Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.


I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.

Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.


Introducing Quantemplation

Introducing Quantemplation

I find it fascinating that religion and philosophy arose at about the same time. Except for the last hundred years or so when philosophy became professionalized, the two subjects have gone hand in hand; indeed for much of human history philosophers were religious philosophers, embedded within a religious tradition. So where did this burst of religion and philosophy come from? I am sure the anthropologists and the archeologists of the world have an answer, but here’s mine.

Be forewarned: my answer is a myth, with all its connotations of confabulation and insight.

I believe that humanity discovered religion and philosophy at the end of a long period of development as it separated itself from other species and slowly started enveloping itself in its own world. Urbanization was probably a major catalyst — cities appear in infinitely varied forms, but in all of them, nature, especially animals, trees and plants were subordinated to human control. It’s one step along the path from farming, where humans controlled the natural world but lived amidst it rather than away from it. To give just one example of the marginalization of nature in cities, there are no large creatures who challenge human supremacy; whether elephant, camel or horse, they’re there to extol our glory. Animals exist as pets, for food and war and as vermin, but never as fully autonomous beings. In cities, humans live primarily in a built environment rather than a found environment. That built environment is like a collective extended mind, an extended mind that expressed its power over the earth and its ambitions over the skies.

Of course many of the major religions of the world were founded in tribes, far away from cities, so there’s no obvious connection between urbanity and religiosity, but we have to recognize that all the marks of institutionalized religion — temples and churches, monks and priests, are urban institutions. At the very least they need the technosocial infrastructure of urban civilization. No city, no cathedral. However, it happened, humans found themselves separated from nature, alone with their own sorrows and ambitions. Perched on our lonely throne, bursting with ambition but hobbled by mortality, is it any surprise that we discovered god as well as reason and of our special place in god’s creation?

I attribute the intertwined history of religion and philosophy to the discovery of the human, of a rational being who’s also the chosen species; separated from the earth and aiming towards the sky.

Of course, it’s not as if religious ideas were invented then, or for that matter, philosophical speculation. However, organized religion and organized philosophy seemed to have taken off at about the same time in India, Greece, China and elsewhere. As I said earlier, we can only speculate about the reasons: urban settlements with large populations, a degree of leisure, technological developments that turned nature into an instrument of control and so on. Myths are arguably as useful as facts. Whatever the truth may be, it’s clear that humanity discovered itself in a special way as an isolated, fragile and ambitious creature around twenty five hundred years ago.

More than two thousand years later, an even more isolated and even more ambitious European human being discovered existentialism, but I won’t go there

That image of humanity as halfway between heaven and earth continues to inspire us even as we shed many of its founding assumptions. One major assumption that’s been challenged is our centrality to all of creation. In the early exuberance of religion and philosophy, we were convinced that God prefers us to any other being, that if he’s the unmoved mover, we are the species around he makes the universe move. That wasn’t a sustainable hypothesis; too much evidence pointed away from a special status for human beings and it was only a matter of time before the special status was challenged. After Copernicus, we are no longer the chosen species in the chosen planet. We are still the species that controls this planet though; if anything the Copernican revolution has masked the Anthropocene, diverting our gaze from our overweening self-importance at the very time that it needs a critical look.

Doesn’t the spaceship look like a gun? I’m a lifelong fan, but the wishful thinking captured in Star Trek and the desire to reach the stars is probably more harmful to the earth than the belief that the world started in 4004 B.C.E. After all, the only means we know how to send spaceships into the sky is at from the top of an extractive pyramid. Until we can turn that extractive civilization into an ecological civilization, we are a danger to the earth and to the stars.

A certain mode of contemplation revealed humanity to itself and as science, it revealed the universe to us as well. We need to turn the crank once again. A renewed contemplative enterprise will be an essential component of the shift from extractive to ecological, as a corrective to our collective hubris; hubris that’s most powerfully expressed in technological utopias.

We invariably imagine the future in technoscientific terms, both as utopias and as dystopias. Either the earth is being destroyed by fossil fuel industries or it will be saved by gigantic carbon suction pumps. Either we will travel the stars in hyperfast spaceships or devoured by flesh eating frankenbacteria. These techno-utopias and dystopias may well come to pass but independent of what transpires, we need to understand our condition. Everyone knows that it’s our lot to fall ill, grow old and die, but it’s the Buddha who turned that obvious fact into a deep insight into the nature of suffering. Contemplative insight colors our lives as a whole and gives it the energy to address every challenge. Seen in that light, it’s an enabler of scientific and technological progress and it brings a holistic vision that’s absent in those disciplines.

