Buddha on the brain (Salon.com)

Steve Paulson, Salon: The debate between science and religion typically gets stuck on the thorny question of God’s existence. How do you reconcile an all-powerful God with the mechanistic slog of evolution? Can a rationalist do anything but sneer at the Bible’s miracles? But what if another religion — a non-theistic one — offered a way out of this impasse? That’s the promise that some people hold out for in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself is deeply invested in reconciling science and spirituality. He meets regularly with Western scientists, looking for links between Buddhism and the latest research in physics and neuroscience. In his book “The Universe in a Single Atom,” he wrote, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

B. Alan Wallace may be the American Buddhist most committed to finding connections between Buddhism and science. An ex-Buddhist monk who went on to get a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford, he once studied under the Dalai Lama, and has acted as one of the Tibetan leader’s translators. Wallace, now president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, has written and edited many books, often challenging the conventions of modern science. “The sacred object of its reverence, awe and devotion is not God or spiritual enlightenment but the material universe,” he writes. He accuses prominent scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins of practicing “a modern kind of nature religion.”

In his new book, “Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge,” Wallace takes on the loaded subject of consciousness. He argues that the long tradition of Buddhist meditation, with its rigorous investigation of the mind, has in effect pioneered a science of consciousness, and that it has much to teach Western scientists. “Subjectivity is the central taboo of scientific materialism,” he writes. He considers the Buddhist examination of interior, mental states far preferable to what he calls the Western “idolatry of the brain.” And he says the modern obsession with brain chemistry has created a false sense of well-being: “It is natural then to view psychopharmaceutical and psychotropic drugs as primary sources of happiness and relief from suffering.” Wallace also chastises cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists for assuming the mind is merely the product of the physical mechanics of the brain. And he talks openly about ideas that most scientists would consider laughable, including reincarnation and a transcendent consciousness.

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