Buddhism and Modern Science

Francisco Varela

The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science

By Francisco J. Varela

There is growing evidence that Buddhism can potentially have an important and productive influence on modern science, primarily at two levels: (i) the detailed research level evident in the study of mind, and (ii) the epistemological impact on the foundations of science, especially physics.

Research

The life sciences have developed enormously over the last 50 years. One main branch is the study of mind, cognition, affect and related mental phenomena, where the brain sciences (or neurosciences) play a central role. There is an unusual confluence of disciplines collectively training their focused lenses on the nature of cognition, emotion and action. These disciplines include neuroscience, molecular genetics, experimental psychology, artificial intelligence and linguistics. Several major interdisciplinary efforts have emerged from this hybridization including cognitive science, neuroscience and affective neuroscience. These new interdisciplinary hybrid sciences have rapidly embraced the study of the mind as a scientific object and have enabled modern science to approach this effort with unprecedented rigor and precision.

As a result of this research frontier, science has been gradually waking up to what, until very recently, seemed “un-scientific”: consciousness itself. Can a scientific study of mind leave out what is ever-present for humans: their own experience? What is consciousness? How is it related to other mental abilities generated by the brain (such as vision, emotion, and memory)? How plastic is the brain’s potential for meeting human needs in medicine and education?

This consciousness “revolution” has brought to center stage the simple fact that studying the brain and behavior requires an equally disciplined complement: the exploration of experience itself. It is here that Buddhism stands as an outstanding source of observations concerning human mind and experience, accumulated over centuries with great theoretical rigor, and, what is even more significant, with very precise exercises and practices for individual exploration. This treasure-trove of knowledge is an uncanny complement to science. Where the material refinement of science is unmatched in empirical studies, the experiential level is still immature and naive compared to the long-standing Buddhist tradition of studying the human mind.

The natural meeting ground between science and Buddhism is thus at one of the most active research frontiers today. What is involved is learning how to put together the data from the inner examination of human experience with the empirical basis that modern cognitive and affective neuroscience can provide. Such first-person accounts are not a mere “confirmation” of what science can find anyway. It is a necessary complement. For instance, unless refined internal descriptions are taken into account in current experiments that use brain imaging to study the neural substrates of emotions or attention, the empirical data cannot be properly interpreted.

Thus, we foresee in the future that the mind sciences will evolve into a form of experiential neuroscience, bridging the gap between external and internal descriptions. Such a unification of our understanding of the world, a new frame for a mind science, is one of the major contributions Buddhism is capable of offering. The interest in such cross-fertilization with science was one of the main inspirations for the Mind and Life initiative, and remains at the center of its efforts to transform this vision into concrete laboratory collaborations.

Two related implications of the dialogue between science and Buddhism include contributions to our understanding of behavioral and neural plasticity and to the development of specific interventions for the promotion of psychological and physical well-being. Modern cognitive science and psychology makes certain assumptions about what is normative in mental functioning and also what the limits of change are for such functioning. For example, in the cognitive domain it is regarded as normative for individuals to be incapable of attending to a single object for more than several seconds. In the affective domain, the emotion of anger is regarded as a normative emotion that naturally arises in situations where our goals are thwarted. Buddhism teaches us that each of these assumptions about the “normal operating mode” of humans is faulty and that with training (i.e., in meditation), significant transformations in these abilities are likely to occur. This perspective poses an important challenge to Western scientists and calls into question some of our deepest assumptions about the “nature” of human behavior. Moreover, Buddhism provides a detailed specification of the methods that enable such plasticity to occur. This meeting ground will provide a critical impetus for change in the Western conception of the fixedness of mental function, with a clear call for new research to explore the capacity for plastic transformation in basic biobehavioral functions that were once regarded as unchanging components of our mental landscape.

The experientially based technology of meditation and related practices offered by Buddhism is currently having a major impact on modern medicine and psychotherapeutic intervention. Claims about the beneficial effects of these practices on both mental and physical health and well-being have catalyzed serious efforts to examine the mechanisms by which meditation produces salubrious consequences. The Mind and Life dialogues have directly spawned new research demonstrating changes in both brain and immune function produced by meditation. This work is helping to restore the brain back into the context of the body to examine how changes in the brain have downstream effects on the immune, autonomic and endocrine systems, all of which are implicated in health and disease.

Epistemology

Although the life and cognitive sciences are where Buddhism can touch science intimately, at the detailed research level, it can also have a great importance at the more fundamental or epistemological level. In fact, the philosophical refinements in the Buddhist tradition concerning the nature of reality, perception and logic, are as deep as its observational base of human experience. This includes notions such as designated identity, co-dependent origination and emptiness that have no counterpart in the philosophical heritage of the West.

Modern physics is perhaps where this second meeting ground is most visible. Physics is in the middle of a conceptual revolution pursuing the so-called unification efforts, in order to relate the minute universe of quantum mechanism to that of macrophysics and gravitation. As is well known, such research has opened numerous gaping epistemological questions; for example non-locality, the origin of the universe, and the role of the observer. Philosophers of science and research physicists have found these conceptual or epistemological exchanges potentially precious. See GEO Magazine, cover story, January, 1999. The Mind & Life Institute has decided to continue this line of mutual exploration as the second major contribution Buddhism can offer to modern science.