Science and religion in harmony

    A spiritual leader with an interest in research has encountered opposition to his plans to speak at a scientific meeting. But he is perfectly entitled to do so.

    The Dalai Lama is due to speak at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC on 12 November, and some neuroscientists don't like it (see Nature 436, 452; 2005). But the Buddhist leader's talk is part of a lecture series that the society is laudably conducting on the science and society — and it should go ahead as planned.

    The invitation of the Dalai Lama to the meeting will be interpreted in some quarters as an insult to his nemesis, China. And, citing the oft-repeated refrain that science and religion should be kept separate, some neuroscientists are calling for the lecture to be cancelled.

    The critics accuse the Dalai Lama of trying to use the meeting to sell science that they regard as substandard: research on the relationship between meditation and physiological changes in the brain. Even the researchers directly involved in these studies, many of whom are working with the encouragement and support of the Dalai Lama, say that the work is in its early stages.

    But the society did not invite the Dalai Lama to speak as a scientist. He will be in Washington to kick off its lecture series on “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society”, in which non-scientists are expected to address “subjects of interest to neuroscientists”. The second such lecture will be given by Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

    Since Nature first reported on this story three weeks ago, several neuroscientists have written to us criticizing efforts to stop the lecture (see Buddhism is no bar to an open mind. Is science?, for example). It seems reasonable to assume that a fair number of the 30,000 delegates expected to attend one of the world's largest scientific meetings will be interested to hear what the Dalai Lama has to say.

    The Dalai Lama will not be a complete outsider at the meeting. Through the Colorado-based Mind & Life Institute, he has already interacted with many reputable neuroscientists. According to the society, he was invited, in part, because “he has already had an influence on the design of experiments of great interest to neuroscientists”. As even one opponent of the talk admits: “He has views on controlling negative emotions, which is a legitimate area for neuroscience research in the future.” But his lecture does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of his views by the society.

    Critics counter that the talk threatens to “entangle the Society for Neuroscience with religious activities”. The invitation for the Dalai Lama to speak will give him a chance to sell his religious beliefs in the guise of neuroscience, they claim. Their petition opposing the lecture even draws comparisons between the Dalai Lama, with his belief in reincarnation, and creationists.

    But speakers at meetings — non-scientists or scientists — should not be barred on the basis of their religious beliefs. Well-known scientists including Newton have had religious beliefs that many people would disagree with, but these have no bearing on the credibility of their scientific ideas.

    “The Dalai Lama encourages monks to take part in experiments. Resulting studies have appeared in respectable scientific journals.”

    Furthermore, in stark contrast with the approach of most religious leaders, the Dalai Lama has tried for many years to encourage empirical research into the claims he makes for the value of meditation. He encourages monks to take part in such experiments. Resulting studies have appeared in respectable scientific journals.

    It is true that the invitation could be interpreted as an insult to China. But the manner in which it was issued — by a scientist who was attending a meeting on neuroplasticity at the Dalai Lama's home in India — implies that the neuroscience society harbours no such intent.

    It is not unreasonable for the researchers who object to the invitation to protest against it, and to seek to draw attention to the limitations of the Dalai Lama's credentials as a speaker. But now that the point has been made, they should withdraw their threatened boycott of the meeting, and instead raise their issues in the open forum that will follow his talk.

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    Science and religion in harmony. Nature 436, 889 (2005).

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