Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.
How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.
This seems appropriate as far as the natural world is concerned. Buddhists don’t apply this notion to mathematical truths or moral certainties, but sometimes, cleverly, apply it to their own dogmas. Buddhism has had millennia to work out seeming contradictions, and it is only someone who was not indoctrinated who finds any of it strange. (Or at least any stranger than, say, believing God literally breathed a soul into the first human.)
Early on, Buddhism grasped the nature of worldly change and divided parts, and then applied it to the human mind. The key step was overcoming egocentrism and recognizing the connection between the world and humans. We are part of the natural world; its processes apply themselves equally to rocks, trees, insects, and humans. Perhaps building on its heritage, early Buddhism simply did not allow room for human exceptionalism.
So proud men have thought, in all walks of life, since Giordano Bruno was burned alive for his cosmology on the Campo de' Fiori in 1600. They have gone about their work simply enough. The scientists among them did not set out to be moralists or revolutionaries. William Harvey and Huygens, Euler and Avogadro, Darwin and Willard Gibbs and Marie Curie, Planck and Pavlov, practised their crafts modestly and steadfastly. Yet the values they seldom spoke of shone out of their work and entered their ages, and slowly re-made the minds of men. Slavery ceased to be a matter of course. The princelings of Europe fled from the gaming table. The empires of the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs crumbled. Men asked for the rights of man and for government by consent. By the beginning of the nineteenth century. Napoleon did not find a scientist to elevate tyranny into a system; that was done by the philosopher Hegel. Hegel had written his university dissertation to prove philosophially that there could be no more than the seven planets he new. It was unfortunate, and characteristic, that even as e wrote, on i January 1801, a working astronomer observed the eighth planet Ceres.^^
First, of course, comes independence, in observation and thence in thought. I once told an audience of school-children that the world would never change if they did not contradict their elders. J was chagrined to find next morning that this axiom outraged their parents. Yet it is the basis of the scientific method. A man must see, do and think things for himself, in the face of those who are sure that they have already been over all that ground. In science, there is no substitute for independence.
Independence, originality, and therefore dissent: these words show the progress, they stamp the character of our civilization as once they did that of Athens in flower. From Luther in 1517 to Spinoza grinding lenses, from Huguenot weavers and Quaker ironmasters to the Puritans founding Harvard, and from Newton's religious heresies to the calcu¬ lated universe of Eddington, the profound movements of history have been begun by unconforming men. Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last ten years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether ^t will be a man. For dissent is also native in any society which is still growing. Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.
Dissent is not itself an end; it is the surface mark ot a deeper value. Dissent is the mark k of freedom, as originality is the mark of indej>endence of mind. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a scientist, even in private, if he does not have independence of observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect independence. Tf^'he safeguards which it must offer are patent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These values are so familiar to us, yawning our way through political perorations, that th^ey seem self-evident. But they are self-evident, that is, they are logical I needs, only where men are committed to explore the truth: in a scientific society. These freedoms (5 of tolerance have never been notable in a dogmatic society, even i when the dogma was Christian. They have been granted only when scientific thought flourished once before, in the youth of Greece.
The society of scientists must be a democracy.® It can keep alive and grow only by a constant tension between dissent and respect; between independence from the views of Others, and tolerance for them. The crux of the ethical problem is to fuse these, the private and the public needs. Tolerance alone is not enough; this is why the bland, kindly civilizations of the East, where to contradict is a personal affront, developed no strong science. And independence is not enough either: the sad history of genetics, still torn to¬ day by the quarrels of sixty years ago, shows that.*^ Every scientist has to learn the hard lesson, to respect the views of the next man—even when the next man is tactless enough to express them.
Tolerance among scientists cannot be based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of justice and of due honor. These are values which to the layman seem most remote from any abstract study. Justice, honor, the respect of man for man: What, he asks, have these human values to do with science? The question is a foolish survival of those nineteenth-century quarrels which always came back to equate ethics with the Book of Genesis. If critics in the past had ever looked practically to see how a science develops, they would not have asked such a question. Science confronts the work of one man with that of without justice and honor anH rpsnprt bptwppn man and without justice and honor and respect between man and man. Only by these means can science pursue its steadfast object, to explore truth. If these values did not exist, then the society of scientists would have to invent them to make the practice of science possible. In societies where these values did not exist, science has had to create them.
I take a different view of science as a method; to me, it enters the human spirit more directly. Therefore I have studied quite another achievement: that of making a human society work. As a set of discoveries and devices, science has mastered nature; but it has been able to do so only because its values, which derive from its method, have formed those who practice it into a living, stable and incorruptible society. Here is a community where everyone has been free to enter, to speak his mind, to be heard and contradicted; and it has outlasted the empires of Louis XIV and the Kaiser. Napoleon was angry when the Institute he had founded awarded his first scientific prize to Humphry Davy, for this was in 1807, vhen France was at war with England. Science survived then and since because it is less brittle than the rage of tyrants.
This is a stability which no dogmatic society can have. There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today's theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, wWho now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago? Yet the society of scientists has survived these changes without a revolution, and honors the men whose beliefs it no longer shares. No one has recanted abjectly at a trial before his colleagues. The whole structure of science has been changed, and no one has been either disgraced or deposed. Through all the changes of science, the society of scientiitists is flexible and single-minded together, and evolves and rights itself. In the language of science, it is a stable society.