About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
The Dalai Lama and neurobiology
The Dalai Lama has been invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, on the topic of meditation. Some scientists members of the society have complained about it and started a petition (500 signatures) to ask the president of the Society to cancel the talk (details in Nature 436, 452: 2005, and Nature 436, 1071: 2005).
Here are the arguments pro and con:
* Con: the Dalai Lama is not a scientist, and even though neurobiological research has been done on the practice of meditation, the DL has nothing to say on the matter to scientists. Moreover, there is a real possibility the DL could use the platform to spread religious ideas with the implicit imprimatur of a scientific society, which raises all sorts of questions of professional ethics.
* Pro: the lecture is part of a series called "dialogues between neuroscience and society," and certainly scientists do need to dialogue with society at various levels and for a variety of pretty obvious reasons.
I can see both points of view. The president of the Society, incidentally, rejected the petition and decided to keep the lecture as scheduled.
One interesting addendum on the Dalai Lama as a figure in Tibetan history and religion. A new DL gets chosen, after the previous one dies, on the basis of the possibility that the old one reincarnates into the new one. How this possibility is actually assessed is a matter for a small group of Buddhist monks to decide, but it must be an empirically challenging task.
The interesting bit is this: currently, Tibet is under the political and military control of China. This raises the possibility that the Chinese will get to influence the choice of the next DL, once the current one dies. The current DL (the same person who will speak at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience) has publicicly stated that he would never be reborn inside territory controlled by China, and in fact -- if the Chinese piss him off enough (not his exact words) -- he might decide to never been reborn, period. Take that, Chinese commies.
Now, some of the neuroscientists who sign the petition might want to ask His Holiness how the hell is he going to control whether and how to reincarnate. Inquiring minds want to know.