Friday, February 05, 2010

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama

An excellent book that explores and contrasts scientific findings of the last century with various Buddhist practices. The subtitle of the book is “How science and spirituality can serve our world” and the Lama succeeds in this effort as the information is presented in a conciliatory manner. Although I disagreed with some of the limits he puts upon science, I was pleased to see how much he embraced scientific thinking, and supposedly how much certain forms of Buddhism do the same. For example, the importance of empirical evidence was evident when he stated that if science has conclusively demonstrated something to be false (or true) then Buddhist practices must follow suit. (He could be being sneaky here as nothing is ever “conclusively” demonstrated in science, but that the evidence becomes overwhelming, but I give him the benefit of the doubt.) Additionally, independent replication, one of the gold standards of science, also has a place in some forms of Buddhism. Apparently, meditative mind states are supposed to be replicated by the individual meditator at different times as well as other meditators to ensure that one is not experience a delusion or fanciful cognitions.
The Dalai Lama displayed a sophisticated understanding of metaphysical naturalism versus methodological naturalism (the latter is the assumption used to do science that all phenomena are natural, while the former is the philosophical assumption (i.e., worldview) that everything is natural. Disappointingly though, he later says some absurd things about how people who have died could have maintained their posture and showed no signs of decay for over a week. This seems quite unlikely.
The notion of mind put forth is one that embraces many scientific concepts but seems to be holding out for something magical. Happily, Buddhism seems to be anti-essentialist and they are not going along with Descartes mind-body dualism – there is no soul and things are always only temporary. Personally, I found it hard to disagree with the ideas of appreciating the fleeting moments and trying to reduce suffering (but that doesn’t validate a philosophy or practice, they are just good ideas). I sometimes forget how sophisticated various spiritual practices can be (likely because many followers do have the opportunity or inclination for such sophistication).
This book is an excellent primer on relativity, quantum theory, evolution and cognitive science, so it is great for those who want to learn more about science (and Buddhism) but be careful how much weight you give his circumscription.


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