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.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

More on the Dalai Lama

Interesting review of the DL's latest book, "The Universe in a Single Atom: the Convergence of Science and Spirituality," by George Johnson in the New York Times. I have not read the book, and I have no time to do it (I have to pick carefully the fluff I read, so to leave time for serious stuff :-) so I'm going simply by what Johnson says in his review.

Johnson is actually fairly positive about the book, and since he has been the recipient this year of one of the infamous Templeton Fellowships in Science and Religion, one can hardly accuse him of being a hard skeptic about science-religion issues. Indeed, Johnson acknowledges the DL's openness toward science, for example when the latter says "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." How refreshing, after a summer of Intelligent Design idiocy throughout the country, culminating in the asinine statement of President Bush concerning the evolution-creation controversy.

Yet, even Johnson points out that there is a worrisome limit to how far the Dalai Lama is willing to go. Although the wise man apparently accepts evolution, he denies that mutations are random, mumbling some nonsense about "hidden causality" and the Buddha's smile. Moreover, the DL isn't happy with physical explanations for consciousness, which makes perfectly understandable why he wasn't welcome by some scientists at this year's meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Then again, why would anybody expect a religious leader -- i.e. somebody who thrives on ignorance and the glorification of mystery -- to truly and completely accept whatever science throws his way? The problem, of course, is that neither the Dalai Lama nor his even less enlightened Christian conservative colleagues give us any good reason to accept silly notions like Buddha's (or Jesus', or what have you) hidden smile.


  1. What exactly IS consiousness?

    I find it to be a rather eluding concept.

  2. Kelley, ah! Darn good question, which I'm sure will recur on this blog!

    Personally, I consider consciousness a process rooted in the activity of the brain. Which implies the equation "no brain = no consciousness," or what some philosophers of mind refer to as the "no ectoplasm" clause.

    A recent stimulating book on this is: Searle, J. R. 2004. Mind: A Brief Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.

  3. There is a nice, mid-length (~30000 words) article on aspects of the mind, personality, conciousness, etc. that seem to be functions of the brain, and what, if anything, might be left over for the ineffable soul.

    There's a lot of ideas in the article I hadn't heard before, and it's fairly accessable to the non-scientist.


  4. Another very good book whose theme is consciousness is "The Feeling of What Happens", subtitled "Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness", by Antonio Damasio. Sounds like I'm getting sales commision, second time I mention it here. But I'm not! :-)


  5. Dear Mr. Pigliucci,

    I attended a chat with you a long while back at BookTalk, though you probably don't remember me. I was under the name ZombieHatesYou, or something along those lines. :-) This is the first time I've run across your blog, and I felt compelled to comment on the "Buddha's Smile" bit.

    The story goes that when Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, sitting under the Bodhi tree, he smiled. In Robert Thurman's essay on this, The Buddha's Smile, he describes enlightenment: "To become perfectly enlightened is not just to slip into some disconnected euphoria, an oceanic feeling of mystic oneness apart from ordinary reality. It is not to be invested by some God with the final word, a message to believe in and to promulgate. It is not even to come up with a solution, a sort of formula that can control reality. Rather it is supposed to be an experience of release from all compulsions and sufferings, combined with a precise awareness of any relevant object of knowledge. A Buddha should know everything that matters and the precise nature of it all - that is how he or she is defined."

    Realizing all this, the Buddha smiled.

    I cannot speak for the Dalai Lama, of course, but I would think that perhaps he refers to the Buddha's Smile not as a way to weasel out of giving an answer, but as an answer in and of itself, since he would be working under the assumption that a buddha would know all things that matter and know the precise nature of those things. Perhaps the DL does not think that random mutations matter.

    This is not my personal position on anything. I'm not Buddhist, though my partner is a Zen monk. I just thought that perhaps a little explanation of the phrase might help.

    Be well.

    PS - Living with a Zen monk has taught me that Buddhists like to give strange answers to things, though they (okay, some of them. A lot of them are fluffy New Agers in disguise) are completely capable of explaining things in a sensible manner if they feel like it. ;-)

  6. Thanks Annie, that does help enlightening me a bit :-) though I still think that Buddhists (or any other mystically/religiously inclined people) should stay clear of reinterpreting or rejecting scientific findings in light of their philosophies (but I do think that the DL is being much more reasonable than many Christian apologists).

  7. Mr. Pigliucci,

    I agree that those religiously inclined should stay out of it if they're going to misinterpret things based on their religious views.

    Buddhism doesn't really require any sort of "faith" other than believing that anyone can reach enlightenment if they work at it. There's no Creator God or creation story...the things that people commonly call the Buddhist "gods" aren't really gods at all, but aspects of human mind, so to speak. This is a product of badly translated texts crashing into Western ideas and making a mess.

    Buddhism doesn't really concern itself with speculating about the origin of life, the world, or the universe, because it sees these as ultimately irrelevant to awakening. Buddhism has no desire to reinterpret science in light of its own views, since those views it has are seen to be based on the experience of the nature of reality. If the nature of reality were to change, then the views would change accordingly. The Buddhist views come from reality, rather than the other way around, like Christians like to try to do. They are not a body of dogma to be believed or seen as unchanging.

    That said, we must take into account cultural differences and views, as Buddhism spans many countries and cultures.

    For instance, the Dalai Lama has expressed the jerky view of thinking homosexuals are bad. This is not a Buddhist view, but rather something that comes from the culture around him.

    The Dalai Lama is not the equivalent of a Buddhist Pope or anything. He doesn't speak for all Buddhists...just one school of it.

    I'm atheist, myself, but I do find Buddhism to be, on the whole, much more palatable than any other religion out there.


    PS - The monk would like me to add that Buddhism sees attachment to any particular point of view for its own sake as hindrance.

    Actually, the monk made me add most of that.

    Left to my own devices, I would've just said that I think religious people should get out. Out! ;-)

    Take care.

  8. Ms Annie Turner,
    Is expressing the view that homosexuals are bad qualifies as attachment to a particular point of view for its own sake?


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