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Monday, October 01, 2007

The universe next door: Buddhists confront science - and materialism

by Denyse O’Leary (My ChristianWeek science column)

Thirty years ago, James W. Sire published a seminal work, The Universe Next Door, which provided a window into the ways other faith traditions understand the universe. Now in its fourth edition, Sire’s work is still indispensable. However, a thoughtful Christian might want to follow it up with the Buddhist Dalai Lama’s 2005 work, The Universe in a Single Atom.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is probably the world’s most highly respected Buddhist. He is an intensely curious man who has made friends with great scientists, in a quest to integrate Tibetan Buddhist teachings with modern science.

As a Christian reading his work, I was struck by the differences between the way Buddhists and Christians look at the universe - differences that we should keep in mind when talking to people who are formed or influenced by the Buddhist tradition. Three stand out:

1. Origin of the universe. Buddhists view the origin of the universe in a Big Bang as a problem, not as a support to their faith. The Big Bang is, of course, the story you hear from NASA, pretty much doctrine in Western science these days. Large numbers of Christians are happy to interpret it as support for God’s creation. But for Buddhists, that is precisely the problem because their tradition is atheistic! As the Lama explains, “From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options.” (P. 82)

Naturally, the Lama hopes that the Big Bang will be disconfirmed. He is refreshingly honest compared to some atheist cosmologists, who attempt to undermine the Big Bang for precisely the same reason but without admitting the nature of their dissatisfaction.

2. Origin of consciousness. The origin of the capacity for conscious experience is much more important to Buddhists than the origin of life. Buddhists do not emphasize the difference between life and non-life, but rather the difference between experience and non-experience. Thus, a coral colony, while alive, is in some ways closer to a rock. By contrast, a dog is more like a human being, because the dog is a subject of experience, however limited by comparison.

The Lama rejects Darwinism as an explanation for the history of life on earth, as most Canadian Christians do, but for somewhat different reasons. He is not troubled by the prospect that humans and apes may be genetic cousins but he is very troubled by the idea that no one genuinely feels compassion (altruism). Strict Darwinism accounts for altruism as simply the way that your selfish genes compel you to spread them. Your feelings are only useful illusions that help spread your genes.

Choosing his words carefully, the Lama writes, “I am told there is in fact an entire discipline called ‘evolutionary psychology.’ To an extent I can see how evolutionary accounts can be given for the emergence of basic emotions such as attachment, anger, and fear. However ... I cannot envision how the evolutionary approach can do justice to the richness of the emotional world and the subjective quality of experience.” (P. 181)

3. Reality of the mind. Buddhists do not doubt that mind and consciousness are real. Indeed, that is precisely why the Lama rejects current theories that regard consciousness, free will, and moral choice as brain glitches that arose randomly and happen to promote survival. But, in contrast to Western ways of thinking, Buddhist terminology does not emphasize a clear distinction between thoughts and emotions. The key distinction is between mental states that produce self-involvement and suffering and those that enable detachment and compassion.

Note: For a longer review of The Universe in a Single Atom go here.

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