Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Dalai Lama and Science

With his belief in reincarnation, it's perhaps a bit silly to say that it is the 14th Dalai Lama's birthday.  So let's just say that 78 years ago today a boy-child called Lhamo Dondrub was born in Taktser in Eastern Tibet.  He was formally recognised as the DL when he was 15.  Funnily enough he shares a birthday with Heinrich Harrer, the mountaineer and adventurer who wrote Seven Years in Tibet

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote one of his readable, erudite and wide-ranging Natural History essays on non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).  This is the idea that science and religion both have their uses but never the twain should meet.  Gould's NH essays were later gathered together into books, starting with Ever Since Darwin in 1977.  You can go further and fare worse if you want pop sci that doesn't patronise.  I don't, myself, agree with Gould on NOMA.  Why should we draw solid lines on the map of human knowledge which must be treated as ne plus ultra for certain classes of seekers.  Let's at least make the demarkation lines porous or dotted because I'd rather go with Terence "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto" - Being a man, nothing which humans do should be considered foreign.

Notwithstanding NOMA, it has been fashionable in spiritual world leader circles recently to say that quantum mechanics (electrons in two places at once; going back and forth in time; unsure whether they are particle or process) has the potential to explain such Buddhist concepts as consciousness, reincarnation and the fact that mind and brain don’t seem to map exactly the one with the other.  It makes me think that we need parity of esteem and mutual respect between Buddhist meditators and scientists.  Over the last 40+ years, I've done a bit on the other side as well as prodding at the frontiers of science.  Over the last decade, I've possibly spent more time at Buddhist retreats than at scientific conferences. From this experience, I know that meditation is difficult, that when I sit zazen (not) thinking, I am as far from being in a meditative state as are my shoe laces.  And I bet that a majority of the slightly neurotic people who gather to meditate en masse are in an equivalent state.  It takes a zen student at least 10 years training before s/he is allowed off alone.  So it is unlikely that you can get it "sorted" over a long weekend.

I also know that science is difficult; that you cannot understand quantum mechanics by reading a Time magazine article on it; that it takes some years of training to think like a scientist and some months to marshal the evidence for any given problem.  Science likes its findings to be reliable, reproducible and generalisable. In order to be all these things there is a a strong theme of reductionism in modern science. But what about scientists who won’t accept anything unless they can imagine a mechanism for it and reduce it to a precisely controlled experiment.  Life is complex chaps; it might lose something if you have the capacity only to deal with one variable at a time.  It’s maybe the interaction terms.

I do bridle a bit when people who haven’t served their scientific apprenticeship take up some scientific concept or some scientific language and apply it to their own field without really understanding the implications, background or situations where the science is or is not likely to be applicable.  "Scienciness" lends a spurious sense of authority to something that may not stand up very well on its own to critical scrutiny.  It can “blind people with science” in a way that can massage the truth, manipulate the ignorant and delude the practitioner.

As we accumulate interpreted data, science is increasingly powerful in helping us understand how life works.  But it contributess virtually nothing about how to live.  The Dalai Lama does have something to say on that.

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