Three weeks ago, I was contacted by a famous Tibetan author, Tenzin Dickie, who has authored and edited numerous books, including “Old Demons, New Deities.”
You may recall that in my series on “The Meaning of Life,” I featured the Dalai Lama prominently in one of my columns. Ms. Dickie had come across my column on the Dalai Lama and wanted to interview me on Tibetan television.
Through a series of telephone and video interviews, her inquiry came down to two basic questions: 1) As a foreigner, what do I find compelling about his holiness, the Dalai Lama? And, 2) if I were in his presence, what question would I ask him? Since I assume that Tibetan television is not available on our local cable provider, I would like to share my answers with you.
1) What I find captivating about the Dalai Lama is that he believes, as do I, that science provides the most accurate description of the fundamental nature of reality. It’s extraordinary that a holy man would prefer science over scripture, but he clearly does. His philosophical roots, though Buddhist in origin, are also steeped in principles I deeply cherish: liberty, freedom of speech and religion, democratic theory, and, of course, the importance of science.
The Dalai Lama acknowledges the fact that science is the most reliable method we have to discover the truth about the world. How does it do that? It formulates hypotheses and develops predictions based upon them. After trial and error, scientists then examine which hypothesis is most fruitful in predicting what happens in the physical world. Hypotheses which prove to be reliable over time are then embraced as accurate while those that fail are discarded. Only through this rigorous process have we been able to progress as a species.
Despite the amazing advances science has made for mankind, there are limitations. All reasoning in science is inductive and, therefore, its premises don’t guarantee its conclusions. Inductive reasoning of course involves constant testing of your theory with no guarantee that on the next try you won’t be proven wrong. The truth is that nothing can be proven with 100-percent certainty by employing inductive reasoning alone. There is always the possibility, that, however remote, the most confirmed theory could turn out to be false.
As scientists and philosophers look at the entire nature of scientific inquiry, two distinct camps have developed—the realists and the instrumentalists. In order to understand the distinction between them, let us take the atomic theory, which tells us that all matter consists of tiny particles called atoms, which are combined and configured in different ways. The realists believe once a theory is tested and the results seem to back up the hypothesis, it can reasonably be concluded that the theory accurately describes reality.
The instrumentalists, on the other hand, agree that the scientific hypothesis produces accurate results, but they do not agree it really describes the world, only how our instruments respond to certain situations. When applied to the atomic theory, the realists would say that atoms are exactly as science describes them while the instrumentalists would maintain that atoms don’t exist but hypothesizing what they will do is a useful tool for making predictions.
Although I am firmly entrenched in the realist camp and believe that science accurately describes reality as it is, my hero, Albert Einstein, seemed to take the instrumentalist point of view. One example of this is his concept of what he called “space-time.” One of the components of his theory was that light bent when exposed to gravity. Speaking about this concept as if it existed is a useful way of making accurate predictions about how light and objects behave. However, according to Einstein, we need not take the next step and assume that the theory accurately describes the world. In other words, the curvature of space-time due to gravitational pull is simply a means of expressing the way objects in the universe relate to each other. This is a classic instrumentalist view of science.
In addition to this divide, today we also know that no field of study, including science, will ever yield ultimate answers. Explanations will always bottom out with some basic fact that must be conceded in order for any discussion to continue. But that’s OK.
2) Turning to the second interview question, my answer is a little more nuanced. Since the inception of our existence, we’ve sought answers to ultimate questions. Philosophers from time immemorial have sought the truth about their world. Centuries ago, the questions looked like this: What causes the seasons? Or what is the sun? Or what causes the weather? Or why did people die for no apparent reason? When our ancestors couldn’t find answers, they invented myths to explain the inexplicable. The weather and the sun were the province and playground of the gods, they explained. When they didn’t yet know about bacteria and viruses, they believed that people died because of misdeeds or because the devil had possessed them. Today, we know better.
I am confident that the Dalai Lama believes, as I do, that the goal of philosophical inquiry is not necessarily definitive knowledge. It is wisdom and understanding. Careful and wise exploration of some of the thorniest issues confronting humankind will yield an appreciation of the true nature and depth of the most important questions we can ask as human beings. Wisdom lies not in elusive answers but rather in the profundity of the inquiry itself. So, if I were before the Dalai Lama, I would want to know what question matters most to him. What does he consider to be the most important area of inquiry? It is my belief that in our very search for answers we display the finest attribute of our humanity.
Someday I hope to meet the Dalai Lama to ask these questions. Absent that, I hope, at the very least, that he catches my interview on Tibetan television.