Science without Borders

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Science without Borders


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Morgan Road Books/Random House. 2005, 209 pp. $24.95 ISBN: 0-7679-2066-X.

IN A 1987 LECTURE IN PASADENA, CA, on "The Burden of Skepticism," the astronomer Carl Sagan opined: "In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."

Well, Carl, here's a little bit of good news on the religion front, from no less a personage than His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who writes in the Prologue of his latest book, The Universe in a Single Atom: "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." Listen up, all ye who insist on forcing the round peg of science into the square hole of religion (creationists and Intelligent Design Theorists most notably): religious claims may or may not be consonant with scientific findings, but if they are not, it is wisest to err on the side of science because it employs a method that includes self-correcting machinery designed to weed out error, agenda, and bias.

Not only do scientists change their minds in the teeth of new and contradictory evidence, they do so regardless of the religion, race, or nationality of the scientific colleagues who are doing the contradicting. Science is international, in this sense, or perhaps a-national would be a belier description. Science is conducted without borders, a characteristic that is naturally in harmony with the teachings of Buddhism. "Because I am an internationalist at heart," the Dalai Lama explains, "one of the qualities that has moved me most about scientists is their amazing willingness to share knowledge with each other without regard for national boundaries. Even during the Cold War, when the political world was polarized to a dangerous degree, I found scientists from the Eastern and Western blocs willing to communicate in ways the politicians could not even imagine."

In my 1999 book, How We Believe, I outlined a three-tiered model of the relationship of science and religion: (1) the conflicting worlds model where science and religion are at war with one another and one must choose between them; (2) the same worlds model where science and religion are in harmony and one may have both simultaneously; and (3) the separate worms model where science and religion are different methods dealing with different areas of human concern. Since that time, hundreds of books have been published on the subject of science and religion, representing all three of these positions, and the field of science and religion studies has blossomed with its own journals and magazines, college courses and scholarly conferences, and even an annual million dollar cash prize for the individual who most contributes to uniting science and religion (the Templeton Prize). Thus, when I was asked to review this book by the Dalai Lama, I approached it with some mind-numbing trepidation--what else can be said on this subject, especially by someone with no background whatsoever in science?

Yet, as I read The Universe in a Single Atom I grew to respect the author, Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the age of six was enthroned as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. (Dalai Lama means Ocean of Wisdom, and the Dalai Lamas are the manifestations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion,) Born to a peasant family in a small village called Takster in northeastern Tibet, the Dalai Lama undertook a lifelong education in Buddhism that, because of his exile and subsequent solo diaspora, brought him in contact with many of the world's leading scientists. …

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