Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

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Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby droogiefret » Sat Jun 01, 2013 1:22 am

Pardon me for diving in as a newbie with a new topic (and of course apologies if it's actually an old topic!). I've lurked here for a while and usually post on a different forum. But on this question I'd quite like to hear from some practitioners a bit more experienced.

So, is Buddhism compatible with Evolution?

I think the automatic response is yes they are compatible, of course they are - but I'm starting to wonder so let me explain the issue I have.

According to neo-Darwinist evolution we have evolved via two mechanisms: random mutation and natural selection. There are no other mechanisms - so everything we are has to be explained by those two mechanisms.

So that works quite well for our everyday mind - but how could it apply to an unconditioned mind? How would the capacity to have an unconditioned mind have arisen in evolutionary terms?

Even the way we phrase our aspirations seems incompatible. 'Realizing our true nature' - how and why would a 'true nature' evolve and be separate from an ordinary everyday mind that has presumably evolved via random mutation and natural selection?

And when we extend that concept to other living beings, what can it possibly mean in evolutionary terms to assert that all living beings share Bodhicitta?

I'm thinking I have to regard neo-Darwinist evolution at least as incomplete. But I don't feel comfortable disagreeing with the majority of scientific opinion.

Have I explained this clearly enough? Can anyone help me out with my thinking here?
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Hickersonia » Sat Jun 01, 2013 1:43 am

Being as how "I" am not this body, it is not "mine" or "my self," I don't find any real inconsistency with the possibility that the theory of evolution might explain how the human form, or any other species of life, came about, at least in the physical sense. It has very little to do with elaborating on any matters of the Buddha's teachings, and to my knowledge does not contradict anything the Buddha is reported to have said on how beings arise and pass away.

I don't really think the theory of evolution gets into the subject of mind. Maybe brain, but not mind. In other words, as it pertains to something such as Bodhicitta, it doesn't really apply (IMO).

I could be plain wrong though... I won't claim to know all there is to know about either subject. :lol:
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Nilasarasvati » Sat Jun 01, 2013 3:16 am

According to neo-Darwinist evolution we have evolved via two mechanisms: random mutation and natural selection. There are no other mechanisms - so everything we are has to be explained by those two mechanisms.

So that works quite well for our everyday mind - but how could it apply to an unconditioned mind? How would the capacity to have an unconditioned mind have arisen in evolutionary terms?

Even the way we phrase our aspirations seems incompatible. 'Realizing our true nature' - how and why would a 'true nature' evolve and be separate from an ordinary everyday mind that has presumably evolved via random mutation and natural selection?

And when we extend that concept to other living beings, what can it possibly mean in evolutionary terms to assert that all living beings share Bodhicitta?


It's a really good question. I think the Buddhist parallel or support for all scientific crossover is the idea of Pratitya Sammutpada/interdependent causation. Basically that all phenomena arise from infinite causes, conditions, and effects: so an Iguana dropping its tail is the effect of INFINITE events that conditioned and favored that circumstance to arise. It's literally perfectly Buddhist. Both Natural selection (karma) and random mutation (also karma) can easily be seen as mechanisms of pratitya Sammutpada. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prat%C4%A ... tp%C4%81da its the core ontological view of all forms of Buddhism.

The area where they disagree is perhaps more crucial, especially for your concerns about "mind" and "bodhicitta." Both natural selection and random mutation depend on a materialistic, logical positivist view that all observable phenomena arise because of *only* physical phenomena. The Buddhist view of evolution would include the inconceivable effects of karma that are only comparable only to Chaos theory in their inscrutability and complexity. Basically, Buddhists believe that unseen forces (that are the direct result of actions) cause phenomena to arise as well as the obvious causal links (like how running into wall makes you crash and fall over.)

Buddhist cosmology and worldview definitively rejects materialist views and would assert that they are reductions of reality that ignore how perception/mind/subjectivity/experience are really the ground for all phenomena (for us. If you someday have an experience that is not filtered through your body, senses, and perceptions, let us know. That's called omniscience and it's what we're trying for.) This is a gross generalization of Buddhist views and most schools have far more refined and complex arguments that I have no skill or knowledge to express.

Other than that, there is absolutely NO conflict between Darwin's observations of phenomena and the Buddha's. and if what I said in the last paragraph was somewhat abstract--for all intents and purposes, and for all practical purposes, I would say in my ignorant opinion evolution is completely in line with all Buddhist core concepts (impermanence, causation, karma, etc).
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby jeeprs » Sat Jun 01, 2013 3:47 am

I used to think that evolution could also be understood as evolution of consciousness and I still think that in some metaphorical ways that might b true. But overall evolutionary materialism is more than simply a biological theory - it is like a worldview or an attitude to the nature of existence. That attitude, I think, is incompatible with all forms of spirituality, for various reasons which would take a book to spell out - see for instance, Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion.

