Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science And Spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Morgan Road Books 2005)

Not only is the Dalai Lama inspiring and exquisitely compassionate, he is also utterly brilliant and very up to speed with the key issues of the day. He explains his fascination with science and technology that began when he was a child. Since he began to travel abroad in the 1970’s he took every opportunity to talk with some of the best scientists in the world. Eventually he established the most excellent Mind and Life Conferences every few years where scientists and spiritual practitioners converge to compare ideas about science, consciousness, psychology, spirituality, and the meaning of life. Some of these have resulted in meaningful dialogue and spurred wonderful books such as – ‘Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying,’ which dealt with these subjects in relation to science and consciousness.

As he makes clear, the Dalai Lama sees science as very important and sees it as not at all at odds with the Buddhist tradition that he represents. He notes that some ideas in the tradition, particularly in the abhidharma section of teachings which deals with cosmology and the nature and make up of the psyche, should be updated to reflect the observations of modern science. He sees no major contradictions with Darwin’s theory of evolution and with quantum physics or the theory of relativity. He has introduced science into the curriculum of the monastic universities. He wants his students to integrate the science more into their overall worldview. He sees the most promising role of science and technology as helping to relieve suffering. He sees science and spirituality as complementary in the sense that they share the goal of seeking truth. He considers science and Buddhism both as investigative traditions. Dalai Lama is primarily interested in how science and Buddhist philosophy can help sentient beings and their environment. He considers the dangers of scientific materialism, nihilism, and reductionism in de-humanizing us. In an early chapter he points out his encounters with various scientists, philosophers, and scholars including Karl Popper, David Bohm, Carl von Weizsacker, Francisco Varela, Thomas Merton, and Huston Smith.  He also points out the early purveyors of the Indian Buddhist dialectical tradition such as Nagarjuna, the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, Shantideva, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, and Dignaga as well as the famous Tibetan master Tsong Khapa. The Indian teachers were often associated with Nalanda University which developed a famous cirriculum based on investigative logic. The Dalai Lama compares and distinguishes these methods of scientific and contemplative investigation:

“scientific investigation proceeds by experiment, using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience.”

Both methods distinguish empirical means of investigation from inferences and favor the best of the two methods for the subject at hand. He notes that science and the Buddhist contemplative investigative traditions agree that empirical experience and reason are the best means to know something. Buddhism as a religious tradition also relies on so-called scriptural authority which makes it differ from science – although that authority is said to be based on past experience, similar to one accepting the results of past scientific experiments. His holiness particularly praised his dialogues with physicist David Bohm (who also has published dialogues with J. Krishnamurti) as fruitful. He compliments Bohm’s open-mindedness. He notes Karl Popper as the formulator of:  “Popper’s falsifiability thesis, which states than any scientific theory must contain within it the conditions under which it may be shown to be false.” Buddhism, he notes, encompasses a wider field of inquiry than science in that it includes the subjective, particularly metaphysics and ethics. He favorably compares Poppers falsifiability thesis with what he calls the “principle of the scope of negation” from the Tibetan tradition. This principle notes a “fundamental difference between that which is “not found” and that which is “found not to exist.” So, just because something can’t be found does not mean it doesn’t exist.

A comparison is made of the fundamental Buddhist idea of emptiness (as originally elaborated by Nagarjuna – circa 2nd century C.E. in Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way)  being the true state of things and the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. The theory of emptiness asserts that it is erroneous to perceive the world as we normally do from the supposition that we identify with/are a discreet ego, or self. This erroneous supposition or fundamental ignorance is said to form the basis for attachment. In a way this idea suggests that nothing exists strictly objectively, that there is a subjective component to anything that can be said to exist. Stated that way, one can sense a similarity to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – that the observer alters the observed by the mere act of observation. This has found to be the case at the quantum level, regarding momentum and position of a particle, but may be more universal in application. Regarding practical applications of emptiness theory he mentions once asking David Bohm – what was wrong from the perspective of science of believing in the independent existence of things. Bohm answered that many ideological problems – racism, extreme nationalism, extremism, and Marxist class struggle – occur due to perceptions of things as inherently divided and disconnected. So in this sense – belief in interconnectivity and inseparability can better inform ethical decisions. The theory of relativity upset the common sense reality of Newtonian physics. Quantum theory furthered this overthrow. The Dalai Lama notes Einstein’s reluctance to accept the Uncertainty Principle (as in the famous quote – God does not play dice..  ). He also notes some early Indian atomic theories and the long-standing traditions of logical debate on the nature of reality in India among and between both Buddhists and Hindus and the healthiness of such traditions on refining ideas. He notes a long-held notion of time as relative in the Buddhist tradition where it was noted that past, present, and future are basically interdependent and that there could not be a real vessel called time within which events occur, although apparently some scientists see Einstein’s space-time continuum as such a vessel. He also notes that there are proponents of different viewpoints in the various Buddhist schools where the extremes of realism and idealism are countered with the Middle Way schools which are considered the most refined. There is the relative world “contingent upon language, social conventions, and shared concepts.”  The other reality, the so-called ultimate reality, can only be truly understood through experience. This idea of the “two truths” ultimate and conventional is similar says the Dalai Lama to the notion of commonsense Newtonian physics and deeper Einsteinian physics.

