Wave in the Ocean

Projects and Perambulations

Open Book, Open Mind: The Dalai Lama on Science

Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who claim to have found it.

I know I’m not the first to express a thought like this, but it is an adage I have intuitively followed even before hearing it put into words. Thus I find myself very impressed with the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book exploring ‘the convergence of science and spirituality,’ particularly when I encountered this quote:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

This particular passage piques my interest not only because of the Dalai Lama’s open-mindedness, but the apparent compatibility of Buddhism and science. From my limited exposure to religions thus far, I had been under the impression that they all impose a static set of beliefs — a sort of compendium of ‘facts’ that may not be questioned, usually involving a creation myth and explanation of death. If one was to be religious and scientific, I thought that either religion must be dominant, not allowing science to question its beliefs (which would potentially cripple you as a scientist) or science must be dominant, with no assertions taken unquestioned (which might cripple your religious faith). The way I understood them, religion and science mixed like oil and water.

Buddhism, the Dalai Lama explains, actually shares with science a basis on empiricism. Both encourage the acceptance of new ideas given sufficient evidence, though they take different approaches to the matter.

Buddhism :  Experience  >  Reason  >  Scriptural Authority
Science  :     Data     >  Reason  >          n/a?

Science focuses exclusively on understanding objective reality through the use of repeatable public experiments; gather experimental data, infer a hypothesis, test with more experiments, rinse and repeat.

Furthermore, science’s powers of reason are substantially bolstered by the use of modern mathematics, which allow a great deal of powerful abstraction. Inference is relatively intuitive, but by the power of math we are also able to deduce facts using complicated equations.

Buddhism, on the other hand, advocates empirical understanding not only of objective reality, but also one’s subjective, internal experience. The methods of reasoning outlined in Buddhist scripture descend from classical Indian logic and have not advanced as far as the modern math/science juggernaut. That does not mean they are less correct; just that less abstraction and generalization can be performed. While science may trump Buddhist methods at understanding external reality, I suspect Buddhism is conversely more attuned to internal observation. Perhaps our internal matters are not so amenable to calculus and discrete math.

Today’s last point of comparison between these two disciplines of thought is the presence/lack of a scriptural authority. Science of course would never advocate the supremacy of Newton’s or Einstein’s theories simply because it was Newton or Einstein who said them. Yet as the Dalai Lama points out, as humans we can and do appeal to “reliable authority” for facts such as our birthdate. Newborns are not able to read calendars, so we need to rely on our family’s testimony (as well as birth certificates) as reliable sources for this information.

I do not take issue with Buddhism’s appeal to scriptural authority, as the Buddha specifically told his followers to “not accept the validity of his teachings simply on the basis of reverence to him.” As empirical evidence is an officially sanctioned way of overruling traditional scripture, perhaps these scriptures are comparable to the prominent scientific theories of our time — taught as the best currently available truth, but willing to be replaced by a better truth at some later date.

A 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.

—The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality