Justifying Buddhism with Science?

The concept of karma in Buddhism maintains that all actions are conditioned by previous actions and give rise to the actions or consequences that follow. In “Is Delusion Hardwired?” Wendy Hasenkamp says, “ancient ideas about karma…are mirrored with surprising detail in the foundations of modern neuroscience.” She goes on to explain the concept of neural association and how the repetition of these associations creates networks between neurons that become stronger the more often we experience something because the associated neurons are interacting more frequently.

She connects this process to karma by highlighting its cyclic nature: the more often we engage in an activity, the more likely we are to engage in it again in the future because each time we perform that activity its associated neural network is reinforced. Hasenkamp argues that this neural plasticity is what leads us to delusion, or “our inability to see the true nature of reality,” because it determines concept formation. Through these processes of neural associations, conventional beings take patterns and repetitions of and within phenomena to mean they are concrete. We see phenomena as stable and unchanging and as having discernable essences, a perception that renders us deluded and ignorant.

So our delusion and ignorance turn out to be rooted in biological processes, which, as we discussed in class, makes Buddhism’s philosophy on suffering easier to swallow for those of us who put our faith in the scientific method. But while this evidence might present a more believable basis for suffering for skeptics, it makes ending suffering and escaping samsara seem an even more daunting and impossible task. Hasenkamp says that meditation can make us aware of our mental habits and, through that awareness, allow us to form new associations, presumably free of perceptions of essence, and allow us to transcend delusion.

In reading this article, and in our discussion in class, I came to realize that I am one of the skeptics of religion who tends to rely on scientific and mathematic evidence as determinants of truth. I attribute this to my relatively nonsectarian upbringing and education that always favored science and math and hailed them as indicators of intelligence and truth. In Buddhist Thought this semester, I often wondered about whether all of this Buddhist philosophy could be grounded in scientific reasoning because that was where my brain automatically went, even though I never thought I had any particular bond with science. I was happy to read this article and have some of my qualms put to rest.

One thing that I am still uneasy about, however, is the appropriation of Buddhist practices into western culture without a real understanding or respect for Buddhist philosophy. Hasenkamp’s article seems to have been written for the purpose of proving or selling a non-western concept to Westerners through a language and context they would more readily understand and believe. While the piece was certainly insightful and eye opening, I worry that it simply converts Buddhism to science, further taking away from a religion that is already being picked apart and misunderstood in the west.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Justifying Buddhism with Science?

  1. cmlee says:

    Thanks for writing about this. It was an interesting discussion we had in class, as the metrics we use to validate whether or not someone’s ideas are legitimate are dependent on the audience. Whether they are a high achieving monk or scientist. I think you make a good point on how using science to validate the legitimacy of buddhism only waters down an already existing religion.

  2. Emilia says:

    Thank you for your post! I also really enjoyed our discussion in class about science and its role as a belief system resembling that of a religion. I think your final point about cultural appropriation is also very interested, especially as more scientific articles are scientifically proving the health benefits associated with certain Buddhist practices like meditation.

    To simply play devil’s advocate I do wonder if this disassociation of meditation from the Buddhist religious traditions really is as worrisome as we briefly discussed in class. If meditation is seen more as an action, devoid of religious motivations, it can more easily be incorporated into the lives of those that don’t identify as buddhist. And in many ways I would argue that other religions have been practicing different variants of meditation in the form of prayer for a very long time as well, but I do think moving past meditation, the appropriation of other cultural Buddhist traditions (as we saw in class with the many Buddhist symbols being used as tattoos) is very potentially worrying and requires reassessment as Buddhism continues to make this global external shift and expansion.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. I think what you raised explicitly and by example in your writing about the importance of interrogating our own contextual biases when engaging ways of knowing different from our own is key. At the end of the semester, it has been interesting for me to trace the evolution in my own receptivity to Buddhist ways of understanding as my exposure to Buddhist material has increased.

  4. scm13 says:

    I agree with your point that there is a similarity to the way karma truly works and the way the neurons in our brains change and grow. But I don’t see how your point about after the brain does something once, it is prone to do it again connects to karma, am I missing something? if so it would be cool to hear how you can support this later claim. This is an awesomely interesting post

  5. jpf12 says:

    To me, at least in this article, the scientific research is not converting Buddhism unfairly. As you said, and I have also experienced, that science and Buddhist concepts can often support one another encourages us to believe in Buddhist ideas. However, the science is not Buddhism and is only looking at specific aspects of Buddhist theory. Therefore, to me, the science can be a useful tool in better understanding Buddhism, but should never be seen as a replacement. At the same time, I also agree with your concern, especially because scientific research on Buddhist ideas can easily lead to further breeding a sense of scientific superiority over other ways of knowing.

  6. Star Lord says:

    I really liked reading your paper and really enjoyed the debate in class we had on this subject as well! I think it’s an interesting thing to think about, what makes science or religion more credible or worthy of our faith and trust than the other! I personally still don’t know and am still in the middle regarding this subject! By nature I am a very science-y type of person and I really like facts and so I really take on this type of perspective for most things and I won’t believe in certain ideas because they aren’t grounded in “facts” or don’t have what I guess I deem “explicit proof” to back them up! But I am also a religious person and am able to put aside my wanting of “facts” in order to just simply have faith and belief in my religion! I am able to see the purpose and validity in both to where I don’t need them to be dependent on each other or to clash with each other to prove something; it’s not a contest for me where one needs to one-up the other I guess. So personally, I am able to be satisfied and accept both of them as being legit, useful, etc. in their own rights without having to mix the two, as as you mentioned above this can take away from them.

  7. megonzalez says:

    I was really happy to read your post, because you articulated many of the thoughts I have had throughout the semester–specifically in thinking about where to put what I have learned about Buddhism and perspectives on religion in general as I am usually a more scientifically-oriented person. Something that really stuck with me from our class discussion last week was the notion that science is, by many accounts, much younger than religion. Once I altered my perspective and thought of it in this context, it resonated more with me that studying the potential effects of mediation and mindfulness, for example, might not only lend itself to a better understanding of the practical implications of religion, but will conversely also help to expand and develop science as a credible field for experimentation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *