28 October 2011

Having your Cake and Eating it.

THE IDIOMATIC PROVERB in my title today is one of the strangest in the language I think. It refers to someone who wants everything. The basic idea is that having eaten your cake you no longer have any cake. So you can either have cake, or you can eat cake, but not both. I think Western Buddhists want to both eat their cake, and to have it. We often want both a full conventional life and liberation: to fully participate, and feel comfortable in saṃsāra; and escape from it. We might have a career, a family, a hobby: the "full catastrophe" as Zorba the Greek says. [1] We go to films, listen to music, and surf the Internet. And yes, we eat cake! And we might squeeze in one session of meditation a day around our busy schedule. An hour if we are lucky. And we want to be told that this is OK; that it is sufficient, that liberation is a possibility under these conditions. I've seen people become visibly upset at the mere hint that this is insufficient. But it is insufficient. Though that doesn't make you (or me) a bad person!

By contrast I have a friend who does building work for a couple of months each summer, and uses the proceeds to spend four months on solitary retreat every year, and has done for 12 years. Another colleague is on an open ended retreat that has so far lasted 3 years. Tibetan Buddhist clergy routinely do three year retreats, and have developed facilities for just this purpose. Now if I had to guess at where liberation was likely to occur I would have to say that it would be amongst this second group - the serious practitioners who arrange there life around their practice and not the other way around.

We need to be realistic. There's no shame in leading a lifestyle that is reasonably ethical and wholesome, but which lacks the intensity of practice that might be conducive to liberation. That kind of lifestyle is admirable in many ways, and preferable to an unexamined, hedonistic or vicious life. But it is not realistic to think that a lifestyle which is not conducive to liberation might by a fluke allow us to be liberated. It's pretty unlikely. Liberation seldom spontaneously arises in someone. We may have an insight which turns us around, makes us rearrange our lives, and reorder our priorities, as often happens for instance when a loved one dies; but this kind of spontaneous insight requires nurturing and cultivating if it is to bear fruit. And in a busy life it will be lost quite quickly. It's down to setting up the right conditions.

I was recently leading some study with my Order peers and pointing out that in texts which feature the spiral path or lokuttara paṭicca-samuppāda [2] the stage of ethics is characterised not by following rules and precepts, but by guarding the gates of the senses (indriyesu guttadvāra), wise attention (yoniso manasikāra), non-intoxication with sense objects (appamāda), and restraint (saṃvara). I suggested that this was a far more demanding approach to ethics than we normally take on. These models effectively suggest that we approach ethics as a trial run for the wisdom stages of the path: i.e. disenchantment (nibbidā) and turning away (virāga) which are the conditions for liberation (vimutti). Morality in this case is acting as if we are disenchanted with the delights of the senses, and a deliberate, even mechanical, turning away from them. The texts suggest that the results of these practices are a clear conscience (avippaṭisāra), faith (saddhā) and importantly joy (pamojja). Ayya Khema has said that joy is an essential quality for meditation. With joy we are ready to begin training in and becoming skilled in the jhānas which prepare the mind for seeing through (vipassanā [3]) the delights of the senses.

All this is demanding and to be successful requires considerable persistence and effort, because it goes against our natural inclinations. Frankly, it isn't really consistent with how most of us live or want to live. Therefore it is hardly any surprise that so few of us are confident in jhāna, able to enter jhāna at will, and move easily between the levels. I know people who are, but they are the ones I mentioned above who organise their lives around their meditation practice and dedicate long hours to practice. Of course developing familiarity with jhāna is only a preparation for vipassanā practices. Jhāna can help loosen the grip that intoxication with sense pleasures has on us, but other practices—reflections on the nidānas, on impermanence etc.—are, according to tradition, what set us free of that intoxication permanently.

I'm more focussed on study, on learning and reading Pāli, and on trying to understand Buddhist doctrines and the history of Buddhist ideas. My life, while not given over to vice, is not directed towards prolonged and intense meditation. But I make my contribution to a community of practitioners and help to create the conditions for bodhi to arise in someone; mostly like someone else. And after all it need not be me. Serious meditators do need a support system. As long as I help to set up supportive conditions for those who can make use of them, I feel I'm making a valuable contribution. My colleagues seem to confirm the usefulness of my work, so that's a relief!

