Thursday, July 8, 2010

Buddhism vs. Science


Religion and science have long been seen as opposing and independent of one another. However, this concept has been challenged by many scholars, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and most recently became the topic of a three day long Buddhism vs. Science debate aimed at exploring the purported differences between religion and science.

In the West there is a continuously reinforced perception that the mind, and ultimately consciousness, are grounded in the biomedical model: our thoughts, emotions and ideas are a product of a network of synapses managed by neurotransmitters. While the Western biomedical model can and does explain a multitude of psychological phenomenon it completely disregards the notion of human agency – where do empathy, compassion and resilience fit into the Western, scientific model of the mind?

Buddhism views the mind and/or consciousness as more psychologically oriented, not independent of the brain, yet not completely under its jurisdiction either. It is important to understand that Buddhism does negate the importance and relevance of scientific contribution, both in the study of the mind and science at large – it simply asks that we do not adopt a reductionist approach to something so significantly complex. In my understanding, Buddhist theory fears that science reduces human actions, feelings and emotions to nothing more than electrical impulses.

While science views the brain and body as interrelated – the functions of the body regulated by the brain – the ideas of consciousness and mind are often discounted, at least in “hard” sciences, and the idea of the soul heeds such disdain it is rarely even alluded to. In Buddhism however, the notions of body, brain/mind and soul are seen as from an interactionist perspective, working together as a collective network for the definitive benefit of the individual. Furthermore, Buddhism adopts a view of non-duality and in addition to this collaboration there is further overlap between science and Buddhism with Buddhist philosophy and meditative states having been validated by mainstream scientific approaches.

On a less scientific foundation, the importance of Buddhism and politics, more importantly its influence on political policy, was also discussed; specifically the idea of karma being used as means of regulating oppression. According to Buddhist teachings one’s standing in the current life is completely dependent on their actions in previous lives; thus minorities, victims of abuse, the disabled, etc. are inopportune in this life because in laymen’s terms they were, well, shit in a previous life. Consequently they are paying for it now. The danger in understanding karma this way is that it can be used to justify oppression: the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the people in Sub-Saharan Africa, the 6 million Holocaust victims, political prisoners – they all deserve their fates. Fortunately, the Buddhist principles of compassion, kindness and understanding negate such simplistic reasoning and followers of the Buddhist faith practice kindness indiscriminately.

Finally, one last point related to Buddhism and politics is the importance of Marxist ideology as a supplemental methodology to Buddhism. Marxist theory aims to disperse the social and economic inequalities created by capitalism. Buddhist theory compliments Marxism in its minimalistic approach to life, minimizing the importance of material possessions instead and focusing on achieving mental equality and peace of mind. In this way Buddhism and Marxism are intricately related: both seek to reduce the inequalities between individuals – Marxism striving for equality in a physical sense, and Buddhism for equality in a spiritual sense.

In conclusion, to return to the initial debate of science vs. religion, it is imperative to state that unlike other religions, Buddhism doesn’t oppose evolution, it in fact supports it and the Dalai Lama, the monk participating in the debate and Buddhism as a whole do not see science as a threat to their religion, but as a source of knowledge that they can learn from. In this sense, religion and science should not be seen in opposing, separate and binary terms but instead as sources of knowledge that can complement one another and lead to the eventual foundation of understanding and enlightenment.

Maria Arseniuk

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