Participants in the dialogue between science and Buddhism have long modeled their discussion primarily on the idea of convergence, the premise that the most significant comparisons are those that reveal common ground. This is by no means the only model for comparative discussion, and I would argue that in the case of Buddhism and science it is deeply flawed. Instead, another model—one based on mutual challenge, in which the two sides are able to shed light on each other precisely because of their differences—offers what I see as a more potentially fruitful alternative.
In his 2008 book Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, my colleague Donald Lopez traces the dialogue between these two realms of discourse since the question of their compatibility was first raised in the late 19th century. While various referents in the dialogue have changed with the years, certain features have remained fundamentally the same. Lopez points out, for example, that Buddhism, in order to demonstrate its compatibility with science, was “modernized” by its exponents, which entailed eliminating much of what previously had been deemed essential by traditional Buddhists. We can, then, see that right from the beginning the two interlocutors have had an asymmetrical relationship, in which Buddhism has been cut to try to make it fit the standards of science, standards that are quite foreign to its own way of understanding itself.
With the recent emergence of neuroscience, not only has this trend accelerated, but a new change is happening as well. While neuroscience is a development in the biological sciences, for many it promises privileged access not only to the brain but to the mind. Because the mind had not previously been an area of much interest to those who work in the physical sciences, in the dialogue between Buddhism and science it had remained the preserve of Buddhism. Now, however, as neuroscience has taken the central role as a representative of science, Buddhists have been forced to redefine their position in the dialogue.
The dialogue between Buddhism and neuroscience has been widely presented in various media—mainstream, academic, and Buddhist—as a historical event. It seems to me, however, that without a preliminary self-critical examination of the assumptions each side brings with it, it is not even clear what such a dialogue entails.
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