The Universe in a Single Atom by The Dalai Lama

Book review by Dr Hugh Murdoch

The Dalai Lama comes across as a truly remarkable individual. He is steeped in his Buddhist tradition. His teaching began at the age of 6 when he was chosen as the 14th Dalai Lama and given detailed instruction by his personal teachers. He also has much wider interests, especially in science and in the spiritual welfare of mankind generally, together with fostering a better understanding of the relationship between religion and science. We need, he says, both science and spirituality since the alleviation of human suffering must take place at both the physical and psychological levels. Interestingly, his “first encounters with spiritual teachers who were seeking an integration of science and spirituality was with members of the Theosophical Society in Madras” during a visit to India in 1956 for the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death.

He showed a precocious scientific bent when as a young child, looking through a telescope at the full moon, he focused on “the rabbit in the moon”, a feature known in the West as “the man in the moon”. Noting shadows, he deduced that the Sun shines on the Moon as well as on Earth. As a teenager he was very interested in the workings of mechanical things such as watches and generators. He says that, as an internationalist, he is impressed with the willingness of scientists to share their knowledge with others without distinctions of East and West, even during the Cold War. He says one of the causes of Tibet’s political tragedy was its failure to open itself to modernization. He has encouraged monastic colleges who teach classical Buddhist thought to include science in their curriculum.

He sees a number of parallels between science and Buddhist thought, including the one discussed in the New Scientist article. As in science, there are different interpretations of the role of the observer. According to one Buddhist school, “matter cannot be objectively perceived apart from the observer – matter and mind are co-dependent”.

Buddhism can make an important contribution to science with regard to its motivation. “Unless the direction of science is guided by a consciously ethical motivation, especially compassion, its efforts can fail to bring benefit. It may even make things worse. In Buddhism the highest spiritual ideal is to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings and to work for their welfare. ... Science is vitally important, but it is only one finger of the hand of humanity ... What matters above all is the motivation that governs the use of science and technology.” It is also important that we recognize that “many aspects of human existence, including values, creativity and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.

Cosmology

The Buddha never answered questions about the origin of the universe. However, “ancient Buddhist cosmologists conceived that any universe system goes through stages of formation, expansion and ultimate destruction” in other words, a cyclic universe. “Buddhism and science share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent being as the origin of all things. This is hardly surprising given both these investigative traditions are essentially nontheistic”.

The Dalai Lama had, at the age of 20, been taught a form of cosmology known as Abidharma which he found has too many contradictions including a flat Earth whereas he already knew the Earth is round. He takes seriously the modern theory of the big bang, with the temperature decreasing rapidly to the point where elements could form while space expanded. “Thus all of space, time matter and energy as we know and experience them came into being from this fireball of matter and radiation”. He refers to confirmation of this model from current measurements of the background radiation. He also refers to the earlier debate concerning the steady state theory supported then by Hoyle and other great minds. (He wrongly describes this theory as assuming the universe expanding at a steady rate, whereas the rate of expansion in that theory was considered to increase exponentially). “Today (he says) the evidence from the microwave background is a wonderful example of how in science, in the final analysis, it is the empirical evidence that represents the last court of justice”. He adds: “At least in principle, this is also true of Buddhist thought”. However, finally he says: “I am not subject to the professional and ideological constraints of a radically materialist worldview. In Buddhism the universe is seen as infinite and beginningless, so I am quite happy to venture beyond the big bang and speculate about possible states of affairs before it”. There are quite a few cosmologists today who like to at least speculate on this and even on a cyclic universe.

