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Sunday, January 29, 2006

 
Meditating on Neuroscience
I happened to pick up my dad's February copy of Wired last week, and my eye fell on this article about the furor that erupted over the Dalai Lama being invited to speak at the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference.

As a quick background on why the Dalai Lama would have anything to do with a bunch of neuroscientists:
Over the past few years, he has supplied about a dozen Tibetan Buddhist monks to Richard Davidson, a prominent neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson's research created a stir among brain scientists when his results suggested that, in the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.
Interesting, right? I thought so. It was mentioned in National Geographic last year, too. Of course, the first thing I noticed when reading the Wired article about some neuroscientists protesting against the Dalai Lama's appearance was that every protestor they interviewed had a Chinese name. Hmmmm. However, the article eventually got around to acknowledging that bias, so I don't have issue with that.

What I do have issue with is the fact that the article seems to be trying to present the argument that research on monks, and their brains, and the general effects of meditation is going to cause horrifying and unprecedented blurring of the line between science and religion. The last two paragraphs of the article read as such:
A few days before the Dalai Lama addressed the Society for Neuroscience, he stood before a similarly eminent crowd at the Mind & Life Institute's 13th annual meeting. The audience of 2,500 consisted mostly of scientists and clinicians, yet the mood was more dharma than Darwin. Sessions opened to the guttural chants of Tibetan liturgical music. Everyone stood and bowed when His Holiness entered the room.

During one presentation, Duke University professor of medicine Ralph Snyderman paused to tell His Holiness, "This is one of the most wonderful moments of my life, being here with you." It was a touching gesture. It also crystallized the dilemma. Scientists can try to test the validity of the Dalai Lama's first-person perspective. But if they allow reverence for him to cloud their judgment, they will cease to be scientists and take rebirth as something quite different: acolytes.
As if no scientist in the history of, well, science had ever had any kind of religious conviction. How many Enlightenment thinkers were extremely devout Christians? How many of them claimed they were trying to prove the existence of God through scientific enquiry? Descartes, for one, not to mention Newton, and no one is accusing them of being bad scientists. I suspect there are any number of current day scientists who would be insulted to be told that they cannot practice science adequately unless they also dedicate themselves to aetheism. Why is it that wishing to practice meditation in addition to studying it is being presented as tantamount to declaring yourself a religiously blinded fraud? I hardly consider myself a devout anything, except possibly a skeptic, but even in the public schools I had enough scientific history education to recognize this conclusion as ludicrous.

Given the problems we already have in the US over a growing divide between the scientific and conservative religious communities, it hardly seems that this kind of attitude is at all helpful. These two groups are not, and should not be made to be, mutually exclusive. It's harmful to the free pursuit of science, and I, for one, am tired enough of seeing it impeded already.

Comments:
I am surprised that the Wired Magazine story did not present it, but most scientists' issue with the Dalai Lama is that he often only accepts science as valid when it agrees with his perceptual view of Buddhist dogma.

"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."
- from the Universe in a Single Atom, Tenzin Gyatso

Appalled at the thought that random mutation and recombination of genetic materials could result in the splendid creation of the
"the Buddha's smile", his following commentary firmly places the Dalai Lama as a notorious proponent of 'Intelligent Design'. Much as Einstein before him, he implies a first cause who will not play dice with the Universe. It is a force that has unquestionably guided an organizing pattern of life that mimics evolution, but which has actually been led towards producing an end-product: humanity and our Enlightenment. Any belief otherwise is from a misguided interpretation cast by the 'noise' within the data - a nonrandom-random that can only be seen and understood once the initial states are understood, a truth hidden within the cypher.

This proves ironic, as the Lama proposes that science and religion share confluence in that both rely upon meditation and contemplation for their understanding. It is here that science and religion part ways: both may quest for truth, but science can have no preconceptions about the end-product of our endeavors. I accept the possibility that the Lama may be right, but I'd like to see the key he uses to unlock his cyphertext, or some positive-proof of an unfolding design rather than homily and aphorism.

The Dalai Lama finds this absence of hard proof the very evidence that favors dharma, his own personal unifying field theory of conciousness. I reject this because science should not be abandoned when we reach unknown shores, for this is when we need it to help us explain that world the most. A lack of detailed understanding is not evidence of the invisible ultimate cause: God does not hold an unbreakable dominion over that which is unexplained today.

There is always tomorrow, and the meditation to come.
 
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