The following essay has been reprinted here with permission from B. Alan Wallace.

Response to the New York Times article (October 19, 2005)

“Scientists Bridle at Lecture Plan for Dalai Lama” by Benedict Carey

“Finding the Middle Way”

Among the 544 neuroscientists, many of them Chinese, who signed the petition to prevent the Dalai Lama speaking on the theme of neuroscience and society at the forthcoming meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, some claimed that neuroscientific research is tainted if the scientists meditate, have collaborated with the Dalai Lama or are Buddhist. During the Cultural Revolution in China, thousands of Tibetan monks were rounded up by the Red Guard and beaten for practicing meditation, imprisoned for having collaborated with the Dalai Lama, and some were tortured to death for refusing to denounce Buddhism. It now appears that a few zealots would like to impose their ideological intolerance on America.

I find this prejudice against religious beliefs most troubling, for it violates everything I love about science and academic freedom of inquiry. Moreover, the fact that the same mentality that perpetrated genocide in Tibet is largely behind this movement is especially disturbing.

The current danger to academic freedom comes from two extreme factions. One consists of extreme religious fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, etc.) who would be happy to ban all scientific teaching and research that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible, the Koran, etc. The other fundamentalist group is advocates of scientism who would happily banish all religious people from the scientific community.

But now let's move away from these radical extremes to the ideological orientation of mainstream cognitive science. Neurologist Antonio Damasio, for example, expresses an ideal embraced by many cognitive scientists: “Many of us in neuroscience are guided by one goal and one hope: to provide, eventually, a comprehensive explanation for how the sort of neural pattern that we can currently describe with the tools of neurobiology, from molecules to systems, ever becomes the multidimensional, space-and-time-integrated image we are experiencing this very moment.” This is widely regarded as a perfectly objective and rational ideal, despite the fact that scientists don't know what consciousness is, have no way of measuring it or even its neural correlates, and haven't identified the necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness.

From a religious perspective, this attitude is ideologically biased, for it predisposes scientists to ignore any experiential evidence or rational argument that does violates their materialist beliefs. When faced with the evidence of alleged past-life memories of advanced contemplatives or scientific research on children who declare such memories, this evidence is dismissed out of hand by scientific materialists.

The Dalai Lama is on record as saying, "A general basic stance of Buddhism is that it is inappropriate to hold a view that is logically inconsistent. This is taboo. But even more taboo than holding a view that is logically inconsistent is holding a view that goes against direct experience." And he has said time and again that he would reject the Buddhist assertion of reincarnation if positive scientific evidence is produced that refutes it. Are mainstream scientists equally empirical and rational, allowing them to give a fair hearing to evidence and reasoning that are inconsistent with their materialistic assumptions?

Here is an ideal proposed by physicist Richard Feynman, which could equally guide scientific and contemplative inquiry: "One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. But experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress." Unlike those who hold materialistic or religious biases, the Dalai Lama holds aloft a bright torch of empiricism and rationality that illuminates the middle way between all ideological prejudices. This middle way is to be celebrated, for on this path lies true progress in the mutual enlightenment of science and spirituality.

B. Alan Wallace, President

Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies