Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can We Learn From Buddhists On How to Engage Science?

I've heard this a number of times over the years in a variety of contexts: “Science tests until it finds truth, while religions never change their ideas because they rely on faith, and faith is based on very old texts that can't be updated.”

This common slogan challenges any believer, but it also has some obvious errors. Not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an anti-religious cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example, focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or “awaken.” I suspect it's for this reason, and probably many others, that the relationship of Buddhism and science will continue to draw interest, e.g., the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and SpiritualityBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, edited by B. Alan Wallace, and more recently, Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

This leads to the question of faith in sacred texts and how these texts relate science and scientific inquiry. As I noted above, many argue that religions necessarily possess an anti-rational or fideistic element in that their texts always look back. Science, in contrast, continually looks forward. 

In this respect, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information that sounds scientific to many ears.
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a 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. Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them." Buddha from the Kalama Sutra (ca. 250 BC)
And more recently, the Dalai Lama,
"Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research." Dalai Lama
As a Christian living in this scientific and technological world, I think all religions and their followers could learn from these Buddhist convictions. In addition, I believe we could also listen to Galileo, who 
(following Augustine) presented an analogous guideline over 400 years ago when speaking about his new, Copernican theory in light of his detractors' comments.
"I hope to show that I proceed with much greater piety than they do.... For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith, nor does he use argument that depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations. He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood." Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615, my italics)
Galileo essentially says that, yes, we follow our ancient texts, and if our best science finds something about the physical world, our biblical interpretation and application should cohere with these findings. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that Galileo was arguing for a sun-centered universe.

Put another way, there is one God who wrote the Two Books, one of Scripture and one of nature. Reason doesn't have to lie down to sleep when faith enters the room.

What do you think? Is there a similarity? And do you agree?

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