Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles. It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama. He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius. For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things. Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things. I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive. He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person. In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction. The conversation started civilly enough. Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Roughly speaking, that’s the teacher, the teachings, and the community.

Hillis then chimed in saying that science essentially has the equivalent. The teacher is nature itself, and the almost mystical ability of mathematics to model, explain and predict the world.

The teachings are the body of knowledge accumulated by many teachers. Each individual teaching is like a brick in a castle. Every once in a while, a teacher brings together a few bricks in a way to really enhance the edifice and create a whole new structure for insight – for example, when James Clerk Maxwell created the four equations of electromagnetism out of disparate fields of knowledge.

And then there is the practice of the community, which, like religion, has its own dogma – double-blind studies, peer review, reproducibility of results. Hillis emphasized that the dogma is there mostly in service of being careful to avoid the mistakes of the past.

By now a lively repartee was developing between Hillis and Thurman. And I’ve got to tell you: Robert Thurman is one funny dude. He was cracking jokes the whole time, and at one point, he made Danny Hillis lose it – tears, couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe, the works. If you ever get a chance to see Thurman live, you should. The man’s a riot.

But I digress.Thurman picked up the thread at this point and talked about how the Dalai Lama has spent the last 20 years talking to scientists. He really likes science! Little known fact is that when Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, was a young man in India, he used to repair people’s Swiss watches for fun. Apparently Tenzin, like Danny, is an inveterate tinkerer.

In fact, Buddhism is simply about seeing reality as it is, which is why the Dalai Lama is so fond of science. All the Buddha ever did was to see reality, and to report that it was all right (as Thurman put it, cracking up the auditorium). “It’s fine!” he said, and proceeded to report that to all comers. When humans can understand reality, they release suffering. This can only be done by understanding yourself; otherwise you’re pretty much stuck.

At this point, Thurman shared one of his stories with us. In one of his earlier incarnations as a young bodhisattva, the Buddha decides to use his yogic powers and ascend to Heaven to have a chat with god. So he finds Brahma, who asks him imperiously whether he has an appointment.

Ah, no, not really, just kinda hanging out, ascending to the heavens, no biggie, I can always come back.

Alright, you can stay, says Brahma. What do you want?

Nothing. Just wanted to ask you why you created the world and how it all works.

At this point, Brahma starts just yammering away, saying some pretty official-sounding boilerplate, and then sending the bodhisattva back. The somewhat baffled young man starts to make his way out, but right outside the palace gate Brahma stops him.

“Okay, look, I know you just heard me say all that stuff, but I’m in my court, and it’s important to maintain appearances there, y’know? The fact is, I have no idea where it all came from and I have no idea how it works. I didn’t make it! It was here when I got here. I just happened to be the first one here.

“Then all the other people arrive, the thousands of mini-gods, and they see me here and think I’m in charge. For a while I tried to disabuse them, but then I realized it was totally futile, and I was provoking a crisis of confidence. Hence, the bluster you just heard.”

He sizes up the young bodhisattva, then continues: “Now you look like the kind of person who’s going to be a buddha, which means that you will figure it all out eventually. When you do, I want you to come up her and tell me how it all works, and tell those humans down there that it’s not all my fault when things go wrong.”

This was all prelude to the idea that the Buddha was actually a scientist – someone with an unwavering dedication to seeing reality.

At this point, Danny Hillis brings up the topic that became the center point of the night’s friendly sparring: “Can you prove reincarnation?”

The doctrine of reincarnation maintains that your soul never expires, and that you have had thousands upon millions of lives preceding this one, and just as many to come (which is different from “reintarnation”, which maintains that you will come back in the next life as a hillbilly).

You have to understand that, to Buddhists, this is a foundational belief. It’s presupposed so deeply that it’s not even a topic of debate. But it’s clearly something that Danny couldn’t countenance (and frankly, I’m not crazy about it either).

