Yesterday I picked up a copy of The Art of Happiness written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with American psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. I approached the book with no high expectations but simply hoping to find some small doses of inspiration. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter this passage about scientific reduction and Western thinking in the introduction (I haven’t even gotten to the ‘real’ chapters yet!) that made me think.
Excerpt from the introduction of The Art of Happiness:
“In trying to determine the source of one’s problems, it seems that the Western approach differs in some respects from the Buddhist approach. Underlying all Western modes of analysis is a very strong rationalistic tendency — an assumption that everything can be accounted for. And on top of that, there are constrains created by certain premises that are taken for granted. For example, I met with some doctors at a university medical school. They were talking about the brain and stated that thoughts and feelings were the result of different chemical reactions and changes in the brain. So, I raised the question: Is it possible to conceive the reverse sequence, where the though gives rise to the sequence of chemical events in the brain? However, the part that I found most interesting was the answer that the scientist gave. He said, ‘We start from the premise that all thoughts are products or functions of chemical reactions in the brain.’ So it is simply a kind of rigidity, a decision not to challenge their own way of thinking.”
I think that there is so much a formal education, especially a formal science education, has to offer. However, I will agree that even the basest of scientific principles are based on definitions or premises that are just accepted. And our blind acceptance of some of these premises seems almost contradictory to the fact that science is supposed to be unshakable, unarguable, data and logic-supported (though certainly not un-revisable; more often than not someone with a more rigorous argument with more proof will eventually replace current beliefs). I consider myself an atheist and rational thinker and am often reluctant to be convinced by less than scientifically rigorous arguments. My defense in personal arguments is often to stick to the scientifically and logically sound. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have faith or don’t believe in some mystery. More and more I’ve come to see that trying to stay perhaps ‘too true’ or too blindly accepting of science takes away the mystery of what makes us human (that special, mysterious, indescribable thing that makes us us that becomes meaningless when deconstructed).
Last semester, Cornell hosted Professor Roald Hoffman (an atheist, a Nobel laureate, and one of our chemistry department faculty members), and Professor Ian Hutchinson (a Christian and a professor of nuclear science at MIT) in the Veritas Forum for a discussion titled, “The Finite and the Infinite.” In what I found to be a particularly memorable segment of the forum, Hoffman stated that although he is an atheist, he doesn’t necessarily adopt what he called a reductionist view of humanity, especially when it comes to love or appreciation of art and music.
To listen to what Hoffman said view the video below starting at 7:15
I found Hoffman (who has published 5 books of poetry and co-authored a play) to be very eloquent and insightful. Although he is an enormously prolific scientist, it’s clear that he’s hardly a narrow-minded thinker. I often struggle between trying to understand the world around me by adopting rigorous scientific methods and taking small leaps of faith. It’s a struggle that I’m sure plagues most scientists. When asked about a case study of human behavior, the Dalai Lama responded “Sometimes it’s very difficult to explain why people do the things they do… There can be so many factors at play, in fact, that sometimes you may never have a full explanation of what’s going on, at least not in conventional terms.” And that’s ok.