Is Buddhism consistent with Science?

Hi, everyone! I’m interested in finding out whether or not Buddhism is consistent with science. By being consistent, I mean not to contradict any scientific claim.

About karma, rebirth, devas, and psychic powers, these things are simply beyond science’s scope since they are unfalsifiable: there’s no way that we can prove that they don’t exist. Even guys who claim that science proves that there’s no afterlife believe that afterlife is unfalsifiable, but then they contradict themselves by implicitly saying that science proved something unfalsifiable to be false.

To give an example of what I’m talking about, let’s take the case of evolution. If there’s some part of the Pali Canon saying that some human being was here more than 200,000 years ago, it would already count. If The Canon says something that doesn’t match Astronomy’s measurements about the age of the Earth or the universe, it would count too.

I’m sincerely very optimistic that Buddhism is consistent with science because the Buddha wasn’t interested in this sort of subject in the first place. However, one thing that I suspect to be inconsistent is the existence of human beings who lived very long in the past.

I’m also interested in how most serious Buddhists answer these inconsistencies: by giving up science or a literal interpretation of the suttas.

Disclaimer : this thread is NOT a discussion of whether science works, so I hope it doesn’t start to be about science rather than about the Pali Canon.

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I suggest you read the whole of sutta MN27 where the Buddha said that:

“When he knows and sees thus, his mind is liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’

“This too, brahmin, is called a footprint of the Tathāgata, something scraped by the Tathāgata, something marked by the Tathāgata. It is at this point that a noble disciple has come to the conclusion: ‘The Blessed One is fully enlightened, the Dhamma is well proclaimed by the Blessed One, the Sangha is practising the good way. And it is at this point, brahmin, that the simile of the elephant’s footprint has been completed in detail.”

As you can see, the standard is very high for claiming that you truly believe in the Buddha’s teaching. To make a comparison to physics, it is something similar to the requirement that you actually do by yourself the whole experiment of gravitational wave to believe in the general relativity theory (not just by studying books, doing exercises, passing exam, writing thesis/papers, debating, etc.).

Do you agree that there is a great consistence/similarity between Buddhism and Science here? :smiley:

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Hi! Thank you for your reply!

I had read this sutta already, but, to be honest, I need to say that I can’t see why it shows that Buddhism and science are consistent.

What I mean by consistency is that Buddhism doesn’t deny something that science endorses. Let’s take the example of Christianity: it strongly denies evolution and the current measurement of the age of Earth. I’m interested in finding out if Buddhism has something similar.

Yes and no. There are certainly some Buddhist cosmologies in history that are hard to reconcile with modern science. Some Buddhists imagined a flat Earth, for example.

But, unlike e.g. Christianity, such things are not core to Buddhism. Buddhism has never put mankind at the center of anything other than his own experience and the more central elements of Buddhist Cosmology — e.g. “impermanence, emptiness, etc” — of course resonate quite well with modern science.

Does that answer your question?

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PhysicsandBuddhism

If we just take the early texts, we skip over many commentaries which has very strong incompatibilities in terms of them promoting flat earth.

Having said that, there’s a lot in Buddhism which is not easy to fit into current physics. A lot of creative mapping needs to be done. I also dunno the justification for the mapping of a yojana to be that long, which can contradict the size of the earth with something mentioned in the suttas. Especially the size of deep sea giant monsters. Maybe they are deep space instead?

Anyway, I wouldn’t rely on current physics as ultimately reliable. Physics keeps on updating itself. Our whole cosmology from physics is just a century old. Before that, people from Europe thought the cosmos was eternal, static.

Buddha already mentioned expansion and contraction long time ago. He was not afraid to say things which the science of that era cannot make sense of. Throughout most of Buddhist history, the science of that era cannot make sense of many things in the sutta.

The earth will burn up by the sun one day, the cosmos expands and contracts, etc.

I would turn the tables around the unfalsifiable stuffs.

The hypothesis of there’s nothing after death is falsifiable. How? By rebirth evidences. Buddhists should repost Rebirth evidences more often and as a standard reply to those who have doubts about/do not believe in rebirth.

Buddhism is mostly consistent with scientific findings, but somethings needed to be creatively mapped, like the devolution of gods to humans.

For the obvious contradiction, the strategy could be that science has not yet discovered many things.

