Will Science Bring an End to Buddhism?


By Paul Louis Metzger
Multnomah University Professor
New Wine Skins Ministry

My wife, daughter and I met for dinner recently with a Buddhist scholar Prof. Shizuka Sasaki and his wife (a fellow scholar and colleague at Hanazono University) in Kyoto, Japan.

I first met Prof. Shizuka Sasaki two years ago as a result of a Templeton science grant initiative on faith and science in the Japanese context. I was struck by his keen commitment to the historical Buddha’s teaching on enlightenment, including the emphasis on non-grasping and non-being. According to Prof. Sasaki, he was trained in chemistry as a university student, but later made the switch to Buddhist studies. Still, his interest in science continues. For example, scientists have been struck by the import of his Buddhist teaching for constructive dialogue with scientific explorations. In fact, he is the co-author of a forthcoming book with a string-theory physicist from California Institute of Technology; the work is a collection of public lectures they delivered together in Japan, and which will be published in Japanese. Prof. Sasaki is also the author of Kagaku Suru Buddha (literally translated as Buddha Engaging in Science; Tokyo: Kadokawa Bunko, 2006, 2013).

Prof. Sasaki claims that the historical Buddha’s teaching resonates with contemporary science given their mutual affirmation and focus on humanity; in contrast, otherworldly religion with its focus on God or gods (absolute being) is incompatible with science. I took his consideration of enlightenment to entail such teachings as the Four Noble Truths (all life is unsatisfactory/filled with suffering, which is based on the passionate hold on life; there is an end to suffering that results from movement to a non-grasping, passionless state by way of the Eightfold Path involving definitive mental and physical practices of release). For Prof. Sasaki, the historical Buddha’s teaching (which he prizes) emphasizes a practical mindset and self-discipline. Ninety-nine percent of the historical Buddha’s teaching concerns pragmatic mental training. One percent of this form of Buddhism involves a sense of mystery regarding the person’s inner mental world (Kagaku Suru Buddha, page 260). It is this one percent that makes the historical or original form of Buddhism a religion for Prof. Sasaki (page 260).[1]

For Prof. Sasaki, science will eventually be able to provide an updated, contemporary version of Buddhism’s delineation of the problem of human existence and the elimination of suffering through enlightenment in biological and neurological terms. Given this point of view, would not such completion or fulfillment of the historical Buddha’s teaching by science bring an end to Buddhism, as we know it? Yes, but not yet. Science and Buddhism have not yet become one, but they will at some future point, according to Prof. Sasaki. He rejects the claims of those groups that assert that science and Buddhism have already merged in their systems of thought and practice. For Prof. Sasaki, both science and Buddhism focus on improving the human condition. If and when science can explain Buddhist enlightenment biologically and neurologically, then Buddhism as a religion will no longer exist.

I was surprised by how quickly Prof. Sasaki responded in the affirmative, when I asked over dinner if science would indeed complete the historical Buddha’s teaching, bringing it, in effect, to an end. One of the questions in my mind in reflecting on Prof. Sasaki’s claims involved the presumed tension in his thought between his personal commitment to Buddhism and his confidence in scientific progress: was his personal commitment to Buddhism simply the result of upbringing and possibly nostalgia? Though surprised at first by his answer, I found Prof. Sasaki’s response consistent with his claims in other contexts: he is willing to abandon or move on from any position based on what he takes to be the greater explanatory power of another perspective. Again, for him, there is no conflict between Buddhism and science; still, the latter will be shown at some point to be an advance on the former based on physical, biological and chemical explanations of what the Buddha (Gautama) had perceived phenomenologically, practiced, and articulated.

Beyond resolution of this presumed tension, still another question arises in my mind: how would natural science lead us toward an ethic of non-grasping or non-being (non-self) practices apart from philosophy and religion’s ongoing ethical contributions? For example, would not Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection involving the survival of the fittest and also Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene model, if correct, lead us more than ever toward a state of ultimate grasping? David Hume’s distinction between what is (which would include scientific deliberations) and what should be (ethical deliberations) is very important here: even as science describes the way things often are, that does not require of us that we simply follow our biological urges and propensities. Fortunately for us, no doubt, Darwin was careful to discern the limits of natural science and the need for ethical deliberations arising from other spheres, such as religion and philosophy (See for example Darwin’s awareness of the need for reasoning, religion and the like—beyond biological considerations—for the cultivation of ethics in his “General Summary” in The Descent of Man). I appreciate the following assessment of Darwin’s position on what is related to natural selection and what ought to be related to religious and philosophical ethical systems:

… since our human evolution has given us both the sympathy to care for our fellow humans and the intelligence to institute laws and social programs to help them, shouldn’t we use those mental capacities to try to steer human society in the direction of greater equality? Isn’t that more “natural” to us than unflinching adherence to “the survival of the fittest”? It would be dangerous, however, to rest our case on the extremely slippery concept of what is “natural.” It would be clearer to appeal directly to explicit ethical principles about human dignity, equality, needs and rights (as in Kant or Marx, and indeed in the New Testament) that cannot be derived from any factual statements about evolution (Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition {Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013}, pages 254-255).

To the list of ethical systems offered in this quotation, I would add Buddhism. Now even if I were to accept the slow-dying historiographical conflict thesis involving religion and science presented long ago by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White (which I don’t based on such keen historical studies as Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion edited by Ronald L. Numbers {Harvard University Press, 2009}, and The Territories of Religion and Science by Peter Harrison {The University of Chicago Press, 2015}), we can never get away from metaphysical claims that go beyond empirical data. Contemporary science itself makes all kinds of claims that cannot be proven empirically, but are necessary for further explorations. See for example Oxford University’s Denis Noble’s work, The Music of Life (Oxford University Press, 2008), in which he claims that neither Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene atomistic model nor his own systems biological approach model can be proven empirically. However, without discounting that there are merits to Dawkins’ perspective, Noble maintains that his web-oriented framework has greater explanatory power than Dawkins’ gene-centered paradigm for comprehending biological life (Refer to Noble’s work, especially pages ix-xi, 11-13, 17,  52-54).

No matter how far natural science takes us, it will never be natural for it to try to explain everything. So, will science bring an end to Buddhism? (Or Christianity, or Islam, or Kantianism, or Marxism, for that matter?) Never. We will always need ethical and metaphysical collaborative enquiries, such as can be found among Buddhist, Christian and Muslim philosophical and religious scholars, in addition to others, working with scientists, as in the case of Prof. Sasaki’s robust joint ventures. Only then can we truly develop systems of thought that pursue models of increasing explanatory aesthetic, imaginative power for the whole of life.


[1]Even though he prizes the historical Buddha’s teaching, which requires renunciation of one’s previous life for a monastic existence, Prof. Sasaki makes space for Mahayana Buddhism. For those who cannot commit to the austere life required of monks, the Mahayanan tradition makes available comfort and peace for the spiritually-minded who continue to attend to everyday affairs, such as family and work.

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