The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality Paperback – Sep 12 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
As the Dalai Lama observes in this wise and humble book, dialogue between scientists and those interested in spirituality is important because science is not neutral; it can be used for good or ill, and we must approach scientific inquiry with compassion and empathy. Similarly, a spirituality that ignores science can quickly become a rigid fundamentalism. Sometimes the Dalai Lama discovers similarities between the two fields. For example, Einstein's idea that time is relative dovetails neatly with Buddhist philosophical understandings of time. Still, His Holiness does not accept all scientific thinking as holy writ: though he is intrigued by scientific stories of origins, like the Big Bang theory, Buddhism holds that the universe is "infinite and beginningless." The penultimate chapter brings ethical considerations to bear on technological advancements in genetics. The Dalai Lama gently suggests that although parents who select certain genetic traits for their children may intend to give their children a leg up, they may in fact simply be capitulating to a social pressure that favors, say, boys over girls or tall people over short. He also cautions that we do not know the long-term consequences of genetically modifying our crops. In fact, it is disappointing that the Dalai Lama devotes only 18 pages to these urgent and complex topics. Perhaps this prolific author has a sequel in the works.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Fascinated by science since boyhood, the Dalai Lama, unlike fundamentalists who resist scientific realities, has become convinced that a dialogue between religion and science will advance the wisdom of both disciplines and greatly benefit humankind. He explains why in illuminating explications of how Buddhism and science are both predicated on focused observation, reasoning, and the ability to abandon outmoded ideas in the ongoing search for reality. He compares quantum physics with Buddhist philosophy and reveals how the theory of evolution echoes the Buddhist understanding that all of life is interconnected and in flux, and he writes with deep feeling about the pressing ethical questions raised by advancements in biotechnology. For all the provocative and detailed reasoning found in this soulful and mind-expanding book, what emerges most powerfully is the Dalai Lama's belief that science must embrace Buddhism's mission and work toward increasing compassion and alleviating suffering. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
laymans terms , and is very interesting and entertaining to read. "The Universe in a Single atom " is from 2005 , but the ideas
discussed by the Dalai Lama are somewhat older. The blending of ancient thoughts with modern quantum physics is
mind boggling. Any book that the Dalai Lama produces is worthy of a look , he is a knowledgeable fellow , but this book is a gem in
two different disciplines . Very heavy stuff, highly recommended , and on the Amazon used market it is inexpensive.
It starts out very endearingly, relating his early life and introduction to science through Heinrich Harrer and eventually many eminent scientists, after he fled Tibet in 1959. These encounters are presented in a very charming and humorous way and the Dalai Lama's humility shines as he makes every effort to take his background in Buddhist philosophy and somehow use it to grasp genetics, cosmology, quantum physics, neuroscience and more. If only every non-scientist took such an active interest!
The problem though, for me, is that this lack of real scientific training becomes evident as the Dalai Lama begins to present his own arguments. There are frequent calls for rational inquiry, comparison of disparate claims mediated by valid evidence, etc., but when it comes down to it he seems incapable of following these principles. As an example, the thorny issue of human cloning comes up, and H.H. mentions his own profound disgust when first becoming aware of the implications - and then goes on to recommend our 'innate sense of disgust' as valid criteria for deciding what's right and wrong, as these extremely complex issues begin to pile up around us. This might even be a good criteria in this particular situation - but then, there are a lot of people who think they feel an 'innate disgust' at Islam, or Christianity, and that doesn't prove it's 'wrong.' Possibly the most irritating for me was when he went on to claim that if we use genetic engineering to enhance people (which will undoubtedly be a costly process, at least at first), then we risk turning an 'inequality of circumstance (relative wealth) into an inequality of nature' (relatively superior genomes). Definitely a legitimate concern - but has it not occurred to him that the system of reincarnate lamas (tulkus) in Tibet is probably the closest extant example of exactly such a system? That he himself has lived 95% of his life in egregious wealth and privilege (relative to the average Tibetan, anyway) precisely because most Tibetans believe that he (and other 'tulkus' - there are hundreds, if not thousands of reincarnate lama lineages) somehow has an inherently superior nature or karmic conditions (what could be considered the Tibetan Buddhist version of genetics). A lot of the other arguments, regarding karma, reincarnation, etc., basically hover around the idea, 'Science hasn't proved them wrong yet, so we're going to continue believing them.' His 'support' for reincarnation comes in the form of relying on the testimony of a 4-year-old girl in India who claims to remember her past lives. "Such phenomena cannot be easily ignored" he says - and yet the Tibetan Buddhists 'easily ignore' the many other facets of Indian religion that don't accord with their views - things like the supremacy of Shiva (not Buddha!), or Vishnu incarnating in the world, and so on. In another book (Consciousness at the Crossroads), an open-minded neuroscientist actually suggests a very simple experiment that could prove or disprove reincarnation - "Let's see how much science/neuroscience the 15th Dalai Lama can remember from this life, where you've been exposed to so much scientific training!" No one seems eager to take him up on any experiment so clear and reasonable.
None of this is to say H.H. is a bad guy - actually I think he is making an incredible contribution to the world. That doesn't change the fact that when he argues here against science or presents his views on issues such as genetic engineering, he rarely avoids hypocrisy or ostrichism.
The major exception to this is the research he has greatly helped to facilitate in beginning the scientific study of meditation and long-term meditators - this is the one area of Buddhism I know of that is being vindicated by true empirical/rational inquiry (as he recommends), and this contribution alone is very meaningful.
