Buddhism and Science
Science and Technology
23/02/2010 10:44 (GMT+7)
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Science and Technology

 Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto


 At the outset we must acknowledge the innumerable blessings bestowed on us by science. Nobody will dispute the enormous value science has for us. In order to be able to give this lecture, I have travelled all the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in only one hour. Back in the days of King Rama I, you would have had to wait three months for me to get here, and for that matter I probably wouldn't have come at all. For this we must acknowledge science's contribution to travel.

     Looking around at communications, we see radios, telephones, fax machines, televisions, videos and satellites, all of which have arisen from scientific and technological developments. Other obvious areas of development are in the medical world, where so many contagious diseases have now been virtually eradicated. Cholera is now quite rare, bubonic plague no longer exists, and smallpox has all but vanished. We no longer have to fear these infectious diseases. In olden times one could die from an infected appendix, but nowadays an appendectomy is a relatively simple operation. Even brain operations are getting easier. Sophisticated tools for accurate examination and diagnosis are more and more accessible. X-Ray machines are being replaced with computer X-Ray machines, and now we have ultra sound and MRI. It's almost no longer necessary for the doctor to examine the patient, the machines do it for him. These are all examples of extremely valuable technological advances.

     But on the other hand, when we really look into it, we find that science, and in particular technology, has created a great many problems for humanity as well. In the present time, particularly in the highly developed countries, there is even a fear that the human race, and indeed the whole world, may meet destruction at the hands of this technological progress. It might be a very instantaneous kind of destruction, at the flick of a switch, so to speak, or it could be a slow and gradual kind of destruction, as the gradual deterioration of the environment.

     Even within the immediacy of our everyday lives we are threatened by dangers. We can't be sure whether our food has been contaminated with chemicals or not. Sometimes the plants and animals used for our food supply are treated with hormones to boost their growth. Hogs are given special additives to make their meat turn an appealing red color. Poisonous substances are sometimes used in foods as preservatives, flavor enhancers or dyes, not to mention the uncontrolled use of pesticides. Some of the people who sell these foods wouldn't dare eat them themselves!

 Two kinds of technology

The application of science which effects the changes in the natural world is called technology. Technology is dependent for its existence on the knowledge obtained through science. It is the tool, or channel, through which humanity has worked to manipulate nature in the pursuit of material comfort. But at the same time, the dangers which threaten us are also contingent on this technology. Technology is thus both an instrument for finding happiness and a catalyst for danger. 

    Now in answer to all this, scientists may counter that by "science" we mean only pure science. Pure science seeks to discover and explain the truth, its concern is primarily the search for knowledge. Whatever anybody wants to do with this knowledge is their business, not the concern of science. Pure science tends to shake off responsibility in this regard.

     Technology has been accused of using scientific knowledge to its own ends, but this is not entirely true. Initially, technology was aimed at bringing benefit to humanity, but nowadays there are two kinds of technology. One is the technology which is used to create benefit, while the other is used to seek personal gain. What we need is the technology that is used to create benefit, but the problems of the present time exist largely because modern technology is of the kind that seeks personal gain.

     If we constrain ourselves to creating benefit, the repercussions arising from technological development will be few and far between, but whenever technology is used to seek personal gain, problems arise. Thus we must clearly distinguish between these two kinds of technology.

 The place of ethics

Be it the wrong utilization of scientific knowledge, the utilization of technology for personal gain, or even utilization of technology to destroy the earth, all these problems have arisen entirely as a result of human activity, they are a matter of utilization. Because they are rooted in human activity, their solutions are an ethical or moral concern.

    These problems can only be simply and directly solved through moral awareness. Only then will technology and science be used for constructive purposes. With moral awareness, even though there may be some harmful consequences arising from lack of circumspection or ignorance, the prevention and rectification of problems will be on the best possible level.

     Mankind has looked to science and technology to bring benefit to human society, but there is no guarantee that science and technology will bring only the benefit that humanity hopes for. These things can be used to create harm or benefit. How they are used is entirely at the disposal of the user.

     If we ignore morality or ethics, instead of creating benefit, the most likely result is that science and technology will bring problems, stressing as they do: 

    1. the unrestrained production and consumption of goods with which to gratify the senses, feeding craving and greed (raga and lobha);

     2. escalation of the power to destroy (dosa); and

     3. increased availability of objects which lure people into delusion and carelessness (moha).

     In so doing, technology tarnishes the quality of life and pollutes the environment. Only true moral awareness can alleviate these destructive influences.

     Without morality, technological progress, even the beneficial kind, tends to increase the propensity for destruction. The more science and technology advance, and the more keenly destruction seems to threaten mankind, the more is morality necessitated, and the more will the stability and well-being of humanity be dependent on ethical principles.


    In any case, this subject of ethics, although a simple and straightforward one, is largely ignored in modern times. Most people want to live without problems, but they don't want to solve them. As long as ethics are ignored like this, problems will persist. 

