Exploring the nature of reality

By Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun, September 26, 2009

Buddhism and science are not always in agreement, but they still have much in common
Vancouver, Canada
-- A first glance at Buddhism -- and most Westerners have had at most a quick glance at this ancient religion -- suggests that it has little in common with science.

For example, we most frequently hear the Dalai Lama preach about the importance of love and compassion. These subjects, while not at odds with science, concern how the world ought to be, not how the world is, and are therefore not the proper subjects of scientific study.

Given the different interests of scientists and Buddhists, then, it might be surprising to learn that some practising scientists are also practising Buddhists, and that the Dalai Lama himself has a longstanding interest in science.

Consequently, with the support of His Holiness, a series of "Mind and Life" dialogues between scientists and Buddhists began in 1987. This led to the development of the Mind and Life Institute in 1990, under the initial direction of neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner Francisco Varela.

Varela died in 2001, but the Institute and the dialogues live on, with world-renowned scientists and Buddhist monks meeting regularly at conferences in Dharamsala, India, the residence of the Tibetan government in exile.

In the recently released book, Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality, University of Rome biologist Pier Luigi Luisi recounts the details of one conference, which probed deeply into physics, among other subjects.

In so doing, the conference illuminated much about the current scientific understanding of the nature of the material world, as well as Buddhism's conception of this aspect of reality. And while it revealed that Buddhism and science are not always in agreement -- largely as a result of philosophical, rather than scientific assumptions -- it also revealed that science and Buddhism have much in common.

But perhaps more than anything, the conference's discussions reveal how one's world view -- that is, how one understands the world -- often deeply influences one's views on how the world ought to be -- that is, how we ought to act. In fact, the Tibetan Buddhist view of the physical world directly informs its commitment to love and compassion.

To see this, let us look at Luisi's recounting of the discussions at the Mind and Life Conference. Luisi begins by detailing the address given by Steven Chu, the Nobel Laureate physicist at Stanford University. It was Chu's job to explain our current understanding of the nature of matter -- no easy task, particularly given that the address had to be translated into Tibetan for the benefit of the monks in attendance.

And indeed, the monks didn't seem comfortable with the discussion, though their objections weren't simply a matter of problems with translation. Two areas of controversy in particular help us to understand both the nature of matter and the nature of Buddhism.

First, Chu discussed the nature of elementary particles -- indivisible particles that are not made of other particles -- such as electrons and quarks. Almost immediately, an apparent paradox arose. While we can bounce electrons off each other, which suggests they have size, Chu also said that electrons have no spatial dimension, no size: "They are just points. The particle becomes the field."

This is the wave-particle duality familiar to physics and chemistry students -- the idea that matter displays both wave-like and particle-like properties -- and a problem various interpretations of quantum mechanics have sought to explain.

Needless to say, the monks were none too comfortable with the paradox either. And the Dalai Lama noticed another problem.

Referencing the fourth-century Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, His Holiness argued that indivisible, dimensionless particles can't possibly be the building blocks of the universe. After all, an aggregate of points is still a point, and hence we can never build the matter of everyday life by amassing a bunch of points.

A second problem

The second problem arose when Chu discussed the properties all electrons have in common: charge, mass, and spin angular momentum. The monks, clearly more interested in theory than experiment, immediately asked about the reality of the electron apart from these properties.

In other words, the Buddhists were asking whether scientists believed that there is something -- which we call an electron -- that actually possesses these properties, or whether scientists just use the term "electron" to describe these properties that they measure.

As an experimental scientist, Chu replied that this is not a question he asks. But it happens to be of fundamental importance to Buddhists since they reject the notion of "intrinsic" properties. The Dalai Lama put it this way: "Things and their properties are mutually dependent ... one can speak of an entity only in relation to attributes, and one can speak of attributes only in relation to an entity. Once you have conceptually removed all the attributes, it is nonsensical to speak of what remains."

These two difficulties -- the impossibility of constructing the world out of indivisible particles and the questionable existence of things apart from their properties, or of intrinsic properties -- led some Buddhists in history to deny the reality of matter (some say Buddha himself denied the reality of matter.)

This thoroughgoing "anti-realism" -- which says our theories don't really refer to anything since there is nothing to refer to -- is in stark contrast to the "realism" of most scientists, who believe their theories do refer to real objects in the world. And this suggests a fundamental discord between science and Buddhism.

But there is a third alternative to realism and anti-realism, one discussed at the conference by Michel Bitbol, a physician with a doctorate in physics and training in philosophy. According to this view, commonly known as "instrumentalism," theories are seen as ways of explaining, predicting and controlling phenomena, and concepts like electrons are viewed as constructs that help us to make predictions and control nature.

Instrumentalism therefore doesn't deny reality. If it did, there would be no chance of making accurate predictions because there would be nothing to predict and nothing to control. Rather, instrumentalism merely says that our scientific theories don't get to the ultimate truth about reality. But they work, and that's what's important.

