Sunday, July 26, 2009

An objectively incorrect Buddhist belief

Pratītyasamutpāda states that

A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being.

For "world" substitute "universe". But, of course, we know that this is false. One's condition can be affected by, and can conversely affect, only objects within one's light cone, not everything else in the universe at that moment. More generally, two objects only affect each other insofar as their light cones intersect.

Given everything else that's arbitrary about Buddhism, and religion more generally, it may seem sort of random to quibble with the details of this corner of Buddhist metaphysics. But this is just one minor example of how religion gets all kinds of stuff wrong — not even in the things that most people will notice, or that have much practical impact on the practice of the religion — just stuff that's casually wrong, wrong in the way that people will be wrong when they make stuff up without modern knowledge and modern standards of evidence. Religion is fractally wrong, and so when you turn over any random rock you'll probably find something wrong under it.

Buddhism is often portrayed as the most rational of religions. This is probably true, but that's a bit like saying that the pika is the least rabbity lagomorph.* It may not be very rabbity, but there are plenty of things even less like a rabbit.

Squeezing truths from religion is like studying the ruins of collapsed ancient cities to learn how to build skyscrapers. In the ruins you'll find a lot of interesting history and occasionally some genuine beauty, but when you want to get stuff built, you'd do much better to just study modern architecture.

*OK, this is a terrible analogy, but I wanted to link to a pika because pikas are cute.


  1. Like so much of Buddhist thought this quote is merely meant to illustrate the interconnectedness of all things. It isn't wrong, but simply not science. And that's ok. "World" and "condition" may not be substituted for "universe" and "objects" for a reason. You may as well, in addition to religion, dismiss all philosophy that doesn't flat out ignore the problems of subject/object dualism. "In the ruins you'll find a lot of interesting history and occasionally some genuine beauty, but when you want to get stuff built, you'd do much better to just study modern architecture." --This part I agree with, assuming that you're only interested in building and manipulating physical things, only interested in getting things built. But these aren't the goals of religion and philosophy, are they.

  2. The Dalai Lama has said "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 world view...."

    And what the previous commenter said. Religion is not in the business of making factual assertions about the physical world; reading religious works as if they were bad physics texts is misframing.

    More here. BTW found your blog through your post on the climate scientist email hack -- good post.