Science as faith, Precision as doubt
June 14, 2011, 12:07 am
Filed under: Editorializing

Several years ago, I started reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State). I really just made it through the (very thorough) introduction to the translation I was reading. I was put off by the precision of the text — six bardos, 31 realms, 42 peaceful and 58 wrathful deities, etc. The precision in recounting the invisible seemed to belie an inevitable inaccuracy. How could they know?

Recently I was reading a history of chemistry and particle physics. There are two electrons in the first shell around an atom, then six in the next, and 10 in the next, and so on, and sometimes one shell will have a lower orbit than another shell that it’s usually higher than, etc. In the scheme of things, this remains a relatively recent discovery (early 20th century). It’s also very precise, as are the various mystical constants of the universe (represented by Greek letters). And I — and most people — accept it without questioning, though the models expressing our understanding have evolved through various refinements over the years.

I trust the reports that scientists have confirmed the atomic model through experimentation. I have yet been skeptical of the wisdom passed on through thousands of years in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, though exploration through meditation forms the base of that tradition. I’ve bothered to confirm neither models of reality myself.

I’m not saying that one or the other is right or wrong; but I am fascinated by our proclivity to trust some and not others, when, in the context of my life, accepting either model represents nothing less than an act of faith.


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