But Thurman was armed: supposedly a Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia had done some studies 40-50 years ago with thousands of cases of reincarnation. I checked the reference, and it’s true: Stevenson was the head of the UVA Dept of Psychiatry for over 30 years and wrote hundreds of papers documenting some persuasive cases of potential reincarnation. Check out his Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson

Thurman then talked about how the doctrine of emptiness, or shunyata, is the central tenet of Buddhism. Shunyata is a difficult concept – one that Buddhist monks may take a lifetime to grasp fully. So if you don’t get it right away, rest easy. The basic idea is that things have no essence that’s separate from other things; the existence of everything is relational. Emptiness is not the same as nothingness; it’s about things having no essential self (or anatta).

Hillis agreed with this notion and with the futility of names and labels in general. He picked up a plastic bottle, “this particular solution to Schroedinger’s equation at this moment in time,” and pointed out that you could call this any number of things and it wouldn’t be any of them.

Thurman is a disarmingly formidable debater because he’s such a deep-down Buddhist that he’s not even attached to the most fundamental tenets of the religion. When Danny Hillis said that he found it hard to believe the whole notion of incarnation, Thurman quipped back, “I only half believe in it myself!”

He even recounted a story about a meeting between Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama. Sagan poses to the Dalai Lama, “What if science incontrovertibly disproved the idea of reincarnation? What would you do then?” Without missing a beat, the Lama replies, “I will stop believing in it!” The lightness with which Buddhists – even the biggest Buddhist of them all – hold their beliefs demonstrates to me their true attachment to non-attachment.

This is when the debate got interesting. Hillis said that in science, we can measure things: action potentials, mass, brain activity, etc. This whole ‘soul’ entity was simply not measurable; and besides that, what was the mechanism by which the soul traveled?

At this point, Thurman, who is obviously well-versed in science, countered that in physics, you can’t really measure things anyway: “Schroedinger’s cat – how heavy is that?” One more hearty audience chuckle scored for the professor.

Now it was time for Danny to challenge Thurman. He said, what if artificial intelligence progressed so far as to create sentient beings – would you then say that those beings had a soul? “Sure!” replies Thurman. Buddhism has no problem with that.

At this point, the conversation moved to the idea of death, and by extension, nothing. Thurman said that in Buddhism, you can’t have nothing. That means that there is no such thing as absolute nothing – there is always something there, which is the ground of being. The Buddhist argument for this was convoluted and subtle, and frankly, you’re going to have to ask Bob about it. But this is a point on which Hillis wholeheartedly agreed: even the “total void” of space constantly has particles being created and annihilated. Indeed, one can experimentally measure the existence of these virtual particles in vacuum through the Casimir-Polder effect. Wild and crazy stuff.

The title of the discussion was “Science, Religion and Ethics”, so Hillis touched upon the final subject. He and Thurman called ethics “being in the long now” – the idea of taking the course of action that makes the most sense in the very long run. Hillis extends this idea to several generations past one’s own children – witness the 10,000-year clock and his work with the Long Now Foundation. Thurman, with the Buddhist view, has all of eternity in mind.

They talked about a lot more, and Thurman cracked us up several more times with Star Trek jokes and irreverent comments. He even had a moment of righteous indignation when talking about war and leaders who lead us into war, and how humans, in their extreme cleverness, have now made war obsolete. War is impossible, since it’s impossible to win! For elaboration of this concept, he referred us to Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.

I leave you with Thurman’s epilogue, which he called his “consolation prize.” He admitted that after 45 years of studying all this stuff, this night, as he was talking to us, he was still far from enlightened (and his wife and kids can attest to that). However, Buddhism says that someday, we will all achieve buddhahood. It may take longer for some, less for others. But once you’ve achieved buddhahood and ultimate enlightenment, that insight penetrates all of time, all the way to the past, to the present day. So “we will all enjoy this evening together as nirvana retroactively.”

By that token, nirvana is now as soon as you realize that it’s now. Enjoy this perfect moment.

4 thoughts on “Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

  1. Mark Wilson
    • Brilliant! Thanks for the link — didn’t know it existed.

  2. Best article.

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