The Place of Religion in the Technoscientific World

Introduction

 

At first glance religion on the one hand and science and technology on the other do not seem to have anything in common. Religion, according to some viewpoints, is a holdover from a bygone era, an era which was full of superstitions and irrational beliefs. Science, on the contrary, is a product of reason and truth. The only way for religion to show that what it offers is worthy of belief is that it is the word of God, that its pronouncement comes from Ultimate Reality in one way or another. Followers have to take these claims on faith, since there is no other independent way of proving whether God or Ultimate Reality really exists or not. Science, according to this common viewpoint, challenges everybody to prove its content. Those who do not believe, for example, that the Moon’s gravity is responsible for the tides are invited to offer their own alternative explanation as to why the tides behave the way they do without referring to these familiar concepts. Science does not rely on faith; everything can be proved and shown to be true or false objectively. As for technology, the challenge for religion is to come up with any solutions that could even remotely rival technology in effectiveness. Medical technology, for example, has progressed very rapidly, resulting in many people living longer than before. We can also think of the results of other types of technology. On the contrary, religion does not seem to offer any similarly concrete solutions. The promise of religion lies mainly in the afterlife, but without relying on faith it is impossible to prove that the afterlife exists. Thus for many in the world today the promise of afterlife offered by religion is nothing more than a false hope designed for the deluded, unenlightened mass. Technology offers solutions for the here and now, for today’s world, not for the world beyond death, which no one actually knows exists or not.

That is certainly a familiar picture. It does not matter which specific religion is there on the side of religion in the dichotomy. Many have claimed that Buddhism fares better on the whole than theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are many elements in Buddhism which do not go along with the modern scientific mindset either. For example, the belief in life before birth and after death is central to Buddhism. It does not seem to be possible to have a coherent teaching on moral responsibility without the belief in these things. If everything in one’s life is totally annihilated after one’s death, then what is the point of trying to be a morally better person? Buddhism also has its fair share of superstitions; the Buddha performs many miracles as told in the canonical text; the worlds are arranged according to the moral quality of the inhabitants. It is very difficult to reconcile these to the modern scientific worldview. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has recently developed an interest in Buddhism, is clear in saying that the kind of Buddhism he would like to have is the kind that is totally cleansed of all that to him are “superstitions” (Flanagan 2011). To him superstitious elements in Buddhism are those that cannot be explained by science, such as the story that the Buddha travels to one of the heavens to meet his mother who died when he was only seven days old, or the belief in reincarnation. But the problem of stripping these elements from Buddhism is that what is left is only a set of abstract teachings, precisely the kind of thing that is amenable to modern science. As the belief in the afterlife is central to Buddhism’s stance on morality and responsibility, it cannot be eradicated without thereby affecting the whole fabric of Buddhist philosophy all together. What this means is that these so-called “superstitious” beliefs play an important role in Buddhism. Thus the belief found among many scholars that Buddhism is somehow different in this regard from other, theistic religions may be unfounded. Here Buddhism and the theistic religions are in the same boat.

The estrangement between religion and science appears be indicate that religion has become alienated to the modern world. This is because the modern world is so deeply influenced by science and technology that it is very difficult to imagine what the modern world would be like without the two. Thus the main problem facing all religions today is how religion can maintain its relevance in today’s world, a world which is founded upon science and technology. How can religion find its place in the social world when this world is being shaped more and more by science and technology? If science and technology do not need religion and if science and technology are also what is needed in today’s world, then religion appears to be superfluous. Would the belief in God or in Nirvana, which has founded the religious faith for millennia, be replaced by a new religion, that of science and rationality, and the belief that technology can fix every problem that is facing us? These questions have become all the more important when the role of religion in modern society is being usurped by science. Religion used to play the role of providing meaning and consolation to the people, but now that many are turning to drugs and medical help instead of religion, then what is left for religion to do?