We have different temperaments and can't all practice with equal intensity. And many of us come to the Dharma already encumbered with serious responsibilities. We can't both have our cake and eat it. I suggest that we need to think in terms of serving - making cake if you like. Not only serving something greater than ourselves (in my case the Triratna Order) but serving those members of our community who will benefit the most from our support. This in turn, unlike in the financial economy, has a trickle down effect and benefits the entire community, and we might say the entire world (if that is not too grandiose).


  1. The full quote seems to be "Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe." The source is less certain and it may be from the movie Zorba the Greek directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis, rather than the novel Life and Politics of Alexis Zorepa written by Nikos Kazantzakis; though Kazantzakis contributed to the movie screenplay as well. Note that this original version of the idea lacks the kind of positive spin given to it by John Kabat Zin.
  2. My comprehensive list of such texts and examination of them, along with diagrams showing the various links and nodes is here: http://www.jayarava.org/dependent-arising.html
  3. Although we usually translate vipassanā as 'insight' in many ways this is a poor choice. The vi- in vipassanā does not indicate seeing inwards, but seeing through, and seeing through is closer to what we are trying to achieve. As I've said before Buddhism is not necessarily about looking inwards, not just navel gazing. Here the vi- is cognate with the Latin 'dia-' as in diaphanous which literally means 'appearing through'. A Latin translation of vipassanā might be diavisionem. We might call a moment of vipassanā a 'diaphany', on the model of epiphany.

21 October 2011

The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster.

I WAS COMMENTING ON a discussion on Google+ regarding an article by B Alan Wallace recently when something crystallized out in my thinking about the history of Buddhist ideas. One of my long term interests is the way the definitions of dhammas evolved. Early on it seems reasonably clear that dhammas are seen as aspects of experience that have no ontological status. For this reason the Kaccānagotta Sutta can say that atthi (it exists) and n'atthi (it does not exist) do not apply to the world of experience. As Eviatar Schulman has pointed out, this does not mean that early Buddhist doctrines have no metaphysical implications. [1] But these implications did not seem to interest the authors of the suttas; which leads us to presume didn't they interest the Buddha either. However as attempts to systematise the teachings proceeded it seems that metaphysical implications became more and more interesting. Noa Ronkin has argued that it is overstating the case to say that the Abhidharmikas introduced ontology into Buddhism, but they certain were interested in ontology in a way that the authors of the suttas were not.[2] And this opened up Buddhism to metaphysical speculation. One of the problems that Buddhists created for themselves relates to bodhi.

The problem seems to be that Buddhists sidelined dependent arising as the mechanism by which one experienced bodhi. They did this by:
a.) reifying conditioned dhammas;
b.) deifying unconditioned dhammas (i.e. bodhi);
c.) forgetting that dependent arising has a lokuttara aspect. (See e.g. A XI.1-5, Nettipakaraṇa, 65).
The combined effect was that dependent arising could no longer account for bodhi. Dependent arising is relegated to describing how saṃsāra works, with a focus on the material world. There is a sense of this in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga when he mentions the lokuttara-paṭiccasamuppāda only in passing and, as fa as I can tell, seems to regard it as relating to saṃsāra rather than nibbāna. Similarly Nettipakaraṇa defines the twelve nidāna sequence as lokiya 'worldly'.

Bodhi, according to the post-Abhidharma traditions, is somewhat like the Christian idea of grace. Grace is a quality that Yahweh gives out at his whim, and one cannot earn it through any amount of piety and good works. Similarly most Buddhists seem to believe that one cannot cultivate or pursue bodhi, one must just meditate and hope for the best. I always meet resistance when I use the phrase "cultivating insight" on my blog! "Insight", I am solemnly informed, "is not something that can be cultivated." Which I do not believe for a second.

