Religion and Science: Buddhism in the Science Era

by Ted Christopher

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I reflect here on some observations about Buddhism in the modern world.  These observations  are indirectly relevant to the Religion-versus-Science discussion.  From the perspective of modern science, any religion, including Buddhism, is fundamentally nonsense.  My writings here question that belief.

I have been a Buddhist outsider for quite awhile.  On the one hand, I have been comfortable with a fair bit of the logic of the religion of Buddhism (the branches are singularized here for simplicity) and thus have been motivated to try to integrate that perspective into my life.  On the other hand, I have wanted to make some objective sense of Buddhism and have been frustrated by the lack of interest in that direction.  As with any religion in the science era, if people are to take Buddhism seriously then it is important to look for some objective support for its (earthly) claims.

The prevailing objective disconnect, plus the all-too-human rigidity found within Buddhism, has left me a bit of a half-in and half-out Buddhist.

But this is only part of the story, because there is another Buddhism. The other Buddhism considered herein, is the prevalent modern or secularized form of Buddhism.  On the face of it this modern (perhaps mostly Western) version looks promising.  It apparently has involved sincere efforts to correct some of the shortcomings of traditional Buddhism, including bias against females; it has also attempted to shed more light on the challenges found in the lay realm.  However, it is also well on its way to a cliché-deep superficiality, in part I feel due to its abandoning of the underlying life-after-life religious vision.  With this latter trajectory, I have found myself essentially disconnected from the modern take on Buddhism.

With this article I hope to introduce some objectivity into ongoing discussions about Buddhism, and moreover, offer some challenges to the prevailing scientific vision which has increasingly marginalized religions.  The first of two basic points here, is that the life-after-life underlying belief of Buddhism could make sense.  The second, is that the modern alternative – a makeover involving a focus on self-help and as well as imagined connections to science – is both limited and problematic.  The first point is clearly significant in and of itself, and I would further argue could well be vital to the future of Buddhism.

The first half of the article considers some problems with modern Buddhism, while the second half introduces some objective support for the religious perspective of Buddhism.  Some personal experiences are woven into the discussions.

A Personal Experience

About 15 years ago an ongoing problem with my back evolved into a crisis.  I found some insight into the situation in the form of a standing X-ray of my spine.  That image revealed a serious alignment problem in my lower back and it resonated with my own crude internal take of the situation.  The chiropractor who took the image offered a frank appraisal, “You fucked up.”

It took three years of trial and error to uncover a productive physical therapy routine and then another three years of dedicated work to reclaim reasonable alignment and health.  Meanwhile, Restless Legs Syndrome had piggybacked on the situation, rarely allowing even half a night’s sleep.  The entire ordeal, including the slow climb back towards decent sleep, became an individual journey as outside treatments were largely ineffective.

There was a hard-earned upside to this health detour, though, in that a number of my psyche escapes were illuminated and in some cases abandoned.  The superficiality of modern Buddhism – or the Funsy-Onesy-Business as I’ve heard it termed – had bothered me for a number of years but from the land of suffering it became toxic.  It is difficult to be optimistic about a significant liberation-from-suffering experience amidst chronic sleep deprivation and an uncertain long-term uphill battle to regain physical stability and comfort.  Even a rare, relatively sober contribution like Jack Kornfeld’s, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, was unacceptable.  Few lay practitioners are able to encounter some meditation-based “ecstasy”, and “laundry” is a big understatement for the kind of rebounds commonly encountered back in the lay realm after significant meditational experiences (or openings).  I could see clearly the limits of the modern incarnations of Buddhism – a much rarer than advertised possibility of a liberation experience and a still rarer than acknowledged chance at long-term freedom (at least while obstacles including your health hold out).  If that is the skinny with secular Buddhist practice then it should be acknowledged. (A series of articles by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr., “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism”, in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, discussed some of this confusion from an academic perspective).

I will return to some personal experiences after a sustained plunge into gross issues.