It is my contention that the problem of relevance facing religion today is based on the belief that religion and science inhabit totally different world where there is no coming and going between the two. This belief is misguided. Religion still has quite a lot to share with science, something that science cannot find on their own. This is because there is bound to be something that is missed out by science because its own methodology prevents it from the beginning. Furthermore, religion also has quite a lot to learn from science too. It is only by opening the two up so that each can learn from the other than the place for religion in the technoscientific world can be assured. Moreover, it is more important perhaps that science learn from religion. In this way science can then find the kind of meaning that cannot be found otherwise, especially if science insists on proceeding with its own methodology alone.

In fact there are three domains in which religion and science can fruitfully interact, namely ethics, new possibilities for science, and new understanding of religion. Let’s discuss each of these topics in turn.

 

Ethics

The usual methodology of science does not leave a room for ethics. But this is where religion can make its strongest contribution. Science and technology have become so dependent on each other than it makes more sense to put them under the same word, “technoscience.” Technoscience is a unique development of the modern world; in fact the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century owed very much to the development of technology in that period. Galileo would not have been able to put forward his new scientific knowledge of the heaven had he not able to use the telescope which was an invention in that period. Technoscience certainly carries with it ethical implications. This is the case not only in today’s world where technoscience has become so pervasive in every aspect of our lives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when modern science was at its formative stage, it was clear that technoscience was destined to be the instrument that Europeans used to conquer the rest of the world. To conquer the world, however, is not the stated objective of science, but this was inevitable when science became coupled with technology to produce immense power to those who knew how to harness it. The ethical implication is clear: To use the power of technoscience to conquer the world, as the Europeans certainly did in their colonization of the rest of the world, carries with it strong ethical values. And today when technoscience has become much more powerful, its ethical implications and values are as strong as ever.

It is quite ironic that though technoscience contains within itself strong ethical values, its own methodology does not permit of treating those values as constitutive of its practice in itself. That is, ethical considerations always come from outside of the technoscientific practice. When the scientists in Nazi Germany performed a series of experiments on their prisoners to see how tolerant the bodies of human beings were to extreme cold, they did a meticulous job which was perfect according to the scientific methodology. However, what they did was a blatant violation of ethical standard, for actually what they did was to put these prisoners under various degrees of extreme cold and measured how long they lasted until they finally died. It did not come into the minds of these scientists that these prisoners were human beings and that being put under such a condition would be extremely painful. In the minds of the scientists being in pain could actually be part of the experiment. If they had a way of measuring the pain suffered by these prisoners objectively, then this would have been a part of the experiment because that would contribute to their goals of measuring the threshold of endurance to extreme cold. However, what did not occur to their minds was that these prisoners were human beings, and human beings do suffer when put to the cold. The scientists did not know, or did not care to know, that they themselves could have been put under the same condition, and if they did not want to be in that situation (no one would) then the prisoners did not want so either. That is the crucial aspect of ethical consideration of their experiment, but their scientific methodology told them that this was extraneous to the science, and such feelings needed to be avoided.

If the scientists who were to perform these experiments were the least religious, they would certainly have not performed them. They would realize that both they themselves and the prisoners were not only human beings, but were creatures of God, created in His image, and thus deserve some respect. This realization would prevent the scientists from performing such horrific experiments because they would judge that the suffering of those who are put under these conditions is not compatible with the respect that any human being deserves. Here we see how religion contributes to ethical considerations in science. Nowadays we have strong regulations in using human subjects in research, regulations that stem directly from the horrors performed by Nazi scientists. Even though the regulations look secular, there is no denial that religious consideration could well be the foundation on which these regulations depend.

