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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism and Quantum Physics

By February 14, 2009

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Since we appear to be having Science Week here on Buddhism Blog, let me call your attention to a Tricycle blog post on Buddhism and Science. Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, a writes about he popular belief that quantum physics theories confirm Buddhist teachings. This is a mistaken view, Professor Frank says.

Quantum physics raises powerful, intriguing questions in this domain but it does not answer them. Rushing to embrace an interpretation that confirms a pre-established belief does great violence to the essence and spirit of science. More importantly it does violence to the spirit of authentic spiritual endeavor that, at its best, contemplative practice embodies.

I confess to being guilty of spreading the Buddhism-quantum physics conflation, but I also confess that I don't know quantum physics from chickens.

The more interesting question might be why it seems important to believe quantum physics confirms Buddhism. This may be a highly individual matter. Certainly, many of us left our religions-of-origin because they clashed with science -- I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes? We may need to reassure ourselves that we're not walking into the same trap with the new religion.

(Note: If you want to argue with me that Buddhism is not a religion, you may do so in the forums.)

Confirmation of Buddhist understanding by an empirical source is not only unnecessary, I would argue it is detrimental to Buddhist practice to seek such a thing, since our understanding comes through intimate experience and not conceptual knowledge.

Discuss this topic in the Buddhism Forum!

Comments
February 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm
(1) Greg Stone says:

For those interested in this topic, a good book is The Universe in a Single Atom by HHDL.

HHDL spent time with David Bohm, before he passed, and took an interest in the subject.

(David Bohm was a well-known physicist. The posthumous The Undivided Universe is an excellent presentation of quantum concepts that are relevant to Buddhism. Warning: the book is math heavy.)

The other source that interested parties may wish to check out is Alan Wallace’s Buddhism and Science. There are a couple articles re quantum physics in the collection.

Fred Alan Wolf, a physicist, has written the Spiritual Universe which looks at quantum physics in this context.

The other good source is Goswami, a physicist from U Oregon who studies in this area.

As some may know, the early pioneers in QT were versed in eastern religions.

Frank may be correct in certain contexts, but may be missing other applications.

February 23, 2009 at 9:25 am
(2) Rajeev G says:

Hi,

Why specifically quantum physics. Science itself is not contradicting with “Buddhism”. We first have to see complicated things? This is like a first standard boy trying to learn “calculus”. We in Buddhism should not teach/learn “Abhidhamma Sutta” first. In science also, no one should try to learn “Quantum Physics” before normal physics and its properties. I leave this discussion to scientists of “Quantum Physics” and “HHDL”. I just have some knowledge about both.

February 24, 2009 at 4:15 pm
(3) grahamsmatham says:

I have just sent this to the Dalai Lama

To say you are busy man with many demands on your time is to make a statement beyond the obvious. However I believe that I do have something to say that will be of great benefit to all sentient beings, yourself, and lastly of course, myself. I have just finished writing what I believe to be the most extensive, detailed and rigorous book about quantum physics and Buddhist philosophy, primarily Chittamatra but also some Prasangika. The book is called ‘Dancing in Emptiness: Reality Revealed at the Interface of Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy’. My book proves without doubt, with help from the remarkable work of the quantum physicist Professor Henry Stapp (and to a lesser extent David Bohm and others), that the necessity of authentic spiritual practice can be directly deduced from the nature of the quantum ground. It also shows in minute detail that fundamental quantum processes were prefigured in Buddhist philosophy. For instance the Yogacara account of the functioning of consciousness exactly prefigures the quantum Zeno effect. As far as I know no one has written about such insights heretofore.

In 2005 you published your book ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’, which I enjoyed immensely, and the 2007 Mind and Life Conference had the same title with the subtitle ‘the Convergence of Science and Spirituality’. There have been several other books, which you may be aware of, devoted to this topic of the interconnections between Buddhist philosophy and modern science, particularly quantum physics. There are the excellent works of Alan Wallace of course, also ‘The Quantum and the Lotus’ and also Victor Mansfield’s recent book on modern science and Tibetan Buddhism and the works deriving from the Mind and Life conferences, to mention a few examples. None of these works, however, comes close to the scope and depth of the book I have just completed after eight years of intensive research and writing.

This is a strong claim, especially for someone who is unknown. However it should not take you long to determine whether I am deluded in this matter. In your book, for instance, you say us that there are several deep issues in this area of discourse that you do not completely understand, and from my research I do not believe anyone else is very close to some of this. One such issue is the relationship between the two truths and the classical/quantum divide. This and other deep issues, such as the quantum operation of karma for instance, the quantum mechanism by which the ‘illusion’ of the two ‘selves’ arises from the quantum ‘implicate order’, and the exact connection between consciousness and the wavefunction are covered in precise detail in my book.