The vinaya provides sanctions for anyone who is not an arahant claiming to be one. These days any kind of claim to spiritual attainment is seen with suspicion. And this particular attitude combined with the vagueness about how bodhi might happen have created a strange situation in Buddhism. People do claim to be arahants in this day and age. I've mentioned Daniel Ingram, who openly calls himself an arahant, to a few people and the attitude seems to mainly be one of indifference. Which is surprising in some ways. If someone has achieved what we have strived for years and decades to achieve then shouldn't we be at least curious? But I gather that most people secretly believe it is not possible, or they are not interested because he is the wrong kind of Buddhist.

The side-lining of dependent arising meant inventing new ideas to account for bodhi, prominent amongst which was tathāgatagarbha. Tathāgatagarbha appears to adapt the Vedantic idea of the ātman (and some Mahāyāna sūtras explicitly equate tathāgatagarbha with ātman). This idea is that in each of us is a spark or mote of bodhi, which we have covered in defilements. This mote has all the characteristics of ātman. If you read about ātman in the Upaniṣads instead of Buddhist anti-Hindu propaganda, you will see just what I mean.

With the advantage of hindsight we can see what a disaster the whole Abhidharma project was, and how it created huge down stream philosophical problems (including the one under discussion). Really we should be thinking in terms of letting the house of cards fall down and rebuilding from scratch.

I don't know as much about Nāgarjuna as I ought. But I see him as an interesting figure, not for the usual reasons, but because he cited a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (KS) in his Mūlamadhyama-kakārikā (MMK). David Kalupahana has made much of this single citation - the only text cited by name in fact. He sees MMK as a grand commentary on the KS. [3] While I think this is plausible, I don't think it's the only way to see the relationship. I think the KS reflects a particular attitude to the teachings which I have been calling the "hermeneutic of experience". With the hermeneutic of experience we seek to interpret doctrines as though they are always talking about experience, rather than metaphysics (enquiry into 'being') or ontology (enquiry into 'what is'). I'm told this is similar, but not identical, to the methods of phenomenology. I think Nāgarjuna might have been employing a hermeneutic of experience, which lead him to resist the Abhidharmika interest in metaphysics. But Nāgarjuna had a problem: traditionally Buddhists could not backtrack. Though he disagreed with the Abhidharmika metaphysics, he could not simply set them aside, and perhaps it did not even occur to him. The Abhidharma was already canonical by that stage. So he came up with a way to get back to experience, and deal with ontological speculation by introducing the idea of svabhāva śūnyatā, and it's corollary the so-called "two truths". Though this was a brilliant solution to his dilemma I wonder if we could actually do better. I've already tried to demonstrate that the two truths are in fact superfluous if we do not make erroneous assumptions about where pratītya-samutpāda applies, i.e. if we apply the hermeneutic of experience, and do not reify conditioned dharmas. [4] If we ditch the abhidharmika metaphysics of dharmas, then the idea of svabhāva śūnyatā is also superfluous because it is already explicit in the KS.

This is not to say that good ideas and practices have not come out of the post-Abhidharma doctrine debacle. Straying into metaphysics required some creative correctives such as Nāgarjuna introduced. But the result is messy and confused. Doctrinal wrangling is such a prominent, even dominant, feature of Buddhism! We cannot decide what our own teachings mean, or if we do 'know' then we invariably seem to be dogmatic about it and often ignorant of alternatives. Since I adopted the hermeneutic of experience I have found that many of the paradoxes and polarisations that surround Buddhist doctrine have melted away, and this is partly why I think it is so useful! There is much less to argue about.

The irony is that the methods continue to be effective despite our messed up views. So there is another argument which says that it doesn't matter that much what you believe, and it is certainly not necessary to have big doctrinal arguments (unless you like that kind of thing). If what we believe motivates us to practice, and by practice I mean the full range of Buddhist practices, then the practices themselves tend to sort out our views, eventually. So in fact doctrine is of relatively minor importance compared with practice.


  1. Shulman, Eviatar. (2008) 'Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination.' Journal of Indian Philosophy. 36:297-317.
  2. Ronkin, Noa. (2005) Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge.
  3. Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. State University of New York Press.
  4. Jayarava. (2011) 'Not Two Truths.' Jayarava's Raves. http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2011/08/not-two-truths.html

14 October 2011

Sound, Word, Reality

Sound Word RealityKŪKAI'S 声字実相義 (Shōji jissō gi) [1] is one of a trilogy of texts that set out to both answer his critics and to instruct his students. Each of the three texts is rather dense, and fairly esoteric in itself. I have been working through a commentary on this work for a book I am editing which reprints Professor Thomas Kasulis's article: ‘Reference and Symbol in Plato’s Cratylus and Kūkai’s Shōjijissōgi’ [2] alongside translations of the two dialogues and some introductory essays.

