Christopher Wojcik's Reviews > The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

The Universe in a Single Atom by Dalai Lama XIV
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M 50x66
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Oct 17, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: philosophy
Read in August, 2009

Fresh off of reading books by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, this was an interesting change of scenery.

The Dalai Lama draws comparisons between the disciplines of science and Buddhism. Buddhism, he notes, has many schools of thought and is comfortable with the idea that there can be competing viewpoints and no exclusive claim to the final truth. If one is compelled to engage with spirituality, this seems to be the only sensible mindset.

Less convincingly, he draws parallels between the two as being disciplines of "investigation." As the scientist must test his theories through experiments in the lab, he claims, a Buddhist must examine insights gained through inward contemplation. A nice metaphorical comparison, but science has something of a leg up in its mistrust of "truths" obtained through first person means. It is true that psychology today has moved beyond behaviorism in asserting the reality/importance of mental states and cognitive processes. However, first-person reports fit into a framework which is grounded in reverse engineering the brain and its informational processing. In science, there is no "personal truth," it must be objective and appreciable to everyone.

One of the more interesting notions was the mention of Buddhist monks being willing to undergo brain scans while meditating. It would truly be fascinating to see what insights into the nature of consciousness could come out of this exchange. Ultimately I must admit that my materialist (oh there's that awful word) world view forces me to characterize any of the insight coming out of such experiments as the potential for science learning more with the help of Buddhists rather than science learning a lot FROM Buddhism. Call me narrow minded.

Clearly suffering is part of the human condition, and there may be much spiritual wisdom about how we might cope with it. It is unfortunate that to many it appears such wisdom is only valid if it comes wrapped in superstition.

Check out the article "Killing the Buddha," by Sam Harris for an interesting perspective along these lines.
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Luís Sequeira Don't forget that relativity wouldn't exist if there weren't thought experiments. Almost all Western cosmology begins with thought experiments. In some cases, scientists are able to develop methodologies to put those thought experiments to empirical trial under controlled conditions in a lab, but this is not always the case. It's not 'lesser science' because of that; it's still methodological done according to the scientific method, and can be publicly debated, argued and counter-argued, peer-reviewed, and accepted or rejected.

Buddhism works along the same lines, but when its object of study is the mind, you bring your own lab with you.


Luís Sequeira Oh, and great teachers like the 14th Dalai Lama are quite willing to drop all superstition from Buddhism, if that is seen as an obstacle. Others, by contrast, feel uncomfortable with bare-bones, no-frills Buddhism, because it doesn't feel 'superstitious' enough to be 'a serious religion' (which it isn't). Thus there is a wide spectrum of Buddhist teachers, to accommodate a wide variety of interested students, all of which having their personal preferences and expectations.


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