Carl Sagan & the Dalai Lama Meet in 1991 and Discuss When Science Can Answer Big Questions Better Than Religion


Images via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In a 1997 essay in Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, Stephen Jay Gould (in)famously called the realms of reli­gion and sci­ence “Nonover­lap­ping Mag­is­te­ria”—a phrase that acknowl­edges both endeav­ors as equal­ly pow­er­ful and impor­tant to human life. His the­o­ry entails “respect­ful dis­course” and “con­stant input from both mag­is­te­ria toward the com­mon goal of wis­dom.” Many par­ti­sans then and now have found the idea hope­less­ly naïve or mis­guid­ed, and Gould did describe a rather specif­i­cal­ly enlight­ened exam­ple of the posi­tion: a per­son seek­ing “a more spir­i­tu­al view of nature” who also acknowl­edges “the fac­tu­al­i­ty of evo­lu­tion and oth­er phe­nom­e­na.” An edu­cat­ed skep­tic, with mys­ti­cal and poet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties.

The major­i­ty of reli­gious believ­ers do not fit this descrip­tion. But some do. So too did Carl Sagan, to whom Gould ded­i­cat­ed his essay in a post­script. Sagan “shared my con­cern for fruit­ful coop­er­a­tion between the dif­fer­ent but vital realms of sci­ence and reli­gion.” How­ev­er, like Gould, Sagan gave the sci­en­tif­ic method the over­ride, and stren­u­ous­ly advo­cat­ed that we all do like­wise or become eas­i­ly duped by char­la­tans or by our own flawed per­cep­tions. Sagan acknowl­edged the cos­mos as a great mystery—one he want­ed to under­stand, not wor­ship. And he spoke of the nat­ur­al world with the kind of lyri­cal awe and rev­er­ence often reserved for the super­nat­ur­al.

Sagan, in fact, orga­nized and attend­ed the meet­ing at the Vat­i­can that occa­sioned Gould’s essay. He also found him­self, in the ear­ly 1990s, con­nect­ing deeply with anoth­er world reli­gious leader, the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan Bud­dhist and the astro­physi­cist first met in Itha­ca in 1991, sit­ting down for the dis­cus­sion record­ed in the video above. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pro­duc­tion qual­i­ty ren­ders this record­ing near­ly unwatch­able. Their con­ver­sion is audi­ble but they both dis­ap­pear into a pix­e­lat­ed blue blur. That said, the con­ver­sa­tion mer­its preser­va­tion in any form (you can also read a tran­script of their talk here).

Sagan puts to the Dalai Lama the ques­tion he asked every major reli­gious leader he met with: “What hap­pens if the doc­trine of a religion—Buddhism let’s say—is con­tra­dict­ed by some find­ing, some discovery—in sci­ence, let’s say—what does a believ­er in Bud­dhism do in that case?” The answer below came very much as a sur­prise to Sagan, who lat­er said the Dalai Lama “replied as no tra­di­tion­al­ist or fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gious lead­ers do.”

DL: ‘For Bud­dhists that is not a prob­lem. The Bud­dha him­self made clear that the impor­tant thing is your own inves­ti­ga­tion. You should know the real­i­ty, no mat­ter what the scrip­ture says. In case you find a contradiction—opposite of the scrip­tures’ explanation—you should rely on that find­ing, rather than scrip­ture.’

CS: ‘So, that is very much like sci­ence?’

DL: ‘Yes, that’s right. So I think that the basic Bud­dhist con­cept is that at the begin­ning it is worth­while or bet­ter to remain skep­ti­cal. Then car­ry out exper­i­ments through exter­nal means as well as inter­nal means. If through inves­ti­ga­tion things become clear and con­vinc­ing, then it is time to accept or believe. If, through sci­ence, there is proof that after death there is no con­ti­nu­ity of human mind, of life, then—theoretically speaking—Buddhists will have to accept that.’

Of course, many Bud­dhists may not find this sur­pris­ing at all. The prin­ci­ples the Dalai Lama out­lines are clear­ly out­lined in the Kala­ma Sut­ta, a sup­posed dis­course of the Bud­dha in which he issues a “Char­ter of Free Inquiry” as one inter­pre­ta­tion has it. It is indeed a unique fea­ture in world reli­gions, though the Dalai Lama did add—“mischievously,” said Sagan—that “it will be hard to dis­prove rein­car­na­tion!” In such areas where a propo­si­tion can­not be fal­si­fied, reli­gion and sci­ence may agree to disagree—civilly or otherwise—or change the sub­ject. In the course of their acquain­tance, Sagan and the Dalai Lama dis­agreed on very lit­tle.

When it comes to Bud­dhism, the Dalai Lama points out that the con­ver­sa­tion between sci­ence and reli­gion is hard­ly one-sided: “Some sci­en­tists also show a gen­uine and keen inter­est in Bud­dhist expla­na­tions…. One thing is quite clear: As far as men­tal sci­ences are con­cerned, Bud­dhism is very high­ly advanced.” The inter­est researchers and neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown in Bud­dhist psy­chol­o­gy and med­i­ta­tive ther­a­py has only increased in the past twen­ty-five years, such that entire depart­ments devot­ed to mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion have sprung up at ven­er­a­ble uni­ver­si­ties and respect­ed med­ical schools.

And since Sagan’s death in 1996, the Dalai Lama has con­tin­ued to reflect on the con­ver­gences between sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery and Bud­dhism in his books and talks. And Sagan’s wid­ow Ann Druyan has car­ried on Sagan’s lega­cy, shar­ing the awe and won­der of sci­ence with a pop­u­lar audi­ence through film, print, and tele­vi­sion. In 2007, Druyan appeared at Cor­nell to talk about the affini­ties between Sagan and the Dalai Lama dur­ing their first and sub­se­quent meet­ings. You can see her talk in full here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: 8 Tools for Skep­ti­cal Think­ing

Carl Sagan Issues a Chill­ing Warn­ing to Amer­i­ca in His Final Inter­view (1996)

The Dalai Lama on the Neu­ro­science of Com­pas­sion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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