Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: "The Universe in a Single Atom"

The Universe in a Single Atom
By The Dalai Lama

I read The Universe in a Single Atom by recommendation of a friend. Considering the fact that I'm a big fan of science, he thought that I might be a good start for me to see how science and Buddhism follow each other. I am extremely interested in finding what scientific evidence follows the different religions of the world and how the different religous adherents respond to scientific conflicts, so I was quite excited to read this book.

In this book, the Dalai Lama gives a layman's view of a few disciplines in science. He shows how they coincide with Buddhist doctrine and how they differ. Unfortunately, in the introduction to the book, the Dalai Lama makes it clear that he does not intend to try to reconcile conflicts; he is simply stating the facts of science and the doctrines of Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama starts with explaining his fascination with science. He discusses the scientific topics of Evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and quantum physics. He ten spends three chapters discussing scientific theories of consciousness and their relation to Buddhist doctrines. He finishes with a short discussion on genetic engineering and the ethics involved.

I was bored with the chapters on Evolution and the Big Bang. Mainly, because of the fact that the Dalai Lama concluded the chapter on the Big Bang conceeding that the Big Bang stands in direct conflict with Buddhist cosmology (I'm glad he recognized it), but he did not make an attempt to reconcile the views. The chapter on Evolution was the basic stuff I've heard in the popular press, nothing new. He didn't make much of an attempt to show how Evolution ties into the Buddhist idea of sentience, so that was disappointing also.

The chapters on quantum physics and consciousness were much more interesting to me. The Dalai Lama pointed out several physical (not thought) experiements that seem to go against Einstinian relativity. I had heard that the two were in conflict (that's why scientists are looking for a special "theory of everything"- string or "m" theory is the most popular right now), but I wasn't sure where at; now I have a basic idea of what to research more. The three chapters spent on consciousness indicate the most congurency between science and Buddhism. The book definately piqued my interest in these two disciplines.

It was a fascinating read. I had higher hopes for the book, but they were dashed in the introducton, so I didn't keep the hopes to the end of the book or even the chapters. I would recommend that if you wish to read it, do some research into the doctrines of Buddhism first; the Dalai Lama doesn't explain a whole lot about some of the doctrines. Also, if you're pretty entrenched in the specific topics that he discusses, you might find them shallow. I think the audience here is probably a Buddhist who is wanting some exposure to science, or someone curious about possible consistencies between the two, but not resolution of conflicts.

I can recommend this book for three reasons:

1. You are a Buddhist looking for basic exposure to science
2. You are interested in theories of consciousness and Buddhism (Chapters 6-8)
3. You want to read something by the Dalai Lama

1 comment:

  1. I took a different view to the thesis of the book (we can discuss in detail over coffee).

    I think the main thesis was showing how science and spirituality need not be divorced.

    I'm glad it's lay oriented. Equations like this would be of little value to me (

    I take Buddhist cosmology to be metaphorical and pedagogical rather than literal.... nor do I think the old Buddhist map of the PHYSICAL cosmos is important to understanding Buddhism. The SPIRITUAL conception of the cosmos (samsara, karma, nirvana) are necessary and I think they are existentially understandable and perhaps the elements of Buddhism that may escape naturalistic methodological empiricism.

    I don't feel like it detracts much from the philosophy of Buddhism itself. I don't worry too much about the big bang vs beginningless universe; I have some abstract thoughts that reach around that - again too lengthy for here; and I don't feel like they are essentially relevant to what Buddhism is.

    I think evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have a lot to offer to understand sentience; from a psychological perspective sentience/consciousness developed with the emergence and development of certain brain structures.

    I think the findings of quantum physics are causing a paradigm shift in science; and I think theology will have to follow. As paradigms in science shift, this causes uneasiness in religion. It wasn't until Vatican 2 that the Catholic Church could really integrate evolution into their theology; many evangelical Christians still have not.

    Buddhism and the study of consciousness/mind (basically what in the West we call psychology) have a ton of congruence. Being a social sciences student, I find that Buddhism and psychology go together like peanut butter and jelly.

    I didn't see it as an attempt to "prove" Buddhism is correct scientifically; but rather just an honest explanation of how the two must now interact. When I tend to read the Christian literature on the subject; it seems bent on proving Christianity with science, rather than listening to science and trying to integrate it within the Christian worldview. The modern ID/Evol debates still seem to mimic the Scopes trial of yore.

    As a sociology nerd, of particular interest was how he and the Tibetan people hare integrating the pre-scientific Tibetan worldview with the findings of science; without abandoning either one.

    From a sociological standpoint, our society still has a strong tendency to pivot science and faith against each other. What I appreciated most about the book was that it was an example of how the two are both important to humanity; and one should not be sacrificed in favor of the other.

    I recommend this book for a model of how faith and science can be integrated rather than any attempt to solicit Buddhism. I think your perspectives are interesting and thoughtful; and I only hope I can reciprocate. I tried to keep my comment as short as possible; I really need to work on brevity. :-P