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Recently, I found a rather interesting quote of HH Dalai Lama XIV, which he said in Bodhgaya interviews, 1981:

“Buddhists believe in rebirth. But suppose through various investigative means, science comes one day to a definite conclusion that there is no rebirth. If this is definitely proven, then we must accept it and we will accept it.”see, for example, here

First of all, it's worth mentioning that this phrase seems to be one of the most progressive thought I have ever seen.

However, I would like to know, how exactly the Buddhist community will behave in case if, indeed, scientific method proves some day that one of key concepts of Buddhism (not necessarily, rebirth) is not correct. Obviously, it's impossible to rewrite sacral books, rethink important consequences of a mentioned concept, restructure rituals, etc.

Also, many people are happy with current paradigms, and such discovery may have disastrous effect on many of them.

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    This question is highly speculative and invites some opinion-based discussion rather than solid facts or information. – Rabbit Aug 13 '14 at 22:19
  • @Rabbit you are right, it's a bit speculative since there is no key Buddhist concept scientifically refuted. What I want is just the term "we will accept it" expanded — accept how? – bytebuster Aug 13 '14 at 22:35
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    The problem is that any answer would be talking about something that hasn't happened yet so instead of facts, there would be a bunch of opinions and predictions. Personally, I think that Dalai Lama is so confident about what he teaches that he is not afraid to confront it with science. He himself is consciously being reborn so how can science disprove something he did already 14 times? I would always consider this quote as an expression of his confidence in teachings. But again, it is only my personal opinion. – Rabbit Aug 13 '14 at 22:55
  • I agree with Rabbit. General policy on all SE sites is that hypothetical question are closed because there is no way of telling if an answer is correct and which answer is best for that matter (see also the FAQ) – THelper Aug 14 '14 at 14:16
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    I respectfully disagree with Rabbit on this occasion. There is a crucial metaphysical point at stake that can be answered with precision and without recourse to unsubstantiated opinion. I've given an answer that goes, I hope, some ways towards that. – tkp Aug 14 '14 at 15:26
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There is a freely available talk by Vessantara, an order member in the sangha I practice with (Triratna) that addresses this kind of issue. If one entirely rejected rebirth (or if it were proven to be untrue) then what would this do to the Dharma? My previous opinion was rebirth was a cultural accretion not a core teaching so if rebirth wasn't true the Dharma would remain essentially the same. There might be some reframing and reemphasising but the essentials would be the same. However Vessantara disagrees. The following parts of the Dharma would be shaken, possibly irreparably damaged (list not exhaustive)

  1. The Bodhisattva Ideal. It is difficult to see how one could hope to aim for the enlightenment of all beings in one lifetime. It's not going to happen

  2. The Buddha enlightenment experience. A central part of this was his visions of previous rebirth. Are we saying that this is not true. What other parts of his enlightenment experience are also not true

  3. Death proximate Karma. There is no rebirth so the powerful karmic effects at the point of death are unreal.

  4. The niddanas. There are one lifetime interpretations of these admittedly but other interpretations (3 lifetimes) would be thrown out

  5. Enlightenment as the deathless. This is common imagery in texts such as the Dhammapada. Without rebirth what could deathless mean? It's unclear (to me)

  6. Nirvana as 'blowing out'. Enlightenment as the concept of stepping off the wheel of samsara. Without rebirth there is no endless round so what are we stepping off from.

I could go on (i won't). I was just impressed with the talk and I think it's an interesting exercise to see where a rejection or disprove of rebirth might end up. I'm certainly not banging the drum for rebirth, in fact I remain at best agnostic. I know that rebirth-less interpretation of each of the six points are available but the question is - are we twisting the Dharma completely out of shape? This talk argues that we would be.

As a footnote an alternative view is available from another order member, Nagapriya in his book Exploring Karma and Rebirth. This book takes the opposite to Vessantara and argues that all rebirth-less interpretations are valid and do not lose their meaning. The talk and the book taken together give excellent (and opposing) views - companion pieces almost.

