Abrahamic God is the assumed default position. I’m finding the material here on the NZ site much more helpful, presumably because it is coming from this more interpretive, less scientistic side.

For a little more personal context, I’m a science teacher in a secondary school and I certainly notice that my students by and large still have quite a scientistic outlook, which presumably means that theistic views are present in our UK culture to some extent, although not to the same extent as the USA. Certainly very few of the students loudly identify themselves as Christians, or believers-in-God, and the default position seems to be atheism or apathy. I’m sometimes surprised about the goings on in the neighbouring classroom where Philosophy and Ethics (the rebranding of what was once called Religious Education) is taught. From browsing their textbooks it’s still mainly a God-based subject.

Anyway, I’m rambling. In summary, I think the UK is poised somewhere between the USA and the Antipodes on this ‘scale’ of scientistic to interpretive. Interested to see how it plays out, and this insight will help when I’m reading secular Buddhisty things on the very international Internet.

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