issue 21 autumn 03
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Breaking New Ground

Edited by B. Alan Wallace
Columbia University Press 2003
$59.50/ £41.50 h/b; $29.50 /£20.50 p/b

Buddhism and Science - are they two great enterprises bound to enrich each other, or two competing traditions doomed to a fight over who really has the truth? This is the underlying question explored in the 14 contributions to this collection.

The book begins with a scholarly overview of the meeting and conflict between religion and science by the editor Alan Wallace. Far from treating them as Stephen Jay Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteria', Wallace looks at their similarities. For example, some religions do make testable claims just as science does, while science has unquestioned dogmas just as religions do. As for Buddhism, it doesn't fit neatly into either. It is certainly not a science in the modern western sense, but nor does it fit most definitions of religion. In particular, says Wallace, Buddhism stands out because of its long tradition of investigating subjective phenomena. Buddhists claim that there are, or were, 'virtuoso Buddhist practitioners' who achieve cessation, understand the causes of suffering, realise the ground of being, and become Enlightened. So Buddhism is not just a transcendental doctrine but is based on empirical methods.

Wallace then attacks what he calls 'the scientific dogma of materialism'. This, he says, 'presents formidable obstacles to any meaningful collaboration between Bud-dhism and science'. This is where I began to part company from his views. He takes as an example the work of socio-biologist, E.O. Wilson. Wilson, he says, promotes the principles of objectivism, reductionism, physicalism (the principle that the universe is causally closed) and monism. 'Thus, with a single metaphysical stroke of the pen, subjective experience is written out of nature and consigned to the status of an epiphenomenon or illusion'. And free will, too, becomes an illusion.

But what if they are illusions? Taking just the ordinary definition from the dictionary, an illusion is something that is not what it appears to be. Since Buddhism has a long history of claiming that ordinary experience, and ordinary willed action, are not as they appear to be, this could be an important meeting point for Buddhism and science. Indeed in later chapters both the neuropsychologist, David Galin and the Buddhist scholar William S. Waldron explore the origins of our erroneous view of self, and how evolution might have landed us with such an illusion. This seems to me to be much more constructive than deriding scientists for talking about illusions as Wallace does.

Even more curious is Wallace's rejection of monism (i.e. oneness or one-stuff), when one of the deepest aims of Buddhist practice is to drop the discriminating mind, lose the distinction between self and other, and arrive at non-duality. Scientific materialism may be wrong in insisting that the one stuff of the universe is material stuff (whatever that means), but it surely agrees with Buddhism that deep down there can be no separation between material and non-material phenomena.

In contrast, I suspect that for most scientists the most 'formidable obstacle' is Wallace's own notion of reincarnation as 'the reality of individual experience following death and prior to conception' and 'a continuity of individual con-sciousness after their own death'. Perhaps this interpretation reflects Wallace's training in Tibetan Buddhism, which developed in a culture already steeped in notions of personal rebirth, for it is not found in quite the same form in Zen or Ch'an, with which I am more familiar.

For example, the Sutra of Hui-Neng explains the extinction of birth and death in terms of dropping the four images of self, person, being, and a 'liver of life'. In other words, there is no individual 'liver of life' whose consciousness can continue, and clinging to the idea of the individual is an obstruction to awakening. This Zen view fits much more happily with the uncomfortable point that Wilson makes about the human brain when he says, 'Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No-one. Nothing'. I want to ask Wallace who or what he thinks is in there doing the monitoring.

In any event, such claims may be testable in the future, and the way forward, as Wallace proposes, must lie in dialogue and mutually respectful collaboration. This book provides many excellent examples of just that, and is arranged in three parts. The first deals with the historical context, the second with the cognitive sciences, and the third with the physical sciences. Although the topics are so different, many common themes turn up.

One is the question why (or perhaps whether) Buddhism is better suited than other religions to a critical dialogue with science. Thupten Jinpa thinks it is, citing Buddhism's minute analysis of the nature of mind, and its insistence on personal investigation as the basis for belief. This leads to questions, picked up by others in the book, about the best methods to use for this investigation, what kind of certainty they can provide, and the difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it experientially.

I find this question especially interesting because intellectual endeavour is so often suppressed in Buddhist training (and the cleverer you are, the more you get put down for your thinking). This might seem odd when Buddhist philosophy is such a grand intellectual tradition, and the Buddha himself was obviously an incisively logical thinker. Yet perhaps it is necessary because experiencing something directly is often much harder than just acquiring an intellectual understanding. The trick is presumably not to confuse the two. Another theme is the nature of the relationship between Buddhism and science. From the historical chapters there emerge three models: science as a rival to Buddhism, science as a mundane ally to a superior Buddhism, and science as an equal partner to Buddhism.

The strongest proponent of this third model is the present Dalai Lama who writes about 'understanding and transforming the mind'. Drawing on ideas from neurobiology and psychology, he explores some deep and ancient questions in ways that really made me think. What is the relationship between suffering and consciousness? In what sense is there a permanent stream or continuity of consciousness? May one moment of consciousness ever apprehend itself? What criteria can establish a valid cognition? And, above all, what is the nature of mind?

On this last question the Dalai Lama points out that the Tibetan term for consciousness is an activity. Similarly Waldron quotes from Vasubandhu: 'The world in its variety arises from action'; and neurophenomenologists, Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz, explore what is known as 'enactive cognition'. This is the currently emerging view in disciplines as diverse as artificial intelligence, psychology and neuroscience that perception is not about building little pictures in the head, but is a kind of action.

There is much, much more in this book. There are discussions of time, impermanence, and matter. Dream yoga is compared with lucid dreaming, and emptiness is considered in the context of both quantum theory and relativity. The book ends with a personal account by the physicist Piet Hut about how he uses contemplation in both Buddhist practice and scientific problem-solving when he views 'life as a laboratory'.

There is no doubt that science and Buddhism are engaged in a great dance together. If you want to know how they are getting along, this is the book to read.

Susan Blackmore