Science and Zen

Those who deal with Zen, Taoism, and others Wisdom Paths from a purely superficial level will often fall into the trap of embracing superstition, or some “fluffy” new age idea as truth, while ridiculing scientific thought and logic as rigid and unenlightened.  This is unfortunate because science, when applied appropriately, is a great gift to the seeker of both knowledge and wisdom.

The word, “Science”, from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”, refers to a system of gathering knowledge (research) so specific, that one can correctly predict a reliable outcome consistently. This system -the scientific method -was introduced by Sir Francis Bacon, and it is through his strict definitions that the scientific revolution has come to be what it is today.  It is through Bacon’s definition that the outcomes of research form a scientific body of knowledge.

There is actually a much broader definition for the word “science”. One might also define science as a systematic knowledge, particularly any highly skilled practice, technique, or technology that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction or reliable outcome.  There are different disciplines that fit this definition, including social science, formal science, and natural science.  There are also cross -disciplines between the sciences, an example being biophysics.

Even the three categories I have just named are not rigidly defined, and in fact there are many important thinkers that do not agree with this approach to defining the sciences.  Nonetheless, I began with this approach because I had to begin somewhere, and this approach seemed as reasonable as any other.


1.      Natural Sciences.  These are organized categories of information that involve the study of phenomena or laws of the physical world.  Among the most well-known of the natural sciences are physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and so on.

2.       Formal Sciences.  A “formal science” uses words and terms with very specific definitions (formal language) and combines them with deductive reasoning as a means for creating a system by which some well-formed specific formulas, rules, and codes can be derived from others that are more general.  Within the category of formal science is mathematics, logic, statistics, information theory, and theoretical computer science.  All of these use deductive reasoning, and tell us that if something is true in one game, (a class of things in general) this truth applies to all legitimate players in that game. (Class)  The key, then, is to be able to properly identify players in the game. (Members of the class) Mis-categorizing them will result in invalid conclusions, for example; “He is a vegan.”  This is based on the logic that in the vegan game, (class) a person does not consume foods that contain meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy, or any other “animal ingredients.”  Thus, if a person says, “I am a vegan,” we can have a certainty of what he or she means by this, since the meaning of the word “vegan” is very specific.  The power and importance of this approach in science, and certainly in game theory, is that it frees us from the need to examine the eating habits of each and every vegan we ever come across.  Because of the validity of specialized and specific language, combined with the deductive approach, both key elements of formal science, we are able to make an assumption that is useful, efficient, and effective.  Without deep exploration, we can reasonably assume what “I am a vegan” means.

3.      Social Sciences.  The term “social science,” like “game theory,” is an umbrella term for many different games of organized knowledge and information.  Social science games, as I now call them, require that one explores aspects of human society in ways that cannot be easily explained mathematically.  Among the most familiar social sciences are;  anthropology, communication, criminology, cultural studies, developmental studies, economics, history, linguistics, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, social network analysis, social psychology, sociology, and social work.


So there it is, three types of science, organized in a not-so-neat package. I say “not-so-neat” because many important thinkers question where something like computer science even fits the definition of what a science is.  Bacon would have required real-world experiments to come to some conclusion about truth or fact.  Many of the sciences that are based on the definition of a “formal science” lack any real-world experimentation to support their conclusions.


On the Wisdom Path, science becomes a tool for understanding and applying information. Science is not “truth.”  It is just science.  As I began to organize my thoughts into the book you are now reading, I surrendered the need for an empirical basis to prove any one point.  Instead I decided to follow the path of most of the scientists I spoke with, and treat the formal sciences as science, simply because they are extremely important.  In fact, all quantitative sciences – including many of the social sciences such as sociology, psychology, anthropology etc, depend on them.  It may be an ongoing debate as to whether or not any of the formal sciences can be named a true science, but unless one chooses to become a monastic, then the sciences can be invaluable – especially when you come face to face with hierarchies, competition, the need to define goals and priorities in relation to the hundreds of sub-disciplines, sub-categories, and specialized games within games the game of life.


This way of seeing the world is explained effectively in The Kālāma Sutta (also known as the Kālām Sutta.  The Kālāma Sutta  is a discourse of the Buddha contained in the Aṅguttara Nikaya of the Tipiṭaka, and is often cited by students of some Buddhist traditions as the Buddha‘s “charter of free inquiry.”  This means one needs  to respect the use of sound logical reasoning, arguments, and the dialectic principles for inquiries in the practice that relates to the discipline of seeking truth, wisdom, and knowledge, whether it is religious or not.

The Kālāma Sutta is also used to support the concept of applying conservation and balance to one’s Wisdom Practice, especially concerning one’s conduct in practical matters.  In short, the Kālāma Sutta is opposed to blind faith, dogmatism, and belief spawned from faulty reasoning. More consistent with the scientific method than traditional, faith-based religion, the Kālāma Sutta insists on a proper assessment of evidence, rather than a reliance on faith, hearsay, or speculation.


Lewis Harrison is an American author, speaker, consultant, and Contemporary Spiritual Teacher. He is a  pioneer in the personal development, and human potential movement  he has created a distance learning course on meditation and Zen and Taoist thought at the Academy of Natural Healing – He offers corporate stress management programs through the Chair Massage Company at and offer many free life coaching and stress management tips to his students and clients. He holds regular stress management and meditation weekends at his Spa in the Western Catskills. Learn more at



Lewis is the author of nine books on stress management. He works as a relaxation coach with at his on-line learning and distance learning school.

You can contact him at



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