Monday, July 06, 2009

The Dalai Lama, Religion, and Science

Today is the Dalai Lama's birthday, so let's play with a couple of exchanges he had with Carl Sagan.

Here is a recollection Sagan had of a brief bit of a day-long conversation the two shared in 1991: theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change. Even, I asked, if it's a really central tenet, like (I searched for an example) reincarnation? Even then, he answered. However, he added with a twinkle - it's going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.
So the Dalai Lama's view is that religion must change when science changes. Is this the case? Are religious and scientific beliefs interconnected or are they separate, religion dealing with supernatural and science with the natural world?

One could say that Buddhism is not a religion. The Dalai Lama himself seems to say this in another part of the conversation,
"Even the Buddha said we should question his teachings. A scientifically minded Buddhist does not consider Buddhism a religion. It is a science of mind, an inner science."
This seems different from Galileo's idea expressed in his letter to the Grand Dutchess Christina in which he argues that religion has nothing to fear from science. If reveled truth is truth, then it must be consistent with whatever science discovers.
And in St. Augustine we read:

"If' anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there."

This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us. Now the Bible, as has been remarked, admits in many places expositions that are remote from the signification of the words for reasons we have already given. Moreover, we are unable to affirm that all interpreters of the Bible speak by Divine inspiration for if that were so there would exist no differences among them about the sense of a given passage. Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."
Here, Galileo argues that all that needs to change are interpretations, is this different from the Dalai Lama's claim that the religion itself must change? Are religious beliefs interpretations that are open to empirical refutation?