Buddhism’s Pursuit of Scientific Credibility

I think that the efforts of the Dalai Lama have been quite significant to the western Buddhist scene.  In addition to his apparent inadvertent rise to celebrity status, he has also tried to encourage connections between Buddhism and science.  It is not clear, though, that he has done his scientific homework, and in fact, a few years ago I saw that he had happily reflected upon this.  He mentioned that when the late physicist (and very thoughtful person) David Bohm would explain physical theories to him those explanations simply ‘went in one ear and out the other’. This lack of commitment would then seem consistent with his, and apparently other like-minded Buddhists’, inability to grasp one of the most basic facts about modern science. That fact is science’s unquestioned fixation to scientific materialism, the position that all of life is simply an expression of molecular activity.  This position should have long ago persuaded the Dalai Lama of the futility of science-based efforts to help provide intellectual credibility for Buddhism.

Some evidence of the futility of these efforts can be found at the “North American Seat” of the Dalai Lama, Namgyal Monastery, which is located not far from me in Ithaca, New York.  As I have observed, they offer Tibetan Buddhist programs which are open to the public and taught by very qualified Tibetan monks. Those programs are affordable and also presented in a very friendly atmosphere.  Ithaca being home to Ithaca College, Cornell University, as well as a substantial alternative community, would seem to be a supportive location for such programs.   Cornell also happens to be one of the nation’s top universities in terms of their National Science Foundation funding levels.  One might think then that Namgyal’s programs would draw plenty of interest from the local spiritual-religious and/or science communities. But in fact, for their monthly weekend teaching programs (which open with a free Friday evening session) the Monastery sends off e-advertisements until the opening day in order to try and fill their venue. That venue for years has been a modest-sized living room, in a modest-sized house.  This, in a nut shell, I would argue reflects the status of Buddhism, and more generally religious cultures, in our science-influenced, secular world.

Brain Science’s Support?

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has apparently contributed to the success of the emerging mindfulness movement, a movement that can be characterized as part of the secular Buddhist scene.  A November 2014 Scientific American article, “mind of the meditator” by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, and Richard J. Davidson describes some scientific efforts to characterize the brain changes that appeared to be correlated with meditation (in particular focused-attention, mindfulness, and compassion and loving kindness).  This article also opens with an acknowledgement of the Dalai Lama’s foundational contributions to such investigations.  The meditation article makes a number of confident points on its way to stating that:

[a]bout 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced [10,000 hours or more] practitioners.  These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.

and further that:

[t]he ability to cultivate compassion and other positive human qualities lays the foundation for an ethical framework unattached to any philosophy or religion, which could have a profoundly beneficial effect on all aspects of human societies.

The support for these glowing assessments was, however, overstated.  The presentation is only loosely quantitative and the one graph purporting to show enhancement in neural features due to meditation, shows small effects and significant overlap between the measurements of experienced meditators and those of controls.  The authors also failed to respond to a published follow-up letter (from a meditator) on the potential for distortion due to selection bias.  Additionally, how many lay people have a chance of joining the 10,000-hour club?

More seriously, though, I wondered why the authors didn’t point out that similar and often secularly-packaged meditation has been quite widely available in the West for more than 40 years?  If such mediation was as self-help productive as presented in Richard et al then it arguably should have sold itself – like an effective dieting routine – and had little need for neuro-scientific re-packaging.  A critical assessment of the overall, modern Buddhist meditational experience would be rather sober, beginning with its dropout rate.  In addition to the lack of involvement in a seemingly prime location like Ithaca, 60 miles to the west happens to be Springwater Center.  That center continues to carryout Toni Packer’s completely non-religious vision of meditation.  Despite their secular cutting-edge history (at one point in the eighties Toni even labored through some of the early neural literature) it appears to enjoy a similar bottom-line lack of participation as Namgyal’s.  One might then wonder if the contemporary mindfulness movement will simply pan out as another trendy episode and not the purported “profoundly beneficial” general societal development.

But why would any religion want to fully embrace the scientific vision of life?  What does scientific materialism ultimately do to a religious perspective?