If contemplation — so far — has been about the discovery of the human and the slow release of that human into the vastness of the non-human universe, the next contemplative turn is about accelerating that release and returning the human back to nature. Not as a noble savage but at the very height of scientific and technical progress. That’s the premise behind quantemplation, as a quantum shift in the contemplative enterprise.

Quantum shift or not, we can only stand on the shoulders of giants; we have to build upon existing contemplative traditions and insights. That’s a difficult task because religion and philosophy have diverged from each other and also from science. Religion, for most of us, is about emotion, community and identity. Philosophy is framed in terms of abstract concepts, while scientific understanding is framed using concepts of space, time and matter. We need a halfway house, a resource that has a contemplative purpose but couched in the language of space and time.

Contemplation can’t be hurried; despite the demands of a 24/7 online on-demand world, our contemplative archetype is the tortoise not the hare. We have to move beyond tradition, however hard or foolish it might be. We have to try to turn the contemplative wheel full circle. We will proceed at a pace that suits us and suits the task. Slow and steady.


Too Cheap to Meter

In 1954, a commissioner of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, declared that atomic energy would make electricity too cheap to meter. In other words we were going to enter an era of such radical abundance of free energy that we would not need to pay for it at all they had no cost. We all know how that turned out. The promise of free energy was only one of the consequences of the atomic revolution. Some of the other consequences were much less appetizing. We still live under the threat of destruction and radioactive waste. As for free energy, we are still waiting. What’s the lesson of the story?

Dangers lurk underneath anything we take for granted or that promises radical abundance

What nuclear energy was for the outer world, experience is for the inner world: something we take for granted, whose depths

are yet to be plumbed and that hides several of our deepest flaws.


We take experience for granted. It’s not even too cheap to meter. Experience is ubiquitous and effortless. Every time we open our eyes we see the world in full bloom. Yet, as we know from contemplative teachings and from scientific research, our experience is conditioned by our personal, cultural and evolutionary history. Much of that history isn’t pretty.

In response to such pervasive suffering, contemplatives throughout human history have searched for insights that ends misery once and for all. Contemplatives realized that experience lies at the heart of suffering; in fact, the study of the human condition is nothing but the study of the conditions that underlie human experience.

More recently, scientists have also started inquiring into the human condition. Their approach is — by it’s very nature — factual. Can we bring the ethical concerns of the contemplative together with the methods of the scientist? Quantemplation is an attempt to do so: it’s an exploration of the causes and conditions that underlie human experience. In doing so, we should be sensitive to three strands that contribute to our tapestry:

  • The contemplative traditions that inquire into the nature of human suffering.
  • Scientific research into the biological underpinnings of human experience.
  • Technological tools that help us probe human experience in the first, second and in the third person.

Is and Ought

Human experiences are elusive; like the proverbial elephant, they appear differently to different seekers. To the scientist, experiences are like rocks. They can be studied like one studies other facts. Why is that rose red? why is the sky blue?

At the same time, experiences carry a moral charge. All experiences have a value laden character. They are either pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad and any experience could be better or worse tomorrow than it is now. I might experience tooth pain in my molars and at the same time, I may wish that it goes away. The first comes under the rubric of the way things are and the second comes under the rubric of the way things ought to be. This combination of is and ought is one of the most interesting things about experience which means that it can never be studied by science alone or by a moral tradition alone.

In other words we have to be practitioners of the Dharma and experiment rigorously with our own experience.


In Doubt we Trust. Newsletter #23.

Fundamentalism is one of those modern predicaments that often come clothed in ancient garb. Religious fundamentalists like to tout their faithfulness to a pure version of their tradition. In practice, fundamentalism is more about exclusion rather than purity; co-religionists are often targeted for their impure faith — perhaps they sing and dance or celebrate a festival that they shouldn’t. As for those who are outside the circle, they are fair game. There’s no room for doubt or accommodation; certainty is the hallmark of the fundamentalist. When seen this way, there’s no shortage of scientific fundamentalists either. People like Richard Dawkins are as vehement in their atheism as any Taliban preacher. 

