Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom

While reading Maslow’s Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences in November I began to wonder why the relationship between science and religion had become so acrimonious. Simultaneously, I was reading some short articles by the Dalai Lama and wondered which of his many books to start with. Browsing Amazon, I found his book The Universe in a Singe Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality and decided I was destined to read that book, especially since it was available on the new Kindle I had just bought.

I’ve been interested in both science and the spiritual aspects of life as long as I can remember. Though I entered college as a Physics Major, I switched to an English major because I decided that science was too limiting, that I was more interested in other aspects of life than I was in pure science. I suspect that I began to turn away from some traditional religion, though, when they denied what seemed to me fairly obvious truths.

Needless to say, I was encouraged when I read this at the beginning of the Dalai Lama’s book:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

Nor could I help but agree with

The great benefit of science is that it can contribute tremendously to the alleviation of suffering at the physical level, but it is only through the cultivation of the qualities of the human heart and the transformation of our attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering. In other words, the enhancement of fundamental human values is indispensable to our basic quest for happiness. Therefore, from the perspective of human well-being, science and spirituality are not unrelated. We need both, since the alleviation of suffering must take place at both the physical and the psychological levels.

Amen! I’ve suffered enough poverty to know it’s hard to be happy when you don’t have enough money at the end of the month to buy food or can’t afford to go the dentist when you have a toothache. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that having things guarantees any kind of happiness, either. If scientific advances could suddenly give everyone all the material goods they desired, I have not doubt that many, if not most, people would still be unhappy because something was missing in their lives.

The Dalai Lama does not attempt to unite science and spirituality,

This book is not an attempt to unite science and spirituality (Buddhism being the example I know best) but an effort to examine two important human disciplines for the purpose of developing a more holistic and integrated way of understanding the world around us, one that explores deeply the seen and the unseen, through the discovery of evidence bolstered by reason.

but he hopes to find a way to unite them in understanding the world and in eliminating the suffering that afflicts all societies.

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t think that science alone can do that:

One of the principal problems with a radical scientific materialism is the narrowness of vision that results and the potential for nihilism that might ensue. Nihilism, materialism, and reductionism are above all problems from a philosophical and especially a human perspective, since they can potentially impoverish the way we see ourselves. For example, whether we see ourselves as random biological creatures or as special beings endowed with the dimension of consciousness and moral capacity will make an impact on how we feel about ourselves and treat others. In this view many dimensions of the full reality of what it is to be human—art, ethics, spirituality, goodness, beauty, and above all, consciousness—either are reduced to the chemical reactions of firing neurons or are seen as a matter of purely imaginary constructs. The danger then is that human beings may be reduced to nothing more than biological machines, the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes, with no purpose other than the biological imperative of reproduction.

This corresponds quite closely to what Maslow argued in his book. By denying peak experiences, science is impoverishing our existence. Of course, Rollo May also supports this argument with his emphasis on the importance of beauty in our lives.

The Dalai Lama devotes a chapter to discussing the similarities and differences between scientific thinking and Buddhist thinking. He begins by emphasizing similarities:

… the Buddha advises that people should test the truth of what he has said through reasoned examination and personal experiment. Therefore, when it comes to validating the truth of a claim, Buddhism accords greatest authority to experience, with reason second and scripture last.

I suspect that reason actually comes first in science since the hardest scientific truths to learn were those that seemed to go against personal experience, but this reminds me why I’ve increasingly found myself aligned with Buddhism, at least philosophically.

The Dalai Lama says Buddhism, like science, accepts change when proven wrong:

So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different.

The Dalai Lama suggests there is, however, one fundamental difference in the forms of reasoning between science and Buddhism:

In this final example, Buddhism and science clearly part company, since science, at least in principle, does not acknowledge any form of scriptural authority. But in the first two domains-the application of empirical experience and reason-there is a great methodological convergence between the two investigative traditions. In our day-to-day life, however, we regularly and habitually use the third method of testing claims about reality. For example, we accept the date of our birth on the verbal testimony of our relatives and in relation to the written testimony of a birth certificate. Even in science, we accept the results published by experimenters in peer- reviewed journals without ourselves repeating their experiments.

