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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

OK, this is a though one for me. There has been a recent controversy about which I can't make up my mind, so I'll just put the arguments out there and wait for feedback.

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.


  1. Who better to speak about meditation than the Dalai Lama. So he tries to throw a little religion into the mix. That should be easy to spot and disregard for a group of scientists.

    However if he were speaking to a bunch of snake handling fundies from the Bug Tussle Church of the Bad Ass Viper you just might have a problem.

    As far as him deciding whether or not to be re-incarnated - all things are possible if you have "faith". Yeah, right!

  2. This really is a nice dilemma you’ve presented. I’m trying to figure out where recent solutions to the problem of demarcation lead us. According to S. J. Gould’s NOMA, the DL should speak in a neighbouring conference room that real scientists should not enter. This may result in a drastic change of spending the annual science budget. According to Popper the real scientists should attend the meeting and falsify the arguments that are presented by the DL. If there are no arguments, assertions or the like, there is no problem and the DL can speak freely. But of course, all this is just my own thought experiment really.

    I agree with Dennis that there is some weakness in banning the DL. It’s as if scientists can’t distinguish science from magical claims. It should be regarded as a tribute to the unbelievable powers of the human mind, it should not be judged on it’s scientific content.

  3. Just out of curiosity, did Sam Harris have anything to do with getting the Dalai Lama on the program? According to his website, he's "completing a doctorate in neuroscience." He wrote End of Faith, which purports to be an attack on religion, but in the end makes a big evangelistic push for Buddhism. He says there is evidence for reincarnation that "mainstream science" is ignoring, and speculates that consciousness predates matter! I can't imagine anyone else thinking it appropriate to give the Dalai Lama the platform in a Society for Neuroscience meeting.


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