Banner
    Consciousness, Meditation And The Dalai Lama
    By Massimo Pigliucci | December 6th 2008 01:49 PM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Massimo

    Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

    His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary

    ...

    View Massimo's Profile
    Speaking of science and religion, I got significantly annoyed by a short piece in Nature magazine by Michael Bond (13 November 2008). Bond reviews two recent books on Buddhism and science: “Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality,” by Pier Luigi Luisi, and “Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed,” by Donald S. Lopez.

    I keep being baffled by the fact that so many scientists think it is a cool idea to engage in absurd fits of mental acrobatics so that one can claim that religion, after all, is not in contradiction with science, and in fact can even be somewhat helpful. Granted, Buddhism certainly doesn’t have the same attitude that, say, Christianity and Islam have about science, but there still is a lot of unnecessary fluff that gets thrown around in this misguided quest for a unity between science and religion.

    For instance, Bond says that “science and Buddhism seem strangely compatible … [because] to a large degree, Buddhism is a study in human development.” No, it isn’t. Certainly not in the scientific sense of “study.” Buddhism, like all mystical traditions, is about introspection, notoriously a remarkably unreliable source of “evidence.” In that sense, Buddhism is much closer to some continental philosophical traditions based on phenomenology and first-person subjectivity than to science -- the quintessential third-person approach to the study of natural phenomena.

    Second, Bond contends, Buddhism has an energetic “champion of science” in the current Dalai Lama. That may very well be, but of course this wasn’t the case with past Lamas, nor is there any assurance that it will continue to be with the next one. This hardly seems grounds for claiming “strange compatibility.” True, the current DL has said that if science should ever find a notion endorsed by Buddhism to be not true “then Buddhism will have to change.” It certainly sounds a heck of a lot better than the usual nonsense coming from creationists and intelligent design proponents.

    But a moment reflection will show that this is a pretty empty statement on the Lama’s part, as much as I don’t doubt that he really meant it. What sort of Buddhist concepts could possibly be proven wrong (or right) by science? Buddhism, again like all mystic traditions, phrases its teachings in such vague language that they are simply not amenable to rational, let alone strictly empirical, analysis. Are we one with the universe? Not really, unless one means that we are made of the same basic stuff as everything else, which I don’t think is what Buddhism means. And even if it meant something like that, to claim congruence with science leads to the same anachronism committed by people who say that the atomist philosophers of ancient Greece had “anticipated” the discoveries of modern physics. No, they didn’t, they were working out of metaphysical presuppositions, did not do any mathematical or experimental work, and most certainly didn’t mean what we do by the term “atom.”

    Bond goes so far as to suggest that there is an area of research where Buddhism actually has achieved more than what science has produced so far: when it comes to studying consciousness, he says, Buddhism offers “a kind of science of introspection.” It’s worth quoting Bond in full here: “Whereas cognitive science’s best guess is that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization, Buddhists see it at some pure subtle level as not contingent on matter at all, but deriving instead from ‘a previous continuum of consciousness” — the Dalai Lama’s words — that transcends death and has neither beginning nor end.”

    Wow. Where to begin? How about with the observation that “a science of introspection” is an oxymoron? As I mentioned above, introspection is certainly a rich kind of experience that can be cultivated for one’s own edification, but it is not and cannot be “science” because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings. Second, that consciousness is an emergent property of neuronal organization is much more than a “guess,” as serious research in neurobiology has made stunning progress in identifying specific regions of the brain that provide the material basis for specific aspects of the conscious experience. And finally, what on earth is even remotely scientific about completely unfounded and even literally meaningless claims about a “continuum of consciousness”? Continuum means adjacent, to what would consciousness be adjacent, pray?

    Look, Buddhists have all the rights to believe all the fluff they want, just like anyone else. And unlike fundamentalist Christians they at least don’t pretend to teach their mysticism in science classes. But why do religionists crave so much the recognition of science, beginning with creationists themselves? (After all, they talk about “creation science,” and “intelligent design theory.”)


    And why do some scientists lend credence to the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and whoever else invites them for a weekend in Rome or in Dharamsala?

    The best that can be said about science and religion is that they have nothing to do with each other, and most certainly nothing to teach to each other. Let’s not pretend otherwise for the sake of cultural correctness.

    Comments

    I agreed with most of your claims except the last one.
    "The best that can be said about science and religion is that they have nothing to do with each other."

    I'm not a scientist and I know that saying NOTHING is the same as saying ALL. So the percentage of correctness on your behalf is significantly decreased.

    I don't believe in religions, but I have studied many. I believe in science, hence I am reading this. However, there is no way that you can say Science and Religion have NOTHING to do with each other.

