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National Science Day Lecture, given at the University of Chiang Mai,
Northern Thailand, on August 16, 1991.
HOW DID RELIGION originate? We have all learned that religion arose from the fear of danger, particularly natural dangers, such as lightning, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and so on. These dangers have threatened human beings throughout the ages.
In ancient times men didn't understand the workings of nature and were ignorant of the causes of these phenomena. Terrified at the threat of these natural forces, mankind began to search for answers. This quest precipitated an interest in the nature that surrounded him, and a desire to find some way to deal with it. This is an important point, because this is the common origin of both religion and science. Religion was born from a desire to escape danger, whereas science, as we have already mentioned, was born from a desire to know the truth of nature.
In the case of religion, the desire for security was the incentive. Danger exists in the natural world, so humanity turned to nature for a practical answer. At the same time, there was a sense of wonder at the marvels of nature, from which arose the desire to know its truths. This was no idle curiosity: human heings were forced into finding out about nature in order to address the dangers which threatened them.
From the aspiration to be free of danger, which was based on fear, also arose the desire to know the truths of nature. At this point we can see a common source for science and religion: religion arose first, at the fear of danger, while the desire to know the truths of nature, which was science, followed.
As far as we know, the earliest forms of scientific research in fact arose from religion. The people who looked for scientific knowledge in Egypt, Mesopotamia and other ancient cultures were from religious circles. These were the first people to take an interest in studying nature and devoting time to finding solutions to the dangers that threatened them. This indicates that science and religion originated together.
This initial common origin of science and religion is also the point at which they parted. Why did they part? The answer to this lies within the nature of truth itself.
The natural dangers which threaten humanity are immediate concerns, matters of life and death. The threat is immediate, here, right in front of us. Do what you will, we must have an answer right now. And all people are faced equally with the same dangers. The answer must be relevant to the group, to the whole of society. In such a situation, it is necessary to come up with an answer that can be acted on immediately, something which puts an end to these urgent demands. When an answer appears that is acceptable, it is institutionalized as religion.
The practical answers thus provided may take forms, such as mystic ceremonies, which to the modern eye would seem absurd, but even so, they are something which can be acted upon immediately. For the mainstream of society, this is what becomes religion.
Now there is another group, which might have arisen from the first group, but at a time when the immediate threat has passed and there is time to gradually collect the facts, to analyse and experiment. This group of people arrives at a different set of answers, answers which have resulted from observation and experiment. This is what became known as 'science', the knowledge that comes from gradual and systematic observation.
This is the point of divergence between religion and science. The answer which served as a remedy for an immediate need, for the masses, lacked systematic observation, and relied heavily on faith and belief. This was religion. Religion, then, is tied to faith.
Science, on the other hand, is a discipline of gradual and systematic investigation. It was not concerned with finding immediate answers, and was available only to the few who were so inclined, not for the whole of society. For this reason, there were individuals or groups who carried on this systematic observation, using methods that were verifiable, and this became known as 'science'.
At this juncture we have one clear distinction between religion and science: religion is for the masses, for whole societies or groups, whereas science is for a more limited number of people. Now, the problem that arises here is, how does religion maintain uniformity in the letter and the practice of its teaching? This is achieved through faith. Religion has its roots in faith, and utilizes faith to preserve its essence, providing an unchanging belief system which must be adhered to and upheld, one that is unquestionable. In the West this is called dogma.
Science is limited to the people to whom it communicates, the thinkers. They preserve the essence of science through verifiable truths, using valid methods of experimentation. Science thus preserves and propagates its truths through wisdom, or, to be more specific, scientific method.
Religion seeks to convey an all-embracing, absolute truth, an answer which addresses an immediate need. It would probably be more accurate to say, rather than religion provides this answer, that the answer thus provided is what became known as religion. It's not that there is an institution called religion already existing, which comes up with these answers, but rather that these answers, proposed by humanity, have become institutionalized as religion. The answer is proposed by people, or a person, and as time goes on these people are joined by others and an institution forms, serving to preserve the teaching. Thus we have the institutional forms of religion such as mendicants, priests, monks and so on.
Looked at in one sense, religion seeks to provide one absolute answer, an answer to the fundamental questions of life, covering everything, from the highest to the lowest.
