July 08, 2009

Buddhism and Science

In our Spring 2003 issue, B. Alan Wallace wrote,

Buddhism, like science, presents itself as a body of systematic knowledge about the natural world. It posits a wide array of testable hypotheses and theories concerning the nature of the mind and its relation to the physical environment. These theories have allegedly been tested and experientially confirmed numerous times over the past 2,500 years, by means of duplicable meditative techniques. In this sense, Buddhism may be characterized as a form of empiricism, rather than transcendentalism.

Are Buddhism and science close relatives? If Buddhism disagrees with science, must we side with science? Read the whole article.

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Alan's picture

What counts more, articles or speeches? Wallace's article seems eminently reasonable to me, but I also heard him in person recently on the relationship between science and Buddhism and it was enough to make me cringe. The message that I *heard* was, to the extent scientific insights conflict with Buddhism's, then science must be, because of its inherently limited, materialistic, and impermanent nature, wrong. Very sad.

Nagesh Belludi's picture

To comment 1 by Robbie, "But DOES Buddhism disagree with science? ... I have yet to see that happen."

The concepts of birth and rebirth is central to both Hinduism and Buddhism. This is one important area that is contrary to science. And so is evolution. In Hinduism, the Dashavatara (The Ten Incarnations) is identical to Darwinian evolution as we understand now.

Gloria's picture

We in the West certainly need a term more accurate than "religion" to describe Buddhism. I think Alan Wallace's suggestion of "natural philosophy" is a good start because it captures both the naturalistic empirical aspect of Buddhism and the transcendent aspect, as Vu Nguyen above points out.

What the label "natural philosophy" does not capture, however, is the aspect of Buddhism that promotes a way of life, the "lived" aspect. This "lived" aspect has to do with our developing character, a way of feeling and thinking about ourselves and others and a way of acting in the daily world. This is the action or existential aspect of Buddhism. The term "natural existential philosophy" might be OK, except that the word "existential" already has been captured by philosophers and writers (Sartre, Camus) to indicate a particular, almost nihilistic way of life that denies transcendence.

We need a descriptive term for Buddhism that captures our acceptance of empirical evidence, our aspiration to and recognition of transcendence, and our understanding that our personal character can be worked on continually and improved.

Vu Nguyen's picture

The purposes of the physical body are to nurture and develop the mind, heart, and senses. The senses, heart, and mind are for the emancipation and evolution of intuition, knowledge, reason, experience, and intelligence. These traits form the basis for or the transformation of wisdom, compassion, and liberation. The physical body is the means for consciousness, spiritual, and the path to salvation or enlightenment.

Spiritual is the means for higher consciousness, searching for meanings and seeking truths in the physical and transcend or metaphysical world. Science is the art of deriving meanings and emancipation of knowledge from searching and seeking truths in the physical or material world. Spiritual is the reasoning, empirical analysis, observation, and experience of the natural world through the senses, mind, heart, and consciousness. Science is the rationalness, analysis, observation, and experience of the natural world through theory and technology. Spiritual and science are means or paths to meanings, truths, and enlightenment of natural law through the physical/metaphysical and physical world respectively. Therefore, spiritual and science are compatible and complementary to each other and must adhere to or conform to or obey the law of nature, or in other words, are revealing or expressing the law of nature in their specific, special, and unique ways.

Robbie's picture

But DOES Buddhism disagree with science? As a fan of both, I have yet to see that happen. I recall reading at an early age that when Buddhism first came to the serious attention of the west, back during the First World Congress of Religions or whatever it was called in the 19th century, it was Buddhism's proudest statement that it was the one religion which was not in conflict with 'modern' science, and presumably never would be. In fact, it was when I read that statement as quoted by science fan Arthur C Clarke that I personally became receptive to Buddhism.
But to answer the question, it was HDL who last year said that if a factual conflict happened, then Buddhism should and would make the adjustment. And before that, it was of course Buddha himself who urged followers to test everything he said and only practice what was found to be true.
And personally, I tend to believe in some of the more apparently mystical aspects of Buddhist cosmology that most western Buddhists seem to reject (and also perhaps don't know much about), and it might be expected by those folks that Big Science would at least refute those- however the more that is discovered in the realm of quantum physics and so on, the more it all seems possible. So there you are, wih no when in no where!