Science and technology cannot be separated

It is not only science that has fostered technology's growth -- technology has also been a decisive factor in the development of science. It is the scientific method that has enabled scientific learning to progress to where it is now, and an essential part of the scientific method is observation and experiment. The earliest forms of observation and experiment were carried out through the five senses -- eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, particularly the eyes for looking, the ears for listening and the hands for touching. However, our sense organs have their limitations. With the naked eye we can see a limited number of stars and a limited portion of the universe. With technological development, the telescope was invented, enabling science to make a Great Leap Forward. Microscopic organisms, invisible to the naked eye, were made visible through the invention of the microscope, allowing science to once again make great advances. Pure science, then, has relied heavily on technology for its progress. 

    The tools used for scientific research are products of technology, that is why science and technology have been inseparably connected in their development. In the present day, scientists are looking to the computer to further their quest for truth. Capable of collecting and collating vast amounts of information, much more than the ordinary human mind, the computer will be indispensable in the testing of hypotheses and the formulation of theories.

     The benefits of science appear to the mass of people through technology. Humanity must, however, learn to choose between technology for creating benefit and technology for seeking personal gain.

 Reaching the limits and finding no answer

Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.

     Modern methods of observation and verification seem to have transcended the limitations of the five senses. We have developed instruments to expand their limited capabilities. Whenever the senses are incapable of perceiving any further, we resort to these technological instruments. Now, even with these instruments, we seem to have reached our limit, and scientific investigations are reduced to mathematical symbols.

     As observation, experimentation and analysis enter the sphere of the psyche, science retains its basic attitude and experimental method, and so there is a lot of guesswork and preconception in its operation. It remains to be seen whether science can in fact enter into the domain of the mind, and by what means.

 Values and motivation

Even though pure science tends to be distinguished from applied science and technology, pure science nevertheless shares some of the responsibility for the harm resulting from these things. In fact, in the last hundred years or so, pure science has not really been so pure. There are values implicit within pure science which the scientific fraternity is unaware of; and because it isn't aware of these values, scientific research comes unwittingly under their influence. 

    What is the source of science? All sciences, be they natural or social sciences, are based on values. Take economics for example. What is the origin or source of economics? It is want. What is want, can it be observed with any of the five senses? It can't, because it is a quality of mind, a value. The discipline known as science claims it is free of values, but in fact it can never be truly value-free because it involves mental qualities.

     Where is the source of the physical sciences? The source of science is the desire to know the truth of nature, or reality. This answer is acceptable to most scientists, and in fact it was given by a scientist. The desire to know nature's truths, together with the belief that nature does have constant laws, which function according to cause and effect, are the two foundations on which science bases its quest for nature's secrets.

     The source of science is within this human mind, at desire for knowledge and faith. Without these two mental qualities it would be impossible for science to grow and develop. The motivation which drove the early developments of science, and which still exists to some extent, was the desire to know the truths of nature. This was a relatively pure kind of desire. In later times, during the Dark Ages, this desire to know was actively suppressed by the Christian Church and the Inquisition. Those who doubted the word of the Bible, or who made statements which cast doubt on it, were brought before the court and put on trial. If found guilty they were punished. Galileo was one of those brought on trial. He had said that the earth revolved around the sun, and was almost put to death for his beliefs. At the last moment he pleaded guilty and was absolved; he didn't die, but many others were burnt alive at the stake.

     At that time there was overt suppression of the search for truth. But the stronger the suppression, the stronger the reaction, so it came about that the suppression and constraint of the Dark Ages had the effect of intensifying the desire to know the truths of nature. This desire has fired the thinking of Western cultures.

     This drive can still be considered a relatively pure desire for knowledge. The science we have nowadays, however, is no longer so pure. It has been influenced by two important attitudes or assumptions:    

     1. That the prosperity of mankind hinges on the subjugation of nature.    

     This attitude stems from the Christian belief that God created mankind in his own image, to take control of the world and have dominion over nature. God created nature, and all of the things within it, for man's use. Mankind is the leader, the hub of the universe, the master. Mankind learns the secrets of nature in order to manipulate it according to his desires, and nature exists for man's use.

     One Western text[1] states that this idea is responsible for Western scientific progress. The text states that in ancient times, people in the East, particularly China and India, were scientifically more advanced than the West, but owing to the influence of this drive to conquer nature, the West has gradually overtaken the East.

     So the first major value system is the belief in Man's right to conquer nature. Now we come to the second major influence:    

     2. That well-being depends on an abundance of material goods.    

     This line of thinking has exerted a very powerful influence on Western industrial expansion. It has been argued that industries in the West were created to address the problem of scarcity, which is found throughout Western history. Life in Western countries was beset by hostile elemental forces, such as freezing winters, which made farming impossible. People in such places had to live exceedingly arduous lives. Not only were they subject to freezing temperatures, but also food shortages. Life was a struggle for survival, and this struggle led to the development of industry.

