In the article titled Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocus in the The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 13, 2012, page B4, unfortunately behind a subscription wall) by Owen Flanagan, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, that I wrote about yesterday, the author quotes the Dalai Lama as saying that if science disproves rebirth, then Buddhists should give it up.
On the surface, this looks like a refreshingly undogmatic attitude for a religious leader towards one of the central tenets of his religion. One cannot imagine the leaders of other religions saying such things. A pope who said that if the resurrection of Jesus was to be disproved then Christians should give it up would likely be promptly depoped or unpoped or whatever the word is. A prominent Muslim imam who even hinted that it might be possible that the Koran was not the divine and inerrant word of god directly handed down would likely suffer an even worse fate.
But while I applaud the Dalai Lama’s statement as a welcome affirmation of the primacy of scientific knowledge over religious dogma, I cannot help but suspect that he is being a little disingenuous here and not being as committed to empiricism as it might first seem. The key is the word ‘disprove’. How does one scientifically ‘disprove’ something?
One can disprove something if one can exhaustively investigate all the possible options that it can have and show that they do not exist. For example, I can prove that unicorns do not exist in my office by looking everywhere in it, under desks, in file drawers, in closets, etc. and not finding it, and that should convince pretty much anyone that the existence of unicorns in my office has been disproved.
But it becomes harder to disprove the existence of unicorns anywhere on the Earth because it is impossible to examine all the possible places that unicorns could possibly be living in. This is why the legends of the Yeti or Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster are so durable and seemingly impervious to disproof. And it gets even worse if we were to allow for habitable life on other planets in distant galaxies. Then disproving the existence of unicorns becomes impossible.
But even within my office, the existence of unicorns cannot be disproved if advocates are allowed to advance auxiliary hypotheses as needed. Unicornists could claim that unicorns are so tiny that they cannot be seen by the naked eye or that they appear only when it is totally dark or if there is no observer in the room and so on. No proposition, however preposterous, can be disproved if one allows the proponents to advance such ad-hoc stratagems.
But while it is a well-known feature of science that no theory can be definitively disproven, yet the historical landscape of science is strewn with the corpses of dead theories, such as phlogiston, ether, polywater, N-rays, and so on. How could that happen?
This is because in science, a theory must have some mechanism that drives it, be connected to existing accepted theories, and make predictions that are testable, even if such tests may be hard to carry out. That empirical foundation is non-negotiable. Then, as I said in my New Humanist article, a scientific theory is declared dead if none of its predictions are confirmed and if the theory becomes unnecessary as an explanatory device for any observed phenomena.
It becomes clear then that the question of ‘disproof’ of a theory only becomes meaningful when its proponents are willing to specify in advance what its mechanism consists of so that it makes firm predictions that can be tested, and if they agree that in the event that the prediction is contradicted then they must reject the theory and that they are not allowed to advance untestable ad-hoc hypotheses that have no purpose other than to salvage the theory.
Using that yardstick, the theory of tiny/unobservable unicorns in my room can be considered ‘disproved’ because it does not meet those minimal considerations.
So what about disproving rebirth? As far as science is concerned, rebirth has already been disproved because there have been no empirically sound verifications that it has occurred and it is an unnecessary explanatory concept. There is absolutely no phenomenon that requires rebirth for its explanation. Science has disproven rebirth as far as it possibly can.
The Dalai Lama seems like a smart person. I think that he knows all this but is merely playing on popular misunderstandings of the word ‘prove’ and ‘disprove’ to salvage belief in a central doctrine of Buddhism while appearing to be accepting of science. What I would like someone to ask him is what kinds of observations or experimental results he would consider a disproof of rebirth.