Buddhism and Modern Science

It may be embarrassing for scientists to be religious while at the same time coherent with the principles of their profession. Faith rests upon what cannot  be understood or explained - credo, quia absurdum est -, while science demands empirical evidence and logical reasoning. This might not be the case, however, when the “religion” in question is Buddhism. Unlike other religions, even an atheist can be a Buddhist. 

The core of the Buddhist teaching resembles much more a philosophy than a religion. If most people know Buddhism today as a religion, this is due to the fact that after centuries of Buddhist practice, a religion was indeed built upon the original doctrines of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. An examination, however, of the earliest texts of the Buddhist tradition - although written centuries after the death of the Buddha - can offer a glimpse of what Buddhism looked like back then. These teachings reveal that Buddhism was much more a naturalistic than a metaphysical worldview, concerned not with divine entities or with the nature of the soul, for example, but with our feelings and with the human experience hic et nunc. That’s why the core teachings of the Buddhist doctrine have been examined nowadays at the light of modern science and with surprising results: both natural selection and evolutionary psychology lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human predicament and about the human mind.

The most fundamental Buddhist doctrines, the four noble truths, are essentially naturalistic. These truths are not concerned whether there’s a God, whether we have a soul, or whether there’s an afterlife. The Buddhist predicament about the human life arises from the simple observation of the everyday experience: life is suffering, or Dukkha, which can also mean “dissatisfaction”. Our desires never cease, being like a fire that never extinguishes. This is the first noble truth. The second noble truth identifies that the source of suffering is desire - not our parents’ or Adam and Eve’s desire, but our own. The third noble truth points out that it is possible to eliminate suffering by putting an end to desire, and the fourth noble truth proposes the way to do it, a series of practices called "the eightfold path". As we can see, none of the four noble truths states anything about a metaphysical or unseen reality.

As to the second noble truth - that the origin of Dukkha is craving or clinging -, evolutionary psychology lends support to the Buddhist description of the nature of desire and explains why it causes Dukkha. Natural selection has “designed” our species in such a way that our actions are most of the time oriented towards passing our genes to the next generation. In order to accomplish this, the relation between desire and gratification plays an important role. Desire for an object triggers a tension that can be relaxed only when that object is possessed and consumed. This satisfaction, however, does not last long, and desire arises again. This account of the nature of desire by modern psychology is much like the one described by the Buddhist doctrine, and that's why seeking gratification only results in Dukkha

Another philosophical Buddhist doctrine that has gained support from modern psychology is the theory of not-self. According to Buddhism, the self is an illusion, characterized by impermanence and lack of control. Although it is a very counter-intuitive and hard to understand doctrine, psychological experiments of the second half of the twentieth century suggested a new model of the mind in which there is no place for the self. In one experiment, the two halves of the brain were disconnected and many tests were carried out. The first surprising result was that this splitting did not bring major consequences as expected. During the tests, a command to walk was given to one of the halves of the brain, while it was asked to the other half where the person was going. Since this part did not know where the person was going (because the command was given to the other half), it simply made up an answer and believed in the reason it had just invented. This experiment suggested, according to Professor Robert Wright, that the conscious self is overestimated and that it creates reasons to explain its actions. Freud had already drawn the same conclusion in the nineteenth century and called this phenomenon "rationalization". In the famous experience of Bernheim, Freud noticed how people could be given orders under hypnotic state to be carried out after waking up. When these people were asked why they were performing the actions, they also made up answers as if they needed to fill a void in their consciousness. These evidences lend support to the Buddhist doctrine of the not-self.

Finally, another scientific approach that lends support to the Buddhism doctrine of the not-self is the Modular View of the Mind. Mental modules, according to this theory, are a self-organized system. They do not report to a superior instance. Using the example given by Professor Robert Wright, there is no “CEO” of the mind. During the process of evolution, the human mind incorporated many different functions, each one of which corresponded to challenges our species had to face in the everyday life in order to survive. Self-protection, partner attraction, and disease avoidance are some of them. When one’s life is in danger, for instance, our self-protection mode gets in charge and takes control in order to act accordingly to the situation. Therefore, there’s no “self” in control of the mind, but many modules which take control when triggered by external factors.

The core of the Buddhist doctrine is intrinsically naturalistic, and for this reason many Buddhist ideas about the human predicament and the human mind can be assessed today by modern science. Evolutionary psychology lends support to the Buddhist theory of desire, and both modern psychology experiments and the Modular View of the Mind suggest that there may be no self - just like Buddhism has been teaching for the past 2,500 years.

Glauber Ataide

* Escrevi este artigo como trabalho em um curso sobre Buddhism and Modern Science. Foi necessário deixar de fora muitas discussões interessantes devido à limitação de cerca de 800 palavras.

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