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There is a nice article related to this

I will quote a little

Tibetan Buddhists continued to accept the traditional flat-earth geography until well into the 20th century. The Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, one of Kalu Rinpoche’s translators, tells an instructive story of accompanying a traditionally trained Tibetan lama to northern Canada during the summer. They arrived in the afternoon and settled in for the night. The next morning, the lama was troubled that during the night it had not become dark. McLeod used apples and oranges to show him how the sun does not set in the summer in northern regions because of the earth’s roundness, the way it tilts on its axis, and the way it rotates around the sun. The lama replied that he had heard the claim that the earth is round when he came out of Tibet, but he had dismissed it as another crazy Western idea, contrary to both common sense and his traditional training. McLeod recounts that though the lama was dispirited for some days, he came to accept this new information and returned to his usual cheerful demeanor. In the end, the lama’s experience of nights without darkness was more powerful than his inherited beliefs about the flatness of the earth.

Going a little further, in his book The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama recounts his excitement and joy at first seeing a photograph of the earth taken from space:

One of the most powerful visions I have experienced was the first photograph of the earth from outer space. The image of a blue planet floating in deep space, glowing like the full moon on a clear night, brought home powerfully to me the recognition that we are indeed all members of a single family sharing one little house.

Here there are no worries that a traditional Buddhist claim has been disproved, that the earth is not flat, and that Mount Meru is nowhere to be found. Instead, easily adjusting to a more complete, and, in this case, more accurate geography, the Dalai Lama draws out ethical implications from his new knowledge.

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Clearly Buddhism is not consistent with natural science. For example, human origins according to science is based on biological evolution (Darwin’s evolution theory), which is incompatible with Buddhist concept of human origins based on Aggana Sutta (Abhassara beings decent to newly-formed earth and becoming first humans).

But Buddhism is more compatible/consistent with social science, especially modern psychology. For example, the concept of the four noble truths in Buddhism is compatible with existential psychology which states that there are psychological problems (depression, anxiety, and fear) [dukkha], these problems are caused by our attachment to things that are expected to bring some benefit to us [origins of dukkha], there is freedom from this problem [the cessation of dukkha], and a psychotherapeutic solution where one realizes the reality of his psychological problem and its root cause [the path leading to the cessation of dukkha]. In addition, mindfulness as the main method of Buddhist meditation is also used in various psychotherapy methods to deal with psychological problems.

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Creative mapping can save it!

Depending on what devas are in scientific concepts, we have different interpretations possible Physics and Buddhism: Devas, what could they be? Part 3: Aliens.

There comes a time when, Vāseṭṭha, after a very long period has passed, this cosmos contracts. As the cosmos contracts, sentient beings are mostly headed for the realm of streaming radiance. There they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time.

There comes a time when, after a very long period has passed, this cosmos expands. As the cosmos expands, sentient beings mostly pass away from that host of radiant deities and come back to this realm. Here they are mind-made, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, moving through the sky, steadily glorious, and they remain like that for a very long time.

A random mix of mapping I shall attempt here.

The streaming radiance devas could be AI who has surpassed the need for any physical basis in our universe, or able to escape to a higher multiverse nesting.

New Big Bang, stuff goes through the early nucleosynthesis, forming simple nucleus of H, He, Be, Li of various isotopes as well. Everything is in plasma, too hot to form atoms. Matter-antimatter annihilation happened earlier on, only matter is leftover, and lots of photons (light) bouncing around the plasma. If there can be living beings at this stage, they are naturally luminous because they are so hot, they radiate a lot, they also interact with light a lot, light cannot travel through plasma well. So the universe is opaque, dark. This last for around 300,000 years.

Timeline of the Big Bang - The Big Bang and the Big Crunch - The Physics of the Universe

But the single mass of water at that time was utterly dark. The moon and sun were not found, nor were stars and constellations, day and night, months and fortnights, years and seasons, or male and female. Beings were simply known as ‘beings’. After a very long period had passed, solid nectar curdled in the water. It appeared just like the curd on top of hot milk-rice as it cools. It was beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter. And it was as sweet as pure manuka honey. Now, one of those beings was reckless. Thinking, ‘Oh my, what might this be?’ they tasted the solid nectar with their finger. They enjoyed it, and craving was born in them. And other beings, following that being’s example, tasted solid nectar with their fingers. They too enjoyed it, and craving was born in them.

No sun or moon cause no stars yet. Nectar, maybe a referent for electrons being able to remain in stable orbit around the nucleous, start to form atoms in the cooler regions. As more and more beings eats the electrons, the cooler regions might spread outwards more and more, allowing more recombination from plasma into atoms.

Then those beings started to eat the solid nectar, breaking it into lumps. But when they did this their luminosity vanished. And with the vanishing of their luminosity the moon and sun appeared, stars and constellations appeared, days and nights were distinguished, and so were months and fortnights, and years and seasons. To this extent the world had evolved once more.