The greatest difference between Buddhism and science, though, is what they focus on,

Although the basic emphases on empiricism and reason are similar in Buddhism and science, there are profound differences concerning what constitutes empirical experience and the forms of reasoning employed by the two systems. When Buddhism speaks of empirical experience, it has a broader understanding of empiricism, which includes meditative states as well as the evidence of the senses. Because of the development of technology in the last two hundred years, science has been able to extend the capacity of the senses to degrees unimaginable in earlier times. Hence scientists can use the naked eye, admittedly with the help of powerful instruments like microscopes and telescopes, to observe both remarkably minute phenomena, like cells and complex atomic structures, and the vast structures of the cosmos. On the basis of the expanded horizons of the senses, science has been able to push the limits of inference further than human knowledge has ever reached. Now, in response to traces left in bubble chambers, physicists can infer the existence of the constitutive particles of atoms, including even the elements within the neutron, such as quarks and gluons.

but even here he seems to argue that the two modes of thinking can complement each other, rather than oppose each other as is far too often suggested by some religions.

Ultimately, though, Buddhism does not limit itself to explaining just “objective reality:”

Another of the differences between science and Buddhism as I see them lies in what constitutes a valid hypothesis. Here too Popper’s delineation of the scope of a strictly scientific question represents a great insight. This is the Popperian falsifiabilitv thesis, which states that any scientific theory must contain within it the conditions under which it may be shown to be false. For example, the theory that God created the world can never be a scientific one because it cannot contain an explanation of the conditions under which the theory could be proven false. If we take this criterion seriously, then many questions that pertain to our human existence, such as ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality, remain outside the domain of science. By contrast, the domain of inquiry in Buddhism is not limited to the objective. It also encompasses the subjective world of experience as well as the question of values. In other words, science deals with empirical facts but not with metaphysics and ethics, whereas for Buddhism, critical inquiry into all three is essential.

This seems to reflect Maslow’s criticism of science. In fact, it seems precisely like the kind of critical inquiry that Maslow was trying to promote for peak experiences.

In the end the Dalai Lama criticizes scientists for precisely the same kind of narrowness that Maslow was critical of:

In addition to the objective world of matter, which science is masterful at exploring, there exists the subjective world of feelings, emotions, thoughts, and the values and spiritual aspirations based on them. If we treat this realm as though it had no constitutive role in our understanding of reality, we lose the richness of our own existence and our understanding cannot be comprehensive. Reality, including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows.

Ideally, science and religion are not diametrically opposed to each other but complement each other, combining to give us a truer vision of who we are and who we can become.

3 thoughts on “Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom

  1. Sounds like an interesting book.

    “whether we see ourselves as random biological creatures or as special beings endowed with the dimension of consciousness and moral capacity…”

    Is it necessary to see ourselves as one or the other? I would have thought the problem is that when we see ourselves, we only have our own ways of describing ourselves to drawn on.

  2. I’m pretty sure that Rollo May, being an existentialist psychologist would say that the first view is likely to lead to nihilism, and all the destructive feelings that brings with it.

    On the other hand, the second view might well lead to seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, with everything else here merely to serve our needs.

  3. “I am an artist … It’s self-evident that what that word implies is looking for something all the time without ever finding it in full. It is the opposite of saying, “I know all about it. I’ve already found it.” As far as I’m concerned, the word means, “I am looking, I am deeply involved.”
    (Vincent van Gogh)

    As I was reading your post, it occurred to me that Vincent thought along the lines of the Dalai Lama and Rollo May and Maslow.

    After Just having had a root canal performed on Monday, I am deeply grateful to science for relieving the first toothache I can remember having, and for the Buddha’s concept of the Noble Truth of suffering as the well as the Noble Truth that there is a path to the end of suffering.

    Although I don’t identify myself as a member of any religious or spiritual tradition, or scientific tradition for that matter (!), I identify with the words of Vincent as an artist:

    “I am looking. I am deeply involved.”

    And with the words of the Dalai Lama:

    “Therefore, from the perspective of human well-being, science and spirituality are not unrelated. We need both, since the alleviation of suffering must take place at both the physical and the psychological levels.”

    Thanks so much for this post, Loren. It’s heartening.

What do you think?