Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Keep Religion Out of Science, as Long as it is Western Religion



Science is neutral on matters of religious faith simply as a matter of its methodological limitations. Scientific inquiry can not address the supernatural nor is it a tool to decide matters of ultimate spiritual or moral purpose. Of course scientific inquiry can test the bare claims of a religious tradition, claims stripped of any divine causation, claims such as a global Noachian deluge or a young earth. But add the intervention of a divine agent and we simply can not take these claims seriously as testable ideas.

Unfortunately many scientists have forgotten these limitations and have attempted to use science to deny a particular religious viewpoint. But, are scientists always so hostile towards religion? Oddly enough the answer is no. Typically criticism of religious beliefs from within science has been directed towards Judeo-Christian beliefs for the simple reason that these are the prominent religious beliefs in western societies and Judeo-Christian beliefs underlie pseudoscientific challenges to evolutionary biology such as scientific creationism and intelligent design theory. However, many within the scientific community adopt an entirely different opinion towards non-western religious traditions.

For example, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader in exile Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama, has been asked to speak at the annual meeting of Society for Neuroscience (Cyranoski, D. 2005. Neuroscientists see red over the Dali Lama. Nature 436: 452). Despite the protests of more than 500 members of the society the Dali Lama will speak on Buddhist meditation at the November 2005 meeting of the society (Cyranoski, D. 2005. Dali Lama gets go-ahead for meditation lecture. Nature 436: 1071). The Dali Lama’s participation in the meeting has even prompted support from outside the neuroscience community (Dickinson, J. 2005. Buddhism is no bar to an open mind. Is science? Nature 436: 912). By having one of the world’s major religious figures speak at a national scientific meeting the life sciences are sending one message that religious ideas have no place in the science classroom and another by having a particular religious viewpoint presented in the context of a scientific meeting. I wonder the reaction if Pope Benedict XVI were asked to speak at the society’s meeting on the subject of prayer?

I agree that dialogue between scientists, philosophers, theologians and religious leaders is incredibly valuable and scientists should consider the influence of their work in a broad societal context. However, I see little the value of such a dialogue in the context of a scientific meeting. A more appropriate forum would be one that included scientists and religious and spiritual leaders of traditions beyond just Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately scientists operate in a culture that on the one hand sees little problem in inserting Darwin’s name in a symbol of Christian solidarity since Roman times, the Ichthys, but would likely frown upon any desecration of a Buddhist prayer wheel or the Tibetan flag (a popular bumper sticker among the faculty and graduate students on college campuses usually along side a ‘Darwin fish’). Hopefully there are some scientists, like myself, that would see any desecration of either religious symbol as irresponsible and reject the presentation of one religious view either in the science classroom or at a scientific meeting in lieu of others.

5 comments:

HRG said...

Hi Herman,

let me be the first to congratulate you to your new "medium of expression".

May I suggest that prayer in the Christian worldview plays a quite different role (personal communication with a supreme being) than meditation in the Buddhist worldview ?

Best regards, HRG.

Herman Mays said...

Thanks HRG for looking at my blog! Hopefully I'll get a few interested readers here and there?

In my experience with Buddhism while in Taiwan I've found that Buddhist meditation and prayer often has a very similar purpose. People going to Buddhist temples "ask" for things in their prayers just like most Christians do. Students often go to temple to pray for good scores before a big exam for example. So some similarites are there.

But, your point is well taken, there are significant differences as well. My main point was that it is a little disengenuous for scientists on the one hand to reject any influence of western religion in the science classroom yet invite eastern religous leaders to speak at scientific conferences.

Thanks again for the comments!

Herm

tinythinker said...

"In my experience with Buddhism while in Taiwan I've found that Buddhist meditation and prayer often has a very similar purpose. People going to Buddhist temples "ask" for things in their prayers just like most Christians do."

But that is very superficial. People will always find some outlet of expression for hopes and desires. Suspersition and magical thinking exist within and outside of any specific religious context, and many Buddhists explicitly reject such ideas. Neither prayer nor meditation is mostly about "asking for stuff".

"My main point was that it is a little disengenuous for scientists on the one hand to reject any influence of western religion in the science classroom yet invite eastern religous leaders to speak at scientific conferences"

Scientists do not reject "any influence" of western religion in the science classroom. Taxonomy in the west began as a mapping of God's creation, for example. What is rejected is the attempt to give Abrahamic creation myths scientific standing, and equivalent scientific standing to evolution at that. YEC and ID deliberately distort the meaning and value of science in pursuit of an ideological agenda. But that doesn't make all religion hostile to or anathema to science.

I can also appreciate the concern over confusing the radical fringe of the parapsychology crowd with the more innovative and noncoventional cognitive scientists. But in this case legitimate scientists have been looking at brain function during certain forms of Buddhist meditation and also Christian centering prayer. There are noticeable changes in the pattern of brain activity and response during meditation, and in responses of regular meditators. Many of the people in one of the studies were associates of the Dalai Lama, who has a well known interest in and respect for science. So it isn't just a situation where a random spiritual leader is arbitrarily invited to speak.

If the point of the Dalai Lama's talks was to give anti-scientific rhetoric of the kind the YEC's would give if invited to a conference on evolutionary biology, I would certainly agree with keeping him out. I would also understand if one wanted to keep a conference limited to those who have active research programs in neuroscience. The Daila Lama has been to other meetings with scientists outside of the professional meetings, so it isn't like he couldn't continue a dialogue in such venues. But if the *only* reason for keeping the Dalai Lama out is because he is a well-known Buddhist leader who is interested in the relationship of the mind and meditation, I don't see the justification. :)

Herman Mays said...

