There was a great comment on our recent conversation with B. Alan Wallace on BGeeks, by someone with a neuroscience degree and an interest in Buddhist practice. Here is what they had to say:
As someone with a strong Buddhist background as well as a degree in neuroscience, I find it challenging when yogis see science as simply a means to ‘validate’ existing belief systems and practices. Scientific inquiry has the potential to shed light on both positive AND negative (deluded, harmful, useless) aspects of spiritual practice.
Obviously scientists can be arrogant about their approach to ‘truth’, but so can contemplatives. I find that, having been deeply immersed in both worlds, each has the ability to inform the other in ways that are potentially profound but also often uncomfortable.
While Dr. Wallace speaks to this mutually-beneficial relationship between contemplative practice and science, the overall flavor of the interview is one of ‘What can Buddhism do for science?’. I would really love to hear someone ask the counter-question; ‘What can science do for Buddhism’ (beyond providing cultural validation). Also, it would be good to hear from both scientists and yogis on *each* of these questions – or even better, those rare folks with a foot in both realms.
Here was my response to their great response, which I thought would make sense to re-post here:
I think your point is valid, and the questions you bring up are good. As a minor point of contention, I would say our questions weren’t so much geared toward asking what can Buddhism do for science, but rather what can a more clear scientific understanding of the implications of contemplative practice (as are taught in the Buddhist tradition) do for society. At least this was more of what I had in mind when I wrote the questions.
Also, you are quite right that some of the rigor, and unique approach, of the scientific method could help shine light on some of the belief systems, and practices, that are found in the Buddhist tradition (and vice versa of course). Indeed Alan discusses this at length in his writing.
One thing that comes to mind was an article I red recently by Stephen LaBerge entitled, “Lucid Dreaming and the Yoga of the Dream State” where he shows that certain beliefs from the Tibetan dream yoga tradition (ex. men should sleep on their right sides, and women on their left to induce lucidity) end up being partially right and partially wrong. His research found that for both men and women lying on the right side does help induce lucidity more often (due to some unique changes that happen physiologically by lying on the right side) but that there is no increase for women (or men) by lying on the left side. Turns out, when it’s put to the test, that part of that was just not true. My sense is that by subjecting many of these techniques and rationals for doing things a certain way, science will be able to verify/validate, and debunk many of the claims. They will also, as you hinted to in your comment, be able to discover even better ways of doing things. Listen to our earlier conversation with Neuroscientist Daniel Rizzuto, Neuroscience and The Enlightenment Machine for an example of one such thought-experiment. It’s very exciting indeed!