Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground

Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground

by B. Alan Wallace
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Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Since 1987, the Dalai Lama has hosted a series of select meetings between Buddhists and leading scientists. These Mind and Life Conferences have stimulated inquiry into a range of topics where Buddhism and science seem to attract, if not catalyze, one another. One example is the work of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Using advanced imaging technology, Davidson's team has observed the power of meditation to alter brain functioning. Several prestigious universities have now hosted conferences exchanging insights between Buddhists and cognitive scientists. Last October, one such meeting was covered by the journal Science, which recognized the usefulness of religion-science dialog, a notion previously ignored, if not derided, by the scientific establishment. 'Buddhism and Science - Breaking New Ground,' is a collection of 15 essays, most by Mind and Life Conference alumni. The volume reveals a deepening relationship between two spheres once thought to be mutually exclusive and, given the brevity of this courtship, it records a number of refreshing breakthroughs. If nurtured, these could benefit future generations immensely. Is Buddhism a religion? Is science a rigorously objective revealer of an ultimately true physical reality? From the outset, the definitions of 'Buddhism' and 'science' are thrown into question. The Dalai Lama, in his essay, calls Buddhism a science of mind that has made a detailed investigation of consciousness. In his introduction, Alan Wallace points out that Buddhism comprises a systematic description of the natural world based on testable hypotheses regarding the mind and its relation to the physical environment. In Buddhism's contemplative tradition, specific meditative techniques have been monitored for repeatable results over two-and-a-half millennia by gurus, lamas, and realized masters. Scientists call this peer review. Science, according to Wallace and several other essayists, often operates under a set of unexamined metaphysical beliefs amounting to a religious credo. Those who adhere to scientific materialism - maintaining that there is an absolute physical reality whose exploration is the only valid goal of science - are hardly objective when it comes to research into such non-material matters as consciousness. Yet quantum mechanics, the most successful theory in modern physics, posits that the subatomic building blocks of matter are barely physical. The components of the atom seem to arise in dependence on the kinds of measurements being made and the attitudes (consciousnesses) of the measuring scientists - a curiously Buddhist idea. The essays by physical scientists demonstrate the usefulness of Madhyamaka philosophy in tackling problems in physics. Madhyamaka, developed in India by Nagarjuna (2nd cent. AD), Chandrakirti, and others, views phenomena as empty of absolute, isolated, or inherent identity. Rather, they exist in dependence, that is, in relationship with other phenomena. Victor Mansfield gives specific examples of how the concept of emptiness is useful in the field of thermodynamics. Michel Bitbol expands on this theme, envisioning a science freed from the prejudices of scientific materialism and the limitations of dualistic thinking. He believes the influence of Madhyamaka could introduce a form of life 'in which losing ground is not a tragedy (it can even promote enlightenment...) and in which an alternative (say pragmatic, integrative, and altruist) strong motivation can be given to science.' Taken as a whole, the six essays on Buddhism and the cognitive sciences could foster an educational revolution in the West based on a psychology of liberation. Psychiatric researcher David Galin presents an analysis of individual identity in modern society, systematically exposing the problems inherent in the terms 'self,' 'person,' and 'I.' These 'ad hoc approximations,' comprising a 'system of inconsistent metaphorical conceptions' can be dang