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  • From Epistemology to Ethics
  • Paul D. Numrich

The evolution of the essays gathered here began as I pondered a popular article about contemporary science-religion dialogue some years ago. I was reminded that Christian notions provide the motivation, presuppositions, and conclusions for much of this dialogue and wondered, "How might things differ if Buddhism joined the conversation?" I later learned that others wondered likewise and that the John Templeton Foundation was willing to fund a project to explore the contours of a Buddhism-Christianity-science dialogue.

As important as all this was, the project took an early epistemological turn, to borrow a phrase from Mark T. Unno's chapter in the eventual edited volume, The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science.1 The project's advisors recommended that we not devolve into simplistic litanies of how the latest scientific theories confirm ancient religious wisdom or how religions might accommodate the latest scientific discoveries. They also counseled that we should avoid narrowly construed theoretical or doctrinal discussions. Instead, we should focus on "knowability" in science and religion. And we should challenge the hubris that claims to know everything—or everything that really matters—whether that hubris presumes to speak for science or for religion.

The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science addresses the really big philosophical question "What can we know about reality?" and inquires into profound epistemological issues that cut across the worldviews of Buddhism, Christianity, and science: How do they explore the boundaries between the known and the unknown? What do they define as unknowable? How do they participate in the human quest for knowledge about reality? The volume goes beyond the usual fare in contemporary science-religion dialogue to explore how science and religion engage each other's attempts to understand reality.

In the opening chapter, I ruminate on human knowledge generally. The other chapters move largely from Buddhism to Christianity to science, although several incorporate insights from more than one of these worldviews. Project advisor Roger Blomquist of Argonne National Laboratory suggested the important distinction between a boundary (which is movable) and a limit (which is fixed, i.e., the ultimate boundary). The frontiers of knowledge are often pushed back in both science and religion, yet these shifting boundaries exist within a larger fixed limit of human knowability. What Buddhists, Christians, and scientists do in the face of moveable boundaries within a fixed limit of knowability provides the intrigue of the volume. The contributors were not required to honor the distinction between moveable boundaries and a fixed limit. At times these terms are used interchangeably, at other times the distinction is implicitly called into question, thus adding to the volume's intrigue.

The physicist-philosopher Niels Bohr (1885-1962) pondered the inherent inadequacy of conceptualization and language in apprehending and explaining reality. His assistant relates a discussion between Bohr and unnamed others: "He [Bohr] was forcefully stressing the primacy of language: 'Ultimately, we human beings depend on our words. We are hanging in language.' When it was objected that reality is more fundamental than language and lies beneath language, Bohr answered: 'We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down.'"2

Religions understand the human condition of being suspended in languages that cannot contain perceived realities. Hence their frequent use of metaphor, symbolism, via negativa statements, and the notion of "mystery." Here is a fruitful opening for dialogue between science and religion, offering an opportunity for mutual pondering of the limit of pondering. The volume presents Buddhism, Christianity, and science as case studies in the human endeavor to understand a reality tantalizingly beyond our ability to understand fully. It examines the epistemological conundrums at the boundaries and limit of human [End Page 161] knowledge, where at some point both conceptualization and language inevitably fail us.

The essays gathered here were given in early versions at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. Paul O. Ingram and Dennis Hirota gave presentations based on their chapters in The Boundaries of Knowledge in Buddhism, Christianity, and Science, to which Sandra Costen Kunz and Amos Yong, respectively, gave responses. These four presentations...


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