Read an Excerpt
Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics
TOWARD A UNION OF LOVE AND KNOWLEDGE
By Vic Mansfield
TEMPLETON PRESSCopyright © 2008 Vic Mansfield
All rights reserved.
What Are Buddhism and Science?
Why Is a Dialogue Needed?
It is the fall of 1979, the beginning of one of the greatest I educational events in my life. His Holiness the Dalai Lama I is getting off a light airplane at the Ithaca, New York, airport. We members of Wisdom's Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies are eagerly awaiting his arrival and deeply honored that he is visiting us during his first tour of North America. Although my knowledge of him is limited, I have high spiritual expectations. I am, therefore, surprised that the first thing he does in getting out of the little plane is to lay his hands on the aileron (the hinged flap on the trailing edge of an aircraft wing, used for controlling flight) and work it up and down. Being a physicist, I am delighted to see him examining the mechanics of flight.
Over the next few days, I am awed by the Dalai Lama's keen intelligence, his deep spirituality, and the force of his personality. The picture here shows him at that time with our teacher Anthony Damiani, the founder of Goldenrod. From their first meeting in 1979, the Dalai Lama and Anthony formed a deep friendship. Our group consequently has enjoyed a special relationship with His Holiness, and we have met with him several times through the ensuing years.
I soon learned that the Dalai Lama's interest in the aileron and the mechanics of flight expressed his lifelong interest in science and things mechanical, from the physical and life sciences to his interest in fixing watches. Although not formally trained in science, the Dalai Lama has a keen scientific aptitude. The internationally famous Austrian physicist Anton Zeilinger has spent many days discussing quantum physics with him—both in India and in Austria. A few years ago, Anton told me that he half jokingly invited the Dalai Lama to be his graduate student in physics. Anton has written, "His Holiness might have become a great physicist in another world without his duties as spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people."
That meeting in 1979 fanned the fires of my already decade-long interest in Buddhism and turned me more toward its Tibetan expression. While continuing my teaching and research in physics, I have had the good fortune to receive instruction from His Holiness upon many occasions, in groups both large and small. In the context of this book, it is relevant to recount briefly a visit that His Holiness made to Goldenrod in 1991, several years after our teacher Anthony had died.
During that visit, I took the photograph of the Dalai Lama that appears here as figure 1.2. Toward the end of that meeting, as an expression of our appreciation for the generosity of His Holiness toward our group, someone asked, "What can we do for you?" The Dalai Lama responded by requesting that we further the science and spirituality dialogue—not just the connection between science and Buddhism, but science and diverse traditions of spirituality. Since I was one of only three scientists in the group, I felt a strong personal responsibility to help fulfill that request. This feeling grew even stronger in 2005 when His Holiness concluded his book The Universe in a Single Atom (about the science and Buddhism collaboration) with the following words: "May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea" When the Dalai Lama mentions "moral obligation" and speaks of his "heartfelt plea" I must listen. Two years before his initial request in 1991, I had been making some effort in that direction by writing papers and books that discuss the interplay of science and spirituality. The present book, based almost entirely on new writing with a few refinements and expansions of some earlier writing, is a further attempt to honor His Holiness's request.
There are also larger intellectual and spiritual currents at play. For example, Buddhism has proved to be a particularly portable religion. It began approximately 2,500 years ago in what is now northern India and then spread widely throughout Asia. In each of its migrations, whether into Japan, Thailand, or Tibet, it interacted with the indigenous culture and took a unique form reflective of that culture. Thus, as Buddha dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) moves to the West, if it is truly to take root and thrive in Western soil, then it must take on Western cultural forms. One of the greatest Western cultural attainments is modern science. It is therefore obvious and natural that, for Buddha dharma to come fully to the West, it must somehow interact with this cultural dominant. The Buddhism and science dialogue is an important part of Buddhism's migration to the West.
More important than even Buddha dharma's coming to the West, our actual survival on the planet requires a substantial and sustained dialogue between science and various spiritual traditions. Many of the great tragedies that rack our age, from conflicts between modernity and fundamentalists of all sorts to various ecological crises, can be traced, at least in part, to tensions between science and religion. The physicist and comparative religion professor Ravi Ravindra thinks it is the pressing problem for our generation. He writes:
It is possible to hope that modern science and ancient spiritual traditions can be integrated in some higher synthesis. I would even say that such a task is the most important of all that can be undertaken by contemporary intellectuals, for on such a synthesis depends not only the global survival of man but also the creation of the right environment, right both physically and metaphysically, for future generations.
