Buddhism has always engaged the traditions of the cultures it has come into contact with, and spoken through them. In the case of Western Buddhism, much of this engagement has been through science. Dharma in the West has seen the refashioning of the Buddha and his doctrine in terms of scientific and therapeutic principles as a “science of mind.” But while Buddhism is immediately recognizable as a belief system with its own distinctive axioms, the current ideological premises of science are rarely cast in the same light.
Scientist Rupert Sheldrake has dedicated his latest book, Science Set Free, to questioning unexamined assumptions that go hand-in-hand with science. Sheldrake distinguishes the method of scientific inquiry from the materialist worldview with which it is often conflated. Unlike most religious believers, people who put their faith in scientific materialism are often unaware that their beliefs are just that—a matter of faith.
As an undergraduate in biochemistry at Cambridge University, where he later received his doctorate, Rupert Sheldrake was awarded a fellowship to study the philosophy and history of science at Harvard at around the same time that Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was published. Unlike scientific idealists of the past, Kuhn figured the vicissitudes of history, ideology, and power as playing a central role in the development of science. Sheldrake continues in Kuhn’s tradition. “One of my main concerns,” Sheldrake says, “is the opening up of science.” Such an opening up would likely lead to a more fruitful engagement between science and religion in which, through mutual challenge and shared exploration, they might enrich and alter one another.
Tricycle’s Alex Caring-Lobel initiated the following email correspondence with Sheldrake in early March.