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Mind and Life: Where Was the Debate?

Andrew C. Thomas

I had the opportunity to attend the Mind and Life conference this past weekend in Kresge. After sitting through what was lauded as a groundbreaking symposium on the study of the mind, I confess, I was left a bit uncomfortable by the whole experience.

An immense amount of preparation went into this effort, on the part of the Whitehead, McGovern, and Mind and Life Institutes. Many discussions were prepared ahead of time; many large concepts and small details were quibbled. And the finished product was quite well executed by all measures.

I just wonder if it was nearly as long as it needed to be -- or if more could have been done in the time available.

Buddhists have a respected intellectual and investigative tradition that has endured for thousands of years. Science is that by definition. So one wonders whether much was gained intellectually by the conference other than photo-ops with the Dalai Lama.

Now, that’s not to say that the opportunity to watch and, for some, participate in a discussion with a religious leader was abused. Hearing His Holiness cough opportunely, which may have been intended comedically, was enough illumination for many, including myself.

The science presented was valid; the attitudes were strongly geared toward the asking of questions. Professor Eric Lander, molecular biologist, genome researcher, and my personal hero, made the point that some of the best science that has been done was the recomposition of important questions. One might argue that it would have come about from dedicated concentration, an idea which is well practiced in Buddhist meditation, or good, old fashioned creative thinking, celebrated by the most sensible and the maddest of scientists.

But my strongest objection was that it was just, well, too calm. I wasn’t exactly expecting it to come to blows or anything -- especially from the world’s greatest authority on non-violence -- but somehow I thought there might be space for a little argument rather than a calm, orderly, and good-humored discussion.

Maybe that’s because the speakers who participated were among the most open-minded in their fields, including Lander, whose picture is next to the word “interdisciplinary” in the MIT dictionary; B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar, who I found the most entertaining of the lot; and between them the ever-smiling Dalai Lama, who has struck many scientists and religious figures with both his inquisitive open-mindedness and his strong devotion to the faith he leads.

So I started to wonder if I’d come to the only rigged table in the casino, where the house will always win.

There was too much love in the room, I thought. Way too much. Everyone was far too welcoming to suggestions, to possible directions of research, to offers of future collaboration.

Plenty of progress has already been made between these collaborators to this point, though I grant it was in advance of the symposium. In addition, I suspect that very few people in the audience needed much convincing about a collaboration of Buddhism and science.

Oddly, each of the four sessions seemed both repetitive and too short. It seemed there were a wealth of arguments that could have been brought up on both sides and debated, but instead they were left unspoken.

One reason for argument is clear; from one point of view, the scientists seemed to have the upper hand. Most of the discussion took place from a scientific point of view, which is not surprising considering the venue. Experimentation, data preparation, and objectification of subjective data were all common themes. In this way the Buddhists were very accommodating, though as Harvard Professor Jerome Kagan pointed out, it’s very difficult, if not impossible to describe any kind of spiritual experience in the crude language of words.

The events this weekend were an important beginning. If any open-minded scientists and Christian scholars want to start a similar debate over these same issues on the stage of Kresge, I’ll be there in the front row. With less common ground to be shared for that debate, I’d be curious if a fight would break out.