Buddhism and Science

What would happen if a reincarnating Buddhist monk / priest reincarnated in such a manner as to find himself at the centre of British physical science and learning?

It would be an interesting experiment with unpredictable and karmically significant outcomes.

I have met and even worked for/with presidents of UK scientific societies, I have met many fellows of THE Royal Society and even a few Nobel Laureates along the way.

So, it is possible that such an experiment is underway…

It is not going well…

This from Wikipedia:

The relationship between Buddhism and science is a subject of contemporary discussion and debate among Buddhists, scientists and scholars of Buddhism. Historically, Buddhism encompasses many types of beliefs, traditions and practices, so it is difficult to assert any single “Buddhism” in relation to science. Similarly, the issue of what “science” refers to remains a subject of debate, and there is no single view on this issue. Those who compare science with Buddhism may use “science” to refer to “a method of sober and rational investigation” or may refer to specific scientific theories, methods or technologies.

There are many examples throughout the Buddhist world of non-scientific worldviews, such as dogmatism, fundamentalism, clericalism, devotion to supernatural spirits and deities. Nevertheless, since the 19th century, numerous modern figures have argued that Buddhism is rational and uniquely compatible with science. Some have even argued that Buddhism is “scientific” (a kind of “science of the mind” or an “inner science”). Those who argue that Buddhism is aligned with science point out certain commonalities between the scientific method and Buddhist thought. The 14th Dalai Lama, for example, in a speech to the Society for Neuroscience, listed a “suspicion of absolutes” and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principles shared by Buddhism and science.

Buddhists also point to various statements in the Buddhist scriptures that promote rational and empirical investigation and invite people to put the teachings of the Buddha to the test before accepting them. Furthermore, Buddhist doctrines such as impermanence and emptiness have been compared to the scientific understanding of the natural world. However, some scholars have criticized the idea that Buddhism is uniquely rational and science friendly, seeing these ideas as a minor element of traditional Buddhism. Scholars like Donald Lopez Jr. have also argued that this narrative of Buddhism as rationalistic developed recently, as a part of a Buddhist modernism that arose from the encounter between Buddhism and western thought.

Furthermore, while some have compared Buddhist ideas to modern theories of evolution, quantum theory, and cosmology, other figures such as the 14th Dalai Lama have also highlighted the methodological and metaphysical differences between these traditions. For the Dalai Lama, Buddhism mainly focuses on studying consciousness from the first-person or phenomenological perspective, while science focuses on studying the objective world.

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Physics

According to Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist thought asks some of the same questions that physicists ask about reality, time, matter and space, and uses rational analysis and thought experiments (which are also used by physicists). However, unlike physics which focuses on measuring the physical world to better understand it, the Buddhist tradition focuses on inner contemplation and its goal is mainly therapeutic.

Some of the metaphysical doctrines of Buddhism have sometimes been compared favorably with the insights of modern physics. The 14th Dalai Lama writes in The Universe in a Single Atom (2005) that “there is an unmistakable resonance between the notion of emptiness and the new physics. If on the quantum level, matter is revealed as less solid and definable than it appears, then it seems to me that science is coming closer to the Buddhist contemplative insights of emptiness and interdependence [pratītyasamputpāda].”

The Dalai Lama cites his conversations with David Bohm and Anton Zeilinger, both physicists who supported the idea that the Buddhist view of emptiness (the lack of any independent and fixed essence) was consistent with the insights of modern quantum physics. The Dalai Lama has also been part of various dialogues with physicists such as Arthur Zajonc (who was also president of the Mind and Life Institute) and Anton Zeilinger. Some of these discussions on the nature of physics have been published.

