Overlapping Worlds

B. Alan Wallace

What do Buddhism and science have to offer each other? According to scientist and author B. Alan Wallace, quite a bit.


buddhism scienceBuddhism, 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. Of course, there are many divergent Buddhist views about the nature and significance of specific contemplative insights, but the theories and discoveries of science have also been open to varying interpretations over time. A major difference between science and Buddhism is that scientists largely exclude subjective experience from the natural world and attribute causal efficacy only to physical phenomena. Buddhism, in contrast, takes subjective mental phenomena at least as seriously as objective physical phenomena and posits a wide range of interdependent, causal connections between them.

To a much greater extent than modern psychology, for example, Buddhism presents rigorous means of investigating the causes of suffering and happiness. It is intent not only on counteracting suffering once it has arisen, but also on identifying and counteracting the causes of suffering before it arises. All conditioned phenomena arise from multiple causes, and the central theme of Buddhism is to identify the inner causes of joy and sorrow in particular, as they have been found to be more ctucial than outer, physical causes. This is perhaps the most scientific aspect of Buddhism, and it addresses issues in the realm of human experience and consciousness itself that have been largely overlooked by modern science.

One distinction commonly made between science and the contemplative traditions is that science entails collective knowledge, whereas contemplative insights are always private and cannot be shared. As the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson points out, "One of the strictures of the scientific ethos is that a discovery does not exist until it is safely reviewed and in print." In other words, a discovery is not accepted by the scientific community until it has been reviewed and published. But a genuine discovery, of course, takes place well before it is published! And even after it is published, a scientific discovery normally can be validated only by a relatively small number of experts within a specific field of research. Other scientists and the general public will, for the most part, accept discoveries on the basis of their faith in the experts. 

This situation is not so different from discoveries made by Buddhist contemplatives. The discoveries are made in terms of their own firsthand experience. The results then may be reported either verbally or in print, and are subject to peer review by their fellow contemplatives, who may debate the merits or defects of the reported findings. Critiques by anyone other than lifelong contemplatives are taken no more seriously than critiques of scientific theories by nonscientists.

But saying that Buddhism includes scientific elements by no means overlooks or dismisses the many explicitly religious elements of the tradition. As the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said of religion, Buddhism is very much concerned with human purposes, meaning, and value. But, like science, it is also concerned with understanding the realms of sensory and mental experience, and it addresses the questions of what the universe, including both objective and subjective phenomena, is composed of and how it works. Buddhism also addresses questions about the meaning and purpose of life, our ultimate origins and destiny, and our experiences of inner life. But the fact that Buddhism includes elements of religion is not enough to simply categorize it as a religion, any more than it would make sense to call it a science. To study this discipline objectively requires that we loosen our grip on familiar conceptual categories and be prepared to confront something radically unfamiliar to the West that may challenge some of our deepest assumptions. In the process, we may review the status of science itself, in relation to the metaphysical axioms on which it is based.

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