     The opposite of scarcity is plenty. People in Western countries saw that happiness hinged on the elimination of scarcity, and this was the impulse behind the Industrial Revolution. The awareness of scarcity and the desire to provide plenty, is in turn based on the assumption that material abundance is the prerequisite for happiness.

     This kind of thinking has developed into materialism, and from there, consumerism, a significant contribution to which has been made by industrialists working under the influence of the first line of thinking mentioned above. Coupled with the assumption that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material goods, we have the belief that nature must be conquered in order to cater to man's desires. The two assumptions support each other well.

     It seems as if the pure desire for knowledge mentioned earlier has been corrupted, coming under the influence of the desires to conquer nature and to produce an abundance of material goods, or materialism. When these two values enter the picture, the pure desire for knowledge becomes an instrument for satisfying the aims of these secondary values, giving rise to an exploitative relationship with nature.

     The assumption is that by conquering nature, mankind will be able to create unlimited material goods with which to cater to his desires, resulting in perfect happiness. The search for methods to implement this assumption naturally follows, leading to the marked material progress we have seen in recent times, especially since the Industrial Revolution. It has been said that the science which has developed in the Industrial Age is a servant of industry. It may be claimed that science has paved the way for industry, but industry says, "Science? That is my servant!"

     Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind's internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.

 Behind the prosperity ...   

These two assumptions are not the whole picture. There are also two major trends which have served to support them:    

     1. Specialization: The Industrial Age is the age of specialization. Learning has been subdivided into specialized fields, each of which may be very proficient in its respective right, but on an overall level they lack integration.  

    The purpose of the specialization of learning is to obtain knowledge on a more detailed level, which can then be brought together into one integrated whole, but the specialists have become blinded by their knowledge, producing an unbalanced kind of specialization. In the field of science there are those who feel that science alone will solve mankind's problems and answer all his questions, which gives them little inclination to integrate their learning with other fields of knowledge.

     This kind of outlook has caused the belief that religion and ethics are also specialized fields of learning. Modern education reduces ethics to just another academic subject. When people think of ethics, they think, "Oh, religion," and file it away in its little compartment. They aren't interested in ethics, but when it comes to solving the world's problems, they say, "Oh, my discipline can do that!" They don't think of trying to integrate their learning with other disciplines. If they really were capable of solving all problems as they say, then they would have to be able to solve the ethical ones, too. But then they say that ethics is a concern of religion, or some other specialized field. This brings us to the second trend:    

    2. The belief that ethical problems can be solved without the need for ethics. Supporters of this idea believe that when material development has reached its peak, all ethical problems will disappear of their own accord.

   According to this view, it is not necessary to train people or to develop the mind. This is a line of reasoning which has recently appeared in the field of economics. Economists say that when the economy is healthy and material goods are in plentiful supply, there will no longer be any contention, and society will be harmonious. This is to say in effect that ethical or moral problems can be solved through material means.

     This is not entirely wrong. Economic situations do have a bearing on ethical problems, but it is a mistake to oversimplify the situation by believing that ethical problems would somehow disappear of their own accord if the economy were healthy. It might be said, however, that this line of reasoning is true in one sense, because without morality it would be impossible for the economy to be healthy. It could also be said that if ethical practice was good (for example, people were encouraged to be diligent, generous, prudent, and to use their possessions in a way that is beneficial to society), then economic problems would disappear.

     The statement, "When the economy is good, ethical problems will not arise," is true in the sense that before the economy can be healthy, ethical problems must be addressed. Similarly, the statement, "When ethical problems are all solved, the economy will be healthy," is true in the sense that before ethical problems can be solved, economic problems must also be addressed.  

    The phrase "ethical problems" takes in a wide range of situations, including mental health and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the attempt to solve ethical problems through materialistic means must also entail dealing with moods and feelings, examples of which can be seen in the synthesization of tranquillizers to relieve stress and depression. But it would be a mistake to try to solve ethical problems through such means. This kind of relief is only temporary, it soothes the problem but does not solve it.

     Many branches of academic learning strive to be recognized as proper sciences, but the specialist perspective causes funnel-vision and discord, and in itself becomes an impediment to true science. Specialization is inimical to true science. Even physics cannot be called true science, because it lacks integration; its facts are piecemeal, its truth is partial. When truth is partial, it is not the real truth. Without the whole picture, our deductions will not be in accordance with the total reality. The stream of cause and effect is not seen in its entirety, so the truth remains out of reach.  

    These two trends, specialization and the belief that ethical problems can be solved through material means, pervade the Age of Industrialization. Coupled with the two assumptions previously mentioned, they intensify problems accordingly.

     Many of the points I have mentioned so far come within the domain of religion, and in order to see this more clearly, I would like to enter the subject of religion itself. I have been speaking about science, its origins and development, now let us take a look at the origins and development of religion and try to integrate the two.


 1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Ed., (1988), s.v. "Science, the History of," by L. Pearce Williams (vol. 27, p.37). [Back to text]


 Source: http://www.buddhismtoday.com


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