All that said, I have no doubt in the physical facts of evolution, but the meaning that is imputed to those facts is another thing altogether.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Nilasarasvati » Sat Jun 01, 2013 3:57 am

jeeprs wrote:All that said, I have no doubt in the physical facts of evolution, but the meaning that is imputed to those facts is another thing altogether.


That is right on.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Jnana » Sat Jun 01, 2013 5:17 am

droogiefret wrote:I'm thinking I have to regard neo-Darwinist evolution at least as incomplete. But I don't feel comfortable disagreeing with the majority of scientific opinion.

From a Buddhist perspective, neo-Darwinian evolution is incomplete. And there are contemporary scientists and philosophers who are recognizing this as well. For example, Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False:

    I have argued that the physical sciences will not enable us to understand the irreducibly subjective centers of consciousness that are such a conspicuous part of the world. But the failure of reductionism in the philosophy of mind has implications that extend beyond the mind-body problem. Psychophysical reductionism is an essential component of a broader naturalistic program, which cannot survive without it. This naturalistic program is both metaphysical and scientific. It holds both that everything in the world is physical and that everything that happens in the world has its most basic explanation, whether we can come to know it or not, in physical law, as applied to physical things and events and their constituents....

    The problem, then, is this: What kind of explanation of the development of these organisms, even one that includes evolutionary theory, could account for the appearance of organisms that are not only physically adapted to the environment but also conscious subjects? In brief, I believe it cannot be a purely physical explanation. What has to be explained is not just the lacing of organic life with a tincture of qualia but the coming into existence of subjective individual points of view—a type of existence logically distinct from anything describable by the physical sciences alone....

    The claim I want to defend is that, since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include an explanation of the appearance of consciousness. That cannot be a separate question. An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such.

    Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth. Organisms such as ourselves do not just happen to be conscious; therefore no explanation even of the physical character of those organisms can be adequate which is not also an explanation of their mental character. In other words, materialism is incomplete even as a theory of the physical world, since the physical world includes conscious organisms among its most striking occupants....

    On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world. If it is to be explained in any sense naturalistically, through the understanding of organic life, something fundamental must be changed in our conception of the natural order that gave rise to life....

    If we continue to assume that we are parts of the physical world and that the evolutionary process that brought us into existence is part of its history, then something must be added to the physical conception of the natural order that allows us to explain how it can give rise to organisms that are more than physical. The resources of physical science are not adequate for this purpose, because those resources were developed to account for data of a completely different kind.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby smcj » Sat Jun 01, 2013 6:40 am

My own take on it; evolution is the antithesis of entropy. So if the yin/yang of order in the cosmos stays somewhat constant, then as entropy puts disorder in the universe, that creates a huge amount of 'pressure' or an 'imperitive', if you will, for the universe to produce life and for that life to evolve. If so, then life will be produced wherever and whenever it can. (Space aliens!) Add to that the kamic process, and Dharma seems to sit well with evolution. You can even go more crazy and play around with the creative power of the Buddha Nature/dharmadhatu, but that's not very productive.

Anyway that's how I look at it. It is good enough for me to put the question aside and get on with practice. It's more of a literary or esthetic idea than an actual hypothesis. I don't stand behind it at all.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Son of Buddha » Sat Jun 01, 2013 7:48 am

Check out the Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby droogiefret » Sat Jun 01, 2013 9:40 am

Really helpful replies - thank you everyone.

Hickersonia - That distinction between brain and mind is important isn't it? I suppose mind doesn't actually exist in evolutionary terms - unless as a brain function. So in any sense in which mind is real, evolution doesn't explain it - which still means 'we' are more than evolution can explain. But I think I'm starting to babble at that point.

Nilasarasvati - Thank you for the heads up on Pratitya Sammutpada, which I now need to study(!) I'd not equated Random Selection and Natural Selection with Karma. I like the reminder that evolutionary materialism is a reductive view of reality - of course that's true even in its own terms - since in a deterministic universe (if you subscribe to that) random mutation must itself be illusory at some level.

