How does the Dalai Lama ‘know’ these things, really?

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

Among the earliest interactions of the Dalai Lama with scientists is his meeting with physicist John Bell and his colleagues on-site of the particle accelerator CERN near Geneva, August 30, 1983. I’ve mentioned this meeting before, without going into the subject matter that was discussed at the time. Re-reading the transcript and re-watching the video of that CERN meeting, I was struck by the following exchange.

The Dalai Lama, as was his wont, brought up what he believes is a fundamental division of labour between Buddhists and scientists: ‘Here, you see, your main emphasis or expertise is on physical things and has nothing to do with consciousness or psychological phenomena. In religion we mainly deal with the mind and consciousness.’

The Dalai Lama at CERN, with Georges Dreyfus on his right. John Bell is seen on his back. Copyright: CERN.

To this Herwig Schopper, the Director-General of CERN, responded: ‘Sometimes I say humanity has three important questions: what is matter, what is life, and what is consciousness? And we are dealing with the first one. I wouldn’t like to say that it is the most fundamental one, but it is very important in the sense that probably without matter there wouldn’t be life, and probably without matter there wouldn’t be consciousness. So, in that sense I think it is very important to understand matter. We already think that studying matter is too difficult for us! The other two problems are even more difficult!’ In effect, Schopper gently cautioned the Dalai Lama: intellectual hubris is a vice.

Schopper’s restraint was echoed in the film ‘In Silico’ (2020) by neuroscientist Cori Bargman, who commented on a daring, billion-dollar attempt to simulate the functioning of the human brain. She said: ‘We don’t know how much we don’t know. We don’t know whether we know 1% of what there is to know or 10% of what there is to know.’ Another scientist added: ‘Neuroscientists have the questions, but we don’t know how to answer them, because we don’t have the tools.’

Henry Markram, who founded the brain simulation project, pointed out that ’there are 560 clinically classified diseases. Even if the ones being studied are a handful—Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit, autism—there’s a lot of them and in totality it’s affecting a lot of people.’ Evidently, these scientists recognize the limitations of their knowledge.

Christof Koch even commented that maybe two centuries from now scientists will understand the human brain. On Koch’s view any reasonable definition of the word understanding ‘has to be confronted with the fact that today we don’t even understand the brain of one of the simplest of all multicellular creatures—the brain of the roundworm C-elegans—that has 302 neurons.’

Cartoon by Sidney Harris.

In ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’ (2005), the Dalai Lama rejects the reducibility of mind to matter. Why? Because matter can never become a substantial cause of mind (and vice versa). This, in turn, affirms the existence of previous lives: ’since matter and consciousness have totally different natures, the first moment of consciousness of the new being must be preceded by its substantial cause, which must be a moment of consciousness.’ (p. 132)

The ‘never’ and ‘must’ bits could have been more explicit. Who will confront the Dalai Lama’s definition of ‘understanding’ with C-elegans? What about ‘explaining’ Alzheimer’s, depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit, autism? How does he ‘know’ these things, really?

Originally posted as a long-Tweet on April 12, 2022.

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.