Neuroscience and the Buddhist tradition

Science at the crossroads: Neuroscience and the Buddhist tradition

"Modern economy, electronic media, international tourism, as well as the environmental problems, all remind us on a daily basis how deeply interconnected the world has become today," says the 14th Dalai Lama.
By

Recent discoveries in neuroscience have demonstrated the innate plasticity of the brain, both in terms of synaptic connections and birth of new neurons, as a result of exposure to external stimuli, such as voluntary physical exercise and an enriched environment. The Buddhist contemplative tradition may help to expand this field of scientific inquiry by proposing types of mental training that may also pertain to neuroplasticity. If it turns out, as the Buddhist tradition implies, that mental practice can effect observable synaptic and neural changes in the brain, this could have far-reaching implications.

The repercussions of such research will not be confined simply to expanding our knowledge of the human mind; but, perhaps more importantly, they could have great significance for our understanding of education and mental health. Similarly, if, as the Buddhist tradition claims, the deliberate cultivation of compassion can lead to a radical shift in the individual’s outlook, leading to greater empathy toward others, this could have far-reaching implications for society at large.

Finally, I believe that the collaboration between neuroscience and the Buddhist contemplative tradition may shed fresh light on the vitally important question of the interface of ethics and neuroscience. Regardless of whatever conception one might have of the relationship between ethics and science, in actual practice, science has evolved primarily as an empirical discipline with a morally neutral, value-free stance. It has come to be perceived essentially as a mode of inquiry that gives detailed knowledge of the empirical world and the underlying laws of nature.

Purely from the scientific point of view, the creation of nuclear weapons is a truly amazing achievement. However, since this creation has the potential to inflict so much suffering through unimaginable death and destruction, we regard it as destructive. It is the ethical evaluation that must determine what is positive and what is negative. Until recently, this approach of segregating ethics and science, with the understanding that the human capacity for moral thinking evolves alongside human knowledge, seems to have succeeded.

Today, I believe that humanity is at a critical crossroad. The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly in genetics towards the end of the twentieth century have led to a new era in human history. Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level, with the consequent technological possibilities offered for genetic manipulation, has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous.

appeal to scientists to bring into their professional work the dictates of the fundamental ethical principles we all share as human beings.

It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power. Yet the ramifications of these new findings and their applications are so far-reaching that they relate to the very conception of human nature and the preservation of the human species. So it is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual. We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and 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” that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power—principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion. I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity. We are living in truly one world.

Modern economy, electronic media, international tourism, as well as environmental problems, all remind us on a daily basis how deeply interconnected the world has become today. Scientific communities play a vitally important role in this interconnected world. For whatever historical reasons, today the scientists enjoy great respect and trust within society, much more than my own discipline of philosophy and religion. I appeal to scientists to bring into their professional work the dictates of the fundamental ethical principles we all share as human beings.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual leader of Tibet. Since taking asylum in India in 1959, His Holiness has become a global advocator of peace, compassion and happiness. He is the first Nobel Laureate to be recognised for his concern for global environmental problems.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER

Name

Email

INTERESTED IN
Happiness
Wellbeing
Conversations
Travel Diaries
Guest Contributors
Spiritual Leaders
Thought Leaders
Books
Short Stories
Love
Relationships
Family
Motivation
Life Lessons