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April 3, 2007

Some thoughts on The Universe in a Single Atom

Just some thoughts I’ve had while in the middle of reading a book titled, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. It was written by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteeenth Dalai Lama, recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize and religious and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. It’s not the first book of his that I’ve read, but it may be the most difficult.

In this book the Dalai Lama explores parallels (and differences) between science and his religion, Buddhism. I particularly like how this religious leader is willing to adjust his beliefs according to what science has proven, rather than trying to twist science to fit his beliefs. At the same time he recognizes that science can’t tell us everything, and that one’s personal experience, observation, and intelligence are valid to take into account when determining what to believe. This book is deep, abstract, conceptual, and difficult reading for me because I have trouble wrapping my mind around concepts like relativity and superstring theory. Give me good old gravity. That I understand. Sort of.

It’s good reading, though, and especially good for me, in my non-scientific but more creative and spiritual nature. It gives me more of a handle on what science and belief have in common, as well as that overlapping territory in between and beyond, which we’re sometimes reluctant to face if we let our minds get too set in one pattern of thinking. I refer to the unknown, and our ability or inability to find peace with the fact that so much is still unknown. As knowledge changes, we must in all honesty be willing to take on the new known, adjust the old known, and change our view of possibility, just the way we change clothes with the seasons. It does no more good to believe faithfully in something disproved than to believe that because my coat kept me safe and warm in winter it’s a good idea to wear it on the hottest day of the year. This book is also careful to point out that just because something isn’t proven, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Disproof and lack of proof are two different things.

I’m also reminded by the implications of this book, of a documentary about Alaskan fisheries that was part of the Nature series on PBS. The closure of pollock fisheries several years ago was intended to protect the environment. Later, scientists came to realize that the herring declined even more rapidly once pollock was protected. Herring was found to be a more important source of critical nutrients for marine life than was previously known — a better source than pollock, which constituted a veritable junk food in comparison. Endangered Steller sea lions were forced to fall back even more on pollock once it began to repopulate, while still hungering for their necessary herring.

Even well intentioned science can be a kind of religion, where people (not scientists perhaps, but people) hold too fast to discoveries and continue to defend them, when a wider-angle view is needed, or it’s time to move forward because more is known. When we combine with that the intransigence of government that causes regulations to lag behind each new discovery, we can see that clinging to any beliefs, scientific or religious, can have disastrous effects. One must wonder, for instance, about future effects of genetically modified crops, and the fact that there may soon be only one company supplying most farmers in the world with their seed — much of that genetically modified. How many people’s quality of life could be salvaged by stem-cell research? By more research into natural alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs or surgery? If we can be wrong about sea lions, pollock, and herring, what else might science be wrong about, or simply not yet know? What might religion be wrong about that’s holding its followers, and possibly whole cultures and governments, back? Are bio-fuels better for the environment than fossil fuels, or do they harm the environment just as much in their production, and at the same time threaten world food supplies and distract us from finding or developing more viable energy solutions? What good is knowing how to do something if one doesn’t also know when or if it should be done?

I’ve rambled on. The main lesson I’ve gotten so far from this book is that no source of knowledge or wisdom is sacrosanct, that there are few known absolute truths, and that flexibility and a healthy skepticism are necessary in all areas of study. It’s important to believe that we can do better, that we can know more, that we can think for ourselves, that we can take better care of the planet and each other. It’s also important along the way to acknowledge our limits and exercise humility regarding what we don’t know. What we don’t know may be the biggest vacuum in the universe.

File: — Barbara @ 7:48 pm PST, 04/03/07

2 Comments

  1. Marion says:

    Oh, wow, what a great post! I admire your reading The Universe in a Single Atom…it would not be an easy read for myself. I have great difficulty, as you say, wrapping my mind around this kind of thing.

    I get my partner to read these books, and explain the premise to me in terms I can understand, lol!

    And you’ve done the same…thank you!

  2. Todd Green says:

    “I refer to the unknown, and our ability or inability to find peace with the fact that so much is still unknown.

    Believing that we do know keeps the mind from enjoying the peace and joy found in wondering and fosters the fear that we may be wrong. The title of the book, The Universe in a Single Atom, is a metaphor for as close to expressing the truth without claiming to know anything while leaving it all to be contemplated in fact transcendent joy. Thinking one may not know is much more liberating and educational that believing in arguable facts, but then what would academia have to do then. Fear of not knowing is the motivation for drawing conclusions which, logic tells us, deny far more than they accept by being the ends of thinking or admitting to new contradictory experience. Maybe.

    Robert Anton Wilson’s Maybe Logic is a wonderful parallel to the Dali Lama’s book.


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