In his text Kūkai develops a way of interpreting mantra, a hermeneutic, which relies on different syntactical analyses of the combination word: Shō-ji-jissō 'sound, word, reality'. He analyses the Chinese as though it were a Sanskrit compound to demonstrate that we can construe the relationships in various ways, some more profound than others. This is a novel approach, but where does this principle of sound, word, reality come from?

In this exegesis Kūkai makes use of some lines extracted from chapter two of the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras
Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses;
Like the statements made by Indra,
They are meaningful and effective.[3]
In the verse ‘the perfectly enlightened one’ stands for the Body Mystery of the Dharmakāya and corresponds to reality; “mantras” make up the sounds that constitute the Speech Mystery; while the “syllables” and “names” correspond to word. Note that he does not equate these with the Mind Mystery. So the verse itself demonstrates the principle in action. Kūkai believes that there are hierarchies of being, or layers to reality, and that by paying careful attention to our mundane level of perception that we can get insights into higher levels because not only is each phenomena interpenetrated by all the others, but the levels of being or perception also interpenetrate each other. As in Indra’s net an insight at one level provides access to all levels. To reinforce this Kūkai shows that the principle holds good for the Mahāvairocana Sūtra as a whole, and even for the single syllable ‘a’.

The 'power' of a mantra, then, is related to its associative relationships with aspects of experience. This ties into a tradition which goes back to the early days of the Mahāyāna in Gandhāra – in the north-west of what is Pakistan (including the towns of Peshawar and Taxila, and the Swat Valley). There we find, in texts and sculptures, the local alphabet being used a mnemonic. For many years the sequence of alphabet, still not fully explained, lead people to think that it was invented or ‘mystical’. But Professor Richard Salomon, in three published articles, has shown that the alphabet is that of the local language, now called Gāndhārī, though Buddhists often still refer to it as the Arapacana Alphabet or the Wisdom Alphabet. This alphabet was written in the Kharoṣṭhī script which was most likely modelled on the form of Aramaic writing used by the Achaemanid Persian who administered that area for a time. Kharoṣṭhī, like Semitic and Tibetan scripts, has only one vowel sign which is modified by diacritics to indicate different vowels. The unadorned sign is ‘a’. Like other Indic scripts each written syllable has an implicit ‘a’ vowel unless accompanied by diacritics.

The mnemonic use of the alphabet seems to be closely associated with meditation practices in prajñāpāramitā texts, particularly the larger 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 line versions. The first five letter of the Gāndhārī alphabet – a ra pa ca na – came to be associated with the wisdom deity Mañjuśrī (his mantra is oṃ a ra pa ca na dhīḥ) and with the Prajñāpāramitā tradition generally. This tradition pervades the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. In some Buddhist texts, e.g. the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the original Gāndhārī alphabet is substituted for the Sanskrit alphabet. Curiously the MAT has a kind of hybrid – the consonants are from Sanskrit, but in most cases they are only accompanied by a single vowel as in Kharoṣṭhī.

Each letter in the alphabet was made to stand for a word, and each word was the focus of a reflection on śūnyatā. So for example 'a' stands for the Sanskrit word anutpāda ‘non-arisen’. The reflection was akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt "The syllable 'a' is a door because of the non-arisen-ness of all dharmas." This is pointing to the idea that dharmas, as the objects of the mind, are neither existent nor non-existent - when we have an experience, nothing substantial comes into being. There is no doubt that we have experiences, and objects present themselves to our minds, but the ontological status of the experience itself is indeterminate. The original insight of Buddhism was that mistaking experience for something substantial, and treating it as something which could be held on to was the cause of suffering. Hence reflecting on the contingent, impermanent, and unsatisfactory nature of experience was one of the prime methods of accessing the insights that freed one from suffering. These reflections clearly continue that original Buddhist tradition.

