Are the central claims of Buddhism consistent with a scientific naturalist four dimensional world view?
Ever since Buddhism made its arrival to the West sometime during the beginning of 19th century, it has been treated to be an ally of science which belief persists even today. Most often, the scientific authenticity of Buddhism is attributed to Albert Einstein quote that:
If ever there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
Even though there is difference of opinion between the western authors and core Buddhist philosophers as to whether the central claims of Buddhism are indeed scientific and whether this quote can in fact be attributed to Einstein, yet the fact that it is finding place in the literature in a large manner brings to the central focus the scientific potential of Buddhism for debate and in accordance with this, the objective of this paper is to examine the statement as to whether the central claims of Buddhism are consistent with a scientific natural four dimensional world view.
Why at all Buddhism is considered to have a common ground with science in the western societies despite the fact that it is considered to be incongruent with the views held in the Eastern society? One view towards this is that it provided a possible remedy to a ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian society by being perceived as a ‘system’ that offered both ‘spiritual solace’ and ‘scientific rationality’ by bridging the gap between science and Christianity. Even though there was a rapid waning in the belief of the connection between Buddhism and science, there has occurred a renewed interest in this with a large number of researchers devoting themselves to the study of such connections in the last twenty years or so.
How can one draw the basis for a discussion on the relationship between Buddhism and science? According to some Buddhist scholars, this would fall into categories of dialogue and integration wherein dialogue makes it possible to compare religion and science even while accepting they are different for the reason they are analogous to each other in one way or another and integration takes the dialogue further to establish a claim that analogies in fact means similarities. When this is accepted, it follows that it is feasible to establish a singular system that covers both religious beliefs and scientific theories.
While discussing the central claims of Buddhism, it has to be kept in mind the term was coined by Western scholars in the 19th century to describe diverse views and practices that were found to be prevalent in Asia which trace themselves to the historical Buddha, viz, Siddhartha Gautama.
The central claims of Buddhism under such circumstances would have to move away from the religious elements (as for instance the belief that Buddhism is mystical) to cognitive science wherein the focus of the claims are on selfhood, embodiment, meditation etc. In the recent past, the dialogue of the relationship of Buddhism with that of science has taken the form of ‘neruscientific research’ of meditation for the reason it appears to be compatible to each other, as for instance the central claims of Buddhism could be traced to human experience through the human mind, wherein the central concept is concentrated on explaining ‘conditions arising’ (pratītya samutpāda). Specific instances of conditioned arising relate to aversion, craving and ignorance and the teachings of Buddhism concentrate on cultivating a path to awakening conditioned arising.
Why naturalism acquires importance in the context of Buddhism? It is because Buddhism is considered to be a ‘phenomenological religion’ as a result of which it is not hit by the naturalistic rejection of reference to a transcendent entity. A naturalist in this regard can be taken to be one who has the ability to dabble in all the branches of ‘physical science’, besides having some opinions (it is immaterial here whether they are right or wrong in holding such opinions) on human sciences as well.
The four dimensional world views are important for the reason it contains the central message which Buddhism wants to convey. It is comprised of in four ‘noble truths’, viz, that life is not only unstable but also unsatisfactory, (ii) the deep rooted desire of the human beings for seeking stability and satisfaction results in misery, (iii) if the human beings learn to stop the craving they would no longer attempt this impossible which (iv) would provide them with peace. The method to accomplish this is to follow the eight ethical and meditative lifestyle recommendations (they are not discussed here as they are not directly relevant for this paper) which are where the scientific aspect of Buddhism comes into focus.
Where are the commonalities between Buddhism and science? This question could be answered by stating the similarities could found in outlook and even in language that sounds similar. For example, the religious term ‘impermanence’ could be substituted with the scientific term ‘entropy’. Similarly, ‘emptiness’ could be substituted with the world ‘indeterminacy’. If science functionally could be treated as an effort to understand ‘reality’ and arrive at an understanding what could be done with that reality, in Buddhism, a parallel could be found in having an ‘insight’ on the experiences in life and understanding of that experience through the rigmaroles one undergoes with such experiences. It is for this reason Buddhism is considered to be a ‘phenomenological religion’.
Coming to a specific application of Buddhist teachings that can be correlated to the science of psychology, it can be found in the term ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness directs the attention to the ‘present moment’ by accepting everything without judging or reacting. Its scientific value could be found in its ability to transform the spiritual notion into a powerful and all pervading therapeutic tool. Mindfulness when practiced strategically can not only help in making one feel good by putting aside the negative feelings, but also could improve once physical health. By cultivating mindfulness, one can become aware of the process of dissipation, which paves the way to fine tune the mind to follow a much more directed path on the objects one wishes to focus. In effect it can be used as a therapeutic tool when one keeps away the thought that it has its roots in Buddhism. Therapeutic mindfulness strategies can scientifically be applied has been demonstrated in a number of studies.
While concluding this paper, it has to be kept in mind that interpretation of the term ‘science’ itself is difficult, for the reason it is a vague and generic term, for which reason scientists themselves do not speak in a common language. While it is debatable whether Buddhism could be connected to pure sciences directly due to large number of grey areas existing in various arguments, ( as for instance, the relationship between Buddhism and Physics or Biology), when it comes to human sciences (e.g. science of psychology), one can say with a degree of certainty, Buddhism strikes a common ground. Evidence towards this could be found in the Jungian psychology and its offshoot ‘Transpersonal Psychology’. It can also help one to maintain alertness, develop motivation and commitment. It would then be prudent to conclude that even though Buddhism and science has distinct world views, yet without disturbing their individuality and uniqueness, mankind can benefit from another, if there is a mediation of ideas flow from one to another.
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 Please see Niimi, 2002
 In McMahan, 2004
 Some of them happen to be Alan Wallace, 2009; James Austin, 2010; Eleanor Rosch, 2007
 Barbour, 2002; Payne, 2002
 Please see Jackson, 1996
 Please see Philos, 2002/2003
 Please see Kabat-Zin, 1990, 1994
 Please see Siegel, 2007
 Please see Dalai Lama, 2005
 Please see Garfinkel, 2006; Williams, et al, 2007
 For more discussion on this see Abe, 1985
 Please see Segal, 2003