Friday, May 23, 2008
Science and Religion, A Buddhist Approach
Although I'm generally not keen on creating blog posts that consist only of quoting someone else's writings, this particular passage from The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama, is especially insightful and relates quite nicely to many of the Torah vs Science discussions that surface on a regular basis in blogland and elsewhere. So, at the risk on treading into territory that is more apropos to an XGH post (the topic, not the reference to original content), here is an excerpt from Chapter Two - Encounter With Science.
Although Buddhism has come to evolve as a religion with a characteristic body of scriptures and rituals, strictly speaking, in Buddhism scriptural authority cannot outweigh an understanding based on reason and experience. In fact the Buddha himself, in a famous statement, undermines the scriptural authority of his own words when he exhorts his followers not to accept the validity of his teachings simply on the basis of reverence to him. Just as a seasoned goldsmith would test the purity of his gold through a meticulous process of examination, the Buddha advises that people should test the truth of what he has said through reasoned examination and personal experiment. Therefore, when it comes to validating the truth of a claim, Buddhism accords greatest authority to experience, with reason second and scripture last. The great masters of the Nalanda school of Indian Buddhism, from which Tibetan Buddhism sprang, continued to apply the spirit of the Buddha's advice in their rigorous and critical examination of the Buddha's own teachings.
In one sense the methods of science and Buddhism are different: scientific investigation proceeds by experiments using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience. But both share a strong empirical basis. if science shows something to exist or to be non-existent (which is not the some as not finding it), then we must acknowledge that as a fact. lf a hypothesis is tested and found to be true. we must accept it. Likewise, Buddhism must accept the facts – whether found by science or found by contemplative insight. If, when we investigate something, we find there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality – even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with a deeply held opinion or view. So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different.
By contrast with religion, one significant characteristic of science is the absence of an appeal to scriptural authority as a source of validating truth claims. All truths in science must be demonstrated either though experiment or through mathematical proof. The idea that something must be so because Newton or Einstein said so is simply not scientific. So an inquiry has to proceed from a state of openness with respect to the question at issue and to what the answer might be, a state of mind which I think of as healthy skepticism. This kind of openness can make individuals receptive to fresh insights and new discoveries, and when it is combined with the natural human quest for understanding, this stance can lead to a profound expanding of our horizons. Of course, this does not mean that all practitioners of science live up to this ideal. Some may indeed be caught in earlier paradigms.