To give a very initial indication of these sphere of overlap please consider the following. A significant interconnection concerns the Mind-Only three natures and the functioning of the quantum wave function. The following is dramatically simplified and condensed:

At the quantum level the functioning of reality consists of:

1) An interdependent realm of potentialities for experience which are only activated into actual experience when a perceiving subjectivity interacts with the quantum wavefunction and thereby selects one of the potentialities. This pre-experiential realm corresponds to the other-powered nature. The potentialities arise from karma.

2) The ‘collapse of the wavefunction’. This occurs when a perceiving consciousness interacts with the potentialities within the wavefunction and thereby selects one of the potentialities – this leads the illusion of inherent dualistic experiential reality. This, of course, is the imputational nature.

This leads to the understanding that the thoroughly established nature – emptiness, which is the fact that the other-powered nature is ‘empty’ of the imputational nature, corresponds to the situation that the collapse of the wave function is an illusion, i.e. it is not an actual aspect of the wavefunction itself. This leads to a mapping between the two truths of the Madhyamaka, conventional and ultimate, and the two realms within physics – the classical and the quantum. This, however, is merely the beginning of my analysis; at the end of the relevant sections of by book an exact understanding of the relationship should be imparted.

In a recent article in the New Scientist a physicist writes that:

… we now have to face the possibility that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure. In other words measuring those properties is what brings them into existence.

The recently performed experiments that have demonstrated lack of inherent reality of the measured properties involve testing a special formula at the quantum level; if the ‘numbers add up’ then ‘we have to abandon the idea of an objective reality’. When the experiments were performed the numbers did add up and the conclusion that has to be drawn, according to one of the quantum physicists involved, is that:

Rather than passively observing it, we in fact create reality.

This insight into the lack of ‘inherent existence,’ as you obviously know, is the hallmark of emptiness. The Mind-Only, school adds to this the insight that it is the mind that is interdependently instrumental in bringing phenomena into existence:

..all these various appearances,
Do not exist as sensory objects which are other than consciousness.
Their arising is like the experience of self knowledge.
All appearances, from indivisible particles to vast forms, are mind.

It would be easy to think that such interconnections are coincidental and intriguing but not necessarily indicative of any deep connection. My research, however, shows that this is not the case. I was astonished to find that when the quantum perspectives of physicists such as Henry Stapp, David Bohm, Amit Goswami and John Wheeler were interwoven with the Mind-Only discourse a scientific-metaphysical ‘theory of everything’ of astonishing detail, precision and depth resulted. As I pursued my enquiries I became convinced that the Tibetan philosophers must have known about the quantum nature of reality in a very precise manner. When I read the beautiful and inspiring ‘Mountain Doctrine’, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, I realised I was correct. This insight became one of my favourite chapters of my book – ‘The Empty Wave of Reality’- how astonishing, the fourteenth century Buddhist philosophers knew about the quantum wavefunction! They called it ‘the element of attributes’ or the dharmadhatu. More details can be found at http://www.quantumbuddhism.COM. I have also attached a document, Dancing in Emptiness.doc, with further details.

This is a mere glimmer of the extraordinary depth of interconnections. My book has taken eight years research. A publisher has informed me that if I could get relevant people of note in these areas of discourse to endorse or recommend the work they would be interested in looking at it. I have already approached Professor Stapp who is a quantum physicist of great stature and he has indicated his interest because he sees the significant connection between his own work and the perspective of the Mind-Only view. There are also Prasangika connections but these are too subtle to indicate here. Professor Stapp is looking at some of my book at the moment. I hardly dare hope that you might have the inclination or time to look at any of my work. However perhaps it could be beneficial?

Thanks – Graham Smetham.

February 28, 2009 at 7:03 am
(4) graham smetham says:

The problem is that people like Adam Frank do not know enough about the details of Buddhist philosophy to make these kinds of assertions. Has he studied Mind-Only Buddhist philosophy? I have just posted this (this is condensed – other details are in my previous post to you) onto the Tricycle site in response to Frank’s article:

The connections between science and Buddhism are currently a matter of some controversy. The Dalai Lama together with the scientists and philosophers who join in the various discussions of the Mind and Life Institute, for instance, consider that there is a significant overlap. Others, however, seem almost dogmatically certain that it cannot be the case that there is a significant connection. In a recent issue of Tricycle (February 13, 2009), for instance, the astrophysicist Adam Frank asserts that:

No matter how optimistic these perspectives … they are nonetheless
gravely mistaken.

However the amount of serious and rigorous analysis, either for or against the position, is generally meagre.