Science, on the other hand, attempts to observe truth from its individual manifestations, piece by piece. It is a collection of piecemeal, partial truths, which attempts to gradually work toward an overall picture.
Even though science, too, wants a general principle, its general principle is conditional, confined to specific situations and conditions, and is only part of the overall or fundamental truth. To use a teasing phrase, we could say that religion gives a total answer, science a piecemeal one.
At this point I would like to add that, owing to the limitations of religion and science, there arose a third group who was dissatisfied with both of them. This group also wanted an answer to the fundamental questions of life and the universe, an absolute answer, but they were dissatisfied with religion because, although it gave such an answer, it was not one that appealed to reason. It appealed to faith. But when they turned around and looked at science, although it gave answers that were verifiable and appealed to reason, those answers were not absolute. Research had still not reached the fundamental level of reality.
This group did not want to wait for science's answers, so they attempted to find an answer to those fundamental questions through reasoned consideration, without the need for verification. This system of thought became another science, known as 'philosophy'.
We could compare these three disciplines, with the fundamental questions of nature as a measuring stick, in this way:
1. Science: Is still in the process of verification and observation and is yet to come up with an answer.
2. Philosophy: Attempts to give an answer in lieu of verification by using the tool of reasoned analysis.
3. Religion: Provides a total answer which needs no verification.
Both science and philosophy appeared after religion, and both attempt to give answers that are clearer than religion's. However, both of them fail to give answers that are satisfactory and fulfilling on an overall basis, which is why religion still exists and still provides an answer based on faith.
Having looked at some of the differences between religion and science, I would like to give some observations about this difference.
Because religion offers this comprehensive and immediate truth, an answer that is suitable for the masses, but which at the same time is not verifiable through any of the five senses, it must hinge on faith. Because these answers are unverified, they will be constantly growing. At one time one kind of answer is submitted. People don't know whether it is true or not, because it can't be verified. If they believe it they accept it. At a later time a new answer is given. Nobody knows whether this new answer is true or not, it can't be verified either. It boils down to preference. Some may prefer the older belief, some the newer one. Religions, built as they are on faith, vary in accordance with that faith. For this reason we can see at any one time many different religions.
Why is this? Because this is the nature of such answers. The all embracing, absolute answer must be like this. It cannot be verified, it rests on belief. When a new answer arises there will be some who believe that, but all the answers are equally unverifiable.
On the other hand, science answers slowly and methodically, verifying each point as it goes. It solves problems intelligently. At any given time there is only one science. So we find people saying, "There are many religions, but only one science."
However, looking from a historical perspective, we find that there are many sciences, because science doesn't give a total view of truth. There may be many religions at the one time, but from a historical perspective, there are many sciences. Theories about the nature of the Universe vary from time to time. One set of scientific answers may seem correct at one time, but at a later time it is proven to be wrong. As time goes on, this new answer, at first thought to be right, is in its turn proven wrong. A new picture is constantly unfolding.
At one time science followed the Ptolemaic System, which showed a universe as postulated by Ptolemy (geocentric). Then came the Copernican System (heliocentric solar system), following the model of Copernicus, then there were the Cartesian and Newtonian systerns, and now we have the universe of the new physics. Science's picture of reality has been constantly changing. Nature, or the Universe, according to the modern theories of physics, whether the quantum or relativity theories, is completely different from the universe in the time of Newton. So there have been many sciences throughout the ages.
Moreover, not only are there many sciences throughout the ages, it seems that in the present age we have many sciences existing together. There are even scientists who now say that the time has come for science to change some of its basic premises. These scientists reject some of the old scientific premises and talk of a 'new physics' and a 'new science', indicating that there is no longer only one science.
Just now I mentioned that science deals with the outside world, measurable by the five senses. In this connection religion has yet another special characteristic. Religion not only looks at the outside world, but also concerns itself with the human being, with the one who is observing. Science concerns itself solely with the objects of observation, but religion concems itself with the observer, the one who is using these five sense bases. Religion is thus not confined to the five senses, but is also directly related to the level of development of each individual. The way religion is perceived is directly related to the level of mental development of the perceiver, which gives it an added level of complexity.