In the Buddhist theories as in the new physics there can be no observer-independent reality. As he says it: “mind and matter are codependent.” This derives ultimately from the Buddhist idea of “dependent origination.” This idea states that all arises through causes and conditions, there is mutual dependence between the parts and the whole, and that no identity exists independently. So – the universe is considered to be a vast network of complex interrelationships. The wave-particle paradox of light and the quantum principle of non-locality also point to the interdependent nature of reality.

The next subject is cosmology and the Dalai Lama mentions several creation myths of cosmological origin such as the Tibetan Bon notions of order arising from chaos and Indian theories such as Samkhya primordial materiality which describe the universe arising from a substratum of a more ultimate reality; Vaisheshika atomism where these atoms make up the basic units of reality, various ideas of Brahma and Ishvara as originators of the universe, and the radical materialism of the Charvakas. In contrast, the Buddhist formulation describes everything, consciousness as well as matter, in terms of the dependent origination theory. Buddha was known to never answer questions regarding the origin of the universe. Views as to why this is so vary but most suggest that  the questions are not applicable to liberation and may entrench us further into delusion. There are 10 or 14 of these unanswered ‘cosmological’ questions depending on the tradition – many involve paradoxes of time, questions of life after death, and mind/body definitions. Regardless, after the Buddha, cosmological traditions developed in Buddhist societies. The Dalai Lama describes the two main systems – those of the Abhidharma – shared by Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists and tyhose of the Kalachakra Tantra which came much later. Both systems mention that we iive in one of billions of ‘world-systems.’ These world-systems are subject to a beginning and end but the universe as a whole is not (and neither are beings as I recall from studying abhidharma). Each universe is said to have four stages: emptiness, formation, abiding, and destruction. Universes can be destroyed by either of three elements: fire, water, and air. This would be in concert with theories of multiple big bangs that some physicists and thinkers such as Ervin Laszlo favor. Often one hears Buddhist teachers speak of beginningless time which suggests the unfathomably great age of both the matter and consciousness that makes up the world and us.

Regarding theism, particularly the theism espoused by the Indian Samkhya philosophers, but also the ideas that the orderly nature of the universe is proof of intelligent design, he invokes the arguments of Dharmakirti from the 7th century C.E.  from his classic text – Exposition of Valid Cognition. Dharmakirti made a refutation of the Samkhya theory of the universe coming about through the interplay of prakrit and purusa (or God as Ishvara). What he refuted was the idea of an absolute beginning to the chain of causation where the ‘first cause’ did not have a precedent. Basically, he says that such an idea would have to be “an arbitrary metaphysical hypothesis. It cannot be proven.” The 4th century meditator, Asanga, also refuted the idea of a creator of the universe on similar grounds. He rejected the idea that something beyond cause and effect could produce things subject to cause and effect. He describes the universe as an “infinite chain of causation with no transcendence or preceding intelligence. According the elemental theories in the Buddhist cosmology systems, the four elements dissolve back into the most subtle and all-pervasive element of space at the end of a universal cycle – so they go back into the emptiness phase and arise again from it. This idea is quite similar to Ervin Laszlo’s notion of the “Akashic Field.” The Kalachakra system refers to ‘space particles.’ Physicists refer to the “quantum vacuum” or as I have also heard it – the quantum foam. The four elements may be seen as the phases of matter – solidity, liquidity, heat, and kinetic energy. The space element as the most subtle and pervading all matter may be the ‘stuff’ that is indestructible. Dalai Lama also mention the Flower Ornament Sutra which is the origin of the idea of the “jeweled net of Indra” that so aptly describes the notion of holography. In this net there is no center and no edge and all is reflected in each part. So to know one part is to know all and this would require omniscience. Even quantum physics has come up against formidable limits of knowledge even under ideal conditions. In Buddhist theory the role of consciousness is also in attendance here as the karmic propensity of beings. He offers his own idea of how karma enters the picture:

“When the universe has evolved to a stage where it can support the life of sentient beings, its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it. More difficult perhaps is the first intervention of karma, which is effectively the maturation of the karmic potential of the sentient beings who will occupy that universe, which sets in motion its coming into being.”

