Science and Buddhism: personal thoughts

By Maurice Kyle

The rise of science and technology since the Industrial Revolution has accompanied the decline of traditional ‘theistic’ religions, and for good reason. Models of the Universe in many diverse societies have involved the intervention of a divine intelligence (God) in the cosmos to explain what seems to happen ‘out there’, and this God also intervenes in human affairs to try to make sense of human interactions ‘in here’. Science seems to be able to deal with both of these things; physics and cosmology have proposed theories that increasingly explain the workings of the cosmos, psychology and neuro-science with society and the mind, and evolutionary biology with the diversity of species. The need for an interventionist God seems to have disappeared.

So a tradition has arisen that sees science and religion to be in conflict, and science to have largely ‘won’ the contest, despite there being huge areas of scientific understanding that are open to question and current theories sometimes remaining contradictory. The beliefs of the fundamentalists and creationists of various religions appearing pitiful and antediluvian in comparison, appealing only to those harking back to some ‘golden era’ of certainty in an uncertain world.

And yet despite all the evidence, there are many eminent scientists still identifying themselves with the major world religions. Something in the human psyche still requires something that science cannot seem to provide, and people have come up with vague notions of ‘spirituality’ as a concept, a ‘something’ missing from a purely materialistic, rational view. Even militant atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted to a wonder, almost verging on the spiritual, when observing the complex patterns of the physical and biological universe.

Many scientists have been drawn to Buddhism in search of this lost ‘essence’, for a number of important reasons which I will touch on, but it is first necessary to be clear about what we mean by ‘science’.

There is a very common confusion, in the media especially, and in the non-scientific community, between ‘science’ and ‘technology’. Although these two distinct activities are interrelated and interdependent, they are very different.

“The process of its development (science) in recent times can be described as follows. One performs experiments and makes observations; and then, by thinking about the results obtained, , in the context of already existing knowledge and understanding one may…… be able to create some model, in either conceptual or mathematical terms, which will not only fit results already obtained, but will enable one to make predictions.

Experiments and observations are then designed to test these predictions; if the tests fail, one may attempt to modify the theory or create a new one, then make further predictions with the new or modified theory, and so on.” (M. Hookham, unpublished)

Technology on the other hand involves the application of scientific understanding to solve a practical problem, and therefore to some extent tests the prediction(s) made by the scientific theory. For example, the Apollo moon missions were dependant on the theories of Newtonian physics, whereas particle accelerators must be designed and built to take into account Einsteinian time-dilation effects, predicted by the Special Theory of Relativity. Thus a theory is a working model (not a wild guess, as the media might have us believe!) which makes testable predictions (in these examples, about how dynamic bodies behave).

The fact that science employs only ‘provisional’ knowledge may be illustrated by a very trite but simple to understand example:

A person who has never seen a swan before is told that ‘a swan is a large white bird with a long neck that swims on water’. Not a bad theory until the person sees such a creature walking on dry land…But all is not lost, the theory is expanded to include ‘can walk on land too’. But then the person sees a black swan, and the theory must be modified again. Very young swans are also a brownish colour and have short necks…you can see the problem… The act of observation is testing the theory to destruction.

Proper scientific theories are constantly tested and either they withstand the test, or they are expanded, or their limitations are further restricted, or they are thrown out altogether to be replaced by something new and hopefully more durable in the face of further testing. Thus science NEVER ‘proves’ anything; scientists should not be asked for proof, but for supporting evidence. Testing can of course, DISPROVE a theory.

So what about Buddhism? There are parallels between the ideas of ‘unknowing’ that Ian has written and talked about, and this idea of ‘provisional’ knowledge. The scientist’s version of the state of ‘unknowing’ is the understanding that the paradigm within which he/she is working (e.g. Newtonian physics) might one day be superseded by a conflicting paradigm (e.g. Einsteinian Relativity). Notice that this state of unknowing is certainly not ‘ignorance’, but actually is a certain type of insight, or even ‘wisdom’. Where there is no concrete data available, a scientist will be in a perfect state of unknowing, claiming nothing, whereas a Buddhist practitioner might be able to use intuition to construct a workable model or hypothesis, science tending to deal with the external world, Buddhism with the internal mind (although both not exclusively, of course). ‘The mind is everything’, as the Buddha said.

In fact uncertainty has become ‘institutionalised’ in quantum physics, in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle proposes that the subjective act of observing determines reality…uncannily similar to the Buddhist idea of the mind subjectively creating the reality that is observed. Experiments like the simple double-slit light beam experiment suggests that whether light behaves as a wave or particle depends on how (or even whether) we observe it…i.e. this reality is subjective This is a far cry from the Victorian scientific paradigm of an absolute, objective, unchanging reality in which everything is the same and unchanging for every observer.

We have to exercise caution in drawing parallels between the actual content of scientific and Buddhist theories. Scientific theories change rapidly as research progresses…Buddhist thought changes more slowly, but change there is, and where there may be a coincidence today, there may be divergence tomorrow. However, many interesting parallels have so far stood the test of time.

Science seems to have done away with a need for God to intervene to make things happen as we see them. Newton didn’t need God any more to push the planets round the Sun, but He was still required to explain the ‘action at a distance’ of the force of gravity. Einstein’s curved space-time did away even with the remaining duties that Newton required of God. Buddhism says almost nothing about ‘God’ and modern-day Buddhists tend not to accept the existence of a divine interventionist for reasons of fairly basic logic. Buddhism is also undogmatic, asking practitioners to test the ideas against their experiences in everyday life…similar to Gandhi’s ‘experiment with life’ using ahimsa (non-violence), and similar to a scientist’s willingness to subject every pet theory to the rigours of testing.

Like science, Buddhism attempts to make sense of the Universe and is clear that our sensory idea of reality is ultimately illusory, based on the destructive power of ego to influence the mind.   Science also tells us that the concrete, solid world we observe is illusory, dependant on the limits of our sense perception. Apparently solid objects are mostly empty space (according to extremely well-tested theory), perhaps analogous to the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’. The perception of sitting on a hard floor during our meditation, for example, is created by electrical repulsive forces between atoms…a sort of hovering, quite unlike our common-sense view of what’s going on! Another analogy to the concept of emptiness from which all things originate is the idea of a quantum field in physics from which particles arise, in fact particles and fields being interchangeable, two aspects of the same thing.

Buddhism teaches ‘dependent origination’ and ‘interconnectedness’ in which the existence of objects is provisional and temporary, and have no discrete independent existence of their own, despite appearances. Scientists have long ago accepted the transitory and evolutionary nature of existence, and in modern quantum theory there is an important idea called ‘entanglement’ which suggest that when two particles interact, they can become ‘entangled’, seeming to act as one entity, even if separated by unlimited space-time between the two.

Impermanence is simple to demonstrate, but taken to the extreme, it is interesting to realise that ALL the actual atoms that make up our bodies seem to have been formed from simpler particles in the intense furnace of a stellar ‘supernova’ explosion, to where they may well return.

Maurice Kyle

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