Religion and Science

Buddhism can be seen as having a great deal in common with science. Its general neutrality on the subject of the supernatural means that, as a religion, it is open to scientific discovery. With its focus on the nature of mind and its implications for the concept of reality, Buddhism offers explanations for metaphysical issues within psychology and studies of consciousness. Furthermore, there is some common ground between the methodology of scientific investigations and Buddhist thought. The Dalai Lama, for example, listed a “suspicion of absolutes” and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principle shared between Buddhism and science. Similarly in the Kalama Sutta there is an insistence on a proper assessment of evidence, rather than a reliance on faith, hearsay or speculation. This is very similar to the Royal Society’s motto – “Nullius in verba” (often translated as “take no-one’s word for it”).

Buddhism has had a significant impact on the world of psychology. During the 1970s several experimental studies suggested that Buddhist meditation could produce insights into a wide range of psychological states. This has recently been revived following the increased availability of such brain-scanning technologies as MRI and SPECT. These experiments are enthusiastically encouraged by the present day Dalai Lama, who has expressed an interest in exploring the connection between Buddhism and science. There is also a great deal of research going into Buddhist meditation techniques, particularly mindfulness, being used therapeutically for depression, anxiety etc. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre the Department of Psychiatry works with the Oxford Buddhist Centre at Oxford in order to undertake this kind of research.

The relationship between science and faith is not such a difficult issue in Buddhism. As seen above there is a strong emphasis in Buddhism on testing all truth claims empirically. However, not everyone will be far enough advanced on the Buddhist path to test all claims, therefore some faith in the Buddha is needed initially to adopt his teachings. Many Buddhists, though, argue that this is no different to placing faith in scientists and scientific theories: when we first start learning science we are not able to empirically check theories on quantum physics etc; instead we must take them on faith and only fully investigate them when we have reached an appropriate level of knowledge and expertise.

There is a great deal of similarity between Buddhism language and empirical language, particularly in Abhidhamma / Abhidharma thought, where the world is broken up into constituent parts illustrating causality. Scientific language has in fact borrowed from Buddhism: the psychologist William James, for example, introduced the term “stream of consciousness”, which is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit vinnana-sota.

Most Buddhists do not see any problem with being both a scientist and following the Dharma. Science can be seen as ‘this worldly’ whereas Buddhism is really only concerned with escape from samsara. As long as the study of science does not interfere with an individual’s Buddhist practices, there is no problem. Some famous Buddhist scientists are: Niels Bohr, who developed the Bohr Model of the atom; British mathematician and Nobel Prize winner Alfred John Whitehead; and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge can be seen as being soteriologically important. The aim of Buddhism is to see things as they really are to understand the nature of reality. Therefore, scientific discoveries relating to reality can only benefit Buddhism. Knowing about how samsara works is a very important step towards escaping from it.

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