In Tantric texts the syllable is not simply a sign for the verbal sound, but has become a fully fledged symbol of the aspect of reality indicated by the word it signifies. This symbolic function is in the foreground in Tantra to the point where merely visualising the written form of a letter is seen as putting one in touch with the quality it represents. This finds its apotheosis in the meditation on the syllable 'a' – where one simply visualises the letter, usually written in the Siddhaṃ script, and by such close association one becomes imbued with the wisdom which sees dharmas – mental phenomena – as the really are.

The correspondence between the sound of the letter, the word it reminds us of, and the reality it points to in the example above is seen by Kūkai as a special case of a general principle. But the point is that here we have sound, and word and reality.







sarva-dharmāṇāṃ ādy-anutpannatvāt
阿字門,一切法 初不生故 [4]

Although it is not entirely obvious from the translations and commentaries, I believe that this is the idea that underlies Kūkai's analysis of “sound, word, reality”. The sound /a/ stands for the word 'non-arising' (anutpāda), i.e. not coming into being; and this reminds us that 'all dharmas have the primal quality of not having come into being'. That is to say that when we perceive a dharma we do have an experience, but though we have an experience nothing permanent, satisfying or substantial comes into being. In Mahāyāna terms the experience is empty of intrinsic being (svabhāva śūnyatā).

Of course finding a correlation is not the same as finding a cause; and finding a precedent is not the same as showing a genetic relationship. However I think this explanation is a plausible account of the origins of the sound, word, reality.


  1. There are two complete translations of this text into English: Hakeda, Y. (1972) Major Works, p.234-245; and Giebel, R. (2004) Shingon Texts, p.83-103. The text is also partially translated and discussed in detail Abe, R. (1999) The Weaving of Mantra, (esp p. 278ff.) though his reading is one which relies heavily on contemporary Semiotics jargon, which I struggle to make sense of.
  2. Philosophy East and West, 1982.
  3. Hodge, Stephen. (2003) The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. Routledge, p. 129. Hodge translates from the Tibetan. The Tibetan text replaces the line about Indra with ‘by mastery of the words’. The Chinese reference is Taisho 18.850, 83a22-a23. The Chinese text is:
    等正覺真言 - Děng zhèng jué zhēnyán
    言名成立相 - Yán míng chénglì xiāng
    如因陀羅宗 - Rú yīn tuó luó zōng
    諸義利成就 - Zhū yìlì chéngjiù
  4. Chinese text from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T.223).

07 October 2011

Conjecture and Refutation

Karl Popper"Everything we've learned... is just a theory, and it might well
be wrong... the greatest thrill of all would be to prove
something wrong." Dr Kathy Romer, Astrophysicist. [1]

THERE IS A CONVERSATION I seem to have again and again when talking with Buddhists. It's about what science is, and how scientists employ the scientific method. Given that we all study science at secondary school, how is it that so few people seem to understand the role of scientists or the process of advancing scientific knowledge? Given the central importance of the applications of science in the modern world, can we afford to be so ignorant?

I have a little confession to make first. I've never read Karl Popper's books on the scientific method. And I never heard of him while studying science at school or university. I read of Popper only as an adult. Particularly in the book "Wittgenstein's Poker", but also in books and lectures by Richard Gombrich whose father was a personal friend of Popper. The young Richard proof read the seminal work Conjectures and Refutations, and it obviously had a powerful effect on him.

Popper is probably the most important figure in the philosophy of science to date. It was he who definitively described what science is and is not, and I want to review my understanding, in the hope that others will appreciate science better, but also so I can point to this essay in inevitable future arguments.

Although I've just been using science as a proper noun, I want first of all to make the point that science is not an entity. We say things like "science says..." or "science does..."; but science in this sense simply doesn't exist. There is no distinct agent or entity which we can name. There is no doubt a body of evolving knowledge. There is a community (or even one might say an ecosystem) of people employing the scientific method of conjecture and refutation (with it's parasites known as science journalists whose method is more like rejecture and confutation). But there is no entity present in all of this - this is a point Buddhists, of all people, ought to be able to appreciate. Science is anātman, asvabhāva, śūnya. At best "science" is a place holder for the body of knowledge and practice, and the community of practitioners. It's very like Buddhism in this sense - there is no single entity or agent identifiable with Buddhism, and finding something we all have in common is difficult; and that commonality exists only on the most general level. As soon as we begin to specify what makes a Buddhist, then Buddhism begins to splinter.

