Buddhism and Science

Sunday October 9, 2005


A few weeks ago, I wrote something on how neuroscientists might have something to learn from Buddhism. It seems to me, however, that the reverse is also true, and that Buddhists have much to learn from science.

Wikipedia gives the following useful working definition for ‘science’:

  • Reasoned investigation or study of nature, aimed at finding out the truth. Such an investigation is normally felt to be necessarily methodical, or according to scientific method – a process for evaluating empirical knowledge; or
  • The organized body of knowledge gained by such research.

It is because of its systematic, methodical and reasoned inquiry that the scientific world picture has been so successful. It is certainly an incomplete picture. It is certainly open to rethinking and to (using the philosopher Karl Popper’s term) falsification. But, as a method of investigation it has proved highly potent; and the resulting picture of the universe, and of who we are within that universe, is one that has never been equalled in its elegance, its beauty, and its power. When it comes to explaining the world, science is simply the best game in town.

Much of Buddhist thought today seems to me to be enmired in ancient Indian cosmologies and doctrines that are, in the face of this scientific world-picture, simply untenable. The traditional Buddhist world view – with its various realms of existence, its Buddha fields, its gods and titans and hungry ghosts – may have a poetic, allegorical or symbolic power, and this is no doubt of some value; but as a picture of how things actually are, as a description of the universe, it simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, did not spend much time engaging in cosmological speculation. It seems as if he took contemporary Indian ideas of rebirth and the cosmology of the time at more or less face value; but this cosmology seems to me to be in no way central to his teaching. If there is anything of value in the traditions of Buddhism – and I am sure that there is – if these traditions have anything to say to us, here and now in the 21^st^ century – as I am sure that they do – then what is of value is not this cosmological background: it is the insights into the absence of subsisting selfhood, into the delusions of selfhood that we weave, into the processes of ahamkara and mamamkara – “I making” and “mine making” – that cause so much suffering for ourselves and for others.

There have been many initiatives for building bridges between Buddhism and science, for example those at the Mind and Life Institute. But I think it is important to do more than build bridges. To build a bridge allows the coming and going between two territories, but in the dialogue between Buddhism and science, it may be necessary to do more than just coming and going. It may be necessary to give up a great deal of territory. And as the Buddhist world-picture is less well-founded than the scientific world picture, it may be that it is the Buddhists, in the end, who have to renounce some of their home ground. But even that great enthusiast of dialogue with the sciences, the Dalai Lama, seems curiously unwilling to give up any territory to science. In his own words:

With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other.

But what if there are contradictions between the two, as there surely are? Can there be a real engagement without at least the possibility of contradiction? What is this ‘humanity’ of which ‘religion and spirituality’ remind us? Is it a truthful picture of our humanity or not? Doesn’t this need to be considered, rather than just asserted? Might it not be important to weigh up the different truth-claims of these two systems and, perhaps, to give up one or the other?

What I am saying is this: for Buddhism to truly engage with science, it may be necessary to pay more than lip service to some kind of dialogue. If Buddhism were to truly engage with science, it might find that its very foundations seemed to crumble away. In this engagement, Buddhism might be required to cede a great deal of territory to the scientific world view. It But it might be here, in this crumbling-away of those things that seem most important, in the ceding of territory and in the giving up of ideas that are inherited, untested and untenable, that Buddhist thought and practice might be freed from their traditional constraints, and take on a new relevance.

What I am saying, I think, is that in the end Buddhism can only remain relevant if it gives up its authority as a ‘religion’, with all of the delusion-mongering that goes along with this, and returns to being a method for systematically overturning our delusions about ourselves. Otherwise this ancient, pragmatic and insightful body of thought risks becoming nothing other than a colourful, but irrelevant, cultural curiosity.

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#1 · Matthew

11 October 2005

Buddhism was really an antidote to this ancient indian “thinking” and fits entirely with scientific practice, except insofar as science denies the reality of the internal world, whereas Buddhism tells us just to laugh it off.
#2 · Will

11 October 2005

Buddhism at the time of the Buddha probably was to some extent an antidote to much superstition, and to all kinds of metaphysical extravagance; and in its demands for attentiveness and reason, it certainly was not entirely alien to what we now call 'science'.

The trouble is, through the centuries it has become burdened with metaphysical extravagances of its own…

Thanks for visiting,Matthew!
#3 · Patricia Mayo

12 October 2005

Now the true challenge is showing society that science, mythology, history, and religion are all inter-linked.

Religion provides insights into what science has yet to discover, and vice versa. Mythology provides a history for what religion is today, and statistical analysis of history provides what science will use to predict the future.

Fun, isn’t it =)
– Trisha
Mayo Brains – Spreading Thought
#4 · Partamian

12 October 2005

Great blog! We need more buddhism in the blogoshphere!
#5 · Will

22 October 2005

Thanks, Partamian!
#6 · Tikaviro

8 November 2005

Yep. But Buddhism is about attaining the truth through direct knowledge. Science, on the other hand, is about proving theories. As long as they have not been proved untrue, the theories remain.

The 4 noble truths are still true today as they were 2500 years ago, while scientists keep on discovering new, well, discoveries, and formulate new theories to explain them!



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