Is Buddhism compatible with neuroscience?

David Weisman in Seed Magazine (here) has an article on the relationship of neuroscience and Buddhism. He has recently been surprised to find that they “do not appear to profoundly contradict.”

…They (Buddhists) believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day…

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree…

I don’t mean to dismiss or gloss over the areas where Buddhism and neuroscience diverge. Some Buddhist dogmas deviate from what we know about the brain. Buddhism posits an immaterial thing that survives the brain’s death and is reincarnated…

Like other religions there are a number of types of Buddhism and they vary a great deal in their ideas and sophistication. There are Buddhists who welcome the findings of neuroscience and I am sure there are many who don’t.

Reincarnation is not an idea that neuroscience embraces. It has been inherited from Hinduism by all the eastern religions that grew out of early Hinduism: modern Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Falun Gong etc. Buddhism did not develop the idea of reincarnation – they just didn’t reject it. It is not sought. Like in Buddhisms cousin religions, the ideal that is sought is escape from reincarnation to a state of nirvana. Nirvana is not a type of heaven but instead it is a dissolving of self, time, space in an infinite unity.

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