Monday, February 16, 2009

Buddhism and Science

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is often applauded for his standpoint that science and religion can be compatible with each other. The majority of liberal humanities scholars seem to share this view--Buddhism has become "scientific" in the eyes of many educated people.

A quick search confirms the recent flood of books in this vein. Here's a sampling of titles:

Alan Wallace:
Buddhism and Science

Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness

Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind

Matthieu Ricard:
The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet

Donald Lopez:
Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed

Vic Mansfield:

Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics

Shinzen Young:
The Science of Enlightenment


Alubomulle Sumanasara:

An excellent critique of the "science and religion are compatible" camp is Jerry Coyne's piece in The New Republic. Edge has published an entertaining set of responses to Coyne's article.

The following is a well-known quote from the Dalai Lama that appeared in the November 12, 2005 edition of The New York Times:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
This statement seems to make the hip religious and humanities scholars feel all warm and fuzzy. The idea hits you in the same place as a warm piece of apple pie. Isn't it wonderful how open and honest Buddhism is to the advancements of science! What a mature philosophy (it's not even a religion!) Buddhism is! A typical response of this sort can be seen in Jeffery Paine's article in The Boston Globe:

The Dalai Lama has even declared, "If the words or [sic] the Buddha and the findings of modern science contradict each other, then the former have to go." Try to imagine the pope or an ayatollah making a similar statement about the New Testament or the Koran.
The pope would never make such a risky statement! Isn't it impressive how open the Dalai Lama is! He would even go so far as to reject certain tenets of Buddhism if they were found to contradict what modern science tells us! Alan Wallace and many other compatibilists often bring up this quote.

But the Dalai Lama has no need for concern. He's not sticking his neck out one bit by making such a statement. As its claims are unverifiable and unfalsifiable, Buddhism gives nothing that science could grab hold of. How could science reject the position that there is no unchanging "self"? How would science show that reincarnation is not possible? Could science design an experiment to falsify twelve-part dependent arising? How about proving through scientific means that Amitabha in fact didn't succeed in creating a pure land?

As a Buddhist, you are free to believe any of these concepts. And according to the Dalai Lama, you are justified in your beliefs until science can show you otherwise. The thing we must not forget though is that the time to accept a claim is when there is evidence for the claim. It's a fallacy to claim validity for your claim simply because the claim has not been successfully falsified yet. That's not how the game works.

It seems to me that many of the people who are drawn to Buddhism are drawn to it because of their rejection of monotheistic religions like Christianity. Many highly educated people are quick to reject Christianity, but maintain a soft spot for Buddhism with its peaceful images and smiling faces of guys like the Dalai Lama. I've seen audiences soak up all sorts of nonsense simply because it's coming from the mouth of a Buddhist monk.

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