Sunday, November 13, 2005

Charles Taylor and the Dalai Lama Discuss Science and its Discontents.




A few weeks ago I discussed the controversy that resulted from the Dalai Lama's acceptance of an invitation to speak to a group of neurologists. The Tibetan spiritual leader spoke yesterday in Washington, D.C., concerning the measurable effects of mental and spiritual experiences on cerebral functions.

In an editorial in yesterday's New York Times entitled "Our Faith in Science," Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalia Lama), responded -- indirectly and with great tact -- to the hostility of scientists who tried to prevent him from speaking, excluding humanistic and theological perspectives from all evaluations of the scientific enterprise:

... many people still consider science and religion to be in opposition. While I agree that certain religious concepts conflict with scientific facts and principles, I also feel that people from both worlds can have an intelligent discussion, one that has the power ultimately to generate a deeper understanding of challenges we face together in our interconnected world.

His Holiness went on to say:

I believe that we must find a way to bring ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life-sciences. By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry.

Rather I am speaking of what I call "secular ethics," which embrace the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths.

The Dalai Lama has proved himself more intelligent and open-minded, more "scientific" in his attitude, than the knee-jerk anti-religious "scientists" who equated these issues -- issues concerning the scope of scientific inquiry and the ethical limits on technology -- with "mysticism" or creating a "flat earth society." On the contrary, these concerns are legitimate and vital to the continuing struggle to balance scientific learning with humane wisdom. Also, the denial of a right to speak to a person expressing a critical point of view (or efforts to obstruct that person's communications) are the epitome of an anti-scientific attitude.

The "flat earth society" is really made up of those who fail to recognize all of the ways in which science and scientific methods cannot be dispositive of the most important decisions that we all have to make in our lives -- like values decisions -- including judgments about the ethical contraints on science itself. This certainly does not make such human judgments necessarily irrational or groundless.

The picture of human beings provided by science is great when it comes to our external understanding of persons as biological animals in an empirical environment, but not so great when it comes to the internal analysis of human cultures and creative meanings in the vital realms of "intersubjective relations," or when pondering religious aspirations, moral efforts and communications.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's work is aimed at the construction of a realistic philosophical anthropology that is sensitive to these limitations upon the role of technology and naturalism in the human sciences. Taylor suggests that the human sciences require a hermeneutic dimension in a way that the sciences of nature do not. At the same time, Taylor's critique of naturalism and scientism -- and its underlying conception of the self, language and knowledge -- has led to the development of an alternative that draws heavily on the expressivist tradition of Hegel and Romanticism. Let us see if we can get all those scientists angry again.

Professor Taylor suggests that a pure external perspective on biological functions and material causes 'in" persons will be inadequate, unless it is enriched by a focus on motivation in the Lebenswelt (the world of human meanings arising from cultural practices). According to Taylor:

There are people who look on the coming technological civilization as a kind of unmitigated decline. We have lost the contact with the earth and its rythms that our ancestors had. We have lost contact with ourselves, and our own natural being, and are driven by an imperative of domination that condemns us to ceaseless battle against nature both within and around us. ["Nature is a woman to be subdued," says Bacon.] This complaint against the 'disenchantment' of the world has been articulated again and again since the Romantic period, with its sharp sense that human beings had been triply divided by modern reason -- within themselves, between themselves, and from the natural world.

Some of the most sensitive and intelligent commentators, notably many artists and philosophical thinkers, have been especially burdened by the suffering resulting from these denuded positivist conceptions of personality, together with the standards of normality to which they lead.

Anyone who has attempted to make him- or herself understood by so-called scientists in white lab coats, with questionaires that are intended to decipher the mystery of the freedom that we are in order to "classify" us, will appreciate what is meant by the "madness of the hyper-sane," of those who presume to define normality and sanity in mechanical terms. My response to those who seek to turn all of us into laboratory animals is borrowed from Antonin Artaud's "Open Letter to the Medical Directors of Asylums in France":

We protest against any interference with the free development of delirium. It is as legitimate, as logical as any other sequence of human ideas or acts. The repression of anti-social reactions is as chimerical as it is unacceptable in principle. All individual acts are anti-social. Madmen [and most women?] above all, are individual victims of social dictatorship. In the name of that individuality which specifically belongs to man [and woman], we demand the liberation of these people convicted of sensibility. For we tell you no laws are powerful enough to lock up all [of us] who think and act.

Without stressing the perfectly inspired nature of the manifestations of certain [mad persons] in so far as we are capable of appreciating them, we simply affirm their concept of reality is absolutely legitimate, as are all acts resulting from it.

Try and remember that tomorrow morning during your rounds, when, without knowing their language, you attempt to converse with these people over whom, you must admit, you have only one advantage, namely force.

Listen to your so-called lunatics, America -- to your artists and philosophers, to those you call "dreamers" -- and you will learn more about the mysteries of the human heart than you will by listening only to men and women in lab coats, with calculators and test tubes, or worse, only to those in black robes.

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