Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind

Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind

by B. Alan Wallace


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559391993
Publisher: Shambhala
Publication date: 07/28/2003
Edition description: Subsequent
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

B. Alan Wallace has authored, translated, edited, and contributed to more than forty books on Tibetan Buddhism, science, and culture. With fourteen years as a Buddhist monk, he earned a BA in physics and the philosophy of science and then a PhD in religious studies. After teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he founded the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies to explore the integration of scientific approaches and contemplative methods.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Worlds Apart

Over the past few centuries, Western civilization has produced a jewel to adorn human culture as a whole. It has challenged religious and metaphysical assumptions that were in need of critical reassessment, delved with penetrating inquiry into aspects of nature that had escaped our notice, and provided us with tremendous advances in diverse areas, including communication, transportation, and health. While originating chiefly in Europe, it has been adopted and furthered by societies around the world—its influence on our lives and thinking is pervasive. This jewel is, of course, our natural science.

    Among the sciences, physics is still widely regarded as the exemplar for scientific research and theorizing, not only for the physical sciences, but for the life sciences, psychology, and sociology. The combined approach of empirical research and mathematical analysis that is so appropriate for physics has provided us with an enormous accumulation of information, while shedding little if any light on the meaning of human existence. We err, however, if we expect natural science to solve issues of a metaphysical or religious nature, for it was never designed to probe such questions. Many of the great formulators of science as we understand it—men such as Kepler, Descartes, and Newton—were deeply religious men who looked to scripture for their spiritual needs. Their insights into the physical world might heighten their faith in God's wondrous powers of creation, and through such insights they might feel they more clearly understand the nature of theCreator; but scientific research was not intended as a substitute for revelation.

    As science continues to develop, however, it appears to enter increasing conflict with the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity, which in fact profoundly influenced the origins and development of science. Contemporary views of geology, evolution, and cosmology repudiate biblical accounts of the origins of the earth, life, and the cosmos. Physics provides no coherent way of viewing the miracles reported in the Bible, and neuroscience finds no place for the Christian concept of a human soul. What science does leave us with is a vast, impersonal universe consisting of matter and energy, in which life and consciousness occurred by accident. In this context human existence is insignificant except possibly insofar as it allows for scientific insights into its own irrelevance.

    In the face of the conflict between science and religion, some people choose to reject the latter on the grounds that it has been disproved by science. Others dismiss many scientific tenets due to their incompatibility with revelation, and still others bifurcate their minds by adopting both scientific and religious doctrines, without allowing themselves to dwell on points of incompatibility between the two. In recent years attempts have been made to transcend the split between science and religion by seeking parallels between insights in modern physics and those in mysticism. Books on this theme, such as Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, have gained wide popularity and stimulated much worthwhile thought. Clearly they have responded to a need for wholeness and the yearning to combine the deepest scientific truths and spiritual insights into an integrated understanding of reality.

    Drawing parallels between mystical experience and contemporary views in physics may be enticing, but it also has its perils. If we endorse the value of mysticism on the basis of certain theories in today's physics, how shall we respond if in the future those theories are regarded as yesterday's misconceptions? In 1939, Alfred North Whitehead commented:

Fifty-seven years ago it was when I was a young man in the University of Cambridge. I was taught science and mathematics by brilliant men and I did well in them; since the turn of the century I have lived to see every one of the basic assumptions of both set aside ... And yet, in the face of that, the discoverers of the new hypotheses in science are declaring, "Now at last, we have certitude"—when some of the assumptions which we have seen upset had endured for more than twenty centuries.

Several years later he picked up on this theme with the remarks:

I have been fooled once, and I'll be damned if I'll be fooled again! Einstein is supposed to have made an epochal discovery. I am respectful and interested, but also skeptical. There is no reason to suppose that Einstein's relativity is anything final, [no more] than Newton's Principia. The danger is dogmatic thought; it plays the devil with religion, and science is not immune from it.