A scientist is anyone who practices the methods of science. All scholars who advance knowledge follow a process of conjecture and refutation. I put forward a conjecture and my grounds for doing so, and I ask my peers to refute it if they can. If it can be refuted then I drop it, and move on to the next conjecture. Science applies this method to the phenomenal world (rather than, say, to literature or history). Religion on the other hand begins with the Truth, and asks us to change our minds until we completely agree with the Truth. No challenge to the Truth is possible, since it is True. Certain strands of religious Buddhism are like this also, and in that sense very far removed from science. Religion also often posits a noumenal world, by which I mean knowledge not related to phenomena. This is an oxymoron in Buddhism, but it has an on going appeal across the spectrum of Buddhism for some reason.

Within the conjecture/refutation procedure the scientist practices by observing phenomena; creating falsifiable predictive hypotheses about the world; testing their predictions; and through peer review and publication inviting others to test their theory. Although we retain the Enlightenment/Victorian Era language of Laws of Physics, scientists know full well that a theory tested to the limits of human ability is still not proved. It was Popper who in the first half of the 20th century began to formalise this, partly in reaction to Logical Positivists who claimed only verifiable knowledge was valid. The classic example is the notion that since all swans are observed to be white, then the statement "all swans are white" is held to be true. The first Europeans to return from Australia brought shocking news - downunder the swans are black. Black swans are a different species, but they are no doubt swans. Since Popper it's been explicit that any theory may be falsified. Mind you anyone familiar with the havoc wrecked on previous theories by Einstein's oeuvre could hardly feel confident about any view they hold about the physical world.

Now non-scientists maintain a number of anachronisms. They seem to think that scientists are stuck in the Victorian Era: trying to prove things, seeking immutable Laws, and believing the equivalent of "all swans are white". While I never studied Popper at school—more's the pity—it's clear that scientists are not stuck in the same Victorian time frame as non-scientists. In fact scientists are all working to disprove everything that we think we know. This is fundamentally what makes science different from religion. Yes, there are scientific "laws", yes there are powerful explanatory theories, but the dream of every scientist is to rewrite those laws, to over-turn those theories. No scientist worth the label is satisfied with the current state of knowledge, and each wants to find a 'black swan' (and have it named after them!).

So the scientist makes observations. Often today it is through complicated and expensive machinery. But not always. One of my scientific heroes is Jane Goodall who changed our paradigms with regards to chimps with a pair of binoculars and a notebook. Scientists pay close attention to phenomena and try to describe as accurately and dispassionately as possible what they perceive. Ideally they see something new, but it may be that they simply observe what has been observed before and see it in a new way. Any explanation they come up with—an hypothesis [2]—seeks to predict further observations suggesting that the explanation has grasped the underlying regularity of the phenomena. For example: if after observing a comet, I hypothesise that it is a small body in an elongated elliptical orbit, I can predict when I will see it again. If it does not appear when I predict then my theory is wrong. The fact that it does appear suggests that my theory is useful, not that it is True.

But science is not a private enterprise. It is public. So having observed, hypothesised, and tested I then submit my results for publishing. Scholarly publishing subjects all potential publications to peer-review. A group of a scientists peers will read the paper to try to ensure that at each stage the scientist has not made gross errors or leapt to false conclusions. As a trainee scientist I was constantly admonished not to go beyond my data - not to add to my observations from past experience, and especially not to try to make my conclusions fit my hypothesis. Of course this process is subject to problems. Publishing a book can circumvent peer-review, though books also get reviewed even if only after the fact. Scientists more and more seem to announce results to the press rather than their peers. One of the most infamous occurrences of this was the announcement by Pons and Fleischmann that they can observed nuclear fusion at room temperature (while others were seeking it at millions of degrees). Peer review panels are subject to human foibles: they are capable of blocking new ideas; individual animosity may intrude; and they also fail to prevent rubbish being printed. There is sometimes, especially in medical publishing, a bias to only publish the results of studies which support an idea, and to suppress those which do not (a variety of conformation bias). But on the whole the system works well.

