Is meditation a science?

This is a claim you’ll hear meditation teachers make a lot: “meditation is a science.” They often say it without making any effort to give support, as if it’s as uncontroversial a claim as reporting what’s for lunch. But is meditation a science? What would that mean?

Here’s one definition of “science”:

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

According to this definition Science is….

  • the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding
  • of the natural and social world
  • following a systematic methodology based on evidence

Meditation, at least in the Buddhist traditions, seems to meet those criteria.

There is one thing that’s not specified in that definition, however, and which is normally taken for granted as being a part of “scientific” investigation, and which is absent from Buddhist meditation: that is the intersubjective (aka objective) availability of the evidence studied.

In meditation the objects of study are subjective phenomena — the objects and events of consciousness. Things like thoughts. It’s not possible, as Frege said, to hold a thought in my hand like a mineral sample and show it to you. Only I can look at the thought I’m having. And only you can look at the thought you’re having.

It may be true that the same lawful processes operate on my thoughts in my cognitive environment as operate on your thoughts in your cognitive environment. But the fact that we can’t observe intersubjectively makes the whole project much harder to be “scientific” about.

Because of this, I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that meditation is a science. It’s more like meditation is a good friend of science.

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