The majority of scientists reject this instrumentalist philosophy, convinced as they are that their theories refer to real objects in the real world. But some eminent scientists, including celebrated Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, do espouse instrumentalist ideas.

And there is good reason for this, since as Bitbol explained, when physicists "talk about particles as little bricks of matter, [it] is only a way of speaking that is used to allow some connection between physics and everyday forms of thought."

Indeed, the "stuff" of the world seems exceptionally strange, nothing like the way non-physicists typically conceive of it: We already mentioned the wave-particle duality, and to this Bitbol adds that particles "are only fleeting phenomena that emerge in the context of an interaction with" an experimental apparatus. (Bitbol was here referring to the "observer effect," which states that the act of observing a particle will have an effect on the particle. This is a simplified way of stating Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.)

In other words, how we define the objects of our knowledge -- in this case, particles -- depends on the capacity we have to know about them. This instrumentalist view has a deeply Kantian flavour: Kant taught that our knowledge of phenomena is a product of the relation between things and our ways of knowing about them, rather than about things themselves.

This emphasis on relations also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Buddhist perspective. We saw earlier that the Dalai Lama rejected the notion of intrinsic properties, as he maintained that things and their properties are mutually dependent -- that is, we can speak of a thing only in relation to its attributes and vice versa. In effect, His Holiness was saying that everything is relational.

Matthieu Ricard, who completed a doctorate in cellular genetics before becoming a Buddhist monk, suggested the wave-particle duality buttresses this relational view -- since neither the wave-like property nor the particle-like property can be taken as intrinsic -- and then concluded, in Kantian fashion:

"All properties, all observable phenomena, appear in relationship with each other and dependent on each other. This view of interdependence -- one thing arising in dependence on another, and their relationship -- actually defines what appear to us as objects. So relations and interdependence are the basic fabric of reality. We participate in that interdependence with our consciousness; we crystallize some aspect of it that appears to us as objects."

Considerable sympathy

While this perspective wouldn't likely gain the allegiance of most scientists, Luisi did offer a quote from Neils Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which suggests he would have had considerable sympathy for this position: "In our description of nature, the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of phenomena, but only to track down, as far as possible, relations between manifold aspects of our experience."

Suffice it to say, then, that the Buddhist view is not entirely antithetical to science, and is closely related to the views of some scientists, even if it would be rejected by the majority. But whatever its scientific merit, the Buddhist world view -- as one of relations and interdependence -- is crucially important for Buddhist ethics. In effect, for Buddhists, how the world is, or at least how it is understood, bears directly on how we ought to behave.

In support of this idea, Alan Wallace, who received a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, trained as a Buddhist monk and is now president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, reiterated the Buddhist disbelief in intrinsic properties and emphasized the fact that everything is constantly in flux, constantly changing.

Despite this, Wallace noted that people tend ascribe intrinsic properties to things, to see things as constant and discrete, rather than to recognize "the intimate interdependence of constantly changing phenomena." The consequence of this, Wallace said, is that people see themselves as separate from the world, and develop attractions or revulsions toward things or people.

This inevitably leads to toxic mental states, including pride, jealousy and animosity, and people lose sight of what it takes to make themselves or others happy. Ultimately, said Wallace, this leads to suffering because the world can't match our desires, "so there is a very close relationship between our first misapprehension of the nature of phenomena -- finding solid, intrinsic properties in an increasingly fragmented vision of the world -- and suffering."

The Buddhist prescription for this malady is, of course, to see things the other way around. Wallace maintained that if we perceive interdependence and impermanence, we can recognize that enemies can become friends, and that we ourselves are constantly changing.

In fact, there is no "we" or "me" to speak of. Perceiving things in a Buddhist fashion means literally losing yourself, but Wallace insisted this is a good thing, since you are merely losing that which ties you to suffering, which allows for the infiltration of toxic mental states.

More importantly, Wallace noted that recognition of interdependence leads to -- indeed, is essential to -- compassion, because you realize that your happiness is dependent on the happiness of others. And it means you can never attain lasting happiness by causing the suffering of others.

Wallace summed up his talk by emphasizing just how important is the relationship between the Buddhist understanding of the world and Buddhist ethics:

"[A] correct understanding of reality -- the absence of any intrinsic nature of phenomena, and their interdependence -- is said to be the ultimate view of the Buddhist teachings, referred to as wisdom. And that is intimately linked with compassion, love and altruism, which are the expression of this understanding and the quintessence of Buddhist ethics or behaviour.... We have to keep wisdom and compassion in union all the time, from beginning to end, uniting understanding with ethical thoughts, words and actions."

According to Luisi, Wallace's final words resulted in a spontaneous ovation from the monks and scientists in Dharamsala. At last there was complete agreement.

Was this because everyone agreed on the importance of love and compassion? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was because whether religious or secular, monk or scientist, Eastern or Western, all could agree on a deep truth -- that understanding the world is the first step toward changing it.