In recent months, proponents of “intelligent design” have enjoyed remarkable success in pitching to American school boards what amounts to nothing less than stealth creationism. By arguing that this essentially religious notion rises to the level of scientific theory, its adherents have created the false impression that scientists themselves are taking part in the debate. They aren't. The only real debate taking place is whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools; scientists, by and large, have long since dismissed the theory's empirical merit.
So far, the most visible proponents of intelligent design have been Christian. But with the publication in September of The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama caught the notice of author and journalist George Johnson. In his review of the book for The New York Times on September 18, Johnson writes,
[W]hen it comes to questions about life and its origins, this would-be man of science begins to waver. Though he professes to accept evolutionary theory, he recoils at one of its most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random. Look deeply enough, he suggests, and the randomness will turn out to be complexity in disguise-“hidden causality,” the Buddha's smile. There you have it, Eastern religion's version of intelligent design.
Although his review is largely favorable, Johnson expresses some disappointment with the Dalai Lama for opposing “physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science.”
Johnson drew fire from sundry well-informed Buddhists, who accused him of everything from condescension to a simple misreading of basic Buddhist philosophy. (For one response to Johnson's review, read Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace's thoughts at www.tricycle.com.) But in fairness to Johnson, anyone asserting the immateriality of consciousness can hardly expect immateriality to be a legitimate focus of scientific study. Science, after all, deals exclusively with the material. By virtue of its reliance on physical evidence and falsifiability, it cannot venture beyond it. Like intelligent design, or a Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth, the notion of immaterial consciousness has not—at least not yet—risen to the level of scientific theory.
To be sure, the Dalai Lama has not argued that Buddhism be taught in science classrooms and has shown an uncommon deference for scientific truths along with a deep respect for non-Buddhist cultures. It's also important to point out that the different Buddhist schools are hardly unanimous on epistemological issues. But in spite of Buddhism's many successes in navigating material truths, in some areas traditional Buddhism hits the same wall other religions have when it meets up with Western science.
The apparently irreconcilable differences between religion and science have led some to base philosophical systems-replete with codes of ethics and storehouses of meaning—on purely empirical grounds (see Andrew Cooper's “The Transcendent Imperative,”). But as you'll read, grand theories have a funny way of collapsing under the weight of their own subjective biases, rendering them as bereft of meaning as faith is of empirical proofs. As the Dalai Lama points out, science may be able to monitor our neurological response to the color blue but it cannot tell us what it feels like to see it. For meaning, it seems we must rely not on purely empirical accounts of the world (see “Fairy Tales and Zen Riddles,”), but on our subjective understanding of them. One question we might ask is whether we need to reconcile faith and science at all, or, more specifically, whether Buddhism requires validation beyond one's subjective experience of it.
Perhaps we are left to hold both faith and reason in our minds at once, without any particular need to force one to accommodate the other. It seems at this point we have little choice but to accept what amounts to a division of labor.
Buddhist practice offers us the chance to transcend the simplistic dichotomies that imprison us (see Helen Tworkov's “Just Power,”) and come to an entirely new understanding of our world. Our practice needn't offer up scientific truths; it's enough if it takes us beyond our suffering.