Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorical Motives for Engagement in Dialogues Between Buddhism and Science

Author: Ashley Karlin

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013

This dissertation explores a corpus of formal, published dialogues between physicists, cognitive scientists, and Buddhist thinkers that have developed over the past four decades. In his 2008 book, Buddhism and Science, religious studies scholar Donald Lopez Jr. presents an historical timeline of the contact between Buddhism and Science, starting his analysis with a speech delivered by a member of the London Missionary Society in winter of 1870-71, with a central claim that "over the past 150 years, claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science have remained remarkably similar, both in their content and their rhetorical form," despite any changes to the definitions of both epistemologies over time. While the individual motivations behind these compatibility claims vary, these claims have continued to circulate, developing into a full-fledged public dialogue over the past four decades.  

This research uses discourse analytic tools related to intertextuality and stance-construction to make visible the rhetorical negotiation of epistemic boundaries. I situate this analysis within rhetorical studies, by positing a synthesis of Kenneth Burke's conception of rhetorical motives and Chaïm Perelman's theories of dissociation and association.  In particular, I demonstrate how participants in these dialogues dissociate Buddhism from 'religion' in tandem with (and often prior to specific instances of) association.   By breaking the links between Buddhism and religious terminology like 'dogma', 'faith', and 'belief', interlocutors create space to redefine and re-identify Buddhism vis-à-vis scientific disciplines. As speakers orient towards novel associations, they enact different levels of investment and what I term associative motives for engagement.  

These dissociations and novel associations have distinct political and cultural ramifications and meanings, because they involve changes to either one or both systems of thought. In particular, some people identifying with the Tibetan culture, government in-exile, and monastic world have articulated fears that Tibetan culture will eventually be lost in decontextualizing and translating Buddhist ideas to a secular, scientific discourse.  Some in scientific communities have protested events like the Dalai Lama's talk at the 2005 Society for Neuroscience Convention in Washington DC, arguing that a religious figure has no place in a scientific meeting and framing Buddhism as anti-scientific, countering those who couch Buddhism not as a religion, but as a 'science of the mind', 'contemplative science', or 'inner science'. Thus, while those public figures engaged in these dialogues often treat their goals as transcendent and teleological, they are conducted amidst political, social, and cultural controversy.