Jeepers - Yes I guess that's why it's bothering me - because evolutionary materialism has become a worldview. But as a worldview it's not a lot of use in telling us what we should do, just good at putting a pattern on the past. I'll check out Mary Midgely (my reading list gets longer and longer....). And I need to ponder your last statement about putting meaning on facts - I don't fully understand that - but it struck a chord for Nilasrasvati so I'm clearly missing something. :thinking:

Jnana - Yes I read Nagel recently. My first impression was that he would just be citicized for mistaking brain functions as physical realities. But then I thought that's too obvious, he wouldn't write a whole book making that mistake - so I'm re-reading. It's a difficult book for me - all philosophy and no illustrating examples - I find that tough to read.

Smcj - Evolution and entropy in balance. I like that! At base level the way the universe is is just the way it is so why not? Well either that or there is no base level( :thinking: ). At any rate it would be helpful if there was some other factor influencing evolution - something that focussed on harmony and wholeness and recognized compassion as part of our basic nature and not just an evolved capacity (I suppose it would be seen as an evolved form of nurturing in evolutionary terms).

Son of Buddha -Another addition to the reading list! I don't know whether to say thank you or not! (Only joking - thank you).

Thank you for the replies everyone.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Jikan » Sat Jun 01, 2013 4:41 pm

I'd always thought that the Darwinian-materialist interpretation does a good job explaining samsara. It's a violent cycle. It doesn't explain the intervention of intentional or collaborative action as present in Buddhist practice very well.

But the bigger question in this discussion is here: what use is a worldview as such? Why bother adopting worldviews, why take them on, why identify with one Weltanschauung or another? Better to try to get at the reality of the situation. here I'm following on jeepr's post in this thread, which is a good one.

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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby smcj » Sat Jun 01, 2013 6:35 pm

At any rate it would be helpful if there was some other factor influencing evolution - something that focussed on harmony and wholeness and recognized compassion as part of our basic nature and not just an evolved capacity (I suppose it would be seen as an evolved form of nurturing in evolutionary terms).

In the Vajrayana there is a view that Ultimate Reality does exist, and that the phenomenal universe that we see is a manifestation of it. (I call that panentheism, but that flips out the entire online sangha.) That Ultimate Reality is love, wisdom, and Truth (of emptiness/freedom). We are a part of it, and it is our destiny to experience it directly, hence an evolutionary direction. That is the reason that life isn't just the vegetable kingdom. Minds are what the universe is made of.

That's just a rock'n'roll or comic book level interpretation of the Teachings, not a rigorous or well thought out presentation--but it sort of addresses your concerns. However I will quote my dearly departed teacher as a support:

There's not an atom vibrating in the universe that isn't powered by love.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby jeeprs » Sun Jun 02, 2013 1:23 am

In my way of putting it, 'ultimate reality' is the reality beyond existence. But that is a separate discussion. Although I like your take on it.

As to why the evolutionary outlook has taken such a deep hold in our secular-scientific world, I think there are several reasons. One is historical, in that, at the time of Darwin's discoveries, many felt that society needed to evolve from a religious to a scientific view of life. Indeed, many still feel like that, and in some ways it is quite true. That is the outlook known in general terms as 'historical positivism' and it's still a big underlying factor in the discussion.

Another is that humans instinctively seek out myths or stories within which their individual lives are meaningful. Humans are 'meaning-seeking beings'. Hence the evolutionary story situates us in a grand narrative, alongside all the other inhabitants of the natural realm. Apart from explaining 'where we come from' we are then able to say that we evolved to do this or that, or that evolutionary causes account for why we think this or that. So it is virtually assumed - it is simply taken for granted that as we are 'products of evolution' then we should naturally behave in some sense in accordance with evolutionary laws. So this has become, by a kind of sleight-of-hand, a way to replace the traditional notion of 'God's laws' with 'scientific laws' - namely, those 'discovered' by the evolutionary sciences.

The problem is, however, that scientific analysis generally ignores questions of value and meaning. Strictly speaking, it doesn't say anything about such ideas, as it is concerned only with measurable data. In practice, however, this aspect of the scientific method is often combined with positivism, to create an outlook which declares that the world, on the whole, is devoid of meaning and value, as these things can't be demonstrated 'objectively'. Hence the widespread idea that the universe is intrinsically meaningless. (1) So the problem then becomes that the narrative of evolution, of which we are a part, is basically a mechanical process which has generated human beings quite by chance, as it were - the luck of the draw, just the way things turned out. So even though it offers us an explanation of human nature, it doesn't turn out to be a very satisfying one, from the philosophical viewpoint. We are still felt to be like 'accidental tourists' who just happen to have been churned out by a meaningless material process that has nothing to do with the Universe at large, in which we are tiny, meaningless blips. So it easily gives rise to a nihilist view of life, which I think is extremely common in modern industrial societies (even if many of those who have it don't actually know what it is.)

