Bridging the Divide

Tomorrow afternoon I will do my best to guide the dialogue between His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and four scholars and scientists on the theme of secular ethics and education. We will begin with the research and views of Frans de Waals, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. The title of de Waals most recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, gives some idea of the theme he will likely strike in his presentation to and conversation with the Dalai Lama tomorrow. De Waals challenges the idea that high-level abstract moral reasoning is the source of our ethical behavior. Nor is he particularly convinced by the genetic arguments of scientist-atheists like Richard Dawkins, preferring a ground-up approach in which morality “is created in day-to-day social interactions.” His own research into primate social behavior is used as a compelling basis for reappraisal of our unconscious presuppositions concerning the basis of moral conduct.

As His Holiness engages scientists whose focus is on the biological or genetic foundations of our moral or ethical life, I cannot help but wonder how he personally views the issue from the vantage point of a Buddhist spiritual practitioner with a rich and complex belief system in which the laws of karma and reincarnation play a central role in the religious understanding of morality and the full consequences of our speech and actions. When I look out from the stage to the thousands of individuals who typically attend a Dalai Lama event, I feel sure that many if not most are there because of conflicting commitments to the rigors of science and to an inner, spiritual or religious life. And those present tomorrow represent millions globally who struggle to find a resolution to the science–spirituality divide. They come hoping to see an instance where the divide is bridged, at least in part.

Since my first dialogue with the Dalai Lama 20 years ago, I have grown to appreciate the steadfast commitment and personal interest he has shown in the relationship between science and the contemplative philosophical tradition of Buddhism. He is always at pains to distinguish Buddhist philosophy from Buddhist religion, which is a private affair. Philosophical thinking and the power of empirical evidence are central to all the dialogues that he has held with scientists, and on this basis both sides can communicate. The facts of science may guide or constrain our thinking about reality and moral life. We may well require biological supports for the normal ongoing business of daily life, but are there ever instances where biological supports are superfluous, for example in very deep states of meditation? On one occasion we explored this question at some length and His Holiness suggested that “clear light” meditation experiences were candidates for experience without biological support.

What about the moral life, the focus for tomorrow’s dialogue? Most of our thoughts, speech and actions are reactive, even mechanistic, but is there ever an instance of genuine freedom, of creativity, or of moral perception that is not caused or supported by a material substratum, but that is borne from pure consciousness? C. S. Lewis felt that our distinctly human relation to moral law is the single best argument for meaningful universe and the spiritual life. I wonder how de Waals would reply, or the Dalai Lama.