Consciousness

Not surprisingly, a substantial portion of the book deals with Consciousness. I will attempt a limited summary of some key features of his presentation. There is no real consensus in science on what consciousness is. With its characteristic third person method — the objective perspective from the outside — science has made strikingly little headway. ... It does not possess a fully developed methodology to investigate the phenomenon. Noting such approaches as behaviourism, Cartesian dualism of matter and mind, and attempted definition in terms of neural correlates etc., he asks:, “What about the direct observation of consciousness itself? Given the highly subjective nature of our experience of consciousness, is a third person understanding ever possible? For Buddhism, understanding consciousness as a defining characteristic of sentience is of great importance. An important discourse of the Buddha opens with “mind is primary and pervades all things”. ... There must be a basic mind which maintains continuity throughout life. The Buddhist concept of three distinct features of the world – matter, mind and mental states is compared with Popper’s three worlds approach.

Some pertinent questions asked are: “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the emergence of mental experiences”? “How do we explain the emergence of consciousness”? “Can we have both upward and downward causation?” Referring to speculation on a point of contact in the brain for consciousness, the Dalai Lama says that despite tremendous success in observing close correlation between parts of the brain and mental states, he believes current neuroscience has no real explanation of consciousness. In fact Science needs a paradigm shift to be able to explain consciousness. On this score, he says: “I believe it is possible for Buddhism and modern science to engage in collaborative research in the understanding of consciousness while leaving aside the question of whether consciousness is ultimately physical”.

“Consciousness is a very elusive object, and in this sense, it is quite unlike the focus on a material object, such as biochemical processes. ... Whatever our philosophical views about the nature of consciousness, whether it is ultimately material or not, through a rigorous first-person method we can learn to observe the phenomena, including their characteristics and causal dynamics. On this basis, I envisage the possibility of broadening the scope of the science of consciousness and enriching our understanding of the human mind in scientific terms. ... Given that subjectivity is a primary element of consciousness, it will have to be a fully developed and rigourous first person empiricism. There is tremendous potential for contemplative traditions such as Buddhism to make a substantive contribution. ... Moreover there may well be substantial resources in the West’s own philosophical traditions”.

Genetics

“The primary purpose of Buddhist contemplative practice is to relieve suffering” and science has done much in this area through modern medicine and modern genetics is likely to play an increasing role. However, we have to ask how much is too much? “For the first time in history our very survival demands that we begin to consider ethical responsibility, not just in the application of science but in the direction of research and development as well ... This is a question which must be considered by scientists as well as the public at large. ... The higher the level of knowledge and power the greater must be our sense of moral responsibility. ... With the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point. ... The issues here are not just moral but ethical”.

He sees both pluses and minuses. He has no objection to cloning as such but all decisions must be based on ‘compassionate motivation.’ He says “When I think about the new ways of manipulating human genetics, I can’t help feeling that there is something profoundly lacking in our appreciation of what it is to cherish humanity”. On the plus side he says: “One of the most striking and heartening effects of our knowledge of the genome is the astounding truth that the differences in the genomes of the different ethnic groups around the world are so negligible as to be insignificant” he has always argued that there is no substance to “the differences, of colour, language, religion, ethnicity etc”.

“We must rise to the ethical challenge [of the genetic revolution] as members of one human family, not as a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu or a Muslim. ... We need to examine the questions from the perspective of a global ethics that is grounded in the recognition of fundamental human values that transcend religion and science”. Speaking also of the challenges we face from the misuse of technology, he says: “We need to relate to the challenges we face as a single human family, rather than as members of specific nationalities, ethnicities, or religions. In other words a necessary principle is a spirit of oneness of the entire human species. Some might object that this is unrealistic but what other option do we have? He firmly believes it is possible and takes hope from “the fact that despite our living for more tha half a century in the nuclear age, we have not yet annihilated ourselves. ... The fate of the human species, perhaps of all life on this planet, is in our hands.”

Summing up

In the course of a short final chapter, the Dalai Lama says: “Throughout this book, I hope I have made the case that one can take science seriously and accept the validity of its empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism. I have argued for the need and possibility of a worldview grounded in science, yet one that does not deny the richness of human nature and the validity of modes of knowing other than the scientific. ... Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science and spirituality have the potential to be closer than ever. ... May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea”.

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(The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, The Dalai Lama, New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005, 216 pages, ISBN 0-7679-2026-X)

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