Buddhism and Science

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha, observing his own nature, claimed to have discovered the fundamental metaphysical laws of reality, the dharma. This, the Buddha’s enlightenment, occurred, according to modern scholars, about 430BCE. The terms in which the Buddha spoke were quite different from the terms in which the religionists of his time spoke. The Buddha’s language also differs from that of most historical religions. Taoism comes closest to resembling the philosophy of the Buddha. But whereas Taoism speaks in the language of metaphor and mysticism, the Buddha spoke in the language of reason, clearly, explicitly, not based on tradition, but based rather on the rational articulation of direct experience and questioning.

A hundred years ago science entered a new phase of its development with Einstein’s refutation of Newton and his discovery that energy, not matter, underlies lived reality. In the Newtonian, materialistic model based on the atom, energy merely describes the motion or activity of matter. Space, time, and the atom itself all stand as fundamental and absolute frames of reference that cannot change. Einstein blew this conception out of the water with his E = MC squared! But the revelations of Einstein were not the end of the matter. Quantum physics and string theory followed Einsteinian relativity. Every new discovery of science moves further away from the materialist model of reality, something that has not yet been generally appreciated. In a parallel development, computerization has resulted in machines that can simulate human cognitive functions, with true artificial intelligence (AI) only decades away.

If science reveals the truth about reality, and if spirituality reveals the ultimate metaphysical laws of reality, then it seems obvious that science and spirituality must converge increasingly, since the underlying laws must be implicit in reality, but never identical, since analytical reason can never comprehend the whole. In other words, scientific comprehension has limits built into the nature of science itself. In this sense it may be said that all historical religions have failed the test of science. None of the models of the world postulated by the various religions come even remotely close to approximating the reality revealed by science, with one exception: Buddhism.

My argument here should not be misconstrued as saying that science proves Buddhism. Because spirituality and science do not stand together as equals, the domain of spirituality, i.e., metaphysics, transcending as it does the purview of science, science can never prove any truly spiritual philosophy. However, spiritual philosophy does imply a view of the world as part of its metaphysical description, and one would expect a true spiritual philosophy to be consistent with the reality revealed by science, subject always to the possibility of error of science itself, since completeness or perfection can never be achieved. Buddhism passes this test.

The Buddhist overview of nature coheres with the scientific worldview in great detail. This only became true in the early 20th century with Einstein, and it becomes more true with each new scientific discovery, starting with the discovery of the relativity of space, time, and matter. Today we live in a field of scientific understanding characterized by curved space that also expands; time that also shrinks and expands; an infinitely divisible atom; particles resulting from the “collapse” of non-local, probabilistic “wave forms” caused by the act of observation (mind); multidimensionality, even virtuality; sentience as the universal potentiality of reality itself; and matter as malleable and plastic, including our own nature. Lived reality stands poised between the metaphysical polarities of the implicate and explicate orders, differentiation and non-differentiation (nirvana and samsara), the interplay of which results in endless novelty. Nowhere does any God make its appearance. Rather, we see a proliferation of beings of all levels of development. Beginninglessness and endlessness are the antipodes of existence. The cosmos includes an unimaginable diversity of different beings, living in different worlds, yet all fundamentally interconnected and all evolving out of and devolving into each other, so that all forms of life are continuous. The Pali Canon even mentions interstellar space. This whole process moves forward in time over epochs of millions and billions of years in accordance with the law of cause and effect (karma), but indeterminacy also allows for escape, enlightenment itself a form of novelty. Recently I heard a quantum physicist state that “eternal recurrence” follows logically from string theory and the parallel universe theory (the so-called multiverse). Mind is fundamental. Matter is illusory. Appearances mask a profound underlying reality completely different from the pseudo-reality that we experience through the body and the senses and build up into the common sense consensual view of the world. Yet on another level we possess reality within ourselves (e.g., the mathematical epiphany), and so through analysis and introspection we can also arrive at the truth of dharma.