Buddhism and the Big Bang
This follows on from an introduction, and part 2 of a series in which I’m examining the Dalai Lama’s thinking on the relationship between science and Buddhism, as outlined in his book The Universe in a Single Atom: How Science and Spirituality Can Serve Our World¹. His fourth chapter is entitled ‘The Big Bang and the Buddhist Beginningless Universe’.
He had earlier said that he has not had any formal scientific training, but has had stimulating dialogues with various prominent scientists. Some of these have obviously persuaded him of the truth of Big Bang theory, for he says that “one of the great achievements of modern science is that it seems to have brought us closer than ever to an understanding of the conditions and complicated processes underlying the origins of our cosmos”.
I should perhaps make my own position on this issue clear. While I am not an out-and-out Big Bang ‘denier’ or total sceptic, I nevertheless think that there are still unresolved doubts about it which are glossed over too frequently, and am still waiting to be convinced. It’s therefore disappointing that the Dalai Lama doesn’t seem especially knowledgeable about these issues, and seems to have accepted too readily the consensus scientific viewpoint.
One of these fundamental issues is the claim that Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the red shift phenomenon proves conclusively that the universe is expanding. The Dalai Lama says that an expanding universe “accords with the basic intuition of the ancient Buddhist cosmologists”, and that Hubble’s discovery “demonstrated convincingly that the universe is curved and expanding”. Perhaps the universe is expanding but, as I have noted in several previous articles, the red shift was not enough to convince Hubble himself that the universe is expanding, saying that the data were incompatible, and that “the expanding models are a forced interpretation of the observational results”².
The Dalai Lama also readily accepts the conventional explanation of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR), which “came to be recognised as an echo, or afterglow of the big bang”. Again, there are doubts about this, as I have discussed in earlier articles. However, having said that “most cosmologists are convinced that the background microwave noise conclusively demonstrates the validity of the Big Bang hypothesis”, he says “this is a wonderful example of how, in science, in the final analysis, it is empirical evidence that represents the last court of justice”. It is disappointing that here he seems to be calling evidence, thus proof, what is actually a scientific hypothesis about the evidence.
He goes on to discuss various conflicting cosmological views from ancient India, then observes that the Buddha himself never answered such questions, refusing “to engage on this level of metaphysical discourse”. This did not, however, deter later Buddhists from developing “a long history of delving deeply into these fundamental and perennial questions about our existence and the world we live in”. The Dalai Lama outlines some of their arguments.
He says that the idea of a single definite beginning (which a belief in the Big Bang might suggest) is “highly problematic”. This would leave only two options, theism or no cause at all, both of which Buddhism rejects.
In his dismissal of theism, he cites the 7th century writer Dharmakirti, who argued against the theistic Indian philosophical schools. This material sounds eerily familiar to modern ears; the Dalai Lama references the argument from design, watches and watchmakers (think William Paley and Richard Dawkins). Despite the Dalai Lama’s approval, Dharmakirti’s arguments are not especially convincing, however, using the same logic and reasoning that we find today — in a nutshell, he cannot understand how there might be an ultimate uncaused cause, which would be “an arbitrary metaphysical hypothesis (which) cannot be proven”. Indeed so, but such an idea does not seem to be a problem for other traditions. Dharmakirti seems like an early version of David Hume.
In similar vein, the Dalai Lama cites a 4th century Buddhist Asanga. He “rejects the possibility of the universe being the creation of a preceding intelligence… (which would) have to totally transcend cause and effect. An absolute being that is eternal, transcendent and beyond the domain of the law of causality would have no ability to interact with cause and effect, and therefore could neither start something nor stop it”. Again this is merely a rational argument, and speculation, not something based on direct experience or insight. I thought that on the whole Buddhists believe that the mind is incapable of understanding deeper realities.
The Dalai Lama goes on to discuss these themes even further, but I hope I’ve done enough to give an impression of Buddhism’s general approach to these cosmological questions. I found this chapter disappointing. Although in modern times Buddhism is revered by many in the West, it seems to have no special insight into these difficult questions, and its scholars use rational arguments which haven’t changed much down the centuries, although they were perhaps original in their own era. As I said above, the Dalai Lama seems to have accepted unquestioningly the modern consensus scientific viewpoint. Perhaps he too readily wants to find conformity between science and Buddhism, in order to make the latter more appealing to the modern mind.
That reminds me of a comment that I quoted in the two earlier articles that most of what we in the West think of as Buddhism is actually a new and uniquely western phenomenon… (which started) in the 19th Century, and accelerating through the 20th, Americans and Europeans (with help from modern Eastern Buddhist masters like the Dali Lama and D. T. Suzuki) have worked to strip Buddhist religion of its ‘religion’, reducing it to an intellectual mind science”³.
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1. Abacus, 2006
2. ‘Effects of red shifts on the distribution of nebulae’, Astrophysical Journal 84 (1936), p554
3. from a review by Jack Preston King of a book by Evan Thompson called Why I Am Not a Buddhist.