And I don't know if a lot of the advocates for evolutionary naturalism really grasp that problem.

---------------------------------------------
1. There's a dangerous misconception that lurks in the background of Buddhist discussions of modern cosmology and related ideas. This has to do with the meaning of 'emptiness'. It is easy to imagine that the Buddhist 'emptiness' is related to the discoveries of modern cosmology that the Universe itself comprises astronomically vast expanses of empty space: the 'great void'. There are also comparisons of the higher realities in the Buddhist cosomology as being 'like space'. But this doesn't have anything to do with the real meaning of Śūnyatā, which is, among others, that things are empty because they are not worth clinging to, and they are an illusory source of happiness.

For a sceptical take on the way that Darwinian theory purports to 'explain' the mind, see It Ain't Necessarily So Anthony Gottlieb
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby dharmagoat » Sun Jun 02, 2013 2:36 am

jeeprs wrote:As to why the evolutionary outlook has taken such a deep hold in our secular-scientific world, I think there are several reasons.

The main reason being that the scientific evidence has accumulated to the extent that is now impossible for anyone familiar with this evidence to deny evolution.

jeeprs wrote:The problem is, however, that scientific analysis generally ignores questions of value and meaning.

I think it is because that science recognises that value and meaning are exclusively human preoccupations, and therefore have no bearing on the rest of the universe, which is big.

jeeprs wrote:So the problem then becomes that the narrative of evolution, of which we are a part, is basically a mechanical process which has generated human beings quite by chance, as it were - the luck of the draw, just the way things turned out.

Another way of looking at this, perhaps more scientifically, is that humans, given the specific conditions in which they evolved, could not have turned out any other way.

jeeprs wrote:So even though it offers us an explanation of human nature, it doesn't turn out to be a very satisfying one, from the philosophical viewpoint.

I think scientists (and Buddhists) have given up on the dream of philosophical satisfaction a long time ago.

jeeprs wrote:So it easily gives rise to a nihilist view of life, which I think is extremely common in modern industrial societies (even if many of those who have it don't actually know what it is.)

Not affirming the existence of value and meaning is not the same as denying value and meaning, which is the mistake nihilism makes. To my knowledge science simply avoids the opposite mistake of affirming value and meaning, but has no need to deny it. That is left for others to do.

jeeprs wrote:And I don't know if a lot of the advocates for evolutionary naturalism really grasp that problem.

It is not their problem.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby LastLegend » Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:00 am

Random mutation and natural selection?

Random mutation means things randomly come to life? And because things randomly come to life, then my destiny is based on natural selection. So basically, I become a zebra randomly and why did I not become a lion?
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby dharmagoat » Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:07 am

LastLegend wrote:Random mutation and natural selection?

Random mutation means things randomly come to life? And because things randomly come to life, then my destiny is based on natural selection. So basically, I become a zebra randomly and why did I not become a lion?

A zebra has become a zebra and not a lion. A lion has become a lion and not a zebra. Nothing is random when viewed in retrospect.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby jeeprs » Sun Jun 02, 2013 6:57 am

dharmagoat wrote:
jeeprs wrote:As to why the evolutionary outlook has taken such a deep hold in our secular-scientific world, I think there are several reasons.

The main reason being that the scientific evidence has accumulated to the extent that is now impossible for anyone familiar with this evidence to deny evolution.;


As I mentioned, I don't deny the fact of evolution. What interests me is the meaning of it - or the absence of meaning, which amounts to the same.

dharmagoat wrote:
jeeprs wrote:The problem is, however, that scientific analysis generally ignores questions of value and meaning.

I think it is because that science recognises that value and meaning are exclusively human preoccupations, and therefore have no bearing on the rest of the universe, which is big.


That's one of the problems, though, because it radically subjectivizes meaning and value. Basically it leads to a viewpoint where questions of meaning and value are always personal. Liberal democracies provide many guarantees for personal belief, which is a good thing, but at the same time, it basically equates ethical judgement with matters of opinion, because it recognizes no foundation for them in reality.

dharmagoat wrote:
jeeprs wrote:So the problem then becomes that the narrative of evolution, of which we are a part, is basically a mechanical process which has generated human beings quite by chance, as it were - the luck of the draw, just the way things turned out.

Another way of looking at this, perhaps more scientifically, is that humans, given the specific conditions in which they evolved, could not have turned out any other way.


You think? What if evolution is driven by an inherent urge towards self-awareness and the ability to speak? There's no allowance for that in the theory. Evolution might easily have stopped at blue-green algae or dinosaurs, yet it didn't. Is there a reason for that? I'm not saying there must be, but there is not even any scope to ask that question in current thinking.