In any case, as far as religion goes, even though it lays emphasis on the human being, it does so only insofar as the human being is experiencing a problem, and that problem needs to be dealt with. When looking for the causes and factors of that problem, however, most religions turn around and look for its source, like science, in the external physical world. In this respect, most religions do not differ from science: they look to the external natural world as the source of problems, the source of suffering. Religion's search for truth is in order to solve the human problem, while science's search for truth is in order to satisfy the thirst for knowledge.
For most religions, which are compelled to have a ready answer, the cause of problems, whether internal or external, is seen as existing behind that natural world in the form of spirits, deities, gods or other supernatural forces. For external disturbances, such as lightning, earthquakes and so on, sacrifices and prayers to these forces are prescribed. For internal disturbances, be it sickness, mental disease or hysteria, mediums or spirit healers perform mystic ceremonies. Science, not being compelled to find any immediate answers, slowly and systematically goes about its search for data.
The natural religions, Buddhism in particular, although having a special interest in the human condition, do not see the source of problems as being entirely in the external, physical world. This kind of religion looks for the source of problems within the entire process of causes and conditions including those within the human being, such as wrong ways of livelihood - be they internal or external, material or immaterial, physical or mental.
Among ordinary religions, there are many that teach the treatment of problems by appropriate means, through morality or ethics, which seems to indicate an understanding of the internal factors contributing to problems, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, such practice is often not done with real understanding of these factors, but out of obedience to some external supernatural force. The relationship is one between mankind and an external power. Ethical behaviour in these religions is usually done in order to avoid punishment, or to gain favours or blessings, rather than through awareness of the factors occurring in the natural processes.
Religions, many and varied at the one time, address the needs of different levels of people. At any one time society consists of many different levels of virtue and understanding, thus the need for many religions, answering many different levels of need.
In the past the truth of science was verifiable through the five senses, but this is no longer the case. Initially observation was carried out with these five senses on their own - with the naked eye, the naked ear, directly by hand and so on. As time went on it became necessary to develop instruments, such as the telescope and the microscope, to extend the capabilities of these senses. Eventually even these instruments had reached their limits, making it necessary for scientists to develop even more complex instruments, until finally it has become necessary to test hypotheses with mathematics. Mathematical languages became the instrument of verification. In the present time this has been extended to include the use of computers.
Science's development of increasingly complex means of verification has given rise to another feature which distinguishes it from religion. The verification and observation of science has become a specialized field, accessible only to a select few. It has become impossible for the average man to observe the truths of science, because the instruments are not available to him. Science has become a highly select subject.
Religion belongs to the masses. It is available to the average man, who is free to accept or reject it without the need for proof. Although it is true that some religions, like science, reserve their truths for a select few, the priests or monks, and even reserve the right to spiritual attainments, this is more a result of manipulations of certain individuals. In the natural religions, such as Buddhism, there is no such distinction or exclusion, because nature is its own master. How could it be monopolized? It is each individual's right to understand and attain the truths of nature, depending on intelligence and discernment.
Note that there are two kinds of inability to verify truths. One is through an inability to access the instruments of verification, while the other is because such truths cannot be verified through the means being used. In the present time science is experiencing problems on both counts, especially when attempting to make a statement of ultimate truth, or delving into the realm of the mind.
If science does not broaden its outlook, it will arrive at a dead end. Science has a very strong aspiration to answer the fundamental and ultimate questions of the universe, but it never seems to get near them. Just as it seems to be getting on the verge of an answer, the truth seems to slip beyond its reach.
Nowadays we are beginning to see different kinds of science existing simultaneously. In addition to the new science and the classical science, or the new physics and the classical physics, we have one science for the specialists and one for the average man. This is because many of the concepts spoken of in science are completely beyond the ability of the average man to visualize. Not only can he not verify them for himself, he can't even grasp the concepts at all. And this applies not only to the average man: some of the concepts of science are even beyond the ability of most scientists to visualize! One can only take their word for it.
Let's take an example. According to science, light is at once a wave and a particle. Scientists were trying to define the nature of light itself: is it a wave or is it a particle? It's a component, a particle, right? One group said, "Yes, that's right. It's a particle, a stream of protons." But another group said, "No, light is a wave." In the end it seems that it is both ... Light is both a particle and a wave. Hmm. But what's that? It has to be proven with mathematics. This kind of thing is beyond the grasp of the ordinary human being.