  • Crab Bucket, +1. I think this and other answers show that it's being answered with substance and without recourse to opinion, so I hope it doesn't close. (Suggestion: remove your initial sentence! :-) ) – tkp Aug 14 '14 at 16:26
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    @tkp hahahaha. A very fair point. I've taken out the first sentence. It anticipates what neither of us want to happen. :-) – Crab Bucket Aug 14 '14 at 16:29
  • +1 for listing problems that, regardless of soundness challenges of the metaphysical, have important practical consequences. – Thiago Aug 14 '14 at 18:28
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Sometimes an apparently well-formed question can suffer from a "category error", such as in "Is the present King of France bald?" or "What noise would the programming language Pascal make if you dropped it on the floor?" In such cases, an appropriate way to "answer" the question is to point out the category error, instead of just saying, for example in the previous examples, "No" and "'CLANG!' (although some authorities argue "SPLAT!" is more accurate)". This Buddhism question isn't completely prone to this problem, but one aspect of it might be. So I'm going to attempt that kind of answer.

First, I'm with the Dalai Lama in that if science proves something in Buddhism to be wrong, then Buddhism would have to adjust. However, it's important to understand that there are certain kinds of true things that science simply cannot prove wrong. That's not because, as with many things in the past, our science just isn't advanced enough yet. It's because the scope of science doesn't cover everything important we might want to say. This goes against the modern prevailing view, sometimes called, often by its detractors, "scientism", which is really a modern version of positivism. However, it is not difficult to see that such scientism isn't obviously true.++

As an example, take the law of gravity, and in particular the component that says that "the gravitational force between two masses varies inversely with the square of the distance between them". That is very deeply established in science, and has been for centuries. If it were proved wrong, it would shake things up a lot. But science could indeed prove it wrong. In fact, there is already some evidence, surprising though it is, that in certain situations, the inverse square law isn't exact.

But now take the proposition "2+2=4". Philosophers would refer to that as a "necessary" truth. Science cannot ever prove that statement wrong because science relies on that statement and, more to the point, science does not deal with such truths. They are important truths that lie outside of science (in fact the existence of such statements doesn't break positivism which is broader than scientism, but it does constitute something that science cannot disprove).

Another one: "people typically experience redness when looking at tomatoes". Now science could certainly show that the frequency of light reflected off tomatoes corresponds not with red light but with blue light, but that doesn't change the fact that we experience redness. Science would probably come up with a theory as to why we experience redness when exposed to blue light (for example, perhaps we'd discover that tomatoes emit a certain gas that confuses our brain's color recognition system, leading us to experience redness instead of blueness), but as I say that would explain why, it would not disprove that we experience redness.

So, what about something like "there is no rebirth". Well to me that is clearly a statement that lies outside the scope of science, certainly of science as we usually use the word. To be a "scientific" statement typically means in practice that we can construct some kind of experiment capable of allowing us to make observations confirming the statement's truth and, even more important, observations confirming the statement's falsehood. But scientific observations are observations of the natural world and it's not clear that "rebirth" is posited as a phenomenon within the natural world. Now it's possible to argue, or at least to claim, that there is nothing but the natural world, but that's just begging the whole question. A claim that "natural science is all there is" is itself not a statement of natural science, so where does that leave it?

This doesn't mean, of course, that there's nothing in Buddhism that science couldn't disprove, but it does exclude a whole bunch of things from being disproven in that way. For example, I'd say that the entirety of the Four Noble Truths lies outside the scope of science. I'm not saying that they are necessarily true, nor that they couldn't be shown to be false. But science cannot do that, any more than gardening or cookery can.

--

++ Note that I'm not saying that scientism argues that science can know everything. Even the scientistic view allows that some things may simply never be known. I'm making the point that scientism typically argues that if something is knowable, science will eventually, in principle, figure it out; and that if science cannot eventually, in principle, figure something out, then nothing else will.

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If there is no rebirth, then there is no rebirth, the point with the Buddha's teachings is that they are useful not only for the next life, but for this one! That is exactly why there are many debates about Buddhism being a religion or a way of life, that is also why Buddhism can be used by people from other religions.

If you practice the Buddha's teachings at least you will leave good things behind (in case there is no rebirth).

