The Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom

The Skpetic reprints Michael Shermer’s review of the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom, which seems to continue in the tradition of the Einstein-Tagore discussions about science and religion (and about Tagore’s The Religion of Man).

This book is “not an attempt to unite science and spirituality,” he explains, “but an effort to explore two important human disciplines for the purpose of developing a more holistic and integrated way of understanding the world.”

He begins his exploration by equating science with the worldview of “scientific materialism,” which “seems to be a common unexamined presupposition” that includes “a belief in an objective world, independent of the contingency of its observers. It assumes that the data being analyzed within an experiment are independent of the preconceptions, perceptions, and experience of the scientist analyzing them.” Well, not quite. Most working scientists do make this assumption when conducting their experiments, but they are well aware that their preconceptions can color their analysis and interpretation. Reality exists, we can agree. Getting an accurate reading on reality is another matter entirely.

The Dalai Lama’s other bugbear is scientific reductionism, and here I feel he has set up something of a straw man.

The view that all aspects of reality can be reduced to matter and its various particles is, to my mind, as much a metaphysical position as the view that an organizing intelligence created and controls reality.

This view, he fears, leads to nihilism, and with it the loss of subjective purpose and meaning.

The danger then is that human beings may be reduced to nothing more than biological machines, the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes, with no purpose other than the biological imperative of reproduction.