I have been following the course Buddhism and Modern Psychology on Coursera since March 2014. On the final week, the final assignment was released and I submitted an essay. Well, it turned out to be a very good one as I received 12/12 total score. This post contains the instructions, the questions, my essay, and the summary of the peer evaluation feedback.
In an essay of 800 words, answer two of the following questions and provide support for your answers:
- Does modern science lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human predicament?
- Does modern science lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human mind?
- Does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice?
- Does modern science lend support to the moral validity of Buddhism?
You should take “modern science” to include both modern psychology (ranging from specific experimental findings to theories or models that may or may not be accepted by all psychologists) and the broader understanding of how natural selection has shaped the experience of living.
In your answer, be sure to refer explicitly to course materials–the video lectures and any other relevant course resources, such as readings, videos, and/or discussions in the class forums. You should also feel free to draw on your own reflections and experiences, as appropriate.
Remember, a good essay will do more than simply state a position. The good essay will also give specific reasons and evidence in support of your position, and will explicitly show why that evidence supports your position.
For each question, be sure to express clearly and concisely:
- what the central elements of the Buddhist teaching are (for example, what the main Buddhist thesis about the human predicament is)
- your position on whether modern science lends support to the Buddhist teaching
- one or more specific ways in which modern science does or does not support the Buddhist teaching
In your response, you may choose to address the two questions separately or, if you think they are closely related, you may address them together.
Your answer to the two questions needn’t be wholly negative or wholly positive. That is: You may conclude that modern science supports one of the two Buddhist teachings you address but doesn’t support the other; and you may conclude that science supports a given Buddhist teaching in some respects but in other respects does not support it. In any event, be sure to address two of the four questions, and be clear about what your views are.
Note: In this essay, I answered the first and the second question.
Buddhist idea about the human predicament is about the Four Noble Truths, which are (1) the noble truth of suffering, (2) the noble truth of the cause of suffering, (3) the noble truth of the end of suffering, and (4) the noble truth of the path towards end of suffering. First, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that this life is wholly suffering, it just states that suffering is part of life, and identifying that there is suffering is essential to understand the next three noble truth. The Buddha states that there are eight types of suffering, which are birth, aging, sickness, death, grief, separation from loved ones, association with the loathed, and not to get what one want. Second, the Buddha roots out the causes of suffering, which are “craving for sensual desires, craving for being, and craving for non-being”. Third, the Buddha states that there is the cessation of the suffering, which is called the state of enlightenment or nibbāna. Finally, the Buddha states that there are ways leading toward the cessation of suffering, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path, which are right vision, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Thus is the Buddhist idea about human predicament. [SN 56.11]
I think that the modern science did not explicitly states the support nor rejection of this notion of human predicament. But, through the journey of learning Buddhism, I think that Buddhism logic did not contradicts science at all. There are many Buddhist claim that just can be seen everywhere around us, and can just be inferred to be true, for example, the first noble truth is true for me because I see it in my life and I ever experience at least one type of suffering, hence I think that this claim is true. The lecturer had given a good example on suffering and its cause using donuts and relates it to evolution and reinforcement, where people tend to crave for something and they must had that something to satisfy their mind. [L1] [L2] This can be shown in the experiment done by B.F. Skinner, where a mouse is conditioned to be given some food (reward) after doing something, and if the reward did not come after it does something, it did that something many times, and if the reward still did not come, it stopped doing that something. Although we cannot prove that some claim is true, e.g., the cessation of suffering, I think we can infer that this is likely to be true because the previous claims were true and logical. Besides that, this experience cannot be scientifically proven because when one attains enlightenment, others cannot know what enlightenment is like. [L6]
Buddhist idea about the human mind is that it is impermanent, bound to suffering, and non-self. The human mind consists of five aggregates, which are form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Because this all aggregates are non-self, it is hence impermanent. And because they are impermanent, they are also unsatisfactory, which means they are bound to suffering. Thus is the Buddhist idea about the human mind. [SN 22.59]
I think that the modern science support this view of non-self, where in simple way, I interpret as there is no one central “self” controlling the self. There is this notion of modular view of the mind, where the theory states that there is no central mind controlling the way one’s act, but there are those modules gaining some dominance at a time and that module dominates how one’s act. [L4] Besides that, there is an experiment on split-brain, where the person has their corpus callosum (the linkage between left and right hemisphere of the brain) damaged, showing that the left and right hemisphere of the brain sometimes need a linkage of processing so that it can work perfectly. For example, the left hemisphere is more responsible on language processing while the right one is more responsible on visual interpretation. I think this experiment of split brain supports the theory of modular mind where a “module” is just located on one specific place and needs some support from other module to work correctly. 
In conclusion, I think that modern science supports both Buddhist ideas on human predicament and on human mind. Buddhist ideas in human predicament is the four noble truth, which is true because we can experience it everywhere, although I think the modern science experiments cannot fully prove this. While Buddhist ideas in human mind is the notion of not-self, where the ideas of modular view of the mind sounds true and was well-supported by the split-brain experiment.
- [SN 56.11] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth
- [SN 22.59] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic
-  http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html Skinner – Operant Conditioning
-  https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/split.html Neuroscience for Kids: One Brain…or Two?
- [L1] Lecture One: The Buddhist Diagnosis
- [L2] Lecture Two: The Buddhist Prescription
- [L4] Lecture Four: A New Model of the Mind
- [L6] Lecture Six: What is Enlightenment?
Summary of peer evaluation feedback:
- Fairness and Accuracy: 3/3
- Answering the question: 3/3
- Evidence and Argument: 3/3
- Clarity: 3/3
- peer 1: Well done.
- peer 2: [This area was left blank by the evaluator.]
- peer 3: There will be no certificates for this course, so grading is moot and I’ve gone on to other work and courses. However, as you took the time to write, may I respond. I have been a serious follower of Dhamma (not a “Buddhist” that implies I put barriers up) and always recommend accesstoinsight.org as one of several sources of free, authentic translations of the suttas. This work is based heavily on lecture content. It takes a different perspective than I would, but that is good. Dukkha may be severe or a low level dissatisfaction. It is always there at some level until enlightenment. In the Dhamma there is one inescapable thing: kamma. It runs us though we may not understand that. It could be, but may not be (the Buddha was clearly vague on this) self. Personally, I would make little of split-brain experiments. These people had an extremely severe brain disorder, epilepsy that was so bad the operations were done. This is very rare. More importantly, making inferences about all brains and minds on the bases of people with severed hemispheres is too big a leap.
- peer 4: [This area was left blank by the evaluator.]
- peer 5: [This area was left blank by the evaluator.]
Hmmm, wait. No cert for this course? Oh, well, never mind. At least I have done my best. 🙂