The Science of Buddhism

It seems clear to me that there is an alignment between many Buddhist teachings and the discoveries of modern science. Buddhism and modern science take different approaches to analyzing the world but seem to draw similar conclusions as to how it functions. Modern science is focused on building an accurate picture of the world through objective measures and observations. This is a sort of "top down" approach where fundamental forces such as gravity, electricity, evolutionary mechanisms, and mathematics are used to better understand how humans fit into the broader context of the world. By contrast, Buddhism focuses on subjective experiences to develop a picture of the world. This approach operates "bottom up" in the sense that those on the Buddhist path first seek to understand their own experience and mind which in turn enables them to view the world more clearly. I believe that the alignment we are seeing between Buddhism and modern science is a product of these top down and bottom up approaches beginning to overlap. This alignment plays out particularly in the description of the human predicament and the practice of meditation itself.

First, in regards to the human predicament, Buddhism emphasizes the Truth of Dukkha (suffering) which aligns with modern scientific understanding of how humans seem to interact with the world. The definition of Dukkha that translates to “unsatisfactoriness” helps to illustrate this connection more clearly. From a scientific perspective, it seems that humans (and all biological creatures for that matter) are never satisfied with their place in the world. All creatures seek more safety, status, food, sex, and gratification more generally as long as it promotes the propagation of their genes.

A tree in the middle of an empty field (with no competition for light or nutrients) will nonetheless continue to strive to grow taller and dig its roots more deeply -- never satisfied with where it is in the moment. Humans are rewarded (via dopamine) more for the anticipation of achieving gratification, than for the gratifying act itself. Some of the most exhilarating experiences for humans (sex, eating good food, and winning in competition) all have clear evolutionary ties to mate selection and gene propagation. This seems to be a well-understood byproduct of natural selection, which only really "cares" about the genes passing to the next generation. It does not consider the satisfaction of the host organism that carries those genes. In short, the very mechanism that brought us into being (i.e. natural selection) is predicated on the process of unsatisfactoriness as a driving force.

Another way in which Buddhism and modern science converge is in the practice of meditation. I think meditation can be conceptualized a sort of scientific exploration of subjective experience. It shares many key concepts with the scientific method including observation, hypothesis, and experimentation. Meditation (as well as science) begins with close and careful observation. This is where one tries to sit back and view the world objectively. In mediation (as in science), these observations will likely yield questions such as: What caused X to happen? Is there a connection between X and Y? If I introduce Z, what effect does that have on X and Y? It is with questions like these that we are able to formulate hypotheses about the world. In meditation these hypotheses are often described as "insights" -- both words indicate an understanding or explanation of a given phenomenon.

Once this hypothesis (or insight) is formed, it must be tested. In meditation, this is where the insights on the pillow come into contact with the harsh realities of the world around us. Proponents of mediation rightly emphasis this embodiment of the practice in our daily lives. This is a sort of data gathering phase in meditation practice. If this process is done right, the meditator will begin to integrate the experience of meditation with actions in the world. In much the same way, scientists test their hypotheses in a series of experiments that begin in abstract, controlled environments (think mouse studies) and gradually move towards real world implementation (think randomized control trials on humans). The ultimate goal of both science and mediation is to have a theory of the world converge with the reality of the world.

Though it may seems surprising, the teachings of Buddhism (minus the metaphysical claims) seem to align with our modern scientific understanding of the human condition and human mind. Even more strangely, it seems to me that Buddhism was able to capture some components of the scientific method long before the concept of science had even been instantiated. Hopefully further analysis (both objective and subjective) will bring us ever closer to the Truth of our place in the world.