"Suspersition and magical thinking exist within and outside of any specific religious context, and many Buddhists explicitly reject such ideas. Neither prayer nor meditation is mostly about "asking for stuff"."

I think there is a big difference between Buddhism in Asia and the flavor of Buddhism adopted by many western acedemics. First of all the Dali Lama represents only one form of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. There is a pretty big diversity of Buddhist faiths out there and many, if not most, incorporate divine agents into their beliefs.

I have to say I've never meet a more superstious group of folks than Buddhists in China and Taiwan. A little of it has rubbed off on me! We have the Chinese character 'fu' in black and red taped on our sequencer right now for good luck!

I need to read Patrick French's book on Tibet. I heard an excellent interview with him where he said Tibetan Buddhism is presented one way to a western audience and another to Tibetans. The truth is it is just as socially conservative as the most orthodox Catholicism.

"Scientists do not reject "any influence" of western religion in the science classroom. Taxonomy in the west began as a mapping of God's creation, for example. What is rejected is the attempt to give Abrahamic creation myths scientific standing, and equivalent scientific standing to evolution at that."

Well, acknowledging a historical influence of religion on the development of science is very different from what I'm talking about, as you apparently completely understand. The fact is that in the modern science classroom,lecture hall and laboratory religous ideas are not discussed in the context of science. At least that is what many prominent scientists say. However, this is exactly what is going on with the Dali Lama speaking at a neuroscience conference.

"But in this case legitimate scientists have been looking at brain function during certain forms of Buddhist meditation and also Christian centering prayer. There are noticeable changes in the pattern of brain activity and response during meditation, and in responses of regular meditators."

Yes, and this is a valuable area of research. I don't however see how the mere existence studies merits religous leaders speaking at a scientific meeting. Remember I said there is a place for discussions between religous leaders and scientists, I just don't feel this is one of those forums.

"Many of the people in one of the studies were associates of the Dalai Lama, who has a well known interest in and respect for science."

I wouldn't be surprised if the Dali Lama is playing a political game with western academics. Telling them exactly the sort of things they want to hear to keep his political cause in the spotlight, even if by now it is a hopelessly lost cause. Besides many religous leaders have a respect for science. This does not mean they should be invited as the keynote speaker at a scientific conference.

"If the point of the Dalai Lama's talks was to give anti-scientific rhetoric of the kind the YEC's would give if invited to a conference on evolutionary biology, I would certainly agree with keeping him out. I would also understand if one wanted to keep a conference limited to those who have active research programs in neuroscience. The Daila Lama has been to other meetings with scientists outside of the professional meetings, so it isn't like he couldn't continue a dialogue in such venues. But if the *only* reason for keeping the Dalai Lama out is because he is a well-known Buddhist leader who is interested in the relationship of the mind and meditation, I don't see the justification."

My feeling is this is simply about scientists being fair and presenting a consistent message to the general public. The Dali Lama is a religous leader not a scientist, even though he may voice a respect for scientific inquiry in western circles, and thus he has no reason to speak at a scientific meeting. Now, if there was an adjunct workshop at this conference were the Dali Lama and other interested outside interests were invited then that would be fine by me.

Herm

tinythinker said...

I think there is a big difference between Buddhism in Asia and the flavor of Buddhism adopted by many western acedemics. First of all the Dali Lama represents only one form of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. There is a pretty big diversity of Buddhist faiths out there and many, if not most, incorporate divine agents into their beliefs.

I have to say I've never meet a more superstious group of folks than Buddhists in China and Taiwan. A little of it has rubbed off on me! We have the Chinese character 'fu' in black and red taped on our sequencer right now for good luck!


The divine agents in Buddhism are often viewed as extensions of mind and the collective human or biosphere condition, though certainly in many cases these are adopted into the local supernatural views. For example, even though the Buddha said he was just a man, in many local Asian cultures he is still worshipped as a God. As I said, people are naturally given to supersition and magical thinking. If there is a religion, they will co-opt the mythic imagery. If not, they will make stuff up. Buddhism is fairly straightfoward, but it is always molded by the expectations and needs of the soceity in which it finds itself. But this isn't really central to the topic :)


"The fact is that in the modern science classroom,lecture hall and laboratory religous ideas are not discussed in the context of science."

Technically, meditation is not a religious idea, it is a practiced mental condition adopted by many as a part of their spiritual/religious practice. I would agree that if the Dalai Lama wanted to give a talk on Buddhist mythology or being compassionate, it certainly has no place at a scientific conference. But that isn't to say that because a practice has religious associations it cannot be scientifically assessed, which from your answer I would presume you agree. I think the appropriateness of a keynote speaker should be based on what the person has to say. I have no idea what the topic of Tenzin Gyuatso's speech is supposed to be.

Remember I said there is a place for discussions between religous leaders and scientists, I just don't feel this is one of those forums.

Yup, and I agreed with that. I was just pondering the different reasons why might one want to exclude the Dalai Lama. Some I would buy, others I would not.

My feeling is this is simply about scientists being fair and presenting a consistent message to the general public. The Dali Lama is a religous leader not a scientist, even though he may voice a respect for scientific inquiry in western circles, and thus he has no reason to speak at a scientific meeting. Now, if there was an adjunct workshop at this conference were the Dali Lama and other interested outside interests were invited then that would be fine by me.

I think the adjunt workshop thing is a good idea, and I mentioned before I can see limiting a conference to practicing scientists. But I don't know what the Dalai Lama was invited to speak about, and if his talk is just giving a speech, as opposed to say a paper or poster, I just don't see getting that worked up about it. If he gives a secular talk about the value of neuroscience research in understanding awareness and explaining the nature of meditative practices, I don't see it as "religion" being brought into a science conference.