Religion Becomes Science

Part 1

Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind’s place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.

(P.A. Payutto, ‘Towards Sustasinable Science,’ p. 5)

The Venerable P.A. Payutto is probably the most well known & respected Buddhist scholar in Thailand. He is also a Buddhist monk. He has written many outstanding works on various aspects of the Buddhadharma, one of the most interesting being ‘Towards Sustainable Science,’ from which the quotations are taken in this article. In the above-quoted segment, he argues that, in essence, Buddhism and science are not in conflict, as the latter is concerned with knowledge regarding the natural order of things, which Buddhism has also been concerned with since its founding over two and a half thousand years ago.

But what is this ‘natural order’ that P.A. Payutto writes of? In Buddhist terms, the natural order is the law of karma and rebirth, the fact that every thought, word, and deed has a result. Now, science has not (yet) verified rebirth as an observable fact, but as to the idea of cause and effect, science is largely in agreement with the Buddhist teachings. Every action has a reaction, however infinitesimal the latter may be. In other words, what goes up must come down: Sir Isaac Newton was very much acting in the spirit of Buddhism when he developed the theory of gravity.

It is the fusion of science & Buddhism that Venerable Payutto points to that is so intriguing. He suggests that scientific discoveries and the technologies that come out of them can complement Buddhism, rather than contradict it, or make it seem defunct. Need Buddhism and science be in conflict? As the scholarly monk acknowledges elsewhere in the book, science and the technologies that arise from it can be used to destructive ends, but then humanity has an almost limitless capacity to abuse anything. The misuse of scientific discoveries is due to greed, hatred, and delusion, not science itself.

As to the limits of science, many religionists are keen to indicate that it will soon reach a dead end, much as atheists claim of religion; in truth, we just don’t know how much more science will discover in the coming centuries. Religionists may be in for some seriously unpleasant facts to be revealed in relation to their central beliefs, with Buddhism no exception. How as Buddhists should we respond to this – with dogmatism or open-mindedness? Questions relating to the nature of consciousness are being probed by science, and in the realm of technology, new inventions are beginning to challenge what we commonly understand to be ‘self.’

Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.

(Ibid. p.11)

The idea of artificial intelligence comprising consciousness or some kind of ‘self’ are abhorrent to many people, attached to set notions of what makes a conscious being. It is a subject that religious people of various persuasions find uncomfortable, given the implications. Can an artificial form of consciousness be reborn, rise to heaven or be cast down to hell? (The Dalai Lama has toyed with this very idea.) Should we, therefore, approach such technologically-created minds with compassion?

Investigating the nature of self and consciousness have long been the concern of Buddhists, of course, and it is in this light that modern scientific discoveries regarding the mind and the universe can be understood with wisdom. As suggested in the following extract, it is our use of science and technology that causes so many problems in the world. Venerable Payutto cites the desire to conquer nature and drive for material wealth as the primary reasons for humanity’s rapid destruction of the natural world. These are forms of greed (for power and resources) and hatred (of material poverty), fueled by the delusion of selfhood.

Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind’s internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.

(Ibid. p.14)

Industrial development has indeed had a catastrophic effect on the environment, as few people would now deny; recognizing the interdependence of all things, as science is now doing, confirms what Buddhism has taught us for thousands of years. How we treat our surroundings will have consequences for ourselves, our descendants, and all life on Earth. That humanity is only now becoming aware of the full implications of this interdependence illustrates that there is still a long way to go before we might be considered an ‘enlightened’ race. Enlightened, that is, not only in the scientific sense, but also the spiritual one.

Venerable Payutto has something to say on this, also, for he sees in future scientific discoveries the possibility that some religions at least will become unsustainable. Buddhism, as a religion that points to a deeper reality, a natural deeper reality, is in a position to continue to complement science, however. This vision of the merging of science and religion might disturb some, attached as they might be to certain opinions on the distinct natures of the sciences and religions, but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science. What do you, dear reader, make of Venerable Payutto’s views on Buddhism & science, particularly the idea that they are in a process of eventual unification in the light of the truth?

When science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind’s ultimate questions, it will be perfected. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, a religion, which points to the highest truth, to reality, will be in a position to unify with science. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.

(Ibid. p.24)

( Part 2 >> )