This section is philosophy and metaphysics at its finest where great questions are asked. Also of interest are some notions of Kalachakra that relate the bodies of humans to the bodies of the cosmos not unlike notions in Kabala, Alchemy, and the Western Esoteric Traditions. A peculiar relationship he mentions is that of solar and lunar eclipses thought to affect human breathing patterns. Makes me wonder if I should practice pranayama during the next eclipse.

The next chapters delve more into consciousness. First he goes through theories of the origins of life and Darwinian evolution and modern genetics. He notes that for science the critical divide seems to be that between inanimate matter and living organisms while in Buddhism it is between non-sentience and sentience. He suggests the scientific methodology of reductionism to account for the emphasis on life from non-life and the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering to account for the emphasis on sentience from non-sentience. He describes the scope of science to be in the domain of the first noble truth of the Buddha, that of suffering, in that is examines the physical bases of suffering – the physical environment (container) and sentient beings (the contained). The 2nd noble truth, the origin of suffering, he says, falls in the mental realm of psychology and mental afflictions. The 3rd and 4th noble truths, cessation of suffering and the path that leads to it, he says, are in the domain of philosophy and religion.

Regarding sentience, he notes Western divisions into inanimate matter, living organisms, and human beings. Lots of Christians I have met seem to favor that humans are equipped with a soul or self-consciousness not possessed by animals. I have even heard this argument used as justification for killing animals. In Buddhist philosophy there are degrees of sentience so animals are thought to be much closer to humans than to plants. So humans and animals both have consciousness, but humans have it to a greater degree of complexity. As far as the subtleties of sentience he also mentions the Buddhist notions of the 3 worlds: the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm:

“The desire realm is characterized by the experience of sensual desires and pain; this is the realm that we humans and animals inhabit. In contrast, the form realm is free from any manifest experience of pain and is permeated principally by an experience of bliss. Beings in this realm possess bodies composed of light. Finally, the formless realm utterly transcends all physical sensation. Existence in this realm is permeated by an abiding state of perfect equanimity, and the beings in this realm are entirely free from material embodiment.”

These are the god realms of celestial beings that are still subject to impermanence and eventual suffering as their karma is exhausted.

In his discussion of karma he notes the Guhyasamaja tantra which states that there can be no absolute division between mind and matter and that prana, the most subtle form of matter, is identical to consciousness.

“Prana is the aspect of mobility, dynamism, and cohesion, while consciousness is the aspect of cognition and the capacity for reflective thinking.”

So in this system all is the play of energy and consciousness. This could also said to be true in Hindu tantra where Shiva represents consciousness and Shakti represents energy. Dalai Lama suggests that this interplay can be the basis for relationship between the body as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm.

Though he is generally in agreement with Darwinian theory he sees it as incomplete. He sees the idea of “survival of the fittest” as unsatisfying in the sense that it does not account for altruism. Altruism does not fit the scenario of reproductive success. Simply classifying altruism as self-interest is not useful. He asks why modern biology sees only competition as the operating principal when cooperation is well demonstrated among animals as well as among humans. Also he notes that Darwinian theory does not address the origin of sentience which is most important to Buddhists.

He goes through several ideas of consciousness in the theories of various Buddhist schools. The idea that mind has two qualities, that it is both luminous (clear) and knowing, is elaborated upon somewhat. The mind’s aspect of clarity is said to account for its ability to reflect what appears impartially like a mirror. He also briefly mentions the eight consciousnesses theory of the Yogachara school that is considered less refined, or only useful to a point, and ultimately refutable. The conditioned world in Buddhism is usually made up of matter, mind, and mental formations (abstract composites). Examples of the third category include things like concepts, time, logical principles and other mental constructs. This is identical to Karl Popper’s classification of world of physical objects, world of subjective experiences, and world of statements in themselves, ie. the content of thoughts. Other theories of consciousness he mentions are those of the neurobiologists that suggests all mental states arise from physical states. He rejected that idea outright as a metaphysical assumption having no basis even in science. He mentions Bohm’s theory of an implicate order in a holographic universe as quite plausible. He goes through some of the fascinating discoveries of neurobiology but still notes that the nature of consciousness is still quite unknown to neuroscience. He also mentions traditional arguments in favor of the idea of rebirth (or reincarnation) in Buddhist theory such as innate knowledge or instinct which suggests it as a distinct possibility. He also notes some more detailed past-life experiences and studies. He makes the important observation that consciousness is ultimately always subjective and so has to be excluded from strictly third-person objective scientific inquiry. He suggests a paradigm shift where first-person accounts are integrated with third-person inquiries, which is basically how psychology in its many guises works. He thinks that the long and detailed Buddhist contemplative investigation into the nature of mind can offer much to the scientific study of consciousness. This is being done in neurobiology labs that study meditators. One obvious observation has been that the frontal lobes of meditators being more ‘plastic’ or flexible to change than in others. This notion of brain-plasticity suggests that positive mental change can be affected through certain techniques. Buddhist notions of the transformability of consciousness note that “opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other.” This implies that practicing loving kindness can serve to weaken the force of hatred. Really this is simple common sense and habit and is quite reasonable.