There is a further step in the scientific method post-publication. For a result to be meaningful or useful, it needs to be repeatable. So a one off result is not worth much. Ideally three or four other scientists or groups of scientists will carry out the same experiment, with the aim of trying to disprove the result or find an alternative explanations, and they will also publish their results. Before a theory becomes accepted as generally useful at predicting future observations, it has to be thoroughly tested. And scientists like nothing more than proving their rivals wrong. The history of science is rife with competitiveness, often devolving in rancorous disputes. Of course these days no one can get funding for merely reproducing someone else's experiment, so what we get a series of overlapping results.

A problem for the lay person these days is irresponsible science journalism. Newspapers eager to increase circulation and sell advertising are not famous for their probity (and are often infamous for their lack of it). What the science journalist does is search for journal articles with sensational findings and write a simplified version of the paper for a general readership. Examples of this are legion. The MMR Vaccine controversy is a good case in point. A researcher with multiple conflicts of interest, publishes a single article suggesting a link between the vaccine and autism. Later he is found to have manipulated evidence and broken ethical codes, and not only is the paper retracted, but the author is struck off the Medical register. Meanwhile the newspaper article claiming that MMR vaccine causes autism has gone viral and many parents refuse to vaccine their kids, causing a minor epidemic of measles in the UK (which has not yet abated). [3] A similar story is the "cell-phones do/don't cause cancer" story that runs and runs, not because anything definitive is discovered, because things that cause/cure cancer sell newspapers.

So this is my view on what science is, and how knowledge proceeds. Knowledge is always provisional, though of course it may retain it's usefulness. I think lay people often throw the baby out with the bath water. They hear, for instance, that Einstein's theory of gravitation supersedes Newton's, and suppose that Newton's theory of gravity is redundant. But this is simply not true. If I were putting up a building and calculating stresses, or building a new aeroplane, or firing a rocket into space, I simply would not need to use Einsteinian mathematics, and to try to do so would simply hamper my efforts. I would use Newtonian mathematics. All measurements have a margin of error - and real science always gives margins of error when stating a measurement. The margins of error, though very much greater when using Newton's equations still amount to a few parts per billion in most of the applications I might be interested in. If accuracy of more than a few parts per billion is required then one switches.

The idea that scientists themselves see their theories or mathematical equations as dogmatically True is wrong in most cases (there are still a few Logical Positivists around, but we need not give them much credence). Though some theories have survived every conceivable test and we simply accept them, the door is never closed. A black swan might appear at any time.


  1. "Is Everything we Know about the Universe Wrong?" [documentary] Horizon. BBC HD. 9 Mar 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rgg31
  2. hypothesis means 'under-thesis', and thesis means 'a proposition'. The Online Etymological Dictionary relates it to PIE *dhe- 'to put, to do', but also to the Greek tithenai, which suggest to me a connection to Sanskrit √sthā 'to stand, to remain'; c.f. Pāli thāna literally 'place, state' but abstractly something which 'remains' and therefore a 'fact' in the sense of something on which logical conclusions can be based.
  3. The story is told in full online in many places. The Wikipedia article MMR vaccine controversy is a good place to start.

Additional note on how real scientists think: 14 Oct 2011.
"The way many scientists work is that while they're pushing one idea passionately, they always have in the back of their mind that they may be wrong, and they have alternative explanations for the same observations - and I did too... When you find evidence that directly contradicts your favourite idea and you have to switch modes, switch paradigms to a different concept, that's real progress...".
Professor Paul Olsen (Columbia University). The shifting face of a 200-million-year-old mystery. BBC News 13 Oct 2011.

Quote 10.12.2011
"There is now no safer occupation than talking bad science to philosophers, except talking bad philosophy to scientists".
- Midgley, Mary. 1979. 'Gene-juggling'. Philosophy. 54(210): 439-458.
Related Posts with Thumbnails