    Way back when.. there were the stars. Which is all based on science. Right? Now every story told is from these anthropromorphized stars. Then religion perpetuated over time, but the root comes from science.

    Gerhard Adam

    "..there were the stars. Which is all based on science..."

    I would disagree with this statement and the consequence conclusions drawn. 

    The stars are simply the stars; nothing more, nothing less.  Science is the methodology whereby information is gathered, theories formed, explanations sought, with the objective of gathering more understanding of the world we inhabit.  The stars are not based on science any more than numbers are based on math.  That's backwards.

    Mundus vult decipi
    A "continuum" of consciousness is a noun right? adjacent is not a noun.

    con·tin·u·um (kn-tny-m)
    n. pl. con·tin·u·a (-tny-) or con·tin·u·ums
    1. A continuous extent, succession, or whole, no part of which can be distinguished from neighboring parts except by arbitrary division.

    Setting aside the crudity inherent in Massimo's nitpicking, he needs to work on his english.

    This is a misguided article, that attempts to further the ostracization of religion in today's modern world. while, the author's work may have been an overzealous attempt that was slightly off the mark, remarks by Massimo like, "Look, Buddhists have all the rights to believe all the fluff they want, just like anyone else. And unlike fundamentalist Christians they at least don’t pretend to teach their mysticism in science classes," are just insulting and show the naivete of this man. The way he lumps creationists with intelligent design and mysticism with Christianity is the kind of ignorance that blinds. The suppression of ideas and beliefs that this article supports closes the mind to possibility.

    We recognize an apple by its fruits... The tibetan science brought so much to the human kind... Write what you want, but don't tell me that the religious questions are weighty in the present Western Civilisation...

    "Wow. Where to begin? How about with the observation that “a science of introspection” is an oxymoron? As I mentioned above, introspection is certainly a rich kind of experience that can be cultivated for one’s own edification, but it is not and cannot be “science” because science is based on the idea of independent verification of empirical findings."

    That may be, but if so it means that the physical sciences have nothing to say about consciousness. What I use the word pain, I do not mean the neuro-activity which accompanies a particular sensation of pain, what I mean by pain is the thing which makes me go "ouch!" If the objectively observable and subjectively experienced could be equated, anybody observing an EEG machine I was attached to, whilst experiencing pain, would presumably also be compelled to go ouch, but they don't because the pain is all mine, and can ONLY be subjectively experienced. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the case, if science insists upon the exclusive use of the OBJECTIVE method, then it can have nothing to say about SUBJECTIVE experience. If anything at all is to be said about subjective experience (consciousness) it must then fall to Buddhism, or some other discipline unafraid of subjectivity, to say it.

    "The stars are not based on science any more than numbers are based on math. That's backwards."

    Somebody should introduce you to the set theoretic definition of the integers, and to the definition of real numbers in terms of Cauchy sequences.

    rholley
    Somebody should introduce you to the set theoretic definition of the integers, and to the definition of real numbers in terms of Cauchy sequences.
    Those that survive will then proceed to the next level, the Weierstratosphere.
    The prevalent idea of mathematical works is that you must understand the reason why first, before you proceed to practise. That is fudge and fiddlesticks. I know mathematical processes that I have used with success for a very long time, of which neither I nor anyone else understands the scholastic logic. I have grown into them, and so understand them that way.
    Oliver Heaviside
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm can assert fairly confidently that numbers (and their general use) significantly predate ZFC set theory, Cauchy sequences, and any theoretic definition of integers you care to point out.  In other words, the items you're referring to were developed to explain something that was already in use, and while I'm not trivializing the significance, it would be extremely presumptious to suggest that these axioms and theorems had to be introduced before numbers were in widespread use for counting.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "The prevalent idea of mathematical works is that you must understand the reason why first, before you proceed to practise. That is fudge and fiddlesticks. I know mathematical processes that I have used with success for a very long time, of which neither I nor anyone else understands the scholastic logic. I have grown into them, and so understand them that way."

    They are the words of a physicist or technologist; not of a mathematician. Scholastic logic has nothing to do with it; ZFC Set Theory does.

    Hank
    They are the words of a physicist or technologist; not of a mathematician. Scholastic logic has nothing to do with it; ZFC Set Theory does.
    Whew. Saying Heaviside is not a mathematician really takes that lack of logic you claim to have.
    "Whew. Saying Heaviside is not a mathematician really takes that lack of logic you claim to have."

    When Newton published his Principia Mathematica, he was rightly taken to task for his, shall we say, lack of mathematical rigour, and it took later generations of mathematicians to supply that rigour. Even from a technologists point of view, to use a mathematical technique without being sure of its theoretical under pinnings is to run the risk of having aircraft falling out of the air.

