Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Universe in a Single Atom

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by the Dalai Lama is a book about the spiritual leader from Tibet’s journey into science from a boyhood fascination with mechanical devices to leaders in the field giving him lectures on Quantum Mechanics. He frequently discusses Buddhist philosophy (and the often tenuous connections between said philosophy and modern scientific ideas), and pontificates on the ethical ramifications of scientific discoveries (mainly genetic engineering).

That’s the gist of the book. If you like Buddhist philosophy and science, then go ahead and read it, it will be worth your time. That being said, do not read this book if you’re looking to learn more about science.

I almost had to stop reading when he said that Evolution does not explain the origin of life. Of course it doesn’t! It’s not supposed to! That’s an entirely separate field. He also says, “I feel this inability or unwillingness to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian evolutionary theory.” Again, this is entirely mistaken. Altruism is an active area of research, and there are many popular-level books dedicated to it (one of these is The Selfish Gene, which I will get to later).

He did better with quantum mechanics, and even better with consciousness. Buddhist meditation has always fascinated researchers, and many interesting and useful studies are done on meditating monks. However, I am more skeptical about his approach of using Buddhist meditative techniques, such as introspection, to probe ones own conscious scientifically. Because this is an entirely personal process, it’s hard to imagine getting rigorous results out of it. But the Dalai Lama knows a bit more about it than I do, so maybe he’s on to something.

One of my biggest problems with the book was his constant lambasting of reductionism. Granted, that’s a popular position, but reductionism is very useful in many circumstances, and when studying something as vastly complex as the brain we have little choice but to look at it piece by piece and try to build a coherent picture out of that, and as our understanding increases move back a bit and start looking at the whole.

Another misconception he perpetuates is that the scientific process necessitates materialism. Science operates on what is called “methodological naturalism”, which says that the only the we can study is nature. It makes absolutely no claim about there being anything supernatural, it only says that, by definition, we can’t study it. Many people (myself included) take this the step further and say, “I can see no evidence of anything supernatural, therefore I’m confident it doesn’t exist.” When 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,” it’s just silly. There are plenty of professional scientists who don’t subscribe to materialism, for crying out loud. It’s just a tired untruth that science mandates materialism, it simply doesn’t.

This book started with a true gem, one that I’ve quoted before, and something that I truly wish every religious leader would say. I was hopeful that would set the tone for the rest of the book, but as I explained above, there were many errors and misconceptions sprinkled throughout. That being said, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Buddhism and its philosophies as they apply to science.

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