By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
When we contemplate the tremendous gains science and technological capabilities have given modern man, a capacity to reach beyond the limitations our planet has imposed on the pre-technological age, it might be said that science may be challenging the long held and deeply entrenched notion of the nature of “creation” which has always been based on metaphysical thought, theology, and the development of cultural myths. That nature being a belief in a “creator-god”. Once what seemed to be a mystery relative to how the Universe came to be and functioned, may now be explained by our understanding from the study of physics, astronomy, biology, and earth-sciences as well as other academic disciplines. A good example of impermanence and how change comes to effect the human thought process by the way. It is still important that we understand that a scientific view of the universe is yet another point of view.
In the 21st century we are not even close to overcoming the universal mysteries, even if it were possible considering the limitations of the human species. Yet, many are convinced that a good chance exists that science will ultimately resolve enough of the puzzle of the unknown that it would leave very little ground for a god as we have come to define it. We only need to look at how modern science has narrowed the sphere of influence that religious institutions have enjoyed over the centuries in setting “universal-standards” of how the universe is. I include some Buddhist tradition’s ancient beliefs that still survive into the modern age. As we learn more about how science is informing us of how the Universe is, there is little need to look outside of it’s boundaries for spiritual direction. I personally find the more I understand how science is giving us a better picture of universal realities, my spiritual life is strengthened and my interests in metaphysical explanations is declining. In fact, I am more suspicious than ever of supernatural experience. But the big question that all of this engenders is, “can the sciences explain everything?” Can science and spirituality sit side by side in harmony?
Even as I sit and write this, there are individuals in our government leadership that very recently have disavowed what science is “teaching”, like the big-bang theory or what we can learn from quantum physics, and offer their belief that the earth was only created 9,000 years ago. They place their worldview on documentation written in the early period of the dark ages. Then there are theologians and religious leaders that try to reconcile scientific discovery and theory to conform to existing religious text and argue that events like the big-bang if true must have been initiated by a god, or at least an unmoved-mover. My own thought is that even the big-bang theory will be resolved in ways beyond current science’s ability to understand. The Buddha always took a pragmatic approach on these issues by just saying it is unknowable and not important in resolving human suffering and how we can contribute to our own positive self-flourishing. Yet it is interesting that some of the core Buddhist principles associated with Dependent (Relational) Origination comes close to reflect the understanding of quantum theory.
None of this banishes all belief that there is no god. In fact, considering the complexity and reoccurring design found throughout our own world mirroring what can also be found throughout the universe, much of what science is finding out about how the universe is, is eerily perfect for creating and supporting life. It is not easy to dismiss outright that “something else” is going on behind the scenes. And it is this unknowable, for some, that keeps the belief in God alive. As Buddhists we have come to know that we live in a mutual-causal world, where nothing remains the same for long, and that there is a natural order to how the universe is when we cease to see only the form of things and become awakened to it’s interconnective and interdependent nature. Theologians have seized upon this reality as evidence that a god must have had a hand in its creation. For them it is more simple to invoke god than to postulate the existence of a universe driven by forces beyond our ability to comprehend. But contemporary science explains what to them is supernatural intervention in a completely different language. So it comes down to the language we use and the imperfect definition of what our words mean in order to explain the unexplainable. Theological theory on the one hand, and scientific theory on the other. A language of incompatibility. In fact, we may yet have created a language to use when trying to unravel modern scientific discovery in order to reconcile our ancient cultural worldviews. For many the answer to some of the really hard questions is god, creation as a noun. But I believe these answers become unsustainable under scrutiny. In this modern age, there is no definitive answer to these questions, yet.
We must also accept that belief in a god has other functions in our culture other than to offer an answer to the challenges of scientific hypothesis. From a psychological and social justice point of view, a belief in the supernatural can act as a motivator for individuals to do good, and reduces the stress surrounding the fear of death. It is this driving force that keeps the theological, religious, and metaphysical thoughts of man energized. Against this overpowering need to find truths in the unexplainable, the role of science is often misunderstood as most humans are not equipped to think theoretically. Instead, what matters the most is what happens to us personally as we live day to day. We care more about our relationships, things we value that gives life pleasure, and living a life that brings happiness to ourselves and those close to us. The challenge for all of us that also value a spiritual practice, is to find meaning in the few moments we have to live on this planet that promotes human flourishing. For Buddhists, we strive to live our lives according to the Three Pure Precepts. It is important not to be distracted from this goal. It is important too not to get stuck in the past and surrender our practice to another age. As modern Buddhists, we incorporate contemporary scientific discovery into our practice, make changes to our thinking when necessary, and work to always find the best course of action that produces useful and positive karmic results so we and all those we share this planet with have the opportunity to advance along our path using the technological tools available that help us awaken to how the universe is. When we achieve this, we too reflect back our universal natures, just like it is.