Returning to the earlier meditation article, it is unduly optimistic in its presentation of neuroscience’s accomplishments.  A number of recent articles by neuroscientists have strongly challenged such optimism.  Earlier in 2014, Scientific American in fact had an article titled, “The New Century of the Brain”, by the prominent scientists Rafael Yuste and George M. Church.  That article opens with a frank statement of neuroscience’s inability to connect the long ago, mapped-out neural system of a tiny round worm (all of 302 nerve cells) and the worm’s “rudimentary behaviors such as feeding and sex”.  The authors go on to point out:

[t]he difficulty in establishing a link between biology and behavior in humans is still more acute. The media routinely reports on scans showing that specific brain locations light up when we feel rejected or speak a foreign language.  These news stories may give rise to the impression that current technology provides fundamental insights into how the brain works, but that impression is deceiving.

The Yuste and Church article also points out the enormous obstacles that face neuroscience in trying to connect mind and biology.  An October 2015 New York Times Op-Ed article, “Will You Ever Be Able to Upload Your Mind”, by theoretical neuroscientist Kenneth D. Miller, goes further into neural questioning and even suggests the possibility of “centuries” as being necessary to fulfill an intermediate step on the path to neuroscience’s vision “of describing the brain sufficiently to capture a mind”.  These points are also broadly reflected in the critical inability of psychiatry to connect mental illnesses to brain anatomy (i.e., their “mind-brain problem”).

Finally, you could argue that these examples of neuro-skepticism are still optimistic takes.  Truly challenging results can be found in neglected literature, like the 1980 Science article, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”.  This article describes patients afflicted with hydrocephalus who had been examined by British neurologist John Lorber.  Hydrocephalus entails the enlargement of the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid reservoirs and consequent shrinkage over time of surrounding brain tissues.  In examining over 600 scans of patients with Spina bifida – most of whom also had hydrocephalus – the investigators placed particular attention on patients whose scans depicted “ventricle expansion [which had] fill[ed about] 95 percent of the cranium [or brain case]”.  This category included “less than 10 percent” of the 600-plus patients, but within it, it was noted that “many” of these affected individuals were:

severely disabled, but half of them ha[d] IQ’s greater than 100.  This group provide[d]some of the most dramatic examples of apparent normal function against all odds.

One particular example was described in a quote of Lorber:

[t]here is a young student at [Sheffield University] who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal.  And yet the boy has virtually no brain.

How can neuroscientists be so certain about their material-only vision of the mind – including claims that marginal brain changes can distinguish the mind of a meditator – in light of such confounding observations?

I think that brain-based characterizations of activities like meditation (or prayer) are on very tentative ground.  Moreover, the irony I see here is that such ongoing efforts to uncover scientific-traction for Buddhism have in fact further marginalized traditional Buddhism.  And what good has followed?

Objective Support for Buddhism’s Premodern Perspective

The other half of the story here is that there could be objective support for the deeper vision of traditional Buddhism.  This can be seen by wading into some under-appreciated challenges facing the scientific vision.  Getting started, a number of unusual behaviors have always been suggestive of carryover from a previous life and the larger picture now unfolding is that these could simply be tip-of-the-iceberg phenomena.

I open here with a description of a prodigy from Darold A. Treffert’s book,  Islands of Genius:

By age five Jay had composed five symphonies.  His fifth symphony, which was 190 pages and 1328 bars in length, was professionally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony Records.  On a 60 Minutes program in 2006 Jay’s parents stated that Jay spontaneously began to draw little cellos on paper at age two.  Neither parent was particularly musically inclined, and there were never any musical instruments, including a cello, in the home.  At age three Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own.  The parents took him to a music store and to their astonishment Jay picked up a miniature cello and began to play it.  He had never seen a real cello before that day.  After that he began to draw miniature cellos and placed them on music lines. That was the beginning of his composing.

Jay says that the music just streams into his head at lightning speed, sometimes several symphonies running simultaneously.  “My unconscious directs my conscious mind at a mile a minute,” he told the correspondent on that program.

