Buddhism and science: a doomed romance?

*Originally published October 2, 2020.

When Evan Thompson was only eight years old, he read a biography of the Buddha. He grew up surrounded by renowned Buddhist teachers. In college, he studied Buddhist scriptures, philosophy, and classical Chinese. And his mentor in graduate school was Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist who was also a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.

But Thompson is not a Buddhist.

This fact surprises many people he meets. So he titled his latest book: Why am I not a Buddhist.

However, the book is not as autobiographical as its cover might suggest. Thompson takes a critical look at the relationship between religion and science through the prism of what he calls “Buddhist modernism” and instead advocates for a fruitful dialogue between the two.

“The True Scientific Religion”

Buddhist modernism refers to a form of Buddhism that came to the West in the 19th century. When the colonial powers of Asian countries like Burma (Myanmar) or Sri Lanka sought to promote Christianity, they defended its intellectual and spiritual preeminence. But as Thompson says, Buddhist monks and scholars fought back with a brilliant defense of their own religion.

“They’re reversing the tables…and they’re saying, well, Buddhism is actually the scientific religion because we don’t believe in a creator God. We don’t believe in an immortal, immutable, essential soul,” Thompson told IDEAS.

“We base our ethical system on an understanding of cause and effect. We emphasize causality, that things are impermanent, that things are in motion. not being a religion, or like the true scientific religion.”

It turned out that Buddhist modernism was tailor-made for the concerns of the modern West with rationality, scientific validity, and independent thought. But as Thompson argues, things got a little out of hand.

“Buddhist modernism encourages a kind of false consciousness. It makes people think that if they embrace Buddhism or just choose its supposedly non-religious parts, they are spiritual but not religious – while unbeknownst to them religious forces are pushing them,” writes Evan Thompson in his book, Why I am not a Buddhist. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

Buddhism today enjoys a kind of exceptionalism among religions. It is considered a ‘science of the mind’, mindfulness meditation is an individualistic activity that ‘changes the brain’, and complex ideas about the self in Buddhist teaching are confused with scientific claims that the self doesn’t exist because it can’t be found in the brain. It is at this point, Thompson argues, that we begin to miss the point.

“One of the problems with this scientific statement that ‘Well, science shows there is no self and that validates Buddhism’, does it elide or completely ignore the difference between a scientific description and scientific use of a concept like the self, and the Buddhist, where the Buddhist is inherently ethical or normative,” says Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

“The idea that you would validate or found a religion on the basis that the contents of its statements are more or less scientifically certifiable, seems to me as erroneous as to think that in the case of art you are going to judge something to have more value artistically, depending on whether it is more compatible or comprehensible in terms of science.”

A cosmopolitan setting

At the heart of Thompson’s argument that we should recognize the different functions of science and religion is that we should have a more solid understanding of religions themselves. Once again, he is inspired by the example of Buddhism.

Buddhism was born in a fertile landscape of spirituality and philosophy. In its early stages of growth in India, it was just one of many ways to make life meaningful.

“What the climate crisis is forcing us to deal with is not just…fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions, it’s also a challenge to the whole way of life we’ve built for ourselves in a industrial and post-industrial society. -Evan Thompson (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

And throughout its history, Buddhism has been part of cosmopolitan cultures, in dialogue with many other traditions: Hinduism and Jainism in South Asia, Confucianism and Taoism in China, and more recently, in the pluralistic cultures of North America and Europe.

It is to the richness of this cosmopolitanism that Thompson wishes to draw attention.

“The idea is that we should identify as human beings with the larger human community, rather than with exclusively local and particular identities… The cosmopolitan framework, I think, is important for understanding religion in relationship with science and art. It provides a sort of overarching framework for seeing human life as consisting of many different forms of meaning-making,” says Thompson, adding that “what unites them in a larger sense , it is their shared humanity – the human community at large”.

After finishing writing Why am I not a Buddhist, Thompson realized a shortcoming of the cosmopolitan tradition: that it is anthropocentric—human-centered. And in times of climate crisis, this gap is important to recognize and integrate into our experience of the world.

“I see cosmopolitanism as a sort of evolving philosophical framework. It’s not a static thing. And I think one of the challenges for him here and now is to evolve his sensibility beyond some kind of human exceptionalism that truly aligns us, sensitizes us to the greater value and good of the biosphere, which I believe is absolutely crucial for us to find our way through the climate crisis.”

British philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not A Christian, from a speech he gave in 1927. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Features)

The title of Thompson’s book recalls a famous essay by mathematician and philosopher—and prominent atheist—Bertrand Russell, called why am i not a christian. But where Russell’s essay was an attack on Christianity, Thompson views his own critique of Buddhism as a friendly critique, given her lifelong relationship with it.

“What I take away from Russell,” says Thompson, “is the idea that we should try to look at things as clearly as possible with a critical eye, and that it’s important to do so without fear and without compromising our intellectual standards. or our philosophical standards.”

* This episode was produced by Sean Foley.