Comparisons by physicists

Astrophysicist Trịnh Xuân Thuận argues that the Buddhist idea of “subtle impermanence”, which refers to the idea that everything is constantly changing extremely rapidly is consistent with “our modern scientific conception of the universe” which holds that everything is in constant motion. He also compares the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (the idea that nothing has an intrinsic nature) with the findings of quantum physics, which understands that sub-atomic particles cannot be understood as being real solid entities with fixed properties such as momentum and position (this is one understanding of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Thuận cites Erwin Schrödinger who said that “it is better not to view a particle as a permanent entity, but rather as an instantaneous event. Sometimes these events link together to create the illusion of permanent entities.” Thuận sees this understanding of sub-atomic particles as similar to the understanding of reality in Buddhist metaphysics.

Thuận and Matthieu Ricard also discuss the similarities between Buddhist views of interdependence and phenomena such as quantum nonlocality and Mach’s principle in The quantum and the lotus. According to Thuận, the views of Bohr and Heisenberg seem to support the Buddhist view that physical particles do not exist as independent phenomena, but can only be said to exist in dependence on our conceptual designations and the process of observation. This view of the quantum world is sometimes called the Copenhagen interpretation.

The Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli cites Nagarjuna in his book Helgoland, a defense of the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which understands quantum properties as arising from the relations between quantum phenomena. According to Rovelli, “properties of an object are the way in which it acts upon other objects; reality is this web of interactions.”Rovelli thinks that the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nāgārjuna resonates with the relational view of Quantum Mechanics and provides a conceptual understanding of reality that does not need a metaphysical foundation. Rovelli writes that “Nāgārjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation.”

Oxford physicist Vlatko Vedral, in his Decoding Reality, mentions the Buddhist theory of emptiness as an ancient example of the philosophy of “relationalism.” Vedral, who argues for an interpretation of quantum physics based on information theory, states that “Quantum physics is indeed very much in agreement with Buddhistic emptiness.” He states that “we will never arrive at ‘the thing in itself’ by any kind of means. Everything that exists, exists by convention and labelling and is therefore dependent on other things.” This is similar to some forms of Buddhist philosophy (such as Madhyamaka) which hold that everything is merely conceptual.

Physics professor Vic Mansfield has also written on the similarities between the modern understanding of time and special relativity and Madhyamaka thought. According to Mansfield, an appreciation of how these two traditions understand time as a relative phenomenon can aid a deeper understanding of both and that “a nontrivial synergy between these two very different disciplines is possible.” Mansfield also argues that this kind of dialogue is important for Buddhism because “if Buddhism is to come to the West, in the best and fullest sense of the term, then interaction with science is both inevitable and necessary for a real transplant to take place.”

Cosmology

In his discussion of cosmology, the 14th Dalai Lama notes that “Buddhism and science share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent being as the origin of all things.” Furthermore, Buddhists like the Dalai Lama have no problem accepting the Big Bang theory (since ancient Buddhist views about the cosmos accept that there are periods of expansion). However, Trịnh Xuân Thuận and the Dalai Lama both argue that from the Buddhist point of view, there is no absolute beginning to the universe. This would be more compatible with certain cosmogonic theories of the universe, such as those that posit a Cyclic model of the universe or those that argue for a multiverse.

There are different Buddhist cosmologies. The cosmology of the Kalachakrasystem popular in Tibetan Buddhism holds that the material world arises out of the supportive element of space, which is made up of “space particles”, the other four elements arise from this medium. The Dalai Lama believes this is compatible with the idea that the universe arose from a quantum vacuum state.

The Dalai Lama also notes that in Buddhist cosmology, there is a role for consciousness and karma, since Buddhist systems hold that the nature of a world system is connected with the karmic propensities of sentient beings. However, the Dalai Lama points out that this does not mean everything is due to karma, since many things merely arise due to the works of natural laws. As such, the Dalai Lama argues that “the entire process of the unfolding of a universe system is a matter of the natural law of causality” but that karma also influences its very beginning and that when a universe is able to support life “its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it.” Because Buddhist thought sees consciousness as being interconnected with the physical world, Buddhists like the Dalai Lama hold that “even the laws of physics are entangled with the karma of the sentient beings that will arise in that universe.”

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