Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Creater Deity or Discoverer Dude?

For Buddhists—and me—discovery trumps creation.

A discoverer dude, not a creator deity

Early in my teaching career—sometime in the mid Paleozoic—I employed short essay exams in my undergraduate animal behavior class at the University of Washington. (Now that the enrollment has metastasized from 24 to 300, I’ve regretfully turned to computer-graded multiple choice questions.) One of those now-extinct short essays asked students to explain, briefly, Darwin’s primary scientific contribution. I still remember one student’s answer: “He invented evolution.”

Sorry, no cigar...and no credit. (The correct answer, by the way, isn’t even that Darwin discovered evolution or that he presented abundant evidence in its favor; rather, he came up with the most plausible explanation for the mechanism whereby evolution proceeds: namely, natural selection. Others, such as Robert Chambers and Darwin’s own grandfather, had preceded him in describing some sort of historical, evolutionary connection among organisms.) In any event, I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between inventing/creating something on the one hand and discovering/revealing it on the other, regardless of mechanism employed.

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One of my current writing projects is a book about the parallels between biology and Buddhism, and in meditating on this, I came up with what strikes me as an interesting distinction, one that to my knowledge hasn’t been previously identified, to wit: Whereas the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) claim that their god literally created the world and along with it, the natural laws that govern its functioning, Buddhism promotes a very different perspective, namely that the Buddha—emphatically not a god, by his own insistence—didn’t create the Dharma (the way the world wags); rather, he discovered it. Thus, for Buddhists, reality exists prior to any supernatural event; for the Big Three, it exists only because of it.

To me, at least, this distinction seems important...although I’m not at all sure where, precisely, it leads. Thus, unlike the Abrahamic triad, Buddhism encourages participants to explore for themselves, explicitly enjoining devotees to reject any teachings that seem incongruent with their own experience of reality. I’d think that there can, and should, be a world of difference between believing in a Creator God versus a Discoverer Dude when it comes to interacting with the known world, although the Bridgewater Treatises, for example, in the early 19th century, were inspired by fervent Christian-based desire to admire and worship God by laying out in detail an enhanced appreciation of his creation. Even if the world and every critter within it is thought to have been made by a Creator, the nature of his/hers/its supposed creation is still available to be explored by the rest of us (thereby contributing to yet greater admiration of the presumed Creator Creature). But a problem nonetheless remains, since the rules of that creation are necessarily assumed to be inviolate and perfect, which generates a problem when we consider, for example, the blind spot in the vertebrate retina, the lousy design of the human lower back, or the downright ludicrous structure of the urinary/reproductive system...especially in men.

Interestingly, a source of tension between science and religious belief seems to have been even more important in Islam than in Christianity. Thus, roughly a thousand years ago, the Sufi philosopher al-Ghazzali—whose writing was, and still is, highly influential in the Muslim world—argued strenuously against anything even approximating a “law of nature,” since this would by definition restrict the freedom of an all-powerful deity. Al-Ghazzali famously wrote, for example, that when a piece of paper (or maybe it was a ball of cotton, I can’t remember) was heated sufficiently, it changed color and gave off heat, flame and smoke not because it was burning according to its nature, but because it pleased Allah for this kind of transformation to take place and at this particular time. Had Allah been of a different mind at such a moment, the paper would have turned green, remained unaffected, or transmuted into a pot of tea, an ice cube or a giant ox...whatever Allah willed, independent of any laws of nature or rules of science. Rules, schmules! Laws, schmaws.

For al-Ghazzali, and generations of Islamic thinkers following him, it was simply unacceptable for any “laws of nature” to exist, insofar as they would limit God’s options. To a degree, this parallels the traditional Catholic Christian view of the Pelagian heresy, which had claimed that people could secure for themselves a place in heaven by virtue of their good deeds; the problem with this (from the Pope’s perspective) was that it suggested we could twist God’s arm and achieve our own ends in response to our personal desires, whereas in truth, such “decisions” must be up to God alone.

By contrast, it seems to me that Buddhism promotes a worldview in which the Dharma simply exists: including gravity, strong and weak forces, photons and electrons and yes, Higgs Bosons—assuming they are real—along with the second law of thermodynamics and the phenomenon of natural selection and, of course, the laws of karma, such that our job is to reveal and understand them, without worrying that—like Galileo or Darwin—we might run afoul of prior assertions of “God’s will as revealed in his perfect and immutable creation.” And this, in turn, ought to lend itself to a more liberated, exploratory, and productive approach to understanding all that is, imperfect and unplanned as it may be.

Sounds reasonable to me, except for one problem: Why, then, has Western science—associated at least in part and in recent centuries with Judeo-Christian religious traditions—been so much more productive than has “Buddhist science”?

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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