Book Excerpt from Buddhist Biology

In Chapter 1, “A Science Sutra,” author David Barash describes how the ancient philosophy might form the perfect link between science and religion.

By | February 1, 2014

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, NOVEMBER 2013Early in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, a clown named Trinculo takes shelter from the storm in a most unappealing place: Under the monster, Caliban, explaining that “misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.” This phrase subsequently morphed into “politics makes strange bedfellows.” But in fact, there have been many strange bedfellows, not all of them resulting from misery, or involving politics.

Prominent among these odd couples is the pairing of religion and science. Which is the clown and which the monster? Maybe both, or neither. Or maybe a bit of each, depending on circumstances. The “new atheists” (notably Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) have claimed that religion and science are not just separate but downright antagonistic. The late Stephen Jay Gould, by contrast, made a case that science and religion (Trinculo and Caliban) are compatible since they constitute what he called “NOMA”—Non-Overlapping Magesteria. For Gould, science explains how things are while religion deals with why; that is, science is largely concerned with the facts of the world whereas religion deals with issues of ultimate meaning and ethics. Accordingly, the two are and should be of equal, but independent status.

This accomodationist position is appealing, especially since it opens the door to peaceful coexistence between these two key human enterprises. But wishing doesn’t makes things so, and in my opinion, science and religion are often in conflict, not so much because science makes claims about meaning or ethics, but because religion keeps making assertions about the real world that not only overlap those of science, but are frequently contradicted by the latter. Consider, for example, the Jewish story about Moses parting the Red Sea and speaking with God in the form of a burning bush, the Christian doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, raised the dead and was himself resurrected, etc., or the Muslim insistence that Mohammed took dictation from Allah via the angel Gabriel, and that ten years after becoming a prophet, he traveled to the seventh heaven on the back of the “buraq,” a white winged steed with a human face along with an extra set of wings, and whose every stride extended to the farthest point that it could see.

There is, however, an intriguing exception to what I, at least, see as the conflict between science and religion: Buddhism. Perhaps this is because Buddhism is as much a philosophy as a religion, or maybe because Buddhism is somehow more “valid” than, say, the big Abrahamic three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In any event, when it comes to Buddhism and science—especially the science with which I am most familiar, namely biology—we can replace NOMA with “POMA” (Productively Overlapping Magisteria). Buddhism is a religion—or a spiritual and philosophical practice tradition—whereas biology is science. Buddhism is mostly Eastern, at least in its origin; biology is comparably Western. And yet, Kipling was wrong: The twain have met. And not only that, but to a large extent, they get along just fine! Strange bedfellows indeed, yet oddly compatible—at least on occasion, and within limits.…

According to Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th 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.” This will be my approach in the preset book; namely, that whenever the two come into conflict, science trumps religion every time. Which raises this question: Why, bother, then, with any religion, in our case, Buddhism? Maybe pointing to occasional convergences and parallelisms is a foolish enterprise, as one might note a series of random coincidences. On the other hand, maybe there is more to such circumstances than we currently know.…

There is a strain of Western thought that has looked to Buddhism as a potential cultural savior, capable of rescuing us all from the excesses of science, from materialism grown too bold, too encompassing and yet at the same time, too dry, inhuman and downright dangerous. Robert Thurman, for example, has been explicit about hoping that the current Western revival of Buddhism would help to humanize the sciences. It might well do just this, especially when it comes to biology and emphasizing what I call the Buddhist Big Three: anatman (“not-self”) anitya (“impermanence”) and pratitya-samutpada (“interconnectedness”).

Toward this end, I offer the following abbreviated science sutra, which this book attempts to flesh out: Not-self, impermanence and interconnectedness are built into the very structure of the world, and all living things—including human beings—are no exception. As a hard-headed scientist myself, I maintain that no scientific rigor need be lost; to the contrary, greater empirical insights will be gained.

