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  • Buddhist-Christian-Science Dialogue at the Boundaries
  • Paul O. Ingram

Much of the discussion in current science-religion dialogue focuses on "limit" or "boundary" questions.1 In the natural sciences, boundary questions are questions that arise in scientific research that cannot be answered by scientific methods. Boundary questions arise because of (1) the intentional limit of scientific methods of investigation to extremely narrow bits of physical processes while ignoring wider bodies of experience, as well as (2) the resulting incompetence of scientific methods when applied to aesthetic, moral, and religious experiences. Furthermore, scientific theoretical constructions are intentionally falsifiable. Often scientific theories themselves require further theoretical explanation. For example, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) proposed a theory of gravity as a general explanation of the motion of terrestrial objects—such as falling objects like apples—and of the orbits of planets in the solar system. But Newton was unable to offer an explanatory theory of gravity itself and was deeply troubled by the notion of "action at a distance," which he believed was intrinsically impossible. Albert Einstein's (1879-1955) general theory of relativity, although maintaining Newton's three laws of motion, fills in this gap in Newton's theory by explaining gravity as the warping of space occupied by objects such as planets, stars, and galaxies rather than action at a distance.

In other words, boundary questions create methodological and conceptual constraints that often lead to deeper knowledge of the universe's physical structures. At the same time, boundary questions also tend to engender metaphysical questions along with scientific questions. For example, standard Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe imposes a temporal boundary that constrains what cosmologists can know about the universe. Why is there a universe at all? The standard response is that cosmologists can describe how the universe originated with a high degree of probability, but are ignorant, or at least agnostic, about why the universe exists. Here, a boundary question generated by the application of scientific methods in cosmology generates a metaphysical question cosmology is incapable of answering. Whenever this happens, an opening is created for science-religion dialogue in general, and a science-Buddhist-Christian "trilogue" in particular.

But boundary questions are not limited to the natural sciences. Religious questions [End Page 165] incapable of solution through the application of theological or philosophical methods arise at the boundaries engendered by what Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) called "the universals of human experience," meaning experiences all human beings undergo no matter what their cultural or religious environments might be. For example, the experience of suffering raises the theodicy problem for classical Christian theism. How can a loving, omnipotent creator of the universe permit unmerited suffering? Here, the assertion of God's creative power and love creates a boundary question that cannot be resolved apart from rethinking the nature of God, as in process theology.

Anxiety and confrontation with death, as well as experiences of beauty, joy, hunger, fear, hope, and anger, and the need for community are also examples of universals of human experience. Buddhists and Christians theoretically interpret the meaning of such experiences according to their particular texts, doctrinal formulations, and practice traditions. Similarly, the work done by scientists is influenced by their cultural contexts, although on a shorter-term basis than is the case with religions. As in the natural sciences, religious constructs are also theory laden, so that neither Christian theology nor Buddhist philosophy can claim complete knowledge. What, exactly, is the nature of God? What, exactly, is Awakening? The standard Christian and Buddhist responses are that God or Awakening are ultimately beyond human thought because both transcend anything human beings can imagine them to be, or not to be.

Still, boundary constraints do not imply that significant and reliable knowledge is impossible in the sciences or in Buddhist or Christian thought. To conclude that scientists, Buddhists, or Christians cannot achieve complete knowledge via scientific method, the practice of Buddhist philosophy, or the practice of Christian theological reflection because of boundary constraints does not imply that the sciences have not amassed an incredible body of reliable knowledge about physical reality, or that Buddhists and Christians have not accumulated large bodies of reliable knowledge...


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pp. 165-174
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