There may indeed be lasting truths discovered by modern physicists—theories that are similar to the insights of great mystics—as suggested by Capra. However, as we shall see later in this book, these truths have not been arrived at or demonstrated by strictly scientific procedures. All scientific theorizing is a human activity saturated by nonscientific influences. The hope that subjective mystical insights may be confirmed by pure objective science is a chimera.

* * *

    Scientific dogma refutes biblical dogma, biblical dogma refutes the dogmas of Eastern religions, and today's science refutes even the most cherished, fundamental assumptions of yesterday's science. This state of affairs has led to a new movement that might be called the Cult of Uncertainty. Its dogma is to place credence in no theory or belief, and in standing for nothing, it regards itself as unassailable. Skepticism may be irrefutable, for it presents nothing to refute; but on its own it is also sterile.

    Any pursuit of understanding and meaning requires faith, the acceptance of certain underlying assumptions that are necessary if one is to use a given mode of inquiry. Faith also implies a degree of humility in one's quest for truth. It is this that enables the seeker to employ certain theories and practices before having fully understood them or verified them by means of personal experience. Proponents of religions emphasize the crucial role of faith, though it is unfortunately often presented in the form of uncritical belief. Indeed, some regard faith alone (in the latter sense) as sufficient for salvation.

    Faith is also a prerequisite for philosophical inquiry: the philosopher needs the confidence that such inquiry actually pertains to truth, that reality can be thought about. In addition to faith, philosophizing also requires reason. If a theory is internally inconsistent, illogical, or inconsistent with experience, it is unlikely to be accepted as sound philosophy.

    Science also requires a type of faith, although it rarely goes under that label. Whereas religions normally make a clear statement of their articles of faith, science introduces its underlying assumptions more surreptitiously. The universe as it exists apart from human perceptions and conceptions can be known by means of scientific methods; although the world exists independently of our concepts, its components and laws can be grasped by concepts; although science repeatedly abandons its earlier theories, it is progressing steadily toward a correct representation of the universe as it is. These are just a few of the articles of faith that are held by most scientists and their followers today. In science lectures these assumptions are rarely mentioned and even more rarely questioned. Yet most science students emerge from their education having imbibed them, often without any conscious or critical appraisal. Such issues are not strictly scientific—though they pervade most scientific education and research—so their discussion does not find a place in the study of science.

    Like philosophy, science also requires logic, and this plays a central role both in mathematical analysis and in the formulation of theories in spoken language. But unlike metaphysics, science further requires empirical methods for testing its theories. If a hypothesis, be it ever so elegant and appealing, cannot be put to the test of empirical refutation, it is likely to be dismissed by scientists as mere philosophizing.

    With its threefold approach of faith, logic, and increasingly refined empirical investigation, science arose from the intellectual tyranny of the Middle Ages. Since then it has provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the physical world, and in the process it has formulated a new article of faith: all of reality essentially boils down to matter and energy subject to the mindless, immutable laws of nature. Life is reduced to an epiphenomenal by-product of complex configurations of chemicals; and mind is a coemergent property of the organization of the neural system. Such physicalist reductionism is not simply a conclusion based upon scientific research. Rather, it provides the metaphysical context in which such research and theorizing are pursued; and as such, much evidence is interpreted as being supportive of this view.

    The use of mechanical instruments and mathematical analysis has been enormously productive in the physical sciences. But such methods have yielded scanty insight into the nature of the mind. More importantly perhaps, the physicalist view denies that mind as a subjective phenomenon is deserving of scientific research: since it is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of matter, a thorough understanding of the nervous system will provide all pertinent information about the mind. Does this attitude not have a familiar ring? How easy it is to imagine a medieval churchman admonishing his contemporaries: since the physical world is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of God, a thorough understanding of the scriptures (and possibly Aristotle's writings) will provide all pertinent information about nature.

    Modern science established its identity by insisting upon directly probing into the natural world as opposed to submitting to authority as the means for understanding. Its original instruments were relatively crude by today's standards, but by using them to their fullest, scientists have developed finer, more sophisticated tools. These instruments are wonderfully suited to objective physical research, but their use in directly probing the mind is extremely limited. Nature in its wholeness includes both objective physical events and subjective mental events. A science that ignores or fails to produce means for investigating the latter must be an unnatural kind of science. Its theories must be incomplete and may be profoundly misleading.

