Science and Asian Spiritual Traditions.
This is a useful and wide-ranging book that looks at the relationship between science and the Asian spiritual traditions. To date, that interaction has been relatively ignored. Since Asia is, in fact, composed of a large number of diverse countries, the author mainly limits the discussion to the Chinese and Indian traditions that are arguably the most influential. Besides the first two chapters that introduce the basic issues and the author's approach, topics explored by the author include the traditional ideas of Chinese culture (chapters 3-4), the traditional Indian cosmology (chapter 5), and how various disciplines such as astronomy, astrology, ecology, medicine, and ceramic technology have interacted with spiritual traditions in the history of Asia, mainly in China but also in India (chapters 6-9).
I welcome this book that should greatly help those who want to have an introductory survey of this area. It is written in an accessible nontechnical style. The author has interesting things to say about many Asian practices in science and religion, and his explanations are, on the whole, clear and accurate. The book also contains a chronology of both China and India, the English translation of some important primary sources, and an annotated bibliography. In general, the author adopts a balanced approach to these issues. On the one hand, as a biomedical scientist who greatly values empirical studies, he is not prone to uncritical glorification of the Asian traditional wisdom. For example, he says that "we need not out of sentimental attraction to such theories as yin and yang regard them as adequate alternatives to science" (p. 4). On the other hand, he is not a proponent of scientism who dismisses the Asian spiritual traditions as merely superstition. He advocates a sympathetic understanding of both traditional scientific ideas and religious ideas in their historical contexts.
I also, on the whole, accept the major conclusion of the book. The author tries to appreciate the fact that the Asian civilizations have produced some real scientific achievements. For example, "China made many important inventions and discoveries," and "India developed observational astronomy to a high degree of accuracy." However, "the predominant mode of intellectual analysis in both civilizations was correlative rather than causal" (p. 17), and this has to some extent inhibited the development of modern empirical science. These correlative schemes are founded on the metaphysical idea that the macrocosm corresponds to the microcosm of the human body or human society. They had "spiritual significance because they described an orderly world that functioned by comprehensive principles such as yin-yang or the three gunas" (p. 19). Unfortunately, this perspective is not favorable to the development of science.
I think this book also has some limitations. One minor thing first: the author mentions the "antireligious rhetoric from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinstein" (p. 20), and the latter is referred to as a Nobel laureate physicist (p. 30). While there is indeed a scientist-philosopher named Steven Weinstein, I am not sure whether the author intends rather to talk about Steven Weinberg (especially in association with Dawkins).
The author's understanding of the philosophy of science still has a positivistic bent and consequently he sometimes tends to make simplistic judgments. While he does not want to say metaphysics is inferior, he does hold that "purely speculative thought must be distinguished from science" (p. 9). He takes science to be the systematic study of the external world that is cumulative and verifiable. In contrast, metaphysics is beyond experience and hence "can neither be empirically verified nor falsified" (p. 15). While I agree that as a matter of fact natural sciences are much more subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation, I do not think the distinction between science and metaphysics is that clear. In the historical development of modern science and also in contemporary cosmology, it is sometimes difficult to know where science ends and metaphysics begins. The most difficult problem is that nobody really knows how to define verification and to provide an algorithm for it. The now widely accepted idea of inference to the best explanation as a legitimate scientific methodology is, in fact, also appealed to in metaphysics and many other realms of human inquiry. However, I need to point out that the author does not dismiss metaphysics as mere nonsense and valueless rubbish. I also agree when he wants to say that "alchemy has minimal relationship to scientific chemistry" (p. 11), and it is "more accurate to label alchemy as pseudoscience" (p. 19). Some Chinese ideas are also debunked: "Performance of calculations and use of a compass with mysterious markings no doubt made feng shui more impressive to clients but that did not make its performances at all scientific" (p. 20). Not everything is good science, but the distinction is sometimes messier than he allows.
The author has also misunderstood Kuhn's theory of paradigms. He correctly points out the fact that in both China and India there was no dominant paradigm in the past that guided scientific research. There was just the juxtaposition of diverse metaphysical and scientific ideas. So he concludes that "[s]cience in Asia did not fit the model of Thomas Kuhn" (p. 32). It seems to me he has ignored Kuhn's emphasis that the emergence of a paradigm was, in fact, no small achievement. Kuhn has already pointed out that in many areas of study the scholars are still in the pre-paradigm stage where there is only endless debate about the basic ideas.