    Gerhard Adam
    "Even from a technologists point of view, to use a mathematical technique without being sure of its theoretical under pinnings is to run the risk of having aircraft falling out of the air."

    I think you may be over-stating the case a bit.  While it is clear that deviating too far from known principles can lead to problems, it is equally clear that many of our ancestors achieved a great deal without the theoretical understanding of mathematical principles that are currently employed.   When you consider that the Great Pyramid predates Euclid by over 2,000 years, it can hardly be argued that the builders lacked the mathematical rigour necessary to implement their ideas.  

    Mundus vult decipi
    "I think you may be over-stating the case a bit. While it is clear that deviating too far from known principles can lead to problems, it is equally clear that many of our ancestors achieved a great deal without the theoretical understanding of mathematical principles that are currently employed."

    No, I'm not overstating the case. A technologist can proceed upon the basis that a rule of thumb works until such time as it doesn't work.

    Hank
    I believe what he is saying is that a lot of metal gets bent that has nothing to do with rigorous mathematics (they are called rules of thumb for a reason) - you seem to be contending that Euler made planes fly and not the Wright brothers.
    rholley
    I am reminded of Edmund Landau, the great analyst of the early 20th century. According to Eli Maor in Trigonometric Delights:
    Landau embodied the ultimate image of the pure mathematician. He viewed any practical applications to mathematics with disdain and avoided the slightest reference to them, dismissing them as Schmieröl ("grease", translates Maor, I would think "sump oil" a better version); among the “practical applications” was geometry, which he entirely shunned from his exposition.
    In his Grundlagen der Analysis, after defining sine and cosine as Power series, this is how he introduces the Pythagorean theorem: Theorem 258: sin2x + cos2x = 1 Proof: 1 = cos 0 = cos(x–x) = cos(x)cos(–x) - sin(x)sin(–x) = cos2x + sin2x. No mention of P., of course! Further on, he introduces pi as the smallest positive solution of cos(x)=0. Gesundheit!
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    cos x = (eix + e-ix) / 2

    sin x = (eix - e-ix) / 2i

    cos2 x = (e2ix + e-2ix + 2) / 4

    sin2 x = (e2ix + e-2ix - 2) / -4

    cos2 x + sin2 x = 4/4 = 1

    the great serpent swallowing his tail

    One, two, plenty ..... - Tasmanian method of counting.

    So ran a chapter sub-heading in one of the excellent maths books by W.W.Sawyer.

    If one were to actually find a tribe with such a rudimentary sense of counting, and wanted to "educate" them in mathematics, would one start with set theory, as in Principia Mathematica?

    Gerhard Adam
    Forget educating them.  The point is that modern mathematics didn't develop until humans had achieved a need for and consequently a sense for counting beyond "plenty".

    Set theory wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye until a more logical approach was needed
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    Forget educating them.
    Indeed.  The Greeks did not teach 'mathematics' in school at all.  Yet they knew math inside and out.
    Quite so. However, as one who started taking in science seriously round about 1960, and much of whose material then dated from before or shortly after WW2, I remember that there were people who thought that way then, and how much better it would be if one could simply go straight to the modern view, getting rid of all that ancestral stuff. As if one wanted to fast-track embryonic development by eliminating the notochord.

    As for Landau's Schmieroel, the proper translation is "lubricating oil". Trying to get my mind round a modern mathematics course which uses the jargon from set theory would be like trying to start a rusty bike without any oil or grease.

    Just as well we aren't debating "reality" because if we were then we could throw out the limited world view of reductionist 3rd person "science".

    At one level, 3rd person science is measurement based creationism - creationism justified by statistics. Why can I say this? Simply because it is based on an unexamined and unverified construct of the world that was inducted in very much the same way as religion is. For example, there is blind acceptance of the view that language and its constructs are somehow absolute rather than relative.

    Third person science is a measurement of surface level phenomena. As such is can only deliver behaviour symptoms. We live in an integrated world of interlocking symbiotic emergent systems that are in a state of constant change. The Concept of boundaries and time is relative and contextual and dependant on the observer (the subject). So it is the "first person" subject who is doing the experiments. So to deride a first person perspective is to deny the basis of science or 3rd person work. Both are present simultaneously.

    "A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive." (Albert Einstein, 1954)
    I challenge the author of this article to turn his love of scientific inquiry (rather than "moments of reflection") towards the subject about which he writes - attend a Mind and Life conference - or "indulge" in any of the world's introspective practices, before drawing - and publishing "conclusions" ...

