This is an age of great scientific advancement. Astronomers are discovering new planets. Physicists are discovering new laws of nature. Perhaps most significant of all, biologists are unlocking the secrets of the code governing life itself. The work done in genetics in the last few decades has been revolutionary, and with the Human Genome Project well under way, we will before much longer have the entire sequence of human DNA mapped out.
This knowledge opens up many new possibilities, and raises many new and troubling issues. There will be the possibility of relieving much human misery as genetic therapies are developed. At the same time, there are already appearing a host of ethical, social and legal issues. Legally, who owns the code of a natural organism? Should it be the common heritage of mankind or the proprietary information of those who map it? Socially, what laws will be passed to govern the use of this information? For example, will it be legal to deny employment to an individual with a genetic type tending to early death or illness? Ethically, mothers will face the hard choice of whether to abort a fetus with a genetic flaw.
We cannot put the genie back into the bottle. Nor would it be necessarily desirable. Science and religion are often thought of as being in opposition. This is not necessarily so, and is especially untrue in the case of Buddhism and science. For example, Buddhist teachings are not committed to any particular story of genesis and Buddhism as a religion has never been involved in the evolutionist controversy. For a Buddhist, ignorance is the root of all evil, so the extension of knowledge is never in itself to be denied. Similarly, the eradication as far as possible of suffering is seen as a moral good.
However, although a religious perspective need not have any quarrel with science, it doesn't mean that the entire rationalist-materialist world-view needs to be adopted. The ancient wisdom traditions still have something vitally important to say that cannot be found elsewhere. Science is very good at discovering the details of how the world works. It can tell us nothing of the "why," nor even the "what" in the deepest sense.
Careful scientists will not claim to do so. But too often a scientific approach is confused with a purely metaphysical philosophy of materialism. The point of concern to any spiritual view, and especially to Buddhism, is in relation to the nature of the mind. The materialist approach is to see the mind as a very complex piece of computer software, running on neurons rather than Pentium processors.
Paradoxically, the Buddhist approach to this question is much less metaphysically dogmatic and more experimental. The nature of mind, and therefore of our deepest nature and reality, cannot be gained from books or theories. It can only be discovered for oneself by the disciplined and methodical introspection called meditation. Those who have gone this route throughout the ages report that what they discover is that the deepest stata of mind is clear light, void and bliss. But this is not a dogma, it is the reported result of a repeatable experiment.
This is not a merely philosophical question. How we understand our nature bears strongly on the ethical issues raised by the new sciences and technologies. If we see ourselves as machines, we will make choices and set priorities based on that assumption. If we come to a realization that we are not robots, but free and conscious beings, then our choices will be otherwise. Indeed, we face new challenges when we look at ourselves in this light. What is our greatest good? What is the limit of our potential? What is the nature of our being? None of these questions are meaningful for a robot, but they are essential for a human being.
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