Buddhism and Science - A Conversation

by Dr. A. P. K. Zoysa

"Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single cosmic whole.
The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, as an example in the Psalms of David and in some the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhaur, contains a much stronger element of this".

Albert Einstein, On Religion and Science, 1930.
Buddhism proclaims no revealed truth, neither does Science. There are as such no creator Gods, no soul theories in the Buddhist doctrine. It is built on the trilogy, of Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (sorrow, unsatisfactoriness) and Anatta (non-substantiality). The first factor in this trilogy, Anicca is merely an experienced fact. In science it is agreed that impermanence is an observational fact. Heraclitus the Greek philosopher, who lived at the time of the Buddha stated that, " you cannot enter the same river twice". Post modernists inquire as to whether you can enter the same river even once ? Impermanence (Annicca) has once again assumed centre stage in the debate on realism. Dukkha, although a subjective experience is said to be common to all states of existence. Without attachment to transient phenomenon it is said that, there cannot be existence (Samsara). The inevitable separation from the pleasant and contact with the unpleasant leads to Dukkha. Such an experience although not a matter of investigation by science is not contradicted by it.
Non-substantiality (Anatta), the lack of self in subject and the lack of an 'own nature' in perceived forms is accepted as valid experience in Buddhism. Science however speculates on the existence of a material substance with its own nature, and postulates that all phenomenon may be reduced to a movement of this material substance (Atomism). Although this is the case in what may be termed as Classical science; the search for a fundamental substance has been elusive, and speculative theories on the nature of sub-atomic phenomenon speak of resonances rather than substances (Michio Kaku, 1996). Modern theories in physics at least appears to be approaching Anatta (non-substantiality), albeit through a tortious route. Unfortunately it is Classical science which is popular science and known to the lay public. Buddhist psychological theories are many but fall under the broad paradigm laid down by the Buddha. In a Kuhnian sense western psychology can be classified as an immature science, with the existence of several contradictory pardigms (Jungian and Freudian as example), and as such there is much to be learnt from the theories and practice of Buddhist psychology. The above points seem to indicate that a conversation between Buddhism and Science would be extremely interesting and fruitful.
Other than the above philosophical reasons, there are many commonplace reasons for a dialogue. Science does not comment on ethical questions, or it pretends not to. Ethical questions arising often from its own investigations. How does humankind handle the Nuclear forces unleashed by Science and Technology ? What do we do with the probability of cloned babies and the possibility of Euthanasia ? What should be our response when economic systems exploit the natural environment using developments in modern science for human wealth creation; leaving little room for the continuation of other species ? These are many questions which are asked today, but debated within the framework of Judeo-Christian cultures. A fresh look at these, from a different cultural standpoint may be a necessity for the post modern era.
The following broad topics are identified as being fruitful and topical. You are urged to read and comment on the contributions made here.
(a) Buddhist Realism and Modern Science.
(b) Ethical questions arising from developments in Bio-Technology.
(c) Buddhist views on Nuclear technologies.
(d) Is Death the 'End of story' or Birth its beginning ( or is Rebirth a fact or fiction }?
(e) Budhist and Western psychology - Comparative studies.
(f) Buddhism and the Natural Environment.
(g) Buddhist and Scientific Cosmologies.
The spirit of inquiry within which this grand conversation between Buddhism and Science will be conducted is given as a synopsis, extracted here from the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas :
"It is proper for you Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful......... Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in the scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon consideration , 'The monk is our teacher'.
Kalamas, when you yourselves know; 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness', enter on and abide in them