Thursday, April 9, 2009

Buddha & Science: Religion Becomes Science

Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind's place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.
(P.A. Payutto, ‘Towards Sustasinable Science,’ p. 5)

The Venerable P.A. Payutto is probably the most well known & respected Buddhist scholar in Thailand. He is also a Buddhist monk. He has written many outstanding works on various aspects of the Buddhadharma, one of the most interesting being ‘Towards Sustainable Science,’ from which the quotations are taken in this article. In the above-quoted segment, he argues that, in essence, Buddhism and science are not in conflict, as the latter is concerned with knowledge regarding the natural order of things, which Buddhism has also been concerned with since its founding over two and a half thousand years ago.

But what is this ‘natural order’ that P.A. Payutto writes of? In Buddhist terms, the natural order is the law of karma and rebirth, the fact that every thought, word, and deed has a result. Now, science has not (yet) verified rebirth as an observable fact, but as to the idea of cause and effect, science is largely in agreement with the Buddhist teachings. Every action has a reaction, however infinitesimal the latter may be. In other words, what goes up must come down: Sir Isaac Newton was very much acting in the spirit of Buddhism when he developed the theory of gravity.

It is the fusion of science & Buddhism that Venerable Payutto points to that is so intriguing. He suggests that scientific discoveries and the technologies that come out of them can complement Buddhism, rather than contradict it, or make it seem defunct. Need Buddhism and science be in conflict? As the scholarly monk acknowledges elsewhere in the book, science and the technologies that arise from it can be used to destructive ends, but then humanity has an almost limitless capacity to abuse anything. The misuse of scientific discoveries is due to greed, hatred, and delusion, not science itself.

As to the limits of science, many religionists are keen to indicate that it will soon reach a dead end, much as atheists claim of religion; in truth, we just don’t know how much more science will discover in the coming centuries. Religionists may be in for some seriously unpleasant facts to be revealed in relation to their central beliefs, with Buddhism no exception. How as Buddhists should we respond to this - with dogmatism or open-mindedness? Questions relating to the nature of consciousness are being probed by science, and in the realm of technology, new inventions are beginning to challenge what we commonly understand to be ‘self.’
Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.
(Ibid. p.11)

The idea of artificial intelligence comprising consciousness or some kind of ‘self’ are abhorrent to many people, attached to set notions of what makes a conscious being. It is a subject that religious people of various persuasions find uncomfortable, given the implications. Can an artificial form of consciousness be reborn, rise to heaven or be cast down to hell? (The Dalai Lama has toyed with this very idea.) Should we, therefore, approach such technologically-created minds with compassion?

Investigating the nature of self and consciousness have long been the concern of Buddhists, of course, and it is in this light that modern scientific discoveries regarding the mind and the universe can be understood with wisdom. As suggested in the following extract, it is our use of science and technology that causes so many problems in the world. Venerable Payutto cites the desire to conquer nature and drive for material wealth as the primary reasons for humanity’s rapid destruction of the natural world. These are forms of greed (for power and resources) and hatred (of material poverty), fueled by the delusion of selfhood.
Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind's internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.
(Ibid. p.14)

Industrial development has indeed had a catastrophic effect on the environment, as few people would now deny; recognizing the interdependence of all things, as science is now doing, confirms what Buddhism has taught us for thousands of years. How we treat our surroundings will have consequences for ourselves, our descendants, and all life on Earth. That humanity is only now becoming aware of the full implications of this interdependence illustrates that there is still a long way to go before we might be considered an ‘enlightened’ race. Enlightened, that is, not only in the scientific sense, but also the spiritual one.

Venerable Payutto has something to say on this, also, for he sees in future scientific discoveries the possibility that some religions at least will become unsustainable. Buddhism, as a religion that points to a deeper reality, a natural deeper reality, is in a position to continue to complement science, however. This vision of the merging of science and religion might disturb some, attached as they might be to certain opinions on the distinct natures of the sciences and religions, but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science. What do you, dear reader, make of Venerable Payutto’s views on Buddhism & science, particularly the idea that they are in a process of eventual unification in the light of the truth?
When science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind's ultimate questions, it will be perfected. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, a religion, which points to the highest truth, to reality, will be in a position to unify with science. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.
(Ibid. p.24)


JD said...

