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The Universe in a Single Atom: The…

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Dalai Lama

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Title:The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Authors:Dalai Lama
Info:Broadway (2006), Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:science and buddhism, buddhism, dalai lama

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The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by Dalai Lama XIV (2005)



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The 14th Dalai Lama is a very intelligent man. This is even more clear with this book. He is, however, inhibited by significant biases. That's not a slight - we all have biases - but his objective suffers considerable obstacles because of his particular biases (well, the ones I perceive through his writing...he likely has many more, as do I.) In his prologue, he says, "This book is not an attempt to unite science and spirituality...Rather, I believe that spirituality and science are different but complementary investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth." Yes, he said that. Given his position, what else could he say? I made a lot of notes while reading this short book, but in the interest of pseudo-brevity, I'll shotgun only a few points here.

He asks, "Do ethics have a place in science? I believe they do." I respond, that's a rather nonsensical rhetorical question - of course they do. But he diverges into presumption quite quickly: "There is, however, a general assumption that ethics are relevant to only the application of science, not the actual pursuit of science." What? 1) how is that a "general assumption", and 2) more importantly, I maintain we have a moral obligation to pursue science, as it is the only way to truly understand anything. He errs further in saying "Science and technology are powerful tools, but we must decide how best to use them." No. I concur with the assessment and judgment with respect to technology, but you use science to learn. He almost lost me when he said "...many aspects of human existence, including values, creativity, and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry." No. Nothing lies outside the scope of scientific inquiry.

There is more to human existence and to reality itself than current science can ever give us access to.

Here he nearly fails...were it not for the qualifier "current", he might as well have stoppped right there. James Morrow said in his fictional story Only Begotten Daughter,“Science does have all the answers,” ...“The problem is that we don’t have all the science.”
To which I always append "...yet."

I am not wholly ignorant of Buddhism, but not have studied it in depth, I learned a bit reading this book. He says, "...strictly speaking, in Buddhism scriptural authority cannot outweigh an understanding based on reason and experience." This is refreshing in light of Western religious traditions. The emphasis placed on reason is important, but he undermines scientific reason by placing limits on it that he claims are not so in his religion:
If we take this criterion [the Popperian falsifiability thesis] seriously, then many questions that pertain to our human existence, such as ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality, remain outside the domain of science. By contrast, the domain of inquiry in Buddhism is not limited to the objective. It also encompasses the subjective world of experience as well as the question of values. In other words, science deals with empirical facts but not with metaphysics and ethics, whereas for Buddhism, critical inquiry into all three is essential.
Making his case for the inferiority of science? - oh, not overt, but a pervasive subtext throughout. While metaphysics is usually framed as addressing a priori knowledge and non-empirical, and science clearly "a posteriori" and empirical, metaphysics also clearly cannot be empirical-less as it relies on empircal data to analyze! And anything that can be analyzed, science can study. The domain of inquiry is not limited in science...this is not a contrast. What is acceptable evidence is, though, limited in science.

With respect to a perception of science having disproved many claims of religion... And within this conceptual framework, anything that is not proven or affirmed by science is somehow either false or insignificant. Such views are effectively philosophical assumptions that reflect their holders’ metaphysical prejudices. Just as we must avoid dogmatism in science, we must ensure that spirituality is free from the same limitations.
...he really misses the mark. Science does not set out to disprove. Confirmation of a theory only increases the probability of its correctness. Obviously, disproof negates any position and renders the theory, or portion of the theory, invalid. Of course, the disproof must itself be analyzed and confirmed. Validation is crucial. Not proving does not disconfirm...merely, it does not confirm. And his concluding sentence of Chapter Two: Encounter with Science, "Reality, including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows." is a non sequitur.

It's not all nits to be picked...he says "One of the most inspiring things about science is the change our understanding of the world undergoes in the light of new findings." Yes! Concur wholeheartedly! However...then there's this: For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.

Does not follow...how can he rationalize that conclusion? I'm not even going to spend time here addressing his "theory of emptiness", but when he says "I have the conviction that the great discoveries in physics going back as far as Copernicus give rise to the insight that reality is not as it appears to us.", well... That's a common argument, and yet no less irrelevant even if he says it. We can only interact with how it appears to us, therefore reality is how it appears to us. Science may determine how and why what is not our perceived reality presents itself to us as we perceive it, or it may be as I said, irrelevant. Imagining other universes, or dimensions, if we cannot interact with them is a thought experiment only. What we can interact with is our perceived reality.

One subtle snipe throughout the book is the Dalai Lama's use of the term "open-minded scientists". He is quite obviously in the context of use referring to scientists who accept religion in some degree. Am I being sensitive? No...for when he describes scientists who are evidence founded only (at least in the descriptions), he does not use the term "open minded." The reality is, all true scientists are open minded. They are also human, while human failings, and sometimes close their minds to that which disproves their work. Another subtle snipe, perhaps not intended as such, but he's far too intelligent for the subtlety to be accidental, is the use of the word "story" to undermine scientific theories he talks about

Of the various scientific theories he discusses, he is comes off weakest with respect to evolution. (Many references to "story" an not theory...) He claims that "From the Buddhist perspective, the idea of these mutations being purely random events is deeply unsettling for a theory that purports to explain the origin of life." (Emphasis mine.) Not true. Evolutionary biologists would love to be able to explain the origin, but most accurately, the study attempts to explain the speciation of life. Don't put words into their published papers, Mr. Lama...no one not from religious intent have claimed an origin theory. (Note, when he has a negative to say about something, it's a "theory", not a "story".) His understanding of altruism and evolution are flawed, making claims that altruism can't be supported according to the theory as the passing of genes for altruism is in opposition to the selfish nature of genes. But he gives himself an out "As it stands, the current biological model does not allow for the possibility of real altruism." true. the current model doesn't. But then, we don't have all the science ...yet.