Dharmagoat wrote:
jeeprs wrote:So even though it offers us an explanation of human nature, it doesn't turn out to be a very satisfying one, from the philosophical viewpoint.

I think scientists (and Buddhists) have given up on the dream of philosophical satisfaction a long time ago.


I regard the Buddha as a philosopher and Buddhism as a philosophical system. (In the early texts, the Buddha is referred to frequently as a 'sramana', which is generally translated as 'philosopher'). Philosophy is not all it is, but it is part of it. The fact that much modern thinking is anti-philosophical doesn't alter that.

dharmagoat wrote:
jeeprs wrote:So it easily gives rise to a nihilist view of life, which I think is extremely common in modern industrial societies (even if many of those who have it don't actually know what it is.)

Not affirming the existence of value and meaning is not the same as denying value and meaning, which is the mistake nihilism makes. To my knowledge science simply avoids the opposite mistake of affirming value and meaning, but has no need to deny it. That is left for others to do.


The issue is, as I mentioned, that evolutionary theory in effect occupies the space that used to be the preserve of religion and the source of values. But in its place we have:

Richard Dawkins wrote:We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. ...

...The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference


So I think it is perfectly valid to criticize evolutionary theory when it is put forward as philosophy or as an 'antidote to religious views of life', as it often is.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby dharmagoat » Sun Jun 02, 2013 7:36 am

:namaste:
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby droogiefret » Sun Jun 02, 2013 11:27 am

jeeprs wrote:

You think? What if evolution is driven by an inherent urge towards self-awareness and the ability to speak? There's no allowance for that in the theory. Evolution might easily have stopped at blue-green algae or dinosaurs, yet it didn't. Is there a reason for that? I'm not saying there must be, but there is not even any scope to ask that question in current thinking.


That's the nub of the problem for me. If there are more complex life-forms than there used to be, it's only because evolution has been going longer (there's an increase in simple life forms too). There's no direction to evolution, nothing driving it - it's at right angles to any personal sense of development. I don't think it even allows for a religious or spiritual aspiration beyond wanting to nurture and feel nurtered.
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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Quiet Heart » Sun Jun 02, 2013 2:49 pm

:smile:
That's the nub of the problem for me. If there are more complex life-forms than there used to be, it's only because evolution has been going longer (there's an increase in simple life forms too). There's no direction to evolution, nothing driving it - it's at right angles to any personal sense of development. I don't think it even allows for a religious or spiritual aspiration beyond wanting to nurture and feel nurtered
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My view (personal)

The universe evolves into greater complexity.
Evolution is the universe growing to understand itself.

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Re: Is Buddhism Compatible with Evolution?

Postby Astus » Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:20 pm

Jikan wrote:But the bigger question in this discussion is here: what use is a worldview as such? Why bother adopting worldviews, why take them on, why identify with one Weltanschauung or another? Better to try to get at the reality of the situation. here I'm following on jeepr's post in this thread, which is a good one.


A philosophically conscious person who willingly adopts a view has a reason for taking it up - instead of staying in the usual naive slumber of ordinary humans. The philosophy of one's own, a worldview, has enormous consequences. It leads and organises almost everything what one does. Therefore the correct view, something that fits reality, is also important, as it defines one's success in life. Delusions are bad because they mislead one and fail to fulfil their purpose, i.e. assisting in life. That means that finding the truth is necessary.

It is not at all meaningless whether biological evolution is acceptable in Buddhism or not. Denying evolution is equal to rejecting natural science, and that sounds bad for Buddhism as it puts into the category of extremist religions. What has always been the method of Buddhists is to incorporate the ruling philosophy of a culture and transform it in a way that is fitting for the Dharma. For instance, the Buddha accepted all the ancient Indian gods but he denied the existence of their omnipotence, omniscience, eternal life and their creating power. Basically, gods were rendered meaningless. Natural science can be subdued in a similar way, saying that its area of expertise lies only within the realm of the four material elements. The physical universe has only a minor role in Buddhism. Just as formerly Buddhists could use traditional Indian and Chinese theories about the human body, they can do the same with modern scientific doctrines. The Dharma has no need for the five winds and the meridians, chemical elements are an acceptable explanations too. And if scientists say that life on this planet evolved from dead matter, it is because they understand life as the physical body. Buddhism in fact agrees with this, saying that the body is nothing else but the combination of the four elements.

What Buddhism has to leave behind to accept evolution is only its Indian cosmology, but that's something very few ever cared about. The teachings about consciousness and karma remain intact, just as the path of liberation.
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