P.A. Payutto seems to be on the right track here. The truth is the truth no matter who figures it out and he is very confident that Buddhism represents it and science might someday reach the same conclusions. The best thing that would come from that would be the return of morality to culture at large since most secular science based cultures seem to buy into moral relativism which allows for all sorts of heinous and depraved things.

It would be great if science confirmed Buddhism since the world would be a lot better if it did. I enjoyed this one Gary. Be well now.

G said...

Thanks, Justin.

Additionally, we might add that where science proves Buddhism to be inaccurate in its descriptions of truth, the latter will have the wisdom to adapt - as it has done throughout its long history. I wrote 'descriptions' with an 's' deliberately, for it is a fallacy to believe that all forms of Buddhism teach exactly the same things regarding the nature of existence. This diversity has been a strength, allowing Buddhism to adapt & change to the cultures that it has encountered. No doubt, the same is happening now as Buddhism meets with the predominant paradigm of our time - science.

Clinging to doctrines, whether they be Buddhist or otherwise, is ultimately a cause of suffering, not wisdom. The whole point of the Buddhist teachings is to enable us to be free of attachments, including attachments to these very same teachings! This is the selflessness of the Buddhadharma, which leads to complete freedom from the delusion of views and the suffering that comes from them.

Thanks again, Justin.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

Great post. I think science will eventually come to accept rebirth as it does in a way already.

The scientific principle that energy never disappears but simply changes form is basically rebirth on a molecular level. So since everything is made up of various configurations of molecules it makes sense.

I liked when you said this:

but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science.

So true and I agree with the Dalai Lama who says that if science clearly proves something in Buddhism inaccurate that Buddhism must adapt.

And vice-versa--it science revels something in Buddhism that is proven scientifically then they must adapt as well. Such as seeing the medical benefits of meditation.

G said...

Agreed, Handsome.

The present medical & scientific explorations of meditation & its benefits are prime examples of this dialogue between Buddhism & science. I like your description of energy and its similarities to rebirth.

Be well in the Dharma,

P.S. Your photo is really...handsome! :-)

puthujjana said...

Hi G – Well, you're giving your readers some pretty challenging topics here! Excellent!

Ok, on to Science and Buddhism. I'm not looking to science to verify the Buddha's teachings. I have to do that myself. Each of one of us does. That's how I see it anyway. Not to dismiss science in any way. For Buddhists who actually practice, it is truly a scientific experiment, and there are many parallels and overlaps between the science of purifying the mind and “science” as it is generally understood.

If we take meditation, for example. It's my understanding that that's where the big news of discoveries is coming from these days. There are changes in the brains of long time meditators and there are medical and psychological benefits. That's very interesting and confirms, in part, what long time serious meditators have always known. On the flip side, if science determined that their early findings were flawed in some way, and they discovered that, after further study, there appeared to be little or no benefit, then what? Do we abandon what we know from experience because it has been proved to be invalid?

I found a teaching from Ajahn Thanissaro that you may find interesting.


G said...

Glad you think the topics are challenging, Kris. :-)

Encouraging reflection in reader & writer is the whole point of 'Buddha Space.' It's an ongoing fascination with the Buddhadharma that inspires the subject matter here. That's what was meant previously when I wrote that I don't believe everything that I post here - it's kinda thinking aloud and exploring the issues with your help. No input from the readership & this blog would lose a lot of momentum - so please keep coming up with your reflections everyone. The blog is enriched by your views - especially when they differ to G's!

Yes, Kris, from the viewpoint of personal practice, it's crucial that we find out for ourselves whether the teachings work or not. Important that you remind us of this, Kris.

At the same time, from the broader perspective of society at large, as well as the Buddhist community as a whole, the present confirmation of the efficacy of Buddhist practice is an important development in Buddhism. Just as Buddhism has adapted & changed to reach different cultures & time periods - Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land, Nichiren, etc - so a scientific Buddhism seems to be in the early stages of development. This can be of great benefit to the continued spread of Buddhism to the West and the enlightenment of human kind as a whole.

If science denied the efficacy of meditation, Kris, but those of us that practice it continue to partake of its fruits, then we should persevere, for sure. Finding the balance - the Middle Way - between subjective & objective confirmation of the Dharma is a useful approach to this situation, perhaps. But, ultimately, it is for each & every one of us to see for ourselves - no scientist is going to awaken us with a paper on the Noble Eightfold Path. As the Buddha is supposed to have said, we must all "Walk on!"

Be well, Kris.