On 29 April, at Thekchen Choeling, the miniature Potala in McLeod Ganj of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, a seminar was held in the hoary tradition of the epistemic debates held at Nalanda and other Buddhist universities in days of yore.
The intensive session, arranged by the former Vice-Chancellor of the Sarnath Tibetan University, the Venerable Samdhong Rimpoche, lasted from 9 am to the late afternoon and featured constant interaction between the participants and the Dalai Lama about the various aspects of scientific knowledge and the mysteries of nature which science often deepens rather than dispels.
The day saw a scintillating display of Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan scholarship in a polyphony with the terse language of physics, biology and mathematics and proved that those disciplines, old and new, can combine and converge in a single score. Science is not separable from the culture in which it develops, though it relies on perception and inference as the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain schools of epistemology also do. His Holiness emphasised the existence of three categories of knowledge and literature in the Indic traditions, including Buddhism, namely religion, philosophy and science. A dialogue between science and Buddhism is not really an accurate description of what was taking place, he pointed out; the Buddhist teachings about spiritual practices, the afterlife or the nature of Buddhas would not be discussed. Rather it was a comparative examination of modern scientific methods and data with the principles and propositions embedded in traditional knowledge of the same order, to wit cosmology, psychology and biology.
It is to be hoped that this clarification would lay to rest the often ill-informed and superficial criticism of “saffron science” by those who see it as a departure from the principles of a secular education. Indeed there is no sharp divide between the disciplines which investigate consciousness and psychology and those that study nature. The goal for this ongoing and intended “renovatio scientiarum” is to review the validity of present knowledge with a view to gaining a better notion of human nature and destiny, a more accurate understanding of the planetary and cosmic environment and a real awareness of the conditions of health and well being.
Professor C.K. Raju, known among other things for his correction of an error in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, argued that mathematics is taught and understood in the western cultural context in which it evolved after being partly borrowed from India and the Middle East, especially since the 16th century when Jesuits brought the elements of Calculus, expounded by Aryabhata and his followers, from the Kerala School of mathematics. However, Raju pointed out, Newton and his successors, intellectually conditioned by Christian theological convictions, did not fully understand the system developed in India (such as non-Archimedian infinities). Hence, Newton spoke of a metaphysical time flowing uniformly “without regard to anything external”.
The vain claim to absolute accuracy removed mathematics from perceptible reality. Raju, recalling that Russell himself warned that mathematicians can never know if what they say is true, called for a return to the guiding philosophy of Indian or normal (non-formal) ganita, relying on the combination of observation and inference as used in science, as less fallible than deduction used in formal mathematics. Mathematics involves calculation, not proof alone and Raju argued for accepting inevitable imprecision in place of a metaphysical exactitude based on a particular western metaphysics of infinity.
Raju’s call is for the adoption of the notion of zeroism as a modern reinterpretation of sunyavada, as also for the acceptance of the Indic “four value logic” (catuskoti: at once certain and uncertain, at once exact and inexact and yet neither of them) instead of “western” two-value (either or) logic and for the return to an aesthetic and “musical” practice of mathematics, in the platonic sense. “A better mathematics for a better science” was his plea. He concluded that the scientific reliance on the theological belief in absolute natural laws, formulated as ordinary differential equations ought to be replaced by empirical “co-dependent origination” (pratitya-samutpada) to explain the “habits” of nature.
Instead of determining the past and the future from the present through laws, the empirical approach, based on mixed-type functional differential equations explains the future as conditioned but not determined by the past as well as influenced by our actions (a conclusion stemming from the aforesaid corrected understanding of special relativity theory).
Things flow through time, which, as the Indian medieval scholar Sriharsha pointed out, cannot itself flow unless there is a second time to flow into and so on ad infinitum.
The replacement of Newton’s metaphysics by Indic epistemological categories leads to a reformulation of the notion of time, which can then be seen as consisting of multiple streams, an important premise for parallel processing in computers and the development of quantum logic.
Raju’s proposal for a reformed mathematics is a fundamental step in decolonising the educational system, which the Indian and other governments should take into account. The Dalai Lama recalled the Buddhist distinction between apparent truth and relative truth as a distinguishing feature of Eastern thought in contrast to western “absolutism”.
The well known biologist and co-author of The Systems View of Nature (2014), Professor Pierluigi Luisi from the Zurich Polytechnic and the University of Rome dedicated his presentation to the twin concepts of autopoiesis (self-production) of organisms and cognition as distinctive features of life. He outlined the ongoing evolution in the life sciences towards an ecological, holistic, systemic vision which highlights connections within the whole rather than separate study of the component parts. He also highlighted the divergence between Vedantic and Buddhist Mayavad (things are not real by themselves, only in relation to the whole), and science that still upholds the ultimate reality of objective things.
Luisi referred extensively to the Santiago School of Francisco Varela and Umberto Maturana, the two authors of the theory of autopoiesis and explained that a cell, the basic block of all life forms, characterised by its functional autonomy and continuous evolution, is operationally closed but thermodynamically (energetically) open.
The cell, spatially defined by a boundary of its own making, combines with others to form ever larger structures or communities in a hierarchy, thereby allowing for the emergence of new, scientifically unpredictable properties so that the new whole is more than the sum of its parts as the outcome of a non-linear process.
Luisi contrasted Varela’s contention that cognition is a feature of cells and elementary organisms, not amounting to consciousness, with the Hindu and Buddhist concept of shared “sentience” for all created beings, including monocellular or vegetal organisms. Most biologists argue that one cannot prove that simpler life forms have feelings, even though they cannot draw the frontier between merely “cognitive” beings and the higher “conscious” animals. They hypothesise that creatures such as lizards don’t experience suffering and emotion in the “human” sense, but are merely reacting to environmental factors according to their conditioning for survival.
Consciousness, according to most of the established science, is an emergent property of a brain at a given level of complexity. Luisi, while doubting this thesis, upholds the conclusion that a molecule is not alive and not endowed with consciousness and only operates under the effect of chemical processes. There, he pointed out, lies the key difference between the Hindu and Buddhist views on life on the one hand and the positions of biology, apart from the fact that according to those traditional philosophies there is something in the individual that survives its physical demise, while natural sciences argue that death leads only to a reshuffling of “inanimate” molecules into new organic forms.
The Italian professor concluded that an invariant characteristic of all cells and living organisms is their ability to regenerate from within, unlike machines. Another feature is their relative temporary self-maintenance (the ability to remain themselves) despite constant activity and internal and external change. He reflected that we are moving towards what Varela called “first person science” since there are as many worlds as there are observers and such subjectivity tallies with the Vedantic, Buddhist and Jain relativistic perspectives.
The Dalai Lama pointed out that life and consciousness remain in their essence beyond the grasp of scientific analysis. Consciousness may not be restricted to the brain nor is life coterminous with physiological activity. He cited the example of some highly evolved lamas, including one of his preceptors, whose bodies remain unchanging and fresh long after their clinical death.
There is, he argued a real need for expanding the research in collaboration with experts in Indian and Tibetan traditional knowledge without remaining bound to possibly outdated scientific notions. He expressed scepticism about the Emergentist theory that cognition is merely a molecular chemical function, reminiscent of the old mechanistic depiction of animals as irrational biological machines driven by “instinct”.
His Holiness also called for an education geared towards the introspective analysis of human emotions, an “emotional hygiene” analogous to physical hygiene, in order to detect and prevent the growth of seeds of hatred, aggression and violence and favour the development of empathy and compassion.