The Dalai Lama's sustained interest in the science and Buddhism dialogue and collaboration directly expresses his agreement with Ravindra. His Holiness's long-term engagement with science is especially inspiring these days when many religious people in the United States are at odds with science.
The Dalai Lama's interest not only produced The Universe in a Single Atom but also spawned other books on the relationship between Buddhism and science, especially through the Mind and Life Conferences. For example, from a recent conference with His Holiness has come The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, edited by Arthur Zajonc. The Dalai Lama has encouraged parallel efforts independent of his direct participation. For example, he asked Alan Wallace to edit a book of essays on Buddhism and science, which resulted in Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground. I was honored to contribute to that book, which includes connections between Buddhism and the cognitive sciences along with discussions of the physical sciences. A dialogue between a monk and a physicist flowered as The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, a book I reviewed for the journal Science and Theology. In the spring of 2006, Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research, edited by Nauriyal, Drummond, and Lal was published. I was also honored to contribute an essay to that book on the relationship between Tibetan Buddhism and the psychology of C. G. Jung.
I have been inspired by all these efforts, but my approach here is different. Although I assume the reader has no technical background in either Buddhism or physics, I have tried to go deeper than previous attempts. Rather than start at an advanced level, I gradually develop both the Buddhism and the physics in sufficient depth to probe the connections between them in more detail.
There are many extraordinary connections between the most important modern developments in physics and the deepest truths of Tibetan Buddhism. These profound connections allow for a deeper understanding of both Buddhism and physics and offer rich opportunities for collaboration. While maintaining scholarly rigor, I link these connections with the feelings and struggles of a beginner on the quest of buddhahood. In other words, I try to pay homage to both the head and the heart.
I do not, however, use physics to "prove" the truths of Buddhism. Since physical theories are intrinsically impermanent, it is a guarantee of obsolescence to bind Buddhism or any philosophic view too tightly to a physical theory. What happens when the physics inevitably changes? Do the foundations of Buddhism shudder at each scientific revolution? Nevertheless, science is the reigning worldview in modern culture, and thus it is natural to ask how a philosophic or religious view relates to this dominant view.
As the Dalai Lama shows in The Universe in a Single Atom, the connections between Buddhism and science go well beyond modern physics. However, here I restrict myself to discussing Buddhism's many deep links with modern physics. What I say about Buddhism usually applies to all expressions of Mahayana, but the deepest connections I make apply specifically to the Middle Way Consequence School of Tibetan Buddhism (Prasangika Madhyamika), what many consider the highest expression of Mahayana Buddhist thought. Of course, there are many other interpretations of Mahayana Buddhism; but, in the interest of both depth of treatment and sharpness of focus, I restrict myself to the Prasangika, as interpreted by the philosophically dominant Gelukpa sect within Tibetan Buddhism.
My goal in this book is to be true to both the Middle Way Consequence School of Buddhism, which I consistently abbreviate throughout this book as the "Middle Way," and to modern physics. Although the discussion here assumes no sophisticated background in either Buddhism or physics, it yields many surprises and counterintuitive conclusions. Some of them are truly breathtaking. As they say in the Middle Way, the world appears one way but truly exists in another. My hope is that the vistas opened will ignite wonder and encourage readers to go deeper, both in understanding the emerging views and in drawing out their moral implications.
I begin by briefly summarizing the approach to knowledge in both modern science and Buddhism. Only within a sense of the similarities and differences between them can we address how science and Buddhism might interact and what they could possibly gain from being in dialogue with each other. In the following chapters, I connect Buddhism to topics such as the indistinguishable nature of elementary particles, quantum nonlocality, the noncausal process at the heart of quantum mechanics, and the physics of time. These topics have remarkable and detailed connections to the Middle Way view of emptiness. I discuss emptiness in detail in later chapters. Now it is enough to say that emptiness implies that nothing independently or inherently exists. Positively stated, all things and persons exist only through their mutual interdependence. Perhaps most surprising, the connections between Buddhism and physics have moral implications. I will try to show how the view of nature in modern physics not only has precise and detailed connections to the Middle Way, but it also must issue in compassionate action, to a deeper concern for each other and our environment. Knowledge must issue in love, hence, the subtitle for this book.
Let us begin the exploration with a short foray into the early history of physics, where I focus on a seminal example of the intellectual curiosity expressed by the Dalai Lama's interest in the aileron.
