International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Buddhism and Science Breaking New Ground

edited by B.A. Wallace

Introductory Essay by Michael Spezio

Alan Wallace has long been a central and influential scholar in the effort to bring scientific approaches to bear on contemplative practices within Buddhism, and to bring perspectives underlying Buddhist philosophy and practice to bear in critiquing scientific materialism. In his Introduction to this strong volume, Wallace makes his aims very clear by declaring that Buddhism and science are not only capable of rigorous engagement, but that they are commensurable. Notably, these aims are quite opposed to those of religious studies scholar Donald S. Lopez, articulated in his similarly titled 2008 book that also appears in the ISSR Library. Wallace lays out a position that goes beyond even what Ian Barbour describes as integration.

For Wallace, Buddhism is first and foremost a set of “rigorous methods” for “careful observation followed by rational analysis” of the human mind, as evidenced by the range of its contemplative practices. While fully aware of Buddhism’s religious “elements” [5], Wallace downplays them in framing the volume as an encounter between Buddhist science and Western science. Wallace spends some time criticizing religious studies scholars responsible for the “commonly unscientific study of Buddhism” [7]. Monism, physicalism, and causal closure all come under attack, and he does a fine job. Wallace ends his introductory remarks with a call for “a uniform ontological stance” [26] under which rigorous interdisciplinary research may go forward to establish once and for all, via an “objective appraisal” [27] the correct understanding of the human mind and of nature.

The rest of the volume is composed of contributed essays arranged by theme showing a wide range and often diverging from Wallace’s own aspirations for commensurability. In the first of these, José Ignacio Cabezón insightfully reflects on the ethics of scientific research with advanced contemplative practitioners, arguing that a complementary approach is the most promising, a position agreed with by Thupten Jinpa.

A detailed section on cognitive science begins with a reflective essay by the Dalai Lama and features work by David Galin on self-concepts, a terrific chapter on identity by William Waldron, a fascinating account of imagery and phenomenology by Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz, a chapter on lucid dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, and a forceful argument by Matthieu Ricard, advocating a contemplative science that “can cure us of hatred and attachment as effectively as aspirin can cure us of a headache.” [271]

The final section on the physical sciences includes a comparison of Buddhist emptiness and quantum theory by William Ames, arguing that Buddhism and Western physics “have produced some very similar ideas” [302], a passionate reflection on ontological interdependence and the Middle Way that inspires Victor Mansfield to argue that compassion is entailed by physical reality, an attempt by Michel Bitbol to draw on Kant’s transcendentalism to construct links between the philosophy of science and Buddhism’s Middle Way, and a chapter by David Ritz Finkelstein on the relation between emptiness and relativity theory. The volume concludes with reflections by Piet Hut on Buddhism and science, preceded by a dialogue that is fascinating for how often the speakers encounter not one another but the knowledge limits of their own theoretical perspectives. The phrase, “that’s just the way it is,” takes central place in the discussion. It is an interesting note on which to end a volume that looks to set a direction for the eventual joining of Buddhist practice and Western science.