Moreover, Buddhism, acting in conjunction with biology, just might help to re-enchant our world. No less a materialist than the mathematician, logician and outspoken atheist Bertrand Russell expressed regret that science had departed from the Greek model of being a “love story between man and nature.” As Russell warned, and as many scientists have agreed, there is an ever-present danger that science as an array of strictly materialist explanations might generate a perspective that lacks poetry and substitutes empirical facts and mathematical theorems for underlying meaning. “As physics has developed,” wrote Russell, “it has deprived us step by step of what we thought we knew concerning the intimate nature of the physical world. … and the beloved has become a skeleton of rattling bones, cold and dreadful ...”

Part of the hope lavished upon Buddhism is that it can help animate—more precisely, humanize—this otherwise cold and dreadful skeleton of rattling bones. As we shall see, it is a hope that may well be fulfilled.

Excerpted from Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science by David P. Barash. Copyright © 2013 by David P. Barash. Published by Oxford University Press.

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Avatar of: MikeH

MikeH

Posts: 12

February 28, 2014

This is exactly the thing that most frustrates me about "New Atheists" absolute and aggressive insistance that their framing is the only framing.  It begins with their insultingly naive and narrow description of western religions as all being fundamentalist and literal.  It continues with their rebuttal to any explanation of modern interpretation of scripture as metaphor, or of the simple utilitarian concept of NOMA, with the utter derisive, rejected out of hand, term "accomodationist". What we have here is two extreme minorities, New Atheists and religious fundamentalists, completely dominating a dialog that could be very enlighting and helpful to humanity if it were ever allowed to take place.  Sorry, but I don't see this book helping the situation much.

Avatar of: nolachk

nolachk

Posts: 1

February 28, 2014

I understood the "logic" expressed until the last quote from Russell.  Far from "rattling bones" I see the universe, described in equations, molecular structures, etc. as a thing of beauty. 

One can describe the development of an embryo in minute detail and at the same time, watch that embryo under a microscope and marvel and the beauty and design of the organism taking shape.  I can measure and describe color in terms of wavelengths of light, and still marvel at the beauty of stained glass or a butterfly on a flower. 

I choose not to fight the fight, but to marvel at creation both as a scientist and as a person of faith.  For example, do I take the creation story in Genesis literally?  No.  Do I admire the patterns expressed there?  No doubt.

Avatar of: Tony S

Tony S

Posts: 4

February 28, 2014

If religion has no value other than its psychological and sociological benefits, why not do science on those and maximize their effects? If it's all that worthwhile why fly by the seat of our pants?

Buddhism has one major flaw, it encourages living without desire.

Avatar of: spiralsun1

spiralsun1

Posts: 2

February 28, 2014

This sounds like an excellent book.  It looks at a single religion very much like another book I read which does this with all religions.. (The Textbook of the Universe: The Genetic Ascent to God). It said that science and religion are exactly the same thing in that book -- when you consider their origins and strip the two processes bare of associated behavioral regimes (such as the rituals and bonding and comfort you can find in most non-religious groups). One is just idea -- alchemy before chemistry -- and the other is actually doing what was dreamed of through a glass darkly. The analogy in the book was alchemy to chemistry: religion to science.  I recommend this other 2003 book "The Textbook of the Universe: The Genetic Ascent to God" -- but the only disconcerting thing about that book is that it shows that there is objectively really only one "religion". That is sure to raise some hackles. The book does have some politicaly-incorrect stuff in it which I did not like, but I read it to the end anyway and truly changed my whole way of looking at religion. I think that when you look at the world completely objectively though, there is going to be a LOT that people do not like, lol. One day maybe humanity might actually see an end to all religious conflict if we just looked at ourselves objectively. There is hope in that. It is nice to see another book like this come out.