Frank, in his denigration of the assertion that there is a significant link, cites the lack of precision in the cult film ‘What the Bleep’ and the ‘new age’ works of Deepak Chopra. There are many other such offerings which simply do not present rigorous and substantial evidence. Eight years ago I realised there was a need to do some serious research and put together a rigorous and as irrefutable as possible presentation of the evidence. I further set out to try and present my work with as close as I could possibly achieve the precision and beauty of the Madhyamaka (Buddhist Middle Way philosophy). By random chance rather than design I was putting the final touches to my book, I was actually working on the chapter on evolution – Quantum Karmic Evolution, at roughly the same time as the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, which Frank’s tells us is a ‘good time to think about Buddhism’s proper place in the ongoing Religion vs Science debate.’

There is an ingrained idea amongst many pundits in the arena of the contrast and possible interconnection between science and religion that these two concerns somehow occupy different realms of discourse; realms which at best can only be vaguely analogous. Such views of ‘non-overlapping’, to use a term famously suggested by Stephen Jay Gould, areas of discourse were for a long period encouraged by theistic philosophers because of the difficulty they had reconciling their religiously based philosophical view of the nature of reality with the scientific worldview. Today such theologians, however, are rushing to cobble together a quantum notion of God.

Thus a recent theological attempt to present a new quantum based view of God claims, somewhat disingenuously, with respect to quantum indeterminacy that:

Thus, from a theological point of view, we can say that something like this indeterminacy could have been predicted on the basis of a theory of noncoercive divine action in the subhuman world.

Unfortunately for the scientific status of theology, however, no such dramatic predictions were made by any of its practitioners. But, as my book amply and precisely demonstrates, Buddhist Chittamatra/Yogacara and Madhyamaka philosophers made spectacular assertions concerning the nature of reality during the two and a half thousand years before those assertions were validated by quantum discoveries; the precision of the descriptions of the functioning of reality which prefigure the quantum discoveries are remarkable.

The Yogacara description of the functioning of perception within a universal field of consciousness, for instance, is exactly that of the quantum Zeno effect. Why has no-one seen this before? No one has bothered to do a detailed investigation; the debate has generally taken place on a superficial level. The work I have carried out is, therefore, the first precise, detailed and rigorous investigation of the issues. At the moment my book is being evaluated by a highly respected quantum physicist, someone who knew and discussed foundational issues in quantum theory with some of the founders like Heisenberg and the later philosophically inclined physicists like David Bohm and John Wheeler, both of whom are very important in my work. In a recent email he wrote to me:

You do a valuable service in pinpointing this particular strand of eastern philosophy that seems to mesh so well with this feature of quantum theory.

But this connection is just one of the precise details of interconnection between the prefiguring Buddhist philosophical analysis of the nature and functioning of reality and the subsequent confirmation by quantum theory.

The delicacy of quantum experiments that are now being performed is extraordinary; nature is now being questioned as to whether consciousness is significant in the construction of reality with increasing sophistication and precision, and the results are actually suggesting that an extraordinary second quantum revolution is on the horizon. Today there seems to be the beginnings of a movement away from a materialism which dogmatically asserts that there must be an external reality which is independent of consciousness, in the direction of the view that consciousness constitutes the foundational nature of reality not only at the quantum level, but at every level.

The Mind-Only, school asserts that it is the mind that is interdependently instrumental in bringing phenomena into existence:

..all these various appearances, Do not exist as sensory objects which are other than consciousness. Their arising is like the experience of self knowledge. All appearances, from indivisible particles to vast forms, are mind.

It would be easy to think that such interconnections are coincidental and intriguing but not necessarily indicative of any deep connection. My research, however, shows that this is not the case. I was astonished to find that when the quantum perspectives of physicists such as Henry Stapp, David Bohm and John Wheeler were interwoven with the Mind-Only discourse a scientific-metaphysical ‘theory of everything’ of astonishing detail, precision and depth resulted. As I pursued my enquiries I became convinced that the Tibetan philosophers must have known about the quantum nature of reality in a very precise manner. When I read the beautiful and inspiring ‘Mountain Doctrine’, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, I realised I was correct. This insight became one of my favourite chapters of my book – ‘The Empty Wave of Reality’- how astonishing, the fourteenth century Buddhist philosophers knew about the quantum wavefunction! They called it ‘the element of attributes’ or the dharmadhatu. In fact it becomes quite clear that enlightened beings do not collapse the wavefunction.

My in depth analysis of the Mind-Only three natures in relation to quantum physics leads to a mapping between the two truths of the Madhyamaka, conventional and ultimate, and the two realms within physics – the classical and the quantum. And it is exactly because enlightened beings, having eradicated all afflictive (obstructions of liberation) and subtle residual (obstructions to omniscience) tendencies, are free from any clinging to existence and thereby do not activate an imputational nature, which means that they do not collapse wavefunctions!

Thanks – Graham Smetham.

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