Recommended, but don't expect science to 'converge' with Tibetan Buddhism and support the reincarnation of high lamas any time soon.
On page 12 he presents a concise summary of his philosophy of science, tied together with dubious logic. Unfortunately it ignores what the scientists told him. As it nicely sums up what is wrong in this otherwise worthwhile book, this review will examine it in detail, rather than evaluate the entire book.
“I have noticed that many people hold an assumption that the scientific view of the world should be the basis for all knowledge and all that is knowable. This is scientific materialism.”
The scientific view of the world is that it is comprehensible. We can explain what we observe by conjecturing rules, and testing to ensure they work. As our knowledge and investigative tools improve, we can observe new things that were unimaginable before. So science is the basis for all that is observable, remembering that there is always much more to be discovered. Ideas are an integral part of the reality that science investigates. Science itself is driven by our creativity, inventing new ideas to explain how the world works. “Scientific Materialism” is misleading if it means that scientific method is excluded from studying our mental processes or philosophy.
“This view upholds a belief in an objective world, independent of the contingency of its observers. It assumes that the data being analyzed within an experiment are independent of the preconceptions, perceptions, and experience of the scientist analyzing them.”
Science is indeed based on the concept of a single objective reality. The confusion here comes from the distinction between the reality of an object and our observation of it. Observation is certainly affected by the expectations and techniques of the scientist. Science is about overcoming these biases to arrive at an ever-improving approximation of the truth. The fact that we do not know exactly what is the truth does not mean there is no truth at all. This is a false dichotomy.
“Underlying this view is the assumption that, in the final analysis, matter, as it can be described by physics and as it is governed by the laws of physics, is all there is. Accordingly, this view would uphold that psychology can be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics.”
Objective reality does not require or lead to reductionism. This misconception comes from the fact that an important part of science is about decomposing systems to investigate their parts. But science is also about unifying observations to create universal explanations. The alternative to reductionism is the view that when a certain level of complexity is reached, new laws emerge that cannot be described by the laws of the lower level. For example, your body is made up of cells. But even if we had perfect knowledge of how cells work, it would never describe you. Your life depends on your cells, you act through your cells, but it is impossible to understand you knowing only about your cells. Physics is therefore not sufficient to understand the world, even though everything that happens is ultimately based on physics. While there are no hard boundaries between physics, chemistry, biology and psychology, these sciences are separate disciplines because that is the only way to study the higher level rules that define them.
“My concern here is not to argue against this reductionist position, but to draw attention to a vitally important point: that these ideas do not constitute scientific knowledge; rather they represent a philosophical, in fact a metaphysical, position.”
This is indeed a vital point. For example, Newton’s laws of motion have been thoroughly tested and verified. But this established fact does not provide support for common metaphysical belief at the time in a clockwork universe, or for the physical assumption that time is the same everywhere. These notions were never experimentally verified, and have turned out to be false. We must always be careful to distinguish between verified scientific knowledge and the unverified theories and opinions of individual scientists.
When the Dalai Lama said on page 3 that Buddhism must align with “scientific analysis” he means verified knowledge, as opposed to unproven assumptions and metaphysics. As verified knowledge is rather limited in his domain of psychology, few of his fundamental beliefs are actually challenged. To his credit, he is willing to discard some of the myths that Buddhism inherited from Hinduism.
“The view that all aspects of reality can be reduced to matter and its various particles is, to my mind, as much a metaphysical position as the view that an organizing intelligence created and controls reality. The danger 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 than the biological imperative of reproduction.”
A science that recognizes emergent properties knows that we are more than our cells, more than our genes, and more than our evolutionary heritage. Reductionism may be used as an excuse for nihilism, but it is curious how moral relativism, which is based on the rejection of the existence of objective reality, also leads to nihilism. Scientific method and Buddhism may both be seen as a middle way to the truth.
“According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All thing and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”
For a middle-way guy this is a hardline view. It is based on a false dichotomy playing on the word “independent”. Objects can exist independent of our observation of them without making them completely independent and isolated from everything.
Next we are told that belief in objective reality leads to “attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices”.
The attachment issue is another false dichotomy. Some attachment is necessary to have any goals and get anything done (including meditation), while excessive attachment interferes with rational thinking. For example, the Dalai Lama seems to have an attachment to the theory of emptiness, and the independence of Tibet. The solution for attachment problems is not to wish the real world out of existence. This is like curing acne with suicide. As for prejudice, its very definition is to believe what you want to believe, rather than accept objective reality.
The denial of objective reality is not a problem for Buddhism because it also hands its students a pre-packaged purpose in life. For others, the logical conclusion is that if nothing objectively exists, you cannot really know anything. So believe anything you want, why care about anything?
The Dalai Lama does not support this kind moral relativism, if I understand this book at all. He seems to think first person introspection is ruled out by science. But if meditation actually leads to a tangible change, such as the state of mind or physiology of the meditator, or increased compassionate behavior, then this is also the realm of science. Why would the Dalia Lama invite scientists to study meditators if there was no reality to it? Again, an unnecessary restriction is being placed on science.
There is much to like about this book other than the philosophy of science it presents. Listen carefully to what the scientists tell him, as opposed to his conclusions, and remember that science can be broader than he gives it credit for.
This is only "full length" copy on the market today. Well written and researched and absolutely astounding in what is revealed. A must have for the spiritual Seeker. John O.
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