Buddhism & Science: Ajahn Brahm got it wrong

by Nimal Rajapakse, Lanka Daily News, April 7, 2007

Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) -- As a practicing Buddhist and an average Scientist, I was deeply disturbed after reading the article 'Buddhism, the only real science' by Venerable Ajahn Brahmavanso Mahathera (DN Mar. 28, 2007). I have read or listened to many dispensations of the Dhamma by Ven. Brahmavanso in the past and hold him in very high regard as a superbly skilled teacher.

However, after reading the above article, I am still in shock and trying to decipher where he went wrong in his thinking about the relationship between Buddhism and Science.

He starts with stating that 'I used to be a scientist'. A scientist is a person with expert knowledge of a scientific discipline. Therefore, one cannot be 'retired' from being a scientist unless the person somehow loses that expert knowledge.

It's not as simple as saying 'I used to play college basketball' once you have finished playing for your college team! This is simply because the knowledge you gained stays with you for life unless you have a major loss of memory.
No valua

His mention of hanging out in the same building as the eminent Professor Stephen Hawking at Cambridge does not add any value when Ven. Brahmavanso categorically states that science is dogmatic and scientists are brainwashed, evangelical and, egotistic.

When I read between the lines of his first 10 or so paragraphs, I cannot help but notice some vengeful attacks on all scientists in general. This is very uncharacteristic for such an eminent Buddhist scholar.

First, science cannot be dogmatic by its very definition. As he correctly quotes from the dictionary, a dogma is an arrogant declaration of an opinion.

How can a scientist declare an arrogant opinion and hope it to be accepted while he or she has to prove the declaration by objective evidence and peer-review? With great respect, I must enlighten the mind of the Mahathera, that Science is pragmatic by its very nature, by its very definition. I ask every reader, for a moment, to close their eyes and try to imagine where humanity would be today if not for science (but not for science alone).

Sure, there were chemical and nuclear weapons, ozone depletion, global warming etc. But, how about communication, transportation, disease fighting etc. Just think about how much credit should go to science for the increase of life expectancy from just 44 years in 1900 to almost 80 years in 2000?
Law of gravitation

Contrary to what Ajahn states in quoting a 16th century philosopher, modern science does not insist on 'negative instance'. Science works its miracles on a philosophy based on continual improvement, objective evaluation and intellectual rationalisation.

For example, a theory proposed to explain a natural phenomenon gets tested vigorously using the knowledge and technology available at the time and that theory is either accepted or rejected by the greater scientific community. Everyone wins! An accepted theory may be proven wrong many years down the road and a totally new and far superior knowledge emerges. That is science, that is progress, that is not sticking to a dogma!

Mahathera's use of simplistic language to state the law of gravity by saying 'what goes up must come down' does not do any justice. The law of gravitation does not say so and attempting to twist the words and confuse the non-scientific community (at least 80 per cent of the general population in my opinion) is rather appalling.

Mahathera's frustration about science seems to stem from the fact that many scientists do not believe in rebirth (paragraph 8). He states that 'some misguided scientists maintain that there is no rebirth'. He writes, 'only one instance of proven rebirth is enough to confirm the existence of rebirth'.

That may be his argument, but, many scientists would argue otherwise. A scientific theory, under the conditions stipulated in the theory, is applicable to everything, everywhere, always!

He also states that 'scientists for the most part are brainwashed' and are 'eccentric evangelists'. Wow! I let the reader pass judgment on this one. Of course, I have met my share of eccentric scientists ( I may be one too!), and some are my very close friends.

But, none are evangelical! For the most part, the largest number of eccentric scientists that I have met are in the fields of Theoretical Physics, Physical Chemistry and Mathematics. I have read several articles which had described Albert Einstein as eccentric. So, what?
Aware of issues

Another complaint of Ajahn is that 'ordinary people know so little about science that they can hardly even understand the jargon'. Is it the fault of science that ordinary people do not know it? I am sure you agree with me that a lot more ordinary people know more science or, at least aware of issues related to science, than any time in the history. Also, he complains that that the language of science is different from common language.

This is due to the very nature of the subjects that science has to deal with. It was never the agenda of the scientists to use jargon so that common people are kept out of it.

To state another point, I have seen my fair share of 'uncommon' words in Buddhism which I diligently clarify with my teachers such as Ajahn. Simply calling it jargon and running away is not the solution.

The problem lies in Ajahn's attempt to argue that Buddhism should be able to replace Science in society. He states, 'Buddhism is more scientific than science'. This statement is an absolute oxymoron. Nothing can be more scientific than science. It is like saying a glass of water in your hand is not a glass of water.

That is not to say that Buddhism is not scientific either. Of course, one can argue that at least certain aspects of Buddhism is very scientific. Just read the Agganna Sutta and the Big Bang Theory and compare the two.

Most definitely, Buddhism is the most scientific religion that exists today. In fact Buddhist Cosmology is in full agreement for the most part with the modern scientific thought on the origin and the fate of the Universe.

All the other major religions are primarily based on their cosmology. If one does not believe in how and by whom the 'world' was created, that person cannot in principle be an adherent of that religion. This is not so in Buddhism.

It is stunning to note that only the Buddha got it right even though it is not of critical importance for one's salvation according to Buddhism. In fact, the Buddha in several occasions has discouraged his disciples, particularly Ven. Ananda, form enquiring about the issues regarding the Universe. Buddha's advice was that the answers to those questions would not deliver one to Nibbana.

It is clearly evident that Ven. Brahmavanso has fallen in the same trap which many others have previously fallen into. That is, simply stated, trying to compare apples and oranges. Buddhism is a philosophy (a religion in a broader sense) and it deals with the un-satisfactoriness of existence and how to overcome it.

Science on the other hand is the systematic and formulated knowledge, the result of relentless pursuit of the truth about anything and everything that a scientist can probe with his mind and/or tools. Although these two are not entirely mutually exclusive, they only overlap briefly. Cosmology is one of them.

Buddhism has tremendous value for anyone looking for relief from suffering due to attachment. It has no value for anyone trying to calculate the rate at which the Universe is expanding. However, both Buddhism and Science converge on the answer to the question, when and how will it all end. And, what happens next.

The lesson to learn here is not to go to the barber for dental work. Do not go to the dentist looking for a good haircut either. Late Prof. J.K.P. Ariyaratne of University of Kelaniya, one of my mentors, was a highly regarded scientist who has written extensively and published several scientific articles on the synergy of Buddhism and Science.

He was careful enough to probe where it should be probed. Only where the overlap of Buddhism and Science occurred.

To do that, one must have a commanding knowledge of both subjects. If Scientists take care of the science and the Buddhist clergy take care of the religion, there will be less confusion. So, lets take oranges for oranges and not for apples.

The writer is President, Alberta Buddhist Vihara Association, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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