    Kimberly Crandell
    The one thing science and religion do have in common, is they are both born out of the human desire to understand and explain what happens in the world around us.  Whether it's "why does the sun rise and set each day" or "why do bad things happen to good people" - by nature we don't want to just observe and accept that which surrounds us and impacts us... we want to have an explanation for it, as well as some sort of direction to follow to pursue deeper understanding.

    I'm not trying to start an argument here, but I don't see why we can't be scientifically-minded and spiritually-minded as well.  Science speaks of an infinite, ever-expanding universe.  Religion speaks of an infinite existence.  Quite honestly, my finite mind has a hard time wrapping around either concept, yet I'm accepting of both. 

    But I also accept that my current perspective is most likely too narrow to fully comprehend the "universal truth", whatever it may be.  It's like trying to understand the complete workings and function of an infinite city, when you're currently only able to grab glimpses through a keyhole in the front gate.

    The truth "is what it is" - whether accurately described by science or religion, or not.  I accept that I don't know it all, and don't have all the pieces or infinite perspective needed to complete the picture at this point.  But when science brings us pictures like this...

    Earth, as seen from the surface of Mars.



    ...I am awed, and reminded that there is so much more that we don't know, compared to what we do.  And who's to say where the answers may be found?
    Which is more important to us - to do or to understand? I personally believe that it is the "human effort" uniting both impulses. I believe that if we are to survive we should master our COMPASS :)
    COmpassion
    Motivation
    Positive Thinking
    Appreciation
    Self Evaluation
    Secret...

    Am I a Buddhist or a Scientist? Am I superior or inferior?
    These are never questions of mine - I question my self - "Am I good enough? Am I trying good enough? Did I help? Did I understand?"

    It was the human effort that gave us Science and Buddhism.
    What bothers me most is that in the above thread I did not sense an impulse to understand and/or accept. We are born free to explore our selves and accept the others.
    We often forget that our freedom only survives while we are striving to change and better our selves and accept and help only when asked by others.

    All heartfelt and well put,the road not being straight before us does allow for mystery to prevail even if it just keeps us going.there is more between earth and the universe than we may need to understand,yet it is so beautiful that we exist on that little dot in this vast space may the orobouros continue and may we be wise enough to enjoy it now whatever you beleive I would not cast off as absurd if it gets you through your everyday. I would mention that when the Buddist monks spent time praying at Thomas Jefferson hospital that there was a marked rise in the recoveries of their patients and that was a scientific study with tremendous results. 91' or 92' I beleive it was/ did they get well because they knew people were praying for them or did something useen yet quite scientific pass between the monks and the patients?

    With all the due respect, I firmly support separation of academic education from religion doctrines but I guess the author is so misguided and misleading in his statements, focusing on the philosophical matters of Buddhist traditions as he does. It's the practical benefits deriving from practices such as meditation and mindfulness he should be addressing (not reencarnation or karma, matters in which he is so obviously out of his depth). These neurological benefits has already and largely been proven by independent studies conducted by top neuroresearchers (Sara Lazar, Richard Davidson, Daniel Goleman, Allan Wallace, Jon Kabbat- Zin, Daniel Batson, just to name a few). That's exactly what the 14th Dalai Lama (and the Buddha) asks from scientifically- oriented minds, a fair approach to the practical aspects, not the doctrine, contained in buddhist teachings, always stressing this point: "“Do not believe out of blind faith, do not believe merely on scripture, do not believe on mere tradition. Do not believe me just because it is I who speak. But when you have seen, examined and experienced for yourself, then accept it.". A proposal which the author of this piece hasn't obviously tried by and for himself. Growing of the Frontal Cortex and some other human brain areas related with our best feelings (such as altruism, compassion or 'simple' well- being) and the production of dopamines are just some of the effects now proven by science that people can obtain today from ancient practices such as Buddhism's contemplative techniques. Something to think about:

    “Buddhism is the most perfect one the world has ever seen. The philosophy of the Buddha, the theory of evolution and the law of Karma (are) far superior to any other creed" - Carl Gustav Jung.

    “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” - Albert Einstein

    “Buddhism has done more for the advance of world civilization and true culture than any other influences in the chronicles of mankind" - H. G. Wells

    (Gautama Siddhartha) “gave expression to truths of everlasting value and advanced the ethics of not India alone but of humanity. Buddha was one of the greatest ethical men of genius ever bestowed upon the world.” - Albert Schweitzer

    “If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say “no”; if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say “no”; if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say “no”; if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say “no”. The Buddha has given such answer when interrogated as to the conditions of a man’s self after death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of 17th and 18th century science” - Robert Oppenheimer.