Back Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

Skip Navigation Links
Stefan Bauberger
Personhood or Non-Self: Christian and Buddhist Approaches to the Self in the Context of Modern Scientific Results


Modern scientific results in the field of brain research appear to confirm the Buddhist teaching of Non-Self (Anatta, Anatman) and to contradict the Christian position on personhood. Science questions the existence of a free will and even suggests that the mere existence of a person is an illusion, created by the brain. The usefulness of this illusion can be explained in the context of the theory of evolution.

The paper starts from an investigation into the validity of the claim that science favours the Buddhist position on non-self. This involves a philosophical analysis of the scientific claims and the positions of Buddhism and Christianity, relating these to each other.

The first step is to understand the philosophical assumptions and implications of science in general, and specifically in the field of brain research. It turns out that free will is not a scientific concept. Therefore science cannot reach directly the question of the existence of free will. The results of science questioning free will have to be interpreted with great care, involving philosophical reflections. The same is true for the question of the existence of a person. Scientific results have implications on these questions, but the usual claim of direct implications cannot be maintained.

A reflection of the Buddhist teaching of Non-Self shows that the heart of this teaching is missed when it is understood as a simple correspondence to results of brain research. At least, in the Mahayana teaching, the concept of Non-Self implies a certain fusion of epistemology and ontology which completely questions the concept of existence, of Being, going beyond the reach of scientific investigations. A thorough inquiry into the relation between scientific results and the Buddhist Dharma (teaching) will therefore contribute to a clarification of Buddhism. A Buddhism that has come to these clarifications will relate more easily to the Western esteem of value of the individual human person.

Similarly it can be shown that certain Christian positions on personhood that are questioned by science (even given the limitations of science) do not belong to the heart of the Christian teaching. The challenge of modern science can contribute to the distinction that parts of the Christian theological traditions are mainly a reflection of Greek thinking and of Western culture, and that parts belong genuinely to Christianity. An outcome of this challenge can be to rediscover the Biblical teaching on personhood, stressing the self-giving of Christ as model of Christian existence. The inculturation of Christianity in East-Asia will not be possible without this transformation of Christian theology.

Along these lines, the challenge of science will not only help Christianity and Buddhism to explicate their original teaching, but it will also facilitate the interreligious dialogue.

Stefan Bauberger has been teaching philosophy of nature, philosophy of science and Buddhist philosophy at Hochschule für Philosophie in Munich and Philosophisch-theologische Hochschule in Frankfurt since 1998.  He was born on May 21st 1960 in Munich.  He entered the Society of Jesus in 1981.  The novitiate was followed by studies of philosophy (1983-1985 in Munich) and theology (1986-1989 in Frankfurt), with a ministry with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malaysia in between.  Studies of physics (diploma and doctorate) in Würzburg followed in 1989-1997.  He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1990.  Between 1997 and 2002, he had several stays in India (accumulated 2 years) and Japan between 1997 and 2002 to complete training as a Zen teacher and to study Buddhism.  In 2006, he finished his habilitation in philosophy.  The same year he was appointed the delegate of formation of the German, Austrian and Swiss province of the Jesuits.


1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA  |  Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313   |   Email  |  Privacy Policy