Treffert’s book contains several other examples supporting his conclusion that prodigal behavior typically involves “know[ing] things [that were] never learned”.  From the reincarnation perspective shared by Buddhism, such prodigious phenomena could be explained as some form of very focused carryover from earlier human lives.

Additional suggestive behaviors can be found with the transgender phenomena. Some people really are born with a strong sense of cross-gender identification. They can thus spend their entire lives challenged by a strong desire to be the opposite sex and one study found that many of them who have undergone sex-change efforts (transitioned) “knew they had been born into the wrong gender from childhood.”  This unusual phenomena can result in young children telling their very surprised parents that they are the opposite sex and in the case of biological boys perhaps that they’ll “adopt … babies”, find a way to have “boobies to feed them”, and also “wear a bra, dresses, skirts, and high-heeled shoes”.  Reincarnation here offers the obvious origin – behavioral continuity from a previous human life as the opposite gender.

Are such behaviors really plausible from a scientific perspective?  Additionally, you can of course read reincarnation case studies -such as those of Ian Stevenson, Jim Tucker, or the Leininger’s Soul Survivor – and find individual cases very suggestive of reincarnation.

One final suggestive behavioral example comes with regards to the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s bardo descriptions.  With regards to those post-death descriptions, the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa suggested that:

[t]hose [bardo] impressions [should] be so strong that someone recently born should have memories of the period between death and birth; but then as we grow up we are indoctrinated by our parents and society, and we put ourselves into a different framework.

Well as it turns out in the book, Born Believers – The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, Justin L. Barrett lays out some of the growing evidence that infants tend to possess an innate understanding of the existence of souls/God/gods, and to be believers in what Barrett terms a “natural religion”.  The book contains some striking examples, including, ones in which the positions of atheistic parents were rebutted by their young children.  As Barrett writes, “[c]hildren are prone to believe in supernatural beings such as spirits, ghosts, angels, devils, and gods during the first four years of life”.  He later adds:

Exactly why believing in souls or spirits that survive death is so natural for children (and adults) is an area of active research and debate.  A consensus has emerged that children are born believers in some kind of afterlife, but not why this is so.

Instead of stretching for a materialist explanation here, as Barrett was scientifically compelled to (a remarkable presumption about evolution and DNA, and ultimately molecules simply doing their molecular thing) you might consider these as residue from bardo experiences. Consistent with this, Barrett did provide an explanation that an Indian man had offered:

[T]hat on death, we go to be with God and are later reincarnated.  As children had been with God more recently, they could understand God better than adults can.  They had not yet forgotten or grown confused and distracted by the world.  In a real sense, he explained, children came into this world knowing God more purely and accurately than adults do.

The general correspondence is of note here.

The Missing DNA

Still it is the big picture that really matters.  Science’s relevant general model has it that the specific tendencies of an individual are established by a combination of their DNA or genome (Nature) and subsequent environmental exposures (Nurture).  This model has its start with the conception-beget DNA and this lottery-like selection process provides a basis for such stark intellectual-isms as ‘you are so lucky to be alive’.  Those DNA contributions in turn form the basis for the fields of behavioral genetics and personal genomics, which are supposed to capture DNA’s specific individual behavioral and health impacts, respectively.  The sober add-on here is that science – like everyday experience – suggests that the subsequent contributions due to environmental exposures are pretty small.  Our DNA inheritances are supposed to go a long way towards defining our specifics, including of course, our personalities.

The common premodern transcendental take here – and roughly the ground floor for the religion of Buddhism – is that there is an underlying non-material entity or soul which provides both an individual’s ultimate identity and also a continuous causal thread across embodied lives.  If there was anything significant to this premodern vision (beyond a few memories) then there would have to be a big shortfall with the DNA inheritance model.  Further, if as some premodern-ers believed, the underlying entity was drawn to their parents, then that transcendental process might acquire some continuity via the conception-beget DNA.  But the general situation here would be that significant continuity across lives would ultimately demand a big break from the DNA model.  One way of seeing this is to contemplate a soul waiting for a zygote with DNA matching its own particular trajectory or tendencies.  At minimum, that would likely be an incredibly long wait.  The basic characteristics of the underlying core entity – constituting behavioral aspects and also its fate (the mysterious causal or karma connection) – should violate materialism in a big way.

