Wednesday November 16, 2005
Last Saturday the Dalai Lama spoke to the Society for Neuroscience, and argued that Buddhism and Science share the same aim: an open investigation into the nature of reality (see the story here).
The Dalai Lama’s visit to the Society for Neuroscience has caused considerable controversy, as was reported on this blog several weeks ago. However, those five hundred scientists who signed a petition against the Dalai Lama’s invitation will not be much reassured by the Tibetan leader’s comments on the current controversy over the teaching of Intelligent Design – the idea that evolutionary theory is mistaken and that the universe and life here on earth could not have come about except through the intervention of an intelligent agent (God, for example, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster) – in schools. The gist of the Dalai Lama’s response when asked about this subject was that ‘the greater the dialogue the better.’ It is a comment that cannot fail to raise the suspicion that the Dalai Lama has missed the point.
It was the philosopher Karl Popper who said that the hallmark of a scientific theory was that it should be falsifiable, that is it should be capable of being disproved by new evidence (see here for more on this topic). A good Popperian would say that Intelligent Design is not falsifiable, whereas evolutionary theory is, and that is the difference. There is no way to disprove the theory of Intelligent Design, because the more that we understand about the complexity of the mechanisms of evolution, the more this can be taken to demonstrate the ingenuity of the supposed creator; and no evidence could be discovered that would demonstrate the falsity of this position. What Popper is saying is this: that an open investigation may require us, eventually, to give up the presuppositions of our starting point, and that it can only be an open investigation if these presuppositions are capable of being shown to be false, if there are means by which their falseness could be demonstrated. Religious world-views are not amenable to falsification in this way – whether they are Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, Baha’i or anything else.
To say that there should be dialogue between evolutionary theory and the theory of Intelligent Design is to make the mistake of thinking that they are the same kind of thing. But they are not. Intelligent Design is not a rival scientific theory, but rather a religious ideology in scientific guise. If Intelligent Design is to be taught in schools at all, it should be part of the Religious Education curriculum, and not the Science curriculum. As science, it is not at all clear why Intelligent Design should be considered a rival to evolutionary theory any more than Intelligent Falling (have a look on Wikipedia or in the Onion ) should be considered a rival to the theory of gravitation.
There is a risk here, in talking of “dialogue”, of muddying the waters, and of undermining the commitment to truth that, however imperfectly, lies behind scientific investigation – and also, ideally behind the practice of the dharma, in favour of a free-for-all of untenable beliefs.
The problem seems to be this: the Dalai Lama finds himself having to speak in terms of dialogue, because many of the metaphysical extravagances of Tibetan Buddhism are in the same league as theories of Intelligent Design: scientifically they are untenable. In terms of Popper’s falsifiability, the world-view of Tibetan Buddhism (and not just Tibetan Buddhism), for all its symbolic power, fails as much as do theories of Intelligent Design. It is hard to see how the Dalai Lama could dismiss Intelligent Design without undermining his own framework of beliefs, or at least the framework of beliefs of which he himself has become a symbol. And he is hardly in a position to be able to do this.
This is not to dismiss the practice of the dharma. Practice can lead to insights – into anatta, for example, the absence of any enduring self – that seem, as we understand more and more about the brain and the processes of mind, increasingly clear-sighted. But in the end the dharma is a method of practice and investigation; it is not a world-view. If anything, it is the antithesis to world views. In returning to an awareness of what is the case, here and now, we disentangle ourselves from all theorising to see the unfabricated simplicity and richness of experience.
This is what I would like to say to the Dalai Lama (I don’t suppose that he is reading this, but you never know…): that if we are too committed to the cosmologies and world-pictures of the past, whether Buddhist or Christian or any other flavour, we risk denying the very commitment to truth that underlies both dharma practice and science. We risk becoming seduced into losing ourselves in endless realms of beautiful, but unreal, dreams.
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