We time skip for a long time, to the formation of stars and the first solar systems (much much later on).

Then those beings eating the solid nectar, with that as their food and nourishment, remained for a very long time. But so long as they ate that solid nectar, their bodies became more solid and they diverged in appearance; some beautiful, some ugly. And the beautiful beings looked down on the ugly ones: ‘We’re more beautiful, they’re the ugly ones!’ And the vanity of the beautiful ones made the solid nectar vanish. They gathered together and bemoaned, ‘Oh, what a taste! Oh, what a taste!’ And even today when people get something tasty they say: ‘Oh, what a taste! Oh, what a taste!’ They’re just remembering an ancient primordial saying, but they don’t understand what it means.

The beings evolved onwards, forming simple molecules, if their electron orbitals are full, the nectar vanished.

When the solid nectar had vanished, ground-sprouts appeared to those beings. They appeared just like mushrooms. They were beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter. And they were as sweet as pure manuka honey.

Then those beings started to eat the ground-sprouts. With that as their food and nourishment, they remained for a very long time. But so long as they ate those ground-sprouts, their bodies became more solid and they diverged in appearance; some beautiful, some ugly. And the beautiful beings looked down on the ugly ones: ‘We’re more beautiful, they’re the ugly ones!’ And the vanity of the beautiful ones made the ground-sprouts vanish.

ground-spouts, mushroom-like stuff maybe the more heavy atoms, formed from the supernovas of first-generation stars. The ones who eats these atoms becomes more and more complicated molecules, maybe even the first RNA can be formed. Due to the stablity of the molecules of RNA, they don’t just simply gooble up random atoms in space. So their food disappeared. Or simply that the first generation stars large enough to go supernova becomes more rare, second and third generation stars which might be less massive forms, lacking the means for new production of atoms beyond Iron.

When the ground-sprouts had vanished, bursting pods appeared, like the fruit of the kadam tree. They were beautiful, fragrant, and delicious, like ghee or butter. And they were as sweet as pure manuka honey.

Then those beings started to eat the bursting pods. With that as their food and nourishment, they remained for a very long time. But so long as they ate those bursting pods, their bodies became more solid and they diverged in appearance; some beautiful, some ugly. And the beautiful beings looked down on the ugly ones: ‘We’re more beautiful, they’re the ugly ones!’ And the vanity of the beautiful ones made the bursting pods vanish.

They gathered together and bemoaned, ‘Oh, what we’ve lost! Oh, what we’ve lost—those bursting pods!’ And even today when people experience suffering they say: ‘Oh, what we’ve lost! Oh, what we’ve lost!’ They’re just remembering an ancient primordial saying, but they don’t understand what it means.

Bursting pods, well what’s next? Other simple organic molecules. The RNA lands on some planet suitable for life, starts to gather in amino acids, etc, trying to form lipids, cell walls, etc. As they get more and more food, they evolve to an actual cell.


Cells
resembling prokaryotes appear. These first organisms are chemoautotrophs: they use carbon dioxide as a carbon source and oxidize inorganic materials to extract energy.

When the bursting pods had vanished, ripe untilled rice appeared to those beings. It had no powder or husk, pure and fragrant, with only the rice-grain. What they took for supper in the evening, by the morning had grown back and ripened. And what they took for breakfast in the morning had grown back and ripened by the evening, so the cutting didn’t show. Then those beings eating the ripe untilled rice, with that as their food and nourishment, remained for a very long time.

Later, prokaryotes evolve glycolysis, a set of chemical reactions that free the energy of organic molecules such as glucose. Glycolysis generates ATP molecules as short-term energy currency, and ATP continue to be used in almost all organisms, unchanged, to this day.

Timeline_of_evolution (bionity.com)

But so long as they ate that ripe untilled rice, their bodies became more solid and they diverged in appearance. And female characteristics appeared on women, while male characteristics appeared on men. Women spent too much time gazing at men, and men at women. They became lustful, and their bodies burned with fever. Due to this fever they had sex with each other.

Sexual reproduction evolves, increasing the rate of evolution.

But when they started to store up rice to eat, the rice grains became wrapped in powder and husk, it didn’t grow back after reaping, the cutting showed, and the rice stood in clumps.

Multicellular cells evolve, food changes yet again, ATP is bound behind other stuff. Like other cells which can do photosynthesis or other cells which eats the primary cells. Life eating life begins.

And time skip all the way to humans.