He uses further examples from texts attributed to Maitreya and Nagarjuna to demonstrate that these early Buddhist traditions had similar notions of the plasticity of the brain, or at least of cognition. He also goes through the methods of training attention and mindfulness in the meditative traditions. The principle methods are shamata, or calm abiding meditation, in which one uses a physical focus or support as object of concentration and vipasyana, which proceeds as analysis and discernment while in a state of stabilized calm abiding.

He thinks a dialogue between Buddhist psychology and cognitive science can be fruitful. The distinctions between sensory and experience and mental experience were drummed into him as a young monk. He was urged to discover these differences through meditation. After we experience something through our senses we make a mental construct of it. Indeed. The mind is considered the sixth sense in Buddhist psychology. Most Western analyses regard thought and language as inseparable but the Buddhists note the existence of nonlinguistic thought. They say rudimentary non-linguistic concepts inform the thoughts of animals. He notes that in some neurobiology studies the brain does not seem to distinguish seeing with the eyes from imagining with the mental eye. He also notes how perceptions and optical illusions can trick the brain, or are they tricking the mind? The question is does the brain react the same or differently to optical illusions. The whole notion of false cognition vs. true cognition is taken up in detail in the Buddhist logic theories as it is key to emerging from delusion. The belief in an autonomous self  and other conditioned phenomena are said to be at the root of all false cognition. He also mentions ideas of emotion, where in Buddhism most emotions are considered afflictive and to feed delusion. They are considered to be in the realm of mental factors. There are wholesome mental factors such as love, compassion, and empathy. He mentions as well meeting with Paul Eckman who studies emotions and the affect of one’s state of mind on physical health. Eckman notes classification of emotions into basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions. love, pride, and jealousy are given as examples of higher cognitive emotions “whose expression is subject to considerable cultural variation.” Basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions are thought to be associated with different parts of the brain. Attachment, anger, and delusion are the key mental afflictions present in all sentient beings according to Buddhism. In higher beings such as humans (rather than animals where these may manifest as raw instinctual urges) these afflictions can be conditioned through concepts and language. This accords with scientific notions of the mammalian brain, the reptilian brain, etc. He mentions that the afflictive emotional states tend to direct to a concrete target while the more wholesome emotional states seem to be more diffuse and less confined to one person or object. From Eckman he also notes the distinction between emotions, moods (which last longer), and traits (which can appear throughout life). The connection between these may of course be mitigated by habit and action which brings in the karmic component.

The last chapter is about ethics and the new genetics is quite fascinating and details the Dalai Lama’s great ability as an ethical philosopher. Greater knowledge and power require a greater need for moral responsibility. The issue, he says, is now more and more not whether or not we should acquire knowledge and explore its technological potential but how to use the knowledge in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner. The biogenetic implications of medicine bring up many difficult questions. He says that we need to consider what is the most compassionate way we can answer these questions. People with high genetic risk for certain diseases are often faced with such questions. He mentions cloning as well, noting that he has no objections in principle, but after seeing a documentary where computer animated spare parts with distinctly human features were being simulated – that he felt an instinctive revulsion that he thinks gives him the gut of feeling so to speak where to draw the line. He acknowledges the great healing potential of genetics and cloning but says that we must keep it at the utmost compassionate level and not let it get to a point where it is done en masse for aesthetic purposes. He suggest the same attitude for genetically modified food – that it be used strictly in situations that it can help to feed starving people without becoming a tool for business and profit. Long-term consequences must be considered. He thinks that these ethicsl questions regarding the genetic revolution present an opportunity for people of different countries, ethnicities, and religions to get together around global ethical issues. He says what is needed is a greater collective effort. he suggests developing some universal ethical principles – some he suggests are preciousness of life, compassion as key motivation, acknowledgement of the need for balance in nature and basing our decisions on that need, and keeping a wide perspective that includes possible long-term consequences. He also suggests that when we address problems that we remain honest, self-aware, and unbiased.

He argues for a worldview grounded in science but one also that takes into account human nature and human goodness. This worldview should be put into practice with ethical values to guide one’s behavior.

I have read many books by the Dalai Lama and I always enjoy them. His playfulness is infectious, his sharp intellect keeps one fascinated, and his capacity for compassionate action is energizing.

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