In this context there is convenient news from the heredity front.  In particular, homo sapiens constitute a so-called ‘small species’ because in terms of our genetic (or DNA) variability there is very little of it (this followed from our having survived thru a tight population bottleneck not too long ago).  In a crude sense then we are all almost identical twins.  But that little bit of variable DNA – constituting only about 0.1 percent of our genomes – should then be the home of the particular genetic instructions which establish our innate individual differences (introvert versus extrovert, aggressive versus passive, smart versus not-smart, etc.).  Additionally, the other relevant inheritance context here is the roughly decade’s worth of completed DNA-versus-outcomes comparisons.  It would certainly seem likely then that a number of important DNA origins would have been identified by now.

In fact the geneticist David Goldstein was quoted in 2008 regarding the outcome of the initial thorough comparisons between the million or so common genetic variations and the apparent inheritance patterns associated with the occurrences of common complex diseases.  It had naturally been assumed that some of these common variations in our DNA blueprints would be correlated with the patterns of disease susceptibilities (and of course to other innate individual differences).  But Goldstein pointed out that:

[a]fter doing comprehensive studies for common diseases, we can explain only a few percent of the genetic component of most of these traits.  For schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, we get almost nothing; for Type 2 diabetes, 20 variants, but they explain only 2 to 3 percent of familial clustering, and so on.

He then added:

It’s an astounding thing that we have cracked open the human genome and can look at the entire complement of common genetic variants, and what do we find?  Almost nothing.  That is absolutely beyond belief.

Similarly, efforts to find a DNA basis for the variation in IQ also struck out.

Subsequently, in 2011 the director of the Bioscience Resource Project, Jonathan Latham, offered his own assessment of the situation in the Guardian:

The most likely explanation for why genes for common diseases have not been found is that, with few exceptions, they do not exist … The likelihood that further searching might rescue the day appears slim.

Latham later, along with Allison Wilson, wrote that with few exceptions, including previously identified genes for cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Huntington’s disease; and also including genetic contributions for some instances of Alzheimer’s and breast cancer:

according to the best available data, genetic predispositions (i.e. causes) have a negligible role in heart disease, cancer, stroke, autoimmune diseases, obesity, autism, Parkinson’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and many other common mental and physical illnesses that are the major killers [or simply causes of suffering] in Western countries.

The two went on to ask (their italics) “[h]ow likely is it that a quantity of genetic variation that could only be called enormous (i.e. more than 90-95% of that for 80 human diseases) is all hiding in what until now [circa 2010] had been considered genetically unlikely places?”  They also pointed out that “[b]y all rights then, reports of the[se] results should have filled the front pages of every world newspaper for a week”.  Yet another six years down the genetics research road the silent treatment continues.

It is not hard to piece together an understanding of life that is consistent with the premodern transcendental view.  Long ago perhaps people living in small undistracted groups noticed instances of continuity of personality across death and further perhaps noted comeuppances in their subsequent experiences.  Such a dynamic could have beget the basic notions of reincarnation and karma.  Later on dedicated mystics or meditators could have furthered some beliefs.  The resulting transcendental (or life-after-life) perspective might then offer a more constructive take on life and its many challenges.  If interested you also have a basis for making some sense out of religions or simply a religious perspective.   I have written some on this and exercised my Buddhist background to offer some possible Buddhist connections.  A number of materialist mysteries – including those found in the animal realm – appear to have traction with an underlying transcendental contribution.