I suggest you don't put to much focus on your next life, your focus should remain here and now. In the practice!

  • This make a lot of sense, for the second part of my question. But what about the first part? Would it require changes in teaching? You know, many people understand the books literally. – bytebuster Aug 13 '14 at 22:45
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I will try to rescue the question from speculative paths.

It's not a stretch to see the Dalai Lama's words expressing the buddhist original commitment to what is real. But the question underneath is about how one's faith (or the faith of a community) is confronted with a different reality. Yet, the canon has quite a few teachings and warnings about faith (of the "kind" talked about here), and the insistent plea for direct knowledge.

The discovery of false claims no doubt diminish our trust in the texts and may interfere with our commitment to try its suggestions. But it is worth noting that the tone of these texts is not "take it as I say", but of "come and try [and at this point, here is what I expect you to have seen]" -- exercises followed by a map, with evaluation cues.

Buddhism, in its original form, is not alone in its careful attitude towards foreign propositions not tasted by one's mouth. Science has similar flavor (though much more loose in regard to one's direct experience, and much more strict in regard to communication and "observability"), with a community reasonably aware of its stance. Thus, one could reasonably argue that what ultimately survive from both science and buddhism (in its essence) are not the factual assertions made therein (they may as well be discovered to be otherwise). However, its goal, its method and its evaluation strategies are something to preserve.

Maybe the map is wrong. In science, often it is. Yet, trained scientists cherish the system above any temporary result. The system reinforces how to approach itself.

A buddhist could say exactly the same thing about the canon. "why are you clinging to beliefs you did not investigate and could cause you misery?" it asks directly of the reader.

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Lets say science proves that there's no rebirth. What does scientific proof really mean to you? It means you are putting your faith on the scientists who supposedly prove it. It is not your direct knowledge. Rebirth is already proven within the Buddhist community. Proven by Lord Buddha and the Ariya Sangha who can see the past and future lives. Even a non-Buddhist who attains the knowledge of seeing past births through perfecting the Jhanas sees the process of rebirth. So Buddhists don't have a problem in accepting rebirth on faith. Because we take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha instead of scientists. Furthermore, what is proven in Buddhism can be known by direct knowledge. Scientific proof is not known by direct knowledge. It's always a hypothesis. Otherwise, it can't change from time to time.

"If this is definitely proven" is the key phrase in what Dalai Lama has said. Proven according to science or proven according to Buddhism? In other words, proven by hypothesis(which again may change in the future) or proven by direct knowledge? Such sayings are typically targeted at audiences with materialistic views. If it gets them to be more interested in the practice of Dhamma, it serves the purpose.

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    Ugh. This answer really lowers the standard of discourse on this site. It isn't even self-consistent: apparently lack of direct knowledge is only important when it's something you might disagree with? The attitude expressed here is directly contrary to the idea of thinking about anything for oneself. – Leushenko Sep 8 '14 at 0:59
  • Nope! When you don't have direct knowledge, faith in those who have direct knowledge is important as opposed to faith in those who hypothesize. – Sankha Kulathantille Sep 8 '14 at 1:32
  • But you can only hypothesize that there are people who have direct knowledge, there is no proof. So all in all it is a completely arbitrary choice. – michau Feb 23 '15 at 8:08
  • @michau, no, you can practice and attain direct knowledge yourself while you still live. You don't need to take it on faith forever. – Sankha Kulathantille Feb 23 '15 at 8:28
  • @Sankha I understand that only enlightened people see such things directly. So the chance that I see that directly as I live now is infinitesimally small. – michau Feb 23 '15 at 10:10
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If science were to prove literal rebirth wrong, then Buddhists would have to accept the fact that literal rebirth does not exist, and begin to examine the possibility that the Buddha meant moment to moment rebirth and we were interpreting the teaching incorrectly. I don’t know how science would do this but since the practice asks you to look and see for yourself, if you were to somehow discover this truth (that rebirth was not literal) the practice would dictate that you acknowledge it.

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The final goal in Buddhism is to overcome rebirth, as all misery (old age, sickness, company of people you do not like, parting from loved ones) starts with birth as explained in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Once you reach full liberation you have no more rebirths.

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