Science: One Finger on the Hand of Humanity
Although the Dalai Lama is passionate about science, he believes there are limits to what we can learn from it.
BY: An excerpt by the Dalai Lama
I have spent many years reflecting on the remarkable advances of science. Within the short space of my own lifetime, the impact of science and technology on humanity has been tremendous. Although my own interest in science began with curiosity about a world, foreign to me at that time, governed by technology, it was not very long before the colossal significance of science for humanity as a whole dawned on me--especially after I came into exile in 1959. There is almost no area of human life today that is not touched by the effects of science and technology. Yet are we clear about the place of science in the totality of human life--what exactly it should do and by what it should be governed? This last point is critical because unless the direction of science is guided by a consciously ethical motivation, especially compassion, its effects may fail to bring benefit. They may indeed cause great harm.
Seeing the tremendous importance of science and recognizing its inevitable dominance in the modern world fundamentally changed my attitude to it from curiosity to a kind of urgent engagement. In Buddhism the highest spiritual ideal is to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings and to work for their welfare to the greatest possible extent. From my earliest childhood I have been conditioned to cherish this ideal and attempt to fulfill it in my every action. So I wanted to understand science because it gave me a new area to explore in my personal quest to understand the nature of reality. I also wanted to learn about it because I recognized in it a compelling way to communicate insights gleaned from my own spiritual tradition. So, for me, the need to engage with this powerful force in our world has become a kind of spiritual injunction as well. The central question--central for the survival and well-being of our world--is how we can make the wonderful developments of science into something that offers altruistic and compassionate service for the needs of humanity and the other sentient beings with whom we share this earth.
Do ethics have a place in science? I believe they do. First of all, like any instrument, science can be put to good use or bad. It is the state of mind of the person wielding the instrument that determines to what end it will be put. Second, scientific discoveries affect the way we understand the world and our place in it. This has consequences for our behavior. For example, the mechanistic understanding of the world led to the Industrial Revolution, in which the exploitation of nature became the standard practice. There is, however, a general assumption that ethics are relevant to only the application of science, not the actual pursuit of science. In this model the scientist as an individual and the community of scientists in general occupy a morally neutral position, with no responsibility for the fruits of what they have discovered. But many important scientific discoveries, and particularly the technological innovations they lead to, create new conditions and open up new possibilities which give rise to new ethical and spiritual challenges. We cannot simply absolve the scientific enterprise and individual scientists from responsibility for contributing to the emergence of a new reality.
Perhaps the most important point is to ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings. Just as one's fingers can function only in relation to the palm, so scientists must remain aware of their connection to society at large. Science is vitally important, but it is only one finger of the hand of humanity, and its greatest potential can be actualized only so long as we are careful to remember this. Otherwise, we risk losing our sense of priorities. Humanity may end up serving the interests of scientific progress rather than the other way around. Science and technology are powerful tools, but we must decide how best to use them. What matters above all is the motivation that governs the use of science and technology, in which ideally heart and mind are united.