Challenges and Potential

Some challenges to Buddhist beliefs are also apparent, though.  The belief in the difficulty of obtaining a human rebirth is certainly questionable in light of our current population.  So would be finding objective support for favoring males.  Also, the official Buddhist belief in the nonexistence of an underlying self is puzzling for a number of reasons, including how a non-self could provide a basis for continuity across lives.  More realistic would seem to be an elemental identity such as the “great mass of light” mentioned in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

These possible connections happened upon me during my tour of suffering.  In light of them, Buddhism could start to make objective sense as a vehicle for making the most out of our interconnected transcendental journeys.  In a non-conceptual, experiential way suffering directed my attention towards the core driving force that is love.  My updated Buddhist sense whittled itself down to two words, “all beings”.  The Four Vows became the Don’t Wimp Out transcendental commitments.  I extended my meditational practices to include some focused and also reverential practices.  I could also start to appreciate some of the taboo siddhi experiences I had encountered (for a published example see the second chapter of the late Peter Matthiessen’s, Nine-Headed Dragon River).  Further, although the details of the disembodied realm are perhaps inherently unknowable (or at least very ambiguous), my embodied connection and motivation grew substantially.  And perhaps not surprisingly, even as a simplicity/sustainability-inclined individual I could really appreciate some traditional Buddhist talks as well as some of the teachings derived from other religions (I AM THAT and And Then There Was Light are two favorites).

In winding down, I note that in another of the recent reappraisals of Buddhism it was claimed that many modern Buddhists experience “profound embarrassment” over the rebirth belief but also satisfaction over Buddhism’s apparent “resonan[ce] with quantum physics, cutting-edge neuroscience, and modern rationality”.  I have two responses to these sentiments.  As a driven practically-inclined, technically-educated person, I am saddened over such investments in speculative resonances with pretentious topics.  As a person willing to look beyond the presumptions of science and the associated hegemony of materialism, I am further saddened by the unwillingness of Buddhists to seriously consider their religion and its beliefs.

Finally, I offer some general thoughts on the Religion-versus-Science standoff.  The default “intelligent” position in modern society appears not to question science, beginning with its foundational position of materialism.  As a recent supporting observation, one can consider the reviews of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s, The Gene: An Intimate History.  The book’s gist was nicely captured in the “most helpful” customer review on Amazon – “[w]e used to think that our future was in the stars. Now we know it’s in our genes.” And further that “[g]enetics is humanity and life writ large.”  In fact, that book was, in a number of ways, a terrible book – but given its scientific aura no one, including the hundreds of Amazon customer reviewers, apparently questioned it (a few customers did criticize Mukherjee’s very loose and poor writing style, though).  If people are unwilling to question scientific materialism then they are simultaneously writing off alternative understandings of life, including of course, religious ones.

As I have suggested here, it is not hard to question scientific materialism and even to do so in a big way.  I view religions as characterized by two scientifically heretical ideas.  One, is that there is a non-material soul.  The second, is that ultimately there is a top down or God (and/or gods) aspect to reality as well.  I think arguing for the soul aspect is not difficult.  You might start by finding examples of behaviors that are incompatible with materialism.  I also think that the God aspect is also valid and thus our innate belief in it.  But I also think that arguing objectively for that aspect is currently very difficult.

Efforts to simply find evidence for some kind of divine design do not seem productive.  Even if you could somehow put together convincing design arguments how would that challenge the contemporary material-only understanding of life (and yourself)?  What deeper perspective and meaning would be found in identifying divine guidance along the road to our current presumed state as biochemical puppets?  I think you will also need to search for evidence of a soul (and thus contradict the biochemical puppet paradigm).

I hope other religious people will look for ways to question the scientific understanding of life. Without such efforts I think it is likely that sincere religious engagement will continue to weaken from the modern materialist onslaught.

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Ted Christopher lives in Rochester.  He has held a variety of jobs including some academic-based, biomedical ultrasound efforts.  Post-high school, his formal education has been mostly technical and included a PhD in Electrical Engineering.  Concurrent with these efforts he has tried to make sense of some basic aspects of life, perhaps influenced by his involvement with Buddhist practices and more generally his religious instincts.  His recent book, A Hole in Science: An Opening for an Alternative Understanding of Life, is available at Amazon and at the Central Library.