Let's look at some more examples. Take the black holes, for instance: astronomers tell us that there are black holes scattered throughout the universe. These are stars from which even light cannot escape, they are absolutely dark. In fact, nothing at all can escape from their extremely high gravitational pulls. Even light cannot be emitted by them. Now what does the average man make of that? Something that even light cannot escape from?!
Now they say that in these black holes both matter and energy are compacted to terrific densities. There's nothing to compare with them on this earth of ours. To give some idea, they say that if all the empty space were somehow pressed out of a skyscraper, like the Empire State Building, 102 stories high, its mass and energy would be compacted into the size of a needle! A skyscraper! Take all the empty space out of it and all that's left is the size of one needle. Now what are the villagers going to make of that?
The scientists say that this is how a black hole is. In fact it's even stranger, because, apart from being the size of a needle, at the same time it would still weigh as much as the original Empire State Building. It's inconceivable - all we can do is believe them. We've trusted the scientists for so long, we give them the benefit of the doubt. But deep inside we're all wondering, "Huh? Is that possible?"
Science is not yet able to provide an answer that explains the totality of life and the world, it is still engaged in the process of collecting and verifying pieces of data. Science is still unable to explain many of the basic questions of the universe, such as the nature of, or even existence of, the basic particle.
Science has gone beyond the point where it can be proven with the five senses. Hypotheses are proven through mathematics, which is then interpreted by physicists. The truth is reduced to algebraic equations, which are not in themselves the truth, and don't really clarify the truth in a convincing way. It has become a matter of belief in these mathematical symbols. These symbols are interpreted without a direct awareness of reality, which is very nearly the condition that Sir Arthur Eddington spoke of.
Sir Arthur Eddington was an English scientist, credited with being the first person to fully understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity. He was also the first person to devise a way to prove the Theory of Relativity, on account of which he was knighted.
Sir Arthur Eddington, a scientist who was foremost in his field, once said:
"Science is incapable of leading mankind directly to the truth, or reality as such, it can only lead him to a shadow world of symbols."
These are his words - "a shadow world of symbols" - a world of symbols and signs. These are the words of one of the world's leading scientists.
Even observable phenomena are not a certainty. Scientists use the scientific method as a means of testing their observations. The main factors of this method are observation and experiment, which must be carried out until there is no longer room for doubt. But, even then, the matter is not closed, because of the limitations of the experimental method and the instruments used.
Let's take as an example Newton's Law of Gravitation. This was a universally accepted truth, a Law, but Einstein came along and said it was not entirely correct. On the subatomic level, the Law of Gravity no longer applies, but in Newton's time there weren't the instruments to observe the subatomic level. Mankind had to wait until the twentieth century and Einstein, using mathematical equations and reasoning, to arrive at this truth. So we must be careful. You cannot ultimately believe even experimentation.
At this point I would like to insert a little story used to tease the scientists. It's the story of the chicken and Farmer Brown. Every morning that the chicken sees Farmer Brown, Farmer Brown is carrying some food for him. He sees this every single morning, so it follows that whenever he sees Farmer Brown the chicken gets fed. Chicken sees Farmer Brown = gets fed ... this is the equation. But there comes a morning when the chicken sees Farmer Brown and doesn't get fed, because Farmer Brown isn't carrying food in his hand, he's carrying a knife. The equation "chicken sees Farmer Brown = gets fed", becomes "Chicken sees Farmer Brown = gets throat cut". So it seems that even verification based on repeated observation cannot be completely trusted, it's still not a sure thing'
What I would like to point out here is that science has distanced itself more and more from the average person through the sophistication of its experimental methods. Scientists have become a very select group, an elite, one that is highly specialized, whereas religion is available to the masses. This is a major difference between the two disciplines.
Science is of little direct use to the masses. The function through which science should really help the people is in the field of understanding, but the role it in effect plays is by and large through technology, which does not improve understanding by any means.
In what direction does technology assist humanity? Mostly in consumption, often nourishing either greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), or delusion (moha). Television is invented, and so we watch television. But when people watch television, they don't look at things which are going to increase their understanding and intelligence, they look at things which make them even more indulgent and heedless. We have communications technology, but it is not used for developing wisdom and discernment, but too often to encourage delusion.
