Dalai Lama Urges that Ethics Be a Guide in the Application of New Scientific Knowledge
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DALAI LAMA URGES THAT ETHICS BE A GUIDE IN THE APPLICATION OF NEW SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
Washington, DC, Nov. 12—The Dalai Lama of Tibet today called for scientists to be guided by ethical principles in the use of new knowledge.
“We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences,” the Dalai Lama told the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting here. “I am speaking of . . . the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power—principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion.”
“I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity.”
“Today, I believe that humanity is at a critical crossroad,” the Dalai Lama said. “The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly in genetics towards the end of the twentieth century have led to a new era in human history. Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level, with the consequent technological possibilities offered for genetic manipulation, has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous.”
“ . . With the advent of the new genetics, neuroscience’s knowledge of the workings of biological organisms is now brought to the subtlest level of individual genes. This has resulted in unforeseen technological possibilities of even manipulating the very codes of life, thereby giving rise to the likelihood of creating entirely new realities for humanity as a whole.”
The Dalai Lama spoke on the “Neuroscience of Meditation” in the first of a new SfN lecture series titled “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society” featuring leaders from fields outside of neuroscience whose work relates to subjects of interest to neuroscientists. The Dalai Lama has maintained a dialogue with leading neuroscientists for more than 15 years. He was invited by SfN President Carol Barnes of the University of Arizona. The architect Frank Gehry will be the 2006 “Dialogues” lecturer.
SfN is an organization of more than 37,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and nervous system. Its annual meeting, which expects more than 31,000 attendees, runs from November 12 to 16 at the Washington Convention Center.
In his lecture, the Dalai Lama spoke about the commonalities between eastern contemplative practices and contemporary science in terms of outlook and methodology; about areas of fruitful engagement between the two disciplines; and the importance of recognizing the interface between ethics and science.
The Dalai Lama has participated in many conferences on science and spirituality. With Adam Engle, he is a co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute (www.mindandlife.org), of which he is honorary chairman. The thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue on “Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation” took place in Washington just prior to the SfN meeting.
Buddhism and Contemporary Science
“So what is a Buddhist monk doing taking such a deep interest in science?” he asked. The Dalai Lama noted that while the eastern contemplative tradition and modern science have evolved from different historical, intellectual and cultural roots, they share significant commonalities, especially in their basic philosophical outlook and methodology.
“On the philosophical level, both Buddhism and modern science prefer to account for the evolution and emergence of the cosmos and life in terms of the complex interrelations of the natural laws of cause and effect,” he said.
“From the methodological perspective, both traditions emphasize the role of empiricism. For example, in the Buddhist investigative tradition, between the three recognized sources of knowledge—experience, reason and testimony—it is the evidence of the experience that takes precedence, with reason coming second and testimony last. This means that, in the Buddhist investigation of reality, at least in principle, empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be. Even in the case of knowledge derived through reason or inference, its validity must derive ultimately from some observed facts of experience.”
Because of this, he said that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.
“Since the primary motive underlying the Buddhist investigation of reality is the fundamental quest for overcoming suffering and perfecting the human condition, the primary orientation of the Buddhist investigative tradition has been toward understanding the human mind and its various functions,” he said.
Need for Fruitful Engagement
The Dalai Lama recounted how much he has learned from engaging in conversations with neuroscientists and psychologists on such questions as the nature and role of positive and negative emotions, attention, imagery, and brain plasticity. “The compelling evidence from neuroscience and medical science of the crucial role of simple physical touch for even the physical enlargement of an infant’s brain during the first few weeks powerfully brings home the intimate connection between compassion and human happiness,” he said.
“. . . By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying propensities so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way of being can be found. It is in this context that the Buddhist tradition has devised a rich classification of mental states, as well as contemplative techniques for refining specific mental qualities.”
At the heart of eastern contemplative practices lie two key techniques, the refinement of attention and its sustained application on the one hand, and the regulation and transformation of emotions on the other. “In both of these cases, I feel, there might be great potential for collaborative research . . .,” the Dalai Lama said.
Modern neuroscience has developed a rich understanding of the brain mechanisms that are associated with both attention and emotion, he said. The eastern contemplative tradition, given its long history of interest in the practice of mental training, “offers on the other hand practical techniques for refining attention and regulating and transforming emotion. The meeting of modern neuroscience and Buddhist contemplative discipline, therefore, could lead to the possibility of studying the impact of intentional mental activity on the brain circuits that have been identified as critical for specific mental processes.”
“In the least, such an interdisciplinary encounter could help raise critical questions in many key areas. For example, do individuals have a fixed capacity to regulate their emotions and attention or, as Buddhist tradition argues, their capacity for regulating these processes are greatly amenable to change suggesting similar degree of amenability of the behavioral and brain systems associated with these functions?”
“One area where Buddhist contemplative tradition may have important contribution to make is the practical techniques it has developed for training in compassion. With regard to mental training both in attention and emotional regulation, it also becomes crucial to raise the question of whether any specific techniques have time-sensitivity in terms of their effectiveness, so that new methods can be tailored to suit the needs of age, health, and other variable factors.” He further noted the importance of being sensitive to the definitions of terms, and what can be empirically studied when the traditions of eastern contemplative tradition and neuroscience are brought together.
“With these precautionary considerations, I believe, a close cooperation between these two investigative traditions can truly contribute toward expanding the human understanding of the complex world of inner subjective experience that we call the mind. Already the benefits of such collaborations are beginning to be demonstrated,” the Dalai Lama said.
“The Buddhist contemplative tradition may help to expand this field of scientific inquiry by proposing types of mental training that may also pertain to neuroplasticity. If it turns out, as the Buddhist tradition implies, that mental practice can effect observable synaptic and neural changes in the brain, this could have far-reaching implications.” For example, they could have great significance for our understanding of education and mental health. “Similarly, if, as the Buddhist tradition claims, the deliberate cultivation of compassion can lead to a radical shift in the individual’s outlook, leading to greater empathy toward others, this could have far-reaching implications for society at large.”
Ethics in Science
The Dalai Lama closed his remarks with a discussion of ethics. “ . . . I believe that the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist contemplative tradition may shed fresh light on the vitally important question of the interface of ethics and neuroscience,” he said. “Regardless of whatever conception one might have of the relationship between ethics and science, in actual practice, science has evolved primarily as an empirical discipline with a morally neutral, value-free stance. It has come to be perceived essentially as a mode of inquiry that gives detailed knowledge of the empirical world and the underlying laws of nature.”
Scientific communities such as neuroscience play a vitally important role in this interconnected world, he said. “For whatever historical reasons, today you the scientists enjoy great respect and trust within society, much more so than my own discipline of philosophy and religion. Your knowledge is admired; your contributions towards the betterment of humanity as a whole are appreciated; and the intellectual integrity of your relentless search for truth is respected. So let me take this opportunity to appeal to you now to take the further step of bringing into your own professional work the dictates of the fundamental ethical principles we all share as human beings.”