In other areas of scientific research and experiment, ethical considerations are also needed. Perhaps the hottest topic in technoscientific research and development today is in robotics. The US has developed drone airplanes that can fly far into hostile territory and seek out and destroy targets. In the works are robots that could one day replace human soldiers, with far more lethal consequences. The ethical problem for the drone airplane is: Is it ethical to send such airplanes to hostile territory and bomb targets? If the war is unjust, then the question is closed because in an unjust war every action by the one who starts the war cannot be ethically justified. But if the war is a just one, then should drone airplanes be considered to be an unacceptable means of engaging in warfare, in the same way as the use of chemical or biological weapons are so considered nowadays? What seems to be wrong about drone airplanes is that warfare is supposed to be a conflict between humans, but when drones travel thousands of kilometers into the enemy’s territory and destroy targets there, the human element on the attacker’s side is missing. Warfare then becomes utterly dependent on technology in a way that has not been seen before. It is true that warfare has always depended on technology, but what separates drones from all previous uses of technology is that with the drones fighting can be done remotely. The person who controls the drone can sit in a comfortable room half the world away from the site of the conflict. He or she then is not involved in the conflict in any manner, because for him or her engaging in the war is nothing different from engaging in a simulation game on the computer, something every child today is very good at. This conflation of a real war where real people are killed and a computer simulation game in which everything is happening as blips on the screen, exemplified by the drone aircraft, points to an urgent need for further ethical consideration of the whole thing.

In addition to the remotely controlled aircraft, military researchers today are working on a version of robot soldiers who in their vision would one day take the place of human soldiers in combat situation. What is scary about this development is that the robots are envisioned to function autonomously. This is where ethical considerations come in very poignantly. To function autonomously means the robot does not have to be remotely controlled; instead they can function independently by themselves. For example, a robot that is armed and programmed to destroy targets would be able to travel on their own and seek out the targets by themselves. What makes this particularly scary is that the robot will have to make its own decision as to which exactly is the target and which is not. But what would happen if it fails to make the distinction? What would happen if the information fed into the robot before entering the combat zone is a wrong one so that the robot is misled from the beginning? How could the robot distinguish between civilians and combatants? In real life combatants do not always wear a sign telling the world that they are indeed combatants; they would like to blend with the civilians for obvious reasons. How can then the autonomous robot know which one is actually the combatant? This is still an unsolved problem in military robotics.

Religion can be of great help in instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in robotics. It is right now not possible to engineer a robot who is as fully conscious as a human being. That scenario is still the stuff of science fiction. What is available, however, is a robot which has in it a set of algorithmic commands which allow them to function more or less autonomously. Thus the crux of the matter is not with the robot itself, but with the designers and the whole complex of operations surrounding the robot, the whole human and social context in which the robot develops. It is these systems that are in great need of religious sensibilities. It may be far-fetched to talk about the role of religion in military technology, but the core idea is that in any kind of technology, the military hardware discussed here being only an example, there is a need of religious perspectives and sensibilities, because it is these sensibilities that instill a sense of ethics in the design and implementation of a technology, no matter how crude or sophisticated. In the case of the autonomous military robot, it has to follow the rule of warfare. It must be able to distinguish civilians from combatants in a sophisticated manner, and it has to be virtuous in that it won’t shoot any combatant who has already surrendered. A key ingredient in the religious sensibilities is the realization that all human beings are sacred and deserve respect. Even if a human being is one’s enemy in war, the enemy still deserves respect and when the combat has ceased the enemy is to be treated like the human being that he is. This is a realization that stems ultimately from religion, and it shows how important religion is to such a sophisticated and advanced technology such as military robotics.

 

New Possibilities for Science

Apart from ethics, science itself benefits from religion because religion can provide science with new possibilities and insights which cannot be obtained through scientific methodology alone. For example, the works of such scientists as Francesco Varela, Richard Davidson and others have shown that ancient wisdom from Buddhism could shed light that offers new possibilities for scientific research. Buddhism has offered detailed first-person descriptions of what is going on in the mind. It has cataloged a large variety of emotive and other mental states which have proven to be useful when scientists use the new technique of imaging the workings of the brain and try to interpret what they actually mean. This incorporation of first-person report based on Buddhist terminology is known as “first-person science,” an idea which has started to receive more serious attention from behavioral and cognitive scientists.

