In the light of our growing mastery over so many subjects of the physical world in the past two hundred years or so, it is not surprising that many people today question whether we have any need for religion at all. Things which in the past were only dreamt about – the elimination of diseases, space travel, computers – have become reality through science. So it is not surprising that many have come to place all their hopes on science, and even to believe that happiness can be achieved by means of what material science can
While I can understand how science has undermined faith in some aspects of traditional religion, I see no reason why advances in science should have the same effect on the notion of inner or spiritual values. Indeed, the need for inner values is more pressing in this age of science than ever before.
In the attempt to make a compelling case for inner values and ethical living in an age of science, it would be ideal to make that case in wholly scientific terms. Although it is not yet possible to do so purely on the basis of scientific research, I am confident that a more and more scientific case for the benefits of inner ethical values will gradually emerge.
Of course, I am no scientist and modern science was not a part of my formal education as a child. However, since coming into exile, I have done a lot of catching up. For more than thirty years now, I have held regular meetings with experts and researchers from many scientific fields, including physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, and, especially of late, neuroscience.
Contemplative traditions in all religions place great emphasis on exploring the inner world of experience and consciousness, so one of my aims in discussions has been to explore the scientific understanding of areas such as thought, emotion, and subjective experience.
I am very encouraged by the fact that science, and particularly neuroscience, is now increasingly paying attention to these matters, which have been neglected for so long. And I am pleased by recent developments in scientific methodology in these areas, in which the traditional scientific principle of objective third-person verifiability is now being expanded to include the domain of subjective experience. An example of this is the work in neuro-phenomenology by my friend Francisco Varela.
I have also had a longstanding interest in what scientific basis might be found for understanding the effects of contemplative practice and the deliberate cultivation of qualities such as compassion, loving-kindness, attention, and a calm mind. I have always felt that if science could show such practices to be both possible and beneficial, then perhaps they could even be promoted through mainstream education.
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