Science does not seem to take responsibility for these things, throwing off any such role and leaving technology to help the masses. Technology, however, doesn't always help; sometimes it is downright harmful. As I said, instead of becoming a tool to create benefit, it becomes a tool for seeking benefit. Thus, science leaves the people in the hands of religion. Who can you blame? One may ask, "Why does religion make people so gullible and stupid?", but then it can be countered, "Why does science abandon the people to religion?"
Science has become a subject which only very few people can approach. All people can do is believe it, they can't really know it. Nowadays science has become more and more a matter of belief, or faith, not of knowledge, which puts science on the same standing as most religions.
At this time America still faces the problem of 'scientism', blind faith in science. Science is the direct opposite to credulity, it deals with knowledge, and the reasoned and systematic verification of truths, but nowadays people have become credulous of science. Scientists should be accepting some of the responsibility for this situation, because it is their duty to impart understanding to mankind, but nowadays people relate to science with credulity at times verging on foolishness. Without knowing or verifying the truths of science, they simply believe them.
Before moving on from this point, I would like to offer a reflection on the statement, "There are many religions, but only one science.
Firstly, the presence of many religions but only one science at any one time is a natural phenomenon, arising naturally on account of human nature. This condition is therefore science. To put it another way, science, as the understanding and knowledge of the natural way of things, should also understand this situation.
Secondly, the existence of many religions side by side with science indicates that science is still unable to satisfy mankind's highest aspiration, to answer the fundamental questions of the universe, or to obtain a complete description of the nature of reality. Science is still not fully developed, for which reason religions are still required to fulfil a need, even if only provisionally, which is not fulfilled by science.
Thirdly, when science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind's ultimate questions, it will be a perfect science. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, any religion which is able to show the highest truth, to lead humanity to reality, will be in a position to unify with science, becoming one and the same body of knowledge. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.
I would like to once again summarize at this point that the real life problems in society are in need of an immediate answer or remedy - now, in this present life. As individuals we are only on this earth for a limited time, we cannot wait. The situations threatening us give no time for procrastination.
Even though science is capable of providing many efficient ways of answering our problems, it is weakened by being 'too little, too late'.
By science being 'too little', I mean that the knowledge of science is insufficient to solve the fundamental problems of life. It cannot make people good, it cannot make them happy, it cannot show them how to rectify bad habits, it cannot solve suffering, sadness, anger, sorrow, depression and so on. It can't even solve social problems.
In answer to this, scientists may counter that science has helped in many ways. People with insomnia, depression and mental problems are all helped by drugs. Science is of great benefit in these areas. Applied Science and technology in the medical fields have helped vast numbers of people. And this point must be conceded. People with severe mental problems are indeed helped to some degree by science.
Scientists may believe that in the future it will be possible to make people happy through the use of drugs. Whenever you feel unhappy, just pop a capsule and it's gone ... but this is no longer medicine, it is pleasure seeking. Scientists may conduct research into the nature of the brain, finding out which particular chemicals are secreted when certain emotions, such as happiness, are experienced. When they can isolate the chemical agent they will be able to synthesize it. Whenever there is a feeling of depression or sadness, people can take this drug and have immediate relief. It looks as if science is able to do anything, maybe even solve all the world's problems. If it can make people happy, then people will no longer have to fear depression and sadness. With chemicals like this as freely available as food, people will always be happy, and never have to experience depression.
But then again, reflecting on the dangers of chemicals, we see that the world is enough of a mess already, with food additives and pesticides, without adding any more. However, this is not the most important point. Even more important is the perspective of values, or quality of life. The objective of religion is to lead people to freedom. Freedom here means the ability to be happy without the need for external agents, to be more and more independently happy and less and less dependent on externals, to develop a life free of enslavement to a mass of external trappings. But the use of drugs forces people to lay their happiness and their fate more and more into the hands of externals, making them less and less able to live with themselves.
If science causes people to depend increasingly on externals, it will be not unlike the ancient religions, which led people to invest their fate in the gods with sacrifices and supplications. In both cases, the happiness and suffering of human beings is offered up into the hands of external agents, one offering it up to material things, the other to a nominal quality, but in essence they equally destroy man's independence.
If things reach this stage we can give up pretending to be human beings. If this were the case we would no longer be natural human beings, but scientific or artificial beings, or some other kind of being which is unsustainable in a natural environment.