Traditional scientific methodology believes that one should prevent elements from the “first person” to come in to play in the process of finding and building up scientific knowledge, because such first-person elements will distort the truth and the validity of the results. For example, scientists are taught to avoid the “secondary qualities” of objects and focus instead of their “primary qualities.” Secondary qualities are those properties of objects that depend on the perception of individuals for their existence. For example, the feelings of warmth or coldness that the hands have when they are immersed in warm or cold water are clear examples of the secondary qualities. The problem, according to traditional methodology, is that feelings felt by the hands are too inexact to be admissible as scientific evidence. Some persons may tolerate heat better than another, so the former may report the same water as being less warm than the other, who is more sensitive to heat. For the report to be scientific, the thermometer is used instead. Instead of relying on the sheer tactile feeling of warmth or coldness, the thermometer reports how much or how little the heat in the water causes the mercury inside the tube to rise up. The thermometer does not report the feeling of heat or coldness in any way. Heat as shown by the rising of the mercury inside the thermometer is an example of the water’s primary quality; whereas the feelings of heat or warmth or coldness felt by the hands are secondary qualities. The key here is that since primary qualities do not depend on the subjective feelings of the observer, they become the foundation for constructing scientific knowledge. This has become the dominant methodology in science for centuries.

However, what Varela is proposing is that, instead of relying exclusively on what is objectively verifiable in the primary qualities, scientific knowledge could advance more if one also brings in the first-person, subjective dimension. Buddhism does not distinguish between the objective and the subjective; instead it assumes that the two are both aspects of the same reality. In other words, when Buddhism describes reality, it does not divide the reality into the subjective, inner realm of private thoughts and sensations of an individual, and the objective, outer realm of publicly verifiable qualities. The so-called “inner” qualities are also publicly verifiable because anyone who follows the same procedure will experience those “inner” qualities in the same way as others. The Buddhist text states, for example, that when one attains the first level of meditative absorption (jñana) one will experience a sensation known as “vitaka,” which is a necessary factor in attaining the first-level absorption. The text describes vitaka as “hitting the bell.” This refers to the act of meditation where the meditator recalls and repeats what she is focusing her attention on. The recalling and the refocusing are known as “vitaka.” The text says that this is a vital ingredient without which no meditative absorption can take place. One knows that one has vitaka by comparing what the text says. It is like hitting a bell. When one is focusing one’s attention on something in the process of meditation, one has to keep repeating and bringing oneself back to the object of one’s meditation. This bringing oneself back is then compared to the action of hitting the bell over and over. What is happening inside is taken to be on a par as an element of reality as what is outside. In fact it is an implication of Buddhist and its main contribution that the inner and the outer eventually break down.

Another example that shows how the inner and the outer is broken down and merged together is that Buddhism has a very elaborate theory of the self and self-formation. This can be a resource for scientists who are studying consciousness and how the idea of the self is formed in a person, or whether there can be located a locus (or several loci) of the self in the brain of the person himself or herself. Buddhism teaches that what is commonly known as the self, i.e., the one who is the initiator of action of an individual, who makes the decision for the individual, who feels and thinks as that individual, ultimately does not exist as an objectively existing entity. Instead what is taken to be the self is a result of various factors, chief among which is upadana, or grasping. What is taken to be the self is a result of various forms and instances of grasping, resulting in various elements being brought together under the illusion that those elements belong to one and the same objectively existing entity known as the self. But the Buddhists ask us to examine this process in order to help us realize that the self does not objectively exist; instead it is only formed out of many elements which would not be related to one another if not for the action of grasping.