Avatar of: spiralsun1

spiralsun1

Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Tony S made on February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014

 

 

People are very confused on what religion is. religion is not the psychological and sociological aspects -- you can see that clearly when you consider that you can get those things at the moose lodge or from being in a fraternity or a gang, lol. A group of primates has rituals and bonding interactions which define the group as well. But they DON'T have religion or science. We need to really not take the word "religion" for granted that we know what it means. It is not another sports team (fans form groups that engage in many of the same types of behaviors as religions, only one looks down at a ball-field while the other looks up, lol). I don't think that religion is something that everyone can "get" either. I think that is one of the keys as to what role it serves for humans. (see my later comment and book reference). I think you are absolutely right in your comment -- but ALL religions have major flaws... and once you see clearly what religion truly is in an evolutionary sense beyond the simplistic social bonding ideas we currently entertain, you can also see how to get rid of all those flaws.

 

Avatar of: MikeH

MikeH

Posts: 12

Replied to a comment from spiralsun1 made on February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014

Sounds as though your book ignores both actual religion and actual science.  

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 24

Replied to a comment from MikeH made on February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014

MikeH - I agree with everything you wrote. I think you're right that the shouting between the "two extreme minorities" is unlikely to be brought down even a peg due to this book. But it might give some of the rest of us something to think about.

For what it's worth, I'm a Catholic who sees no fundamental or unavoidable conflict between science and religion. I don't need Buddhism to pull off that trick - but if it works for other reasoning people, I'm all for it.

Avatar of: W. Boernke

W. Boernke

Posts: 17

February 28, 2014

Two comments:

1) Gould's NOMA is expressed differently by Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein (in Tractatus) stated that science uses a logical language of facts that is not available to aesthetics and ethics (and I would add theology).  So, science and religion do not even speak the same language.  If a scientist uses the logical language of facts to make moral judgments, she has committed the naturalistic fallacy (Hume said that you cannot logically derive an ought from an is).  If a theologian uses the language of theology to make statements about what is factually true of nature, she has violated Gould's NOMA.

2) “Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation...."  The notion that science proves things is a comon mistake made by non-scientists.  Only lawyers and mathematicians prove things by deductive logic.  Science uses induction to test hypotheses and either to confirm them or to falsify them.  The philosopher of science Karl Popper said that no matter how much evidence you collect that confirms a hypothesis, you cannot prove the hypothesis is true because some future experiment may falsify the hypothesis.  Falsification does prove a hypothesis false, however.  For example, Einstein falsified the Newtonian belief that space and time are absolute.

Avatar of: W. Boernke

W. Boernke

Posts: 17

Replied to a comment from Ken Pimple made on February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014

If you see no fundamental or unavoidable conflict between Roman Catholic theology and science, then you aren't looking.

At Galileo's trial for heresy (teaching that the earth revolves around the sun) before the Inquisition, he suggested that the prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, look through his telescope so that he would understand why the earth moves, not the sun.  Bellarmine responded that he did not need the instruments of science to tell him what is true of nature, he had the Holy Scriptures to tell him what is true of nature.  Pople John Paul II apologized for the Church's persecution of Galileo in 1992 (about 400 years too late, but better late than never).

Fundamentalist Christians make the same mistake concerning Darwin.  At the Scopes Monkey Trial, Clarence Darrow put William Jennings Bryan on the stand as an expert witness on the Bible.  Darrow asked Bryan if he had read "On the Origin of Species."  Bryan (who had read Darwin) answered that he was not the least bit interested in the writings of agnostic scientists.

Why is there a conflict between religion and science?  Because theologians reject science out-of-hand if they think it conteradicts dogma.

Avatar of: W. Boernke

W. Boernke

Posts: 17

Replied to a comment from nolachk made on February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014

But do you see the universe as "a place of blind, pitiless indifference" (Richard Dawkins)?

All atheists assume materialism is true (there is nothing in the universe but blind, pitiless, indifferent atoms and energy).  And all theists assume materialism is false, because, in addition to atoms, there are all kinds of non-material (super natural) entities; e.g., spirts, angels, ghosts, poltergeists, gods, demons, etc.

Since both absolute atheists and theists are simply operating starting from a priori assumptions, there are no good reasons to believe either atheists or theists.  Shakespeare said it best: "A plague on both your houses."

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