There’re super a lot of stages in the cosmic and biological evolutionary changes of the universe to creatively map DN 27 onto. Of course, the mapping above is not very satisfying, some things are left out, like how does vanity causes the loss of food? This is due to the materialism paradigm physics is still in, don’t have an equation for how mind states can cause changes in physical stuffs.

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It might be worth mentioning the recent work of Paul Steinhardt and Anna Ijjas on a new model of Bouncing Cosmology that seems to accord with the EBT’s model and also seems to solve the problem of entropy, of the role of dark matter/energy, of the singularity, and of the quantum state of the early universe.

Their YouTube Channel has a number of very in-depth videos for those with a physics background (this might interest Venerable @NgXinZhao as I have not seen this work mentioned on the forum before).

It probably deserves a thread of its own.

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Physics and Buddhism: The Beginning (with some updates to be friendly to all)

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Thanks for the link Venerable.

It doesn’t seem the article includes this new model?

The Bouncing Cosmology model was only developed in the last few years, with the indispensable contribution of Anna Ijjas being introduced only in the last couple of years, which apparently helped solve some of the issues of previous cyclic models developed by Steinhardt.

So you might wish to update the article to include this new model.

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Hi Mike. Welcome to the forum!

This made me smile, because of course, science contradicts scientific claims. In a way, that’s the entire endeavour of science - to move our understanding forward by contradicting previous claims. So we have this idea of ‘current scientific consensus’, which is ever changing.

Also terms get redefined too, and they sit within a social construct that is also changing. So a definition of say, what a ‘human being’ is, changes over time. So we have to be careful of reading things into the ancient texts from our 21st century understanding. Seeing where I’m making biased assumptions is a major part of my work when I engage with the texts.

But I guess the possibility of enlightenment (freedom from suffering) is a central notion in the EBTs that might go against the current scientific consensus? Maybe?

But I really just wanted to drop in this short essay on cosmology by Bhikkhu Brahmali.

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Yeah, I’m not that concerned if Buddhism is inconsistent with science. I’m more concerned about the ways science is inconsistent with Buddhism: being used to produce weapons of mass destruction and so on.

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The Buddha taught mostly through question and answer. He considered the nature of reality to be very difficult to understand. The early scriptures have to be seen from that perspective and also, he was trying to make things understandable for people living around 500 BC.

Who knows, the passages about expansion and contraction of the universe might be consistent with science now, but he was never speaking to a modern scientific crowd during his lifetime.

Many beings in Buddhism are defined through mental states or birth. So by those definitions, a human being might be any being that is similar to us in state and circumstances. So that inherently makes those passages about humans living 10.000 years a bit difficult to interpret exactly.

And it might have just been an Indian thing, there is a parallel with ancient Greek and Middle Eastern cultures which also believed people in the past lived much longer lives and that this degraded over time.

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I have learned: The human bhava can be very very long/ Much longer than we physically exist, maybe that is meant? In rebirth accounts humans mostly remember former lives as humans. Human bhava can be very long but our lives here on Earth not.

Even when we are not born yet, and in between births, we are humans, because we have a human-bhava in this in between state.

So, seeing this this way, what does *human bhava refer to? Or, for example, at the level of bhava, what really distinguishes human bhava from animal bhava?

We must not think we are humans ofcourse. That’s what the Buddha discovered. In this life we only experience human-bhava but that is not the same as being human.

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I don’t see it too hard to believe that there can be humans who live for 100,000 years. There are plenty of technologies now which can be used for long youth and life. Stem cells therapy, telomerase, meditate, eat less, eat vegan, healthy eating, exercise, good amount of sleep, no stress, no crime, etc…

Given the collective memory of various cultures, I am more pro homo sapiens being able to live so long, but so many civilizations and tech disappeared throughout the ages. Many previous homos are considered as humans as well. The various ingenious cultures of the world also can encode in their lore the lessons learnt from the previous collapse of human civilizations.

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Rebirth memories are doubted as it’s believed that the mind can create them. There was a very good documentary of soul. Or reincarnation on YouTube. Suddenly I can’t find it. YouTube has a history of hiding the truth. In that documentary kids are documented like is the case most times. One of them remembered he crashed with a plane in war in the water. He had a lot details with parents help and his they went to the sea where it might have happened in the hope he let go of his former life. Very emotional.

A few dreams happened since I went 10 days silent meditation. And many are obviously not the mind invention. They are nothing as compared what I experienced in this life. Monks in the dreams didn’t have the color robes of the modern time. Nor yellow nor orange. Nor red.

All my dreams they had colors like I nerver seen perfected in modern times. Is that dark brown from natural source color. Darker than what Thai forest tradition even has.