It’s easy to see that certainty is incompatible with humility; without humility, there’s no going forward. Let me be clear, I am not talking about humility as an emotion — some of the most fundamentalist people I know are humble in their external attitude and fanatics in their faith. Humility is an orientation that recognizes one’s humanity and the incompleteness of one’s knowledge. That’s the attitude of the seeker, who is full of doubt, even if she comes to that doubt with great faith. If certainty is the standard of the fundamentalist, doubt is the engine of the seeker. 

I like doubt because certainty is boring. Humility is not just a negative attribute, i.e., the lack of arrogance or omniscience; it is also a positive energy that propels one forward to ask new questions. Let’s put it another way: there are two ways of being: the answer way and the question way. The answer way wants certainty, though it will settle for closure when it can’t get certainty. Consider science, both as it is taught and how it advances: it does so by stacking one answer on top of another. Papers get published because they settled a doubt or verified a hypothesis. There’s no journal of questions. Engineers are more modest. There are no final answers, but products have to ship and customers have to be served and until then there’s a temporary freeze on development. That’s what I mean by the term closure, you close off all options until further notice. 

The question way has much less prestige. There are no patents for questions. There are no named professorships at Harvard for questions. In fact, it is often dangerous, as children learn quickly after asking awkward questions at home or school. On the other hand, a good question is like an arrow pointed at the uncovered belly of the dragon (I just saw the last episode of the Hobbit); it can bring the whole edifice down and usher a revolution in thought. To the questioner, an answer is just a question’s way of asking another question. A hypothesis might well be verified, but verification is important only to the extent to which it is the key to another door. 

The answer way makes a concession to the fundamentalist. It says, “I am ready to believe, but only when I see it.” Like the fundamentalist, the answerer wants certainty; he is just willing to test his faith a little more. Trust but verify. The question way makes no such concession. There’s always grass to be gathered and a fire to be lit.


Mind your Brain

Obama is about to announce the brain initiative any minute now. I happen to think it is a colossal mistake, but an instructive one. First, it prompts an analysis of Obama: more than his drone war and budget debacles, this brain project is my wake up call that for all his eloquence, he utterly lacks imagination: the only thing he can actually get excited about (like his election campaign) are numbers, measurables and deliverables with no feeling for ideas. Very much a prisoner of the Harvard-MIT best and brightest syndrome.

If you are interested in an extended analysis, read on:

I think of this initiative as the culmination of “iScience,” science as product development, which has a clear recipe:

  1. Assert a metaphysical goal such as: this project will help us understand consciousness, make us all happier, make our military better and build a 21st century economy.
  2. Immediately transform that goal with the greatest reductionist efficiency imaginable into a set of modular, measurable goals with clear deliverables.
  3. Hire a lot of smart people who will do as they are told, pay them a lot of money and give them lot of fancy gadgets to follow the script. Even better if they can keep writing papers about solving the brain.
  4. Show the world how you are sticking to a Brain 2020 timeline or some such vapid goal and have lots of press conferences where even more fancy gadgets and smart people showcase their latest sci-fi stuff.
  5. Torture a lot of animals in the name of science.

Now this is a good recipe for building iphones and Boeing 787’s, because that’s how global supply chains are structured now. But I think it is a terrible way to do science or any engagement with ideas and imagination.

The worst part of the brain initiative for me is not that it’s impractical or outlandish but that it is boring, a view of human inquiry that’s reached an imaginative dead end. If the project “works” then we will all be living in the matrix. But I don’t think it will, for the project for all its technical wizardry is not addressing the key questions — it is really about searching for the lost jewels where the light is shining rather than where it they were lost.



Science has mostly been an analytic pursuit; we try to break the universe into its constituent parts and analyze these parts for what they are. This method is also often called reductionism, but one can be analytic without being a reductionist. Engineering on the other hand is synthetic; while an engineer does analyze cars in terms of engines and carburetors, the analysis is in the service of building a car. The parts are there to create the whole, not the other way around. The irreducibility of the whole is crucial to engineering; people buy cars, not carburetors.

Seeing as technology is mostly tied to production for the market, engineering is driven by pragmatic concerns — “does it work?” or “will it sell?” A synthetic science that has the innocence of the pure pursuit of knowledge while keeping in mind the synthetic character of the systems it studies and the knowledge it creates might be better suited to the leading problems of our times such as understanding the mind and addressing climate change.

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