Like many Americans, I drift somewhere between the extremes of complete faith in faith and complete faith in science in my grappling with the mystery of life. Given my hesitation to fully commit to one side of the debate or the other, I balk whenever one camp stakes claim to possessing sole and exclusive insight into the reality of our existence.
At a time when the schism between science and faith seems to be growing wider by the day, a bridge is needed to connect these two worlds in a manner that respects the dignity and integrity of both viewpoints.
Such a bridge has just emerged in the form of the Dalai Lama's newest book, "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality."
In his book, the Dalai Lama advocates the melding of science and spirituality in an effort to alleviate human suffering. As he recently wrote in a New York Times editorial, he acknowledges that there are differences, perhaps unsolvable differences, between the worlds of science and spirituality. "While I agree that certain religious concepts conflict with scientific facts and principles, I also feel that people from both worlds can have an intelligent discussion, one that has the power ultimately to generate a deeper understanding of challenges we face together in our interconnected world," he writes.
Ultimately, the book calls for a creation of secular ethics that would "embrace the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths."
Hooray, I say. If religion can learn from science through the examination of testable, falsifiable phenomena, so be it. Conversely, the Dalai Lama cautions that the existence of life and consciousness may not distill down to a testable and falsifiable form. In such a case, there may be something that science can learn from religion and spirituality.
It is this exchange and cross-fertilization of spirituality and science that makes up the heart of the book. Early in the text, the Dalai Lama recounts his childhood explorations with a telescope and realizing, through empiricism and observation, that the moon does not emit its own light. This observation caused him to question, and with the input of Western astronomical teachings, overturn the authority of a fourth-century cosmology treatise that had been taught to Buddhist monks for sixteen centuries. In this particular case, science triumphs over religious dogma.
Reversing the flow of knowledge, the Dalai Lama believes that spirituality, specifically a rigorous study of meditation, may allow science to shed some light on the most elusive and unscientific of subjects, the conscience and inner workings of the human mind.
If, as the Dalai Lama hopes, science and spirituality can be yoked in an effort to alleviate human suffering, the results could be stupendous. Of all the abilities of the human mind, I can think of none more powerful than faith and reason.
To get a copy of "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality," give me a ring at the Green Lake Branch (684-7547) or log onto our website at www.spl.org.