What the analysis of the self in Buddhism can offer modern science is that Buddhism has already a very detailed and systematic description of the self and the various processes by which the self come to be formed. This becomes a reference point against which modern neuroscience can conduct their experiments. Modern science has operated on the belief that first-person report should be filtered out, but as the analysis of the self shows, the inner and the outer are in fact aspects of one and the same reality. And if this is really the case, then to take the inner out believing that it is not part of the scientific process would mean that scientific knowledge would miss an important aspect which could have brought much in terms of our understanding of the world. According to Francisco Varela, one of the most prominent pioneers in bringing Buddhism and scientific research together, “… we foresee in the future that the mind sciences will evolve into a form of experiential neuroscience, bridging the gap between external and internal descriptions. Such a unification of our understanding of the world, a new frame for a mind science, is one of the major contributions Buddhism is capable of offering” (Varela 2012).

 

New Understanding of Religion

 

The relation between science and religion does not limit itself only to creating new possibilities in science. The relation goes the other way too. Science and technology can contribute to the many ways that religion can be transformed in order better to respond to challenges of the contemporary world. For example, the Internet and social media can promote religious teachings and create groups of faithfuls and practitioners who can always get in touch with one another through the social media. They can share the teachings and set up real world events where they can meet; they can also engage in discussion on the social media site and so on. A welcome development in how the practice of religion has been transformed by technology is in what is known as “Islamic computing.” An example of this is a software program, which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, that tells the exact time that Muslims have to pray to God. Another application facilitates online banking according to the Islamic system. These are just some of the current applications of modern technology to religious practice. In Thailand, many also use the social media to propagate teachings and to coordinate real world activities such as merit making ceremonies.

The use of technology is not limited to facilitating religious practice, however. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that if the findings of science happen to contradict some of the content by past masters, then he would be willing to forego the masters’ teachings and embrace the scientific findings instead. He says: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview” (Tenzin Gyatso 2005). For example, Buddhism has an elaborate cosmology which claims that there is a central mountain that acts as the core at the center of the world and that the core is ringed by seven smaller mountains. The pillar also supports many layers of heavens and hells. According to the Dalai Lama, this belief has to change in light of the findings of science that show the geographical nature of the world as well as the place of the planet earth in the solar system. This shows that the idea of the world being supported by a central mountain is untenable. One can still be a good Buddhist without believing in the central mountain. Thus the teachings of Buddhism can then be enriched by these findings from science. Instead of believing that the earth is supported by a perfectly straight central pillar, something which cannot be supported by empirical evidence, Buddhists can believe instead that the earth is not supported by anything but float in space and orbit the sun as the third planet of the Solar System.

 

Conclusion

 

Such a belief, I would like to add, does not interfere with the main message of Buddhism, and in the case of other religions, this appears to be true also. A true believer and practitioner of a religion does not have to shut himself or herself off from the advancement in science and technology. Instead he or she finds a congruence, a harmony between science and religion such that the main message of the religion remains intact while becoming part of the scientific world. Becoming a part of the scientific world does not mean that one becomes “scientistic,” i.e., one who blindly follows everything in science and totally believes that science is superior to all other intellectual or spiritual endeavors. Such a person is indeed entirely ignorant. Integrating science and technology into our lives does not have to mean that we become scientistic in this sense. On the contrary, as our discussion on the ethics of science and technology shows, we stand in a real need for religious insights which would help us see the potentially disastrous consequences of technoscience. By doing that we do not become religious fanatics either. In fact religious fanatics, those who blindly believe in the content of religious teachings without reason, and those who are scientistic are but two sides of one and the same coin—they blindly believe in what they want to believe without proper investigation and examination through reason. Today’s world does not need those mindsets, but we need a way in which religion and technoscience to engage in meaningful dialogs so that we human beings can really flourish in both material and spiritual senses.

 

References

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (2005). Our faith in science. New York Times. November 12, 2005. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/12dalai.html?pagewanted=1 [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Varela, Francisco J. (2012). Buddhism and modern science: the importance of the encounter with Buddhism for modern science. Available at http://www.mindandlife.org/about/hhdl-mli/buddhism-and-modern-science/ [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Flanagan, Owen. (2011). Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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