One Implicit assumption I have sometimes found in Western thought is that, in the story of evolution, human beings enjoy a unique existential status.

Wrong! In the story of Western religion maybe, not science! (Note again..."story" of evolution...)

I admit I was taken aback in the last chapter with his stories of mystical nonsense. I can sidestep his rationalization of his belief in rebirth though a misunderstanding of instinct, but when he talked about One area of possible research on meditation could be what the Tibetan tradition describes as the experience of the clear light state. This is a state of consciousness understood to be extremely subtle that manifests briefly in all human beings at the moment of death.
My own teacher Ling Rinpoche remained in the clear light of death for thirteen days; although he was clinically dead and had stopped breathing, he stayed in the meditation posture and his body showed no sign of decomposition.
I can't help it...

Complete loss of credibility claiming someone was in a meditative state 13 days after death! And another for 17!!

It's unfair to end on that note, so I'll share one of his parting thoughts I suppose my fascination for science still rests in an innocent amazement at the wonders of what it can achieve. From these beginnings my journey into science has led me into issues of great complexity, such as science’s impact on our understanding of the world, its power to transform human lives and the very earth we live on, and the awesome moral dilemmas which its new findings have posed. Yet one cannot and should not forget the wonder and the beauty of what has been made possible.

Wise. Overall, a very good book given the author's position in the world of religion. Admirable. And he can be forgiven for his biases. I suspect he'd forgive me mine. ( )
  Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
I'm not sure why I wanted to read this, tbh. ?If I'd seen what is apparently an alternate subtitle: The Universe in a Single Atom: How Science and Spirituality Can Serve Our World, I might have realized without even picking it up that it's not for me. ?áIt is short and easy to read, so maybe spiritual people can get more out of it than I did. ?á

But I got to p. 37 when I met this line: Reality, including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows." ?áOk, so it is the same old dogma that I know from Christians, the same old claim that we should 'give up and let god.' ?áI disagree. ?áThe scientific method is the only valid way to get to know the world. ?áIt's the only thing that leads to real advances in medicine, psychology, technology, sociology. ?á If only more politicians and economists applied the scientific method, the world would be a better place. ?á(Studies of history, respect for the traditions of historical precedence, can get us only so far, too, imo. ?áWe must strive to overcome the baser aspects of human nature. ?áWe must, for example, admire the works of Shakespeare for their revelation of the follies that humans have in the past exhibited, and be proud that we no longer [for example] think it's funny to 'Tame the Shrew.')

?áReligion is about faith. ?áIt's just as much of a myth or fairy-tale or hallucinogenic high experience as any of those things more accurately labeled. ?áNo amount of prayer or ritual or service to a god or pope or?ámeditation is going to increase our knowledge of how the world works. ?áThe only real ways that spirituality could 'serve our world' is by serving as a palliative to the fearful and an admonition to the wicked. ?áAnd, since the wicked twist the words of the holy texts to suit their ambitions anyway, and since the fearful would actually be better off if they worked to become?ásmarter and stronger, I can't even allow for that. ?áI'm sure the man means well, but imo it's time for the human race to grow up, to free ourselves from the shackles of tradition."
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
From the dust jacket, " After forty years of study with some of the greatest scientific minds, as well as a lifetime of meditative, spiritual, and philosophical study, the Dalai Lama presents a brilliant analysis of why all avenues of inquiry--scientific as well as spiritual--must be pursued in order to arrive at a complete picture of the truth. Science shows us ways of interpreting the physical world, while spirituality helps us cope with reality. But the extreme of either is impoverishing."
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  uufnn | May 10, 2015 |
The Dalai Lama is truly an inspirational and humble man. In this book he takes a look at how Buddhism and science build off each other and how science lends answers to some of life's questions. However, science can not answer some questions and we must still turn to spirituality to pick up the pieces. But as science and our understanding of the universe evolves, so should our understanding of spirituality. I would highly recommend this book to both people who love science and those who barely passed science class. The Dalai Lama managed to relay his ideas and beliefs in a way that anyone can understand and everyone must at least appreciate, even if they don't entirely agree. ( )
  bleached | Apr 15, 2015 |
The Dalai Lama found that what Buddhism lacked in his country was a fruitful interchange with reason and science. Here he fosters that exchange, at a time when some Christians have turned their backs on science and the enlightenment.
  PendleHillLibrary | May 21, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0767920813, Paperback)

Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Niels Bohr, Einstein. Their insights shook our perception of who we are and where we stand in the world, and in their wake have left an uneasy coexistence: science vs. religion, faith vs. empirical inquiry. Which is the keeper of truth? Which is the true path to understanding reality?

After forty years of study with some of the greatest scientific minds, as well as a lifetime of meditative, spiritual, and philosophic study, the Dalai Lama presents a brilliant analysis of why all avenues of inquiry—scientific as well as spiritual—must be pursued in order to arrive at a complete picture of the truth. Through an examination of Darwinism and karma, quantum mechanics and philosophical insight into the nature of reality, neurobiology and the study of consciousness, the Dalai Lama draws significant parallels between contemplative and scientific examinations of reality.

This breathtakingly personal examination is a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s teachers—both of science and spirituality. The legacy of this book is a vision of the world in which our different approaches to understanding ourselves, our universe, and one another can be brought together in the service of humanity.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:44 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Explains how science and religion can work together to alleviate human suffering, arguing that understanding the connections between science and faith holds the key to achieving peace both within oneself and the world at large.

(summary from another edition)

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