What I have just mentioned is an example of what I mean by 'too little'. Science on its own is not capable of solving mankind's problems. To use Buddhist terminology, we could say that science and technology do not encourage people to have good behaviour (sila), do not encourage quality in the mind, or inner well-being (samadhi) and they suffer from 'funnel vision', in that they seek to a mass data, but they do not provide us with the knowledge of how to lead a happy life (panna) (x).
The second objection we have with science is that it is 'too late', we cannot wait for it. Scientific truth is not whole or complete. It is not yet able to give us a definitive and final answer, and there is no indication of when it will be able to do so. Scientific knowledge is constantly changing. At one time the truth is one way, later on it is found to be otherwise.
The truth seems to be always changing. If we had to sit and wait for science to come up with a final answer to the nature of the Universe, we would all die first without ever finding out how to conduct our lives.
Scientists are always looking for a general principle, but any principle they arrive at is always a 'sub-principle', only a piece of the overall picture. In the meantime, while science is yet unable to give an explanation of fundamental truth, we are using it, through technology, to enhance our lives and pander to our desires. For the moment, what is helping mankind is technology, which at least can be used for something, rather than science itself. But technology cannot answer mankind's fundamental questions. For an answer to the truth (or non truth) of the natural world, mankind must first rely on religion, using science only for the convenience offered through technological progress. This is the situation at the present time.
Why do human beings still need religion? Why is religion still present in this world? Because mankind is still waiting for a complete and absolute answer, one that is right for the situation and which is immediately practicable. And because it cannot be verified, and because science cannot verify it for them, they must resort to belief.
Although science has made such great advances, all it has done is expand the perceivable limits of the material world, making it more and more complex and intricate. But in terms of answering mankind's fundamental questions, showing man's proper relationship and position in the world, it seems that science has been running on the spot and hasn't made any real progress.
It is not only in the field of Pure Science that the problem of mistakes arises from time to time. Even within Applied Science and technology, mistakes are common. Often they are not wrongdoings as such, but mistakes that arise out of ignorance, oversight or lack of circumspection.
Take for example the drug chloramphenicol. At one time this drug was very widespread. It was a wonder drug, it seemed to cure everything. People were really sold on it, we all thought we were going to be free from illness ever after. Whenever you were sick, all you had to do was just go and buy some chloramphenicol, they sold it everywhere. Later on, after about ten years, it was discovered that this drug would gradually build up in the system, where it caused the bone marrow to cease production of blood corpuscles, and many had died of leukaemia.
Then there was the case of DDT. At that time it was thought that with DDT, our problems with the insect world were over - ants, mosquitoes ... all gone. We thought we could eradicate these creatures and no longer have to be bothered by them.
Many years later it was found that DDT was carcinogenic, an insidious substance which could prove fatal even to humans. What's more, while the humans were suffering ill effects from the drug, the insect population was becoming immune to it. In time it became useless as an insecticide, and was more likely to kill the human beings. Many countries have banned the use of DDT, but Thailand is still using it, even now.
Then there was the case of thalidomide. Thalidomide was a pain killer and tranquillizer which was highly praised by the medical profession. It was reputed to have passed the most stringent tests, and was trusted so highly that it was announced as an exceptionally safe drug. It was so lauded that even the developed countries, which are normally very cautious about drugs and medicines, allowed the drug to be bought without a prescription. It was sold for about five years, up until 1961, at which time it was found that this drug, when taken by pregnant women, caused deformed babies. Before this danger was known and the drug was recalled from the market, about 8000 deformed children were born.
Let's take one more example, the case of CFC's (chloro-fluoro-carbons). This group of chemicals is widely used in refrigerators, air conditioners and in 'pressure-pack' spray cans. These chemicals have been used for a long time with complete confidence. Before we knew what was going on, it turned out that these chemicals had risen up into the upper levels of the atmosphere and caused gaps in the ozone layer. A lot of it has already been damaged and scientists are very concemed; world conferences are being held to find ways to solve the problem. And so a new piece of knowledge arises what we thought was a good thing turns out to be not so good after all.