One dream I’m arguing with Elder monks and I went after that in forest to meditate. And hit my head at one tree. That’s how the dream end. But that one seem that I couldn’t be sure if it’s me because I see my whole body. I couldn’t concentrate on face. But I see many monks with me. And that person I said was me was a monk also.

I had a dream that I got one without meditating connected to my ex wife. I was picking fruits as layperson at a tree. And monks wearing again dark brown robe. Passed in front me. So I went to them and gave fruits. After that. I went walking to what I felt was my ex wife. when I arrived at her she is a house that I never saw in this life. She had a bucket with the same fruits. I was picking. But many more. I felt I told her that the monks are passing in front our house. And I saw her stand and bow down in their direction.

I went Sri Lanka but never truly see people act like that from far. Never seen it in a movie etc. that action was new to my current life.

I have another where I was see a farmer and a monk. But the angle makes me wonder who I am supposed to be. But the farmer gave fruit to the monk. From the cart that he had the fruits that he harvested.

I’m not sure if it’s the same dream but I have one that I see a monk in distance away behind him. And he went in a kuti just next the sandy road in a forest.

I have a few more

I just say in hope that faith enters through someone. I know I have after seeing these memories.

But the most recent one. Again happens after I go sleep after I did meditation. But that one don’t see my body. It’s as if I’m really living in the body. So I couldn’t see if I was a layperson or monk. But I assume layperson staying at monastery. I was going to give food to what looks like the head monk. And I saw he finished eating. And was talking to the monks at his left side infront him. Laughing. I turned around and I found myself in front the the washing bowl for bowls. I see myself having something that looks like ancient food container. It didn’t look like plastic. But I felt I was sad looking in the water with rest of food. I felt tears

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Thank you so much Bhante for your reply!

I see that those ideas that contradict science are not core to the Dhamma, so a non-literal interpretation of those passages would be enough to restore consistency; however, I wonder what justification we would have to do so.

For example, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Buddha claimed the Earth to be flat. Since it contradicts an enormous amount of scientific evidence and ins’t core to Buddhism, we can make some alternative interpretation. However, the justification for the Buddha’s knowledge of cosmology was his memories of past lives, and if we shouldn’t interpret his cosmology literally, why should we interpret his memories of past lives literally? Rebirth and karma would be threatened, and this way of interpreting the suttas would make us fall in some form of secular Buddhism.

Another thing that makes me a bit confused is why the Buddha would mention something that isn’t core to Buddhism. As he said in the Sīsapāvana sutta:

So too, bhikkhus, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why, bhikkhus, have I not taught those many things? Because they are unbeneficial, they do not belong to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, they do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. That is why I have not taught them.

So, if those beliefs aren’t central, why were they taught?

Thank you so much Bhante for your explanations!

I see that some ideas shouldn’t be interpreted literally if we are going to trust science. I wonder though what justifications we can use to have non-literal interpretations of particular suttas and not others. As I said in my reply to Khemarato.bhikkhu,

Now I see that we can’t be fundamentalists, but then how can we know what suttas should be interpreted literally and what ones should not? If we take the approach of interpreting non-literally anything that we find impossible, we would end up justifying practically any approach, even one of secular Buddhists.

Another point: the people who listened to the Buddha’s explanations the first time were likely to have believed in a straightforward interpretation, and I believe that the Buddha wouldn’t tell someone something if he believed that they would understand something else.

Finally, there’s the matter of numbers in the Pali Canon. I know that people at that time didn’t have numbers as we have nowadays, and some very precise values seem very repetitive throughout the suttas. For instance, they’re usually more like 500, not 479. I don’t know how they used to count at that time, and it’s probably that large numbers were too infrequent to be used, so it’s also possible that large amounts were mentioned as a form of emphasis. About small numbers, some of them could be used as a form of symbology or numerology. Therefore, I believe that this could solve much of the seeming contradictions between Buddhism and science without giving up Buddha’s insights. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the usage of numbers in the Pali Canon. Do you know how this subject has been discussed?

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Falsifiability is the existence of the logical possibility that a theory can be wrong. Think about it, we can’t prove that humans don’t exist, but that doesn’t mean humans are beyond the scope of science.

My theory that “all bachelors are unmarried men” is not falsifiable, there is no possibility of finding a counter-example.

There’s nothing stopping us from creating falsifiable theories about karma, rebirth, devas, and psychic powers, and pursuing them scientifically.

Actually, you probably could not have an academic career doing this, because these ideas are not fashionable right now. They could be in the future though.

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