Moreover, I think the author does not fully understand the complexities of the Chinese idea of Tian (Heaven). He thinks that Tian "refers both to the physical sky or cosmos and to an abstract ordering principle" and is "impersonal" (pp. 40, 57). This is a controversial issue in Chinese philosophy. The Marxist Chinese philosophers usually argue that Tian just means nature because that fits with their atheistic or naturalistic traditions. Moreover, many Western scholars in Chinese philosophy suggest that Tian is an impersonal rational principle which allows the Chinese to have a moral foundation without any belief in a personal God. I believe both interpretations may have roots in some elements of the Chinese traditions but are not true on the whole, especially if we consider the earliest origins of Chinese culture.
The most common Chinese translation of the word "God" is Shang-ti (or Shang-di), which means "the Emperor above." Both Shang-ti and Tien are widely used in the ancient Chinese classics, and point to the belief in a kind of personal God among the ancient Chinese. The name Shang-ti has already appeared in the oracle bones, and it stands for the Supreme Lord of the universe. In the Hymn of Shang, it was said, "Sowise and prudent in his prime, He always cherished glorious fame; Toward the Shang-ti meek and tame." Shang-ti or Tian cannot just mean the physical nature or some impersonal force because he was regarded as a fearful God who had a moral will. For example, in the Book of History, there is the Pledge of Tang which said, "The leader of Xia is guilty, and I, who is afraid of Shang-ti, dare not but send a punitive expedition against him!"
The name Shang-ti was used widely in the Shang Era, but later in the Chou Era, the name Tien (Heaven) became more and more popular. Some scholars suggest that Heaven has entirely lost the meaning of a personal God, and just stands for nature or something like that. This is not quite true, though the situation is complicated. The Chinese people continued to use the name Shang-ti until recent times, and Heaven sometimes is just another name for Shang-ti. Confucius also believed in a personal Heaven. Indeed, Confucius seems to have a personal relationship with Heaven in that he prayed to Heaven and knew that Heaven can be offended: "He who is against Heaven has not none to whom he can pray." He felt that only Heaven could really understand him, and this understanding was the basis of his mission in life: "I do not murmur against Heaven. I do not grumble against men. My studies lie low, and my penetration rises high. But there is Heaven;--that knows me!" So it is wrong to say Confucianism is only a kind of ethical humanism.
Although the book focuses on the science-religion dialogue in the East, I would suggest that a comparison of this dialogue in both the East and the West would be illuminating, but the author fails to pursue it. The literature on the science-religion dialogue in the West is so vast now that I find it surprising that in his entire bibliography only one book on this dialogue (Barbour) is listed. For example, in chapter four the author has a helpful discussion of Needham's problem, i.e., why modern science did not emerge in the long sophisticated history of China. He has correctly pointed out problems such as the overemphasis on moral knowledge and the imprecise and fuzzy ideas of yin-yang and wu xing (five phases) in traditional China. He also lamented the Chinese lack of the spirit of empirical method, and he observed that the Chinese have never tried to test the empirical accuracy of these ideas nor cared about inconsistencies in the corollaries of these ideas.
As a Chinese, I can testify to the fact that I am not at all inclined to think that the natural world has to be very rational or consistent. If the world is regular enough to allow our survival, I think we should be grateful. Why should I expect the world to be conforming to a rational order down to the smallest details? That is why I was struck by Whitehead's discussion on this topic when I read it the first time. He pointed out that modern science had its root in medieval theology that emphasized the rational nature of the Creator of this world. From this conviction, the pioneers of modern science derived the idea that the world has to have a precise rational order which can even be expressed in mathematical formulae. The author has briefly referred to this idea (p. 75). In fact, this theme has been elaborated on many scholars, and some have also compared cultures along these lines (e.g., Stanley Jaki). If the author had further contrasted developments of modern science in different cultures in more detail, I think it would have helped us to understand Needham's problem more clearly. I also find the discussions not as deep as one would like to see, especially concerning the inner meaning of Asian spiritual traditions. Perhaps the scope of the book is just too broad for that. On the whole, the book is still recommended for those who are interested in the science-religion dialogue in a multicultural context.
Reviewed by Kai-man Kwan, Associate Professor of Religion & Philosophy, Hong Kong Baptist University, 224 Waterloo Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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