The Danger of Reducing Humans to Biological Machines

By Dalai Lama in Book Reviews on August 15th, 2007 / No Comments

I have spent many years reflecting on the remarkable advances of science. Within the short space of my own lifetime, the impact of science and technology on humanity has been tremendous. Although my own interest in science began with curiosity about a world, foreign to me at that time, governed by technology, it was not very long before the colossal significance of science for humanity as a whole dawned on me – especially after I came into exile in 1959. There is almost no area of human life today that is not touched by the effects of science and technology.

Yet are we clear about the place of science in the totality of human life – what exactly it should do and by what it should be governed? This last point is critical because unless the direction of science is guided by a consciously ethical motivation, especially compassion, its effects may fail to bring benefit. They may indeed cause great harm.

Seeing the tremendous importance of science and recognizing its inevitable dominance in the modern world fundamentally changed my attitude to it from curiosity to a kind of urgent engagement. In Buddhism the highest spiritual ideal is to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings and to work for their welfare to the greatest possible extent. From my earliest childhood I have been conditioned to cherish this ideal and attempt to fulfill it in my every action.

So I wanted to understand science because it gave me a new area to explore in my personal quest to understand the nature of reality. I also wanted to learn about it because I recognized in it a compelling way to communicate insights gleaned from my own spiritual tradition. So, for me, the need to engage with this powerful force in our world has become a kind of spiritual injunction as well. The central question – central for the survival and well-being of our world – is how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the other sentient beings with whom we share this earth.

Do Ethics Have a Place in Science?
I believe they do. First of all, like any instrument, science can be put to good use or bad. It is the state of mind of the person wielding the instrument that determines to what end it will be put. Second, scientific discoveries affect the way we understand the world and our place in it. This has consequences for our behavior. For example, the mechanistic understanding of the world led to the Industrial Revolution, in which the exploitation of nature became the standard practice. There is, however, a general assumption that ethics are relevant to only the application of science, not the actual pursuit of science.

In this model the scientist as an individual and the community of scientists in general occupy a morally neutral position, with no responsibility for the fruits of what they have discovered. But many important scientific discoveries, and particularly the technological innovations they lead to, create new conditions and open up new possibilities which give rise to new ethical and spiritual challenges. We cannot simply absolve the scientific enterprise and individual scientists from responsibility for contributing to the emergence of a new reality.

Perhaps the most important point is to ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings. Just as one’s fingers can function only in relation to the palm, so scientists must remain aware of their connection to society at large. Science is vitally important, but it is only one finger of the hand of humanity, and its greatest potential can be actualized only so long as we are careful to remember this. Otherwise, we risk losing our sense of priorities. Humanity may end up serving the interests of scientific progress rather than the other way around. Science and technology are powerful tools, but we must decide how best to use them. What matters above all is the motivation that governs the use of science and technology, in which ideally heart and mind are united.

For me, science is first and foremost an empirical discipline that provides humanity with a powerful access to understanding the nature of the physical and living world. It is essentially a mode of inquiry that gives us fantastically detailed knowledge of the empirical world and the underlying laws of nature, which we infer from the empirical data. Science proceeds by means of a very specific method that involves measurement, quantification, and intersubjective verification through repeatable experiments. This, at least, is the nature of scientific method as it exists within the current paradigm. Within this model, many aspects of human existence, including values, creativity, and spirituality, as well as deeper metaphysical questions, lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.

Scientific Materialism
Though there are areas of life and knowledge outside the domain of science, I have noticed that many people hold an assumption that the scientific view of the world should be the basis for all knowledge and all that is knowable. This is scientific materialism. Although I am not aware of a school of thought that explicitly propounds this notion, it seems to be a common unexamined presupposition. This view upholds a belief in an objective world, independent of the contingency of its observers. It assumes that the data being analyzed within an experiment are independent of the preconceptions, perceptions, and experience of the scientist analyzing them.

Underlying this view is the assumption that, in the final analysis, matter, as it can be described by physics and as it is governed by the laws of physics, is all there is. Accordingly, this view would uphold that psychology can be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. My concern here is not so much to argue against this reductionist position (although I myself do not share it) but to draw attention to a vitally important point: that these ideas do not constitute scientific knowledge; rather they represent a philosophical, in fact a metaphysical, position. The view that all aspects of reality can be reduced to matter and its various particles is, to my mind, as much a metaphysical position as the view that an organizing intelligence created and controls reality.

Nihilism, Materialism, and Reductionism
One of the principal problems with a radical scientific materialism is the narrowness of vision that results and the potential for nihilism that might ensue. Nihilism, materialism, and reductionism are above all problems from a philosophical and especially a human perspective, since they can potentially impoverish the way we see ourselves. For example, whether we see ourselves as random biological creatures or as special beings endowed with the dimension of consciousness and moral capacity will make an impact on how we feel about ourselves and treat others.

In this view many dimensions of the full reality of what it is to be human – art, ethics, spirituality, goodness, beauty, and above all, consciousness – either are reduced to the chemical reactions of firing neurons or are seen as a matter of purely imaginary constructs. The danger then is that human beings may be reduced to nothing more than biological machines, the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes, with no purpose other than the biological imperative of reproduction.

It is difficult to see how questions such as the meaning of life or good and evil can be accommodated within such a worldview. The problem is not with the empirical data of science but with the contention that these data alone constitute the legitimate ground for developing a comprehensive worldview or an adequate means for responding to the world’s problems. There is more to human existence and to reality itself than current science can ever give us access to.

By the same token, spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science. If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is also impoverished, as this mind-set can lead to fundamentalism. This is one of the reasons I encourage my Buddhist colleagues to undertake the study of science, so that its insights can be integrated into the Buddhist worldview.

Excerpted from The Universe in a Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama Copyright 2005 by Dalai Lama. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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