Before leaving this part of the talk, I would like to insert another small observation. The emergence and development of science has undoubtedly helped to improve understanding and the human intellect, about this there is no argument. But at the same time, if we look closely we will see that it has also caused human intelligence and understanding to decline. How so? In previous ages, when science was just beginning to emerge and develop, people were very impressed with its achievements. People were excited at the discoveries and technological achievements of science. They put all their hopes for an answer to their problems into science and technology. All of nature's mysteries were going to be revealed, and science would lead humanity into an age of perfect happiness.
These people who wholeheartedly trusted science then turned around and began to doubt their religions and the answers provided by them. Many people lost faith and discarded religion.
Unfortunately, the truth dealt with by science is only a specialized or fractional truth. It deals only with the physical world. Science has no answers to the questions dealing with internal human problems, the answers for which mankind had previously turned to religion. The discarding of religion in modern times would not be such a big loss, if by religion we simply meant the institutional forms known as religion, but this discarding is also a discarding of that part of religion which dealt with solving internal human problems.
With science taking no interest in these matters, and people discarding them, it gives rise to a huge gap. The answers which had previously been searched for and provided by religions have been ignored, causing a retardation of mankind's mental and spiritual growth. It is not only retarded, in some cases it has even gone into retrograde.
The nature of the world, life and human problems does not allow mankind to ignore the need for religion. Fundamental, immediate and practical answers are still as much in demand as ever before. When science is seen to be incapable of providing an answer to this need, and when human beings tire of their fascination with science, they come to their senses and remember this fundamental need within. Then they turn once more to religion for their answers. But because the stream of mental development has been interrupted, or set back, such searching is very unsteady. It might even be necessary to start all over again. Examples of this can be seen in some of the religious developments in highly developed countries, where, in spite of being surrounded by high scientific advancement, people have foolishly and gullibly fallen for charlatanry (x).
However that may be, science is not without its merits and blessings in leading to better understanding within religious circles. It is well known how religion, especially in its institutional forms, has on occasion taken an active role in suppressing the development of human intelligence. Some religions have clung blindly to absurd beliefs and practices, even in the face of their own fundamental principles.
The development of science, in particular its attitudes and methods, has had some measure of good influence on religions and religious attitudes in society. At the very least, it has given the opportunity, or acted as a catalyst, for religion to re-evaluate some of its teachings and attitudes. It also serves as a gauge with which to appraise the answers given by the different religions, and offers them a chance to better themselves.
However, from the point of view of the masses, especially in countries which have received scientific influences in their outlooks and methods, science does not seem to have had a significantly beneficial effect on lifestyles and mental wellbeing. Science itself is not of much interest to most people. Even though most would look at science favourably, their belief in it is much the same as how they would believe in something magical or mystical. Their belief is naive, it is not based on knowledge. This is 'scientism'. When most people think of science, they look straight past it at technology, which they look on as a means for gratifying their desires. For that reason, the development of science has had little positive influence on the knowledge, understanding, or attitudes of society.
On the brighter side, at this point in time people seem to be getting over their excitement about science and are beginning to look at their needs in relation to religion. Numerous religions are addressing these needs on different levels. At the same time, some members of scientific circles are becoming aware of the limitations of orthodox science, expanding the horizons of their research to include religions, which suggests the possibility of a fully-developed science merging with a fully-developed religion, which together can lead humanity to reality, peace, and a life free of foolish attachments.
On the other hand, science may be trying to prove something which religion has already predicted. While humanity cannot wait for an answer, we must provide one of some kind, and this answer has become religion. This answer is still not proven, but we must accept it for now, while science slowly and methodically tests it out. In this scenario, science is that effort on the part of humanity to prove the truths (or non-truths) of religion. Looking at it in this way, the two fields harmonize; having arisen from a common origin, they eventually merge once more.
As time goes on, the limits of the scientific method will once again be reached. Science will be unable to prove the truths presented by religion. A number of leading scientists are now beginning to realise this. They say that this final, ultimate truth spoken of by religion is beyond the reach of science at any stage in time.
Now we have talked about science and also religion, going through the origins and development of both. Now let us take a look at Buddhism and finally get into the subject proper of this talk.
... Many people today view ethics as merely the arbitrary dictates of certain groups of people... but while science has cut itself off from any consideration of ethics or values, Buddhism studies and teaches the role of ethics within the natural process...
See also: Vietnamese translation by Venerable Thich Tam-Quang
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