I read an interesting book review from the NYT about the Dali Lama's most recent book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. At first I thought the reviewer was going to complain that it wasn't religious enough. Turns out, he was complaining that the Dali Lama started out sounding open-minded (which apparently, to this reviewer, meant "only reporting that which can be verified by tangible experimentation) but then snuck religion in there by saying that evolutionary random mutations might "turn out to be complexity in disguise - 'hidden causality,' the Buddha's smile." He dismisses this with the glib phrase, "There you have it, Eastern religion's version of intelligent design. " Funny - I read a book called Order Out of Chaos by Ilya Prigogine who received a Nobel Prize for discovering that there might indeed be large-scale order in randomness, so I'm not certain how speculating that complexity might arise from chaos is unscientific?
Then again, this reviewer doesn't seem to have anything more than an intellectual handle on the idea that Buddhism doesn't begin from the same rigid paradigm as Western religions. Given that he talks about "how someone so open-minded became the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of the pope"... Why is it so difficult for westerners to understand that in a philosophy like Buddhism there is no paradigm equivalent to a pope? The pope is the voice of God on earth, able to proclaim infallible, "God-said-it-that-settles-it" decrees of faith. As I understand it, the Dali Lama provides spiritual leadership, not spiritual dictatorship; guiding, not commanding. And as the Buddha is not perceived as God in the way most westerners perceive God, saying that large-scale order could be "the Buddha's smile" does not have the same deterministic connotations as a westerner saying that something "is God's will." I guess the only way I can put it is that it's more metaphorical in Eastern religions; that in a paradigm that doesn't try to rationalize away uncertainty, it is possible to hold seemingly contradictory beliefs simultaneously and be neither inconsistent nor delusional; that I can both believe scientifically that chaos theory says that a system is unpredictable, and at the same time philosophize that the unpredictability itself can be part of a larger pattern or unity, and be neither holding an irrational spiritual view nor rejecting scientific evidence.
The reviewer closes by saying, "All religion is rooted in a belief in the supernatural. Inviting a holy man to address a scientific conference may be leaving the back door ajar for ghosts." Yet is not this strong a rejection of the possibility of the unseen as narrow-minded a view as the church leaders who condemned Copernicus and Galileo for daring to take the Earth out of the center of the universe? To my mind, true scientific inquiry leaves open the possibility of anything unproven, no matter how irrational it might seem. Because after all, how rational does the theory of relativity sound? To do otherwise is to simply replace the deterministic religion of Western Judeo-Christianity with the deterministic religion of Western science.
But then again, I'm a philosopher, so anything I say is suspect anyway, right? :)
P.S. If you want to read more about chaos theory, here's a scientific link from the University of Texas, and a less-scientific link that connects some of the science with the "supernatural". (Interesting that the term "supernatural" is a judgement inherent in the word, isn't it? I think I see the subject of another blog post there...)