- Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground
When a group of distinguished scholars from a variety of disciplines write on a central human issue at or beyond the limits of their expertise, the results are likely to be both stimulating and problematic. This book is both. It grew out of a series of dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a number of western scientists, carried out under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute. The editor, Alan Wallace, is a former monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a translator, and a Buddhist teacher. He has a long-standing interest in the interface between Buddhism and modern physics, the topic of his 1996 book with Snow Lion, Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind.
Structurally Buddhism and Science is made up of three unequal parts. Part 1 (Historical Context) consists of two essays, a substantial history of previous western-language writing on the Buddhism-science interface, by José Cabezón, and a shorter piece by Thubten Jinpa on Tibetan involvement with western science. Part 2 (Buddhism and the Cognitive Sciences) opens with a piece by the 14th Dalai Lama, who initially suggested the idea of the book to Wallace, followed by three chapters by biologists and psychologists (David Galin, Francisco Varela and Natalie Depraz, and Stephen Laberge) and two by Buddhist scholars (William Waldron and Mathieu Ricard). Part 3 is on Buddhism and the Physical Sciences, and all but one of the six chapters are by physicists or philosophers of physics (Victor Mansfield, Michel Bitbol, David Finkelstein, Anton Zeilinger, and Piet Hut). William Ames, the author of the remaining essay, moved to Buddhist Studies after earning an MS in physics. All this is framed and structured by Alan Wallace's preface, his substantial introduction, and his notes introducing individual chapters.
Tibetan Buddhism, for the most part, bypassed the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century encounter with western knowledge and the modernist reconstruction undergone by most other major non-western systems of traditional knowledge as a result of that unequal meeting. Its own encounter with western science is taking place much later and under very different conditions, in which [End Page 509] Westerners often all too aware of the limitations of their own intellectual traditions encounter Asian scholars still largely committed to the literal truth of their own teachings. At the same time the Dalai Lama's involvement in the Mind and Life discussions and his openness to dialogue on scientific issues have created a valuable context for interchange, of which this book is only one of the products.
It is tempting, and to some degree mandated by such a context, to treat Tibetan Buddhism as an independent knowledge system on the same basis as western science. Yet the epistemological basis for a dialogue here is far from straightforward. Wallace's own position, as argued in his introduction, takes both Buddhist and scientific insights into reality too literally. He begins by dismissing the idea of religion and science as "independent and autonomous domains" (3) and proceeds to attack the idea of empirical science as necessarily materialistic, which he attributes to Edward Wilson among others (10–20). Many JAAR readers might sympathize on both accounts, but Wallace's interest is less in critiquing science than in claiming scientific status for Buddhist contemplatives. His position is as uncritically empiricist and scientistic as Wilson's; it simply claims that yogis are empirical scientists too and that the subject of their enquiries is as solidly grounded as that of the natural sciences. On the way western Buddhist scholars with less assertive views of Buddhist philosophy come in for some surprisingly heavy bashing. Wallace has no time at all for postmodernist approaches Buddhism, since he sees them as undermining Buddhist truth claims (22–24).
One of Wallace's key arguments is that only an experienced Buddhist contemplative can know what Buddhist contemplative procedures are about (6–7). In one sense this is trivially true; I would readily agree that personal practice is a vital aid in understanding central aspects of...