Knowledge in Science and Buddhism
Let us take an imaginary trip to late sixteenth-century Pisa, Italy. There, Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest of the founding fathers of modern science, is just entering the ancient cathedral at Pisa. He is still a student at the University of Pisa and his scientific discoveries have not yet brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church. Soon the sermon begins, and the priest's voice echoes off the soaring vaults of the cathedral while the warm breeze gently rocks the great chandelier shown in the photo below. The arc length of the chandelier swing increases with the strength of the breeze. Galileo notices that the period, the time it takes to swing from its farthest position on one side all the way to the other side and back again, appears to be independent of its arc length (the distance it has to travel). To test this idea, he times the period using his pulse.
Knowing that mechanical clocks and the scientific method had not yet been developed, every scientist who hears of Galileo's early measurements on the swinging chandelier is amazed at his originality, ingenuity, and creativity. These preliminary measurements motivated Galileo to develop a clock based on the flow of water and initiated his long study of the pendulum. This study helped lay the foundation for the science of mechanics, the physics used to put an astronaut on the moon or to understand the motion of a ball in flight.
Let's take a closer look at the physics of the chandelier, or more precisely, the physics of the pendulum. Following Galileo, we reduce the pendulum to its essentials: a mass M on a weightless line of length L as shown in figure 1.4. You can closely approximate a simple pendulum by just hanging a stone of mass, M, from a string of length, L. Then, rather than use your heartbeat, take a wristwatch or a simple kitchen timer and time its period, the time it takes to swing from one extreme to the other and back. We can make our experiment much more accurate if we time how long it takes the pendulum to swing for ten full periods and then divide this final time by ten.
With our timer and surprisingly little effort, we can find two important properties of the pendulum. First, as long as the angle corresponding to the arc (shown as ß in the diagram) is small, say less then 20°, the period of the pendulum is independent of the arc length. In other words, a pendulum just barely swinging and one with a 20° arc would have the same period of oscillation. Here is an interesting and not obvious result. Second, we find that the period of the pendulum varies with the square root of L. For example, if we increase L by a factor of four the period becomes twice as long.
The detailed physics of the pendulum is not important for my present purposes, except as an illustration of the acquisition of knowledge in physics. With the pendulum in mind, I enumerate some critical presuppositions of physics for comparison and contrast with the relevant features of Buddhism. I start with features of science that have resonances with Buddhism and end with features that contrast with Buddhism.
Question Authority and Rely upon Experiments
It is difficult for modern people to appreciate just how much Aristotle's ideas dominated all areas of intellectual inquiry from aesthetics to science. For centuries, Aristotle's views were so revered that they became for many a straitjacket. Galileo frequently collided with both Aristotelian thinking and church dogma, whether about the nature of pendulums or planetary orbits. Since Galileo's foundation-laying work, modern science cultivates intense skepticism toward authority, whether the authority is Aristotle or Isaac Newton. For example, Newton assumed absolute space and time, that all observers measure the same value for space and time intervals regardless of their states of motion. However, this assumption did not stop Albert Einstein from developing relativity, which shows that the structure of space and time is dependent upon the reference frame of the observer—a topic discussed in detail in a later chapter. Yet I must also note that scientists are often completely unable to turn a skeptical eye toward some of their most cherished beliefs and presuppositions, thereby blocking the advance of knowledge. Unfortunately, such one-sided skepticism is characteristic of nearly all disciplines.
In any case, the final arbiter in science is always experiment. As the famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman told us, "The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific 'truth.'" Thus, following Galileo and Feynman, I just discussed a simple experiment that anybody can do to discover some critical features about the pendulum—independent of any authority. Experiments in science must be controlled, reproducible, and objective, that is, in the public domain. Any qualified experimenter must be able to repeatedly perform the experiment and display the data for others to examine.
Of course, modern experiments in physics are considerably more sophisticated than merely timing the period of a pendulum, and thus becoming a competent experimentalist requires many years of training. Therefore, being in the "public domain" actually means intersubjective agreement among the small community of properly trained physicists. In other words, properly trained experimentalists who share the same commitments about how physics is done must agree on the results of experiments. Because experiments must agree, whether done in Pisa, Lhasa, or Pretoria, science spreads easily across boundaries and can serve as a uniting cultural force. This ability of science to cross national boundaries is enhanced by its being based upon objective analysis independent of religious and cultural views (although science has its own philosophic presuppositions).
Excerpted from Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics by Vic Mansfield. Copyright © 2008 Vic Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of TEMPLETON PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.