    For generations the notion that scientific theories represent objective, independent physical reality has been seriously challenged by philosophers of science. Indeed, there are few today who adhere to such straightforward scientific realism. Among the many problems with the realist position is the fact that multiple, mutually incompatible theories can often be presented that equally account for a given body of experimental evidence. A philosophically unreflective approach to science gives the impression that objective reality screens out false hypotheses, leaving only one true theory. In fact multiple hypotheses are often put forth, and the choice among them is based on various human factors.

    Does science give us knowledge of the objective world? At the very least we have grounds for seriously calling this into question. If we conclude that it provides us with no ultimately reliable, objective knowledge, we may ask: what, then, is the purpose of creating scientific theories? One response is that such theories do make natural events intelligible in their relation to our human existence. A second purpose is that they are extremely useful in learning to deal with natural events that have a strong bearing on our well-being. One facet of that purpose is the development of technology.

    Let us now return to the question of scientific research into the nature of the mind. If theories are unable to represent objective physical reality, can they any more reliably represent subjective cognitive reality? Might even direct investigation into the nature of mental events yield multiple, mutually incompatible theories to account for the same body of empirical evidence? This may very well be so, in which case, of what use are such cognitive theories? The situation is similar to that for physical theories: cognitive theories can make the mind intelligible in terms of our present worldview; they can enable us to deal more effectively with the mental causes of both joy and sorrow, contentment and discontent; and they may provide means for transforming and refining the mind in ways previously not imagined.

    At present, Western civilization has no cognitive science comparable to its physical science. On the basis of this discussion thus far, one might assume that they are two autonomous disciplines. As we employ more revealing techniques for exploring the nature of consciousness, however, we may find ourselves delving into some of the deepest facets of the physical world. As insights into the nature of consciousness are related to physical science, physicists may find themselves confronting the profound role of the mind in their own field of inquiry. Indeed, if the universe is not composed of two autonomous substances of mind and matter (or matter alone), such integration of physical and cognitive science is bound to take place.

    How shall we develop a cognitive science that penetrates so deeply into the nature of awareness? Cognitive science in its present Western form investigates mental states objectively in the sense that the researcher performs tests on other people's mental functions. Since the scientist has no direct access to anyone else's mind, this approach treats the mind as a "black box." The information that is analyzed concerns input and output from the mind and senses, but cognition itself is not directly examined. This would entail a subjective perspective, which is still regarded as unprofessional in today's scientific arena. This "black box approach" to the mind provides one means of questioning that can provide a certain body of knowledge about cognitive functions. But it leaves us in the dark as to other important aspects of the nature and potential of consciousness.

    A central theme of this book will be that a particularly useful method for exploring the mind entails refined introspection: let the mind directly probe the mind, for no other instrument has that ability! As soon as we try to do so, however, we run into problems: the mind in its present state is a very unreliable instrument for the observation of mental states. It is exceedingly unstable, strongly subject to compulsive conceptualization, and lacking in clarity. These are some of the reasons why the school of introspectionism died just a few decades after its birth about a century ago.

    Perhaps it is time to give the mind another chance. Are there ways to transform the mind into a stable, reliable, clear instrument of observation? In seeking methods toward this end, we may simply rely upon our own resources—that is, start from scratch—or we may look around for techniques that have already been developed by others. If we follow the latter, time-saving course, we may have to break down some conceptual barriers that we have set up among science, philosophy, and religion. Why? Because the most effective means for transforming human consciousness in this way have been developed by the great contemplative traditions of the world. Those of the East in particular do not distinguish science, philosophy, and religion as autonomous disciplines, as we are prone to do in the West. In our culture meditation and contemplation are widely regarded as means for relaxation and, in the religious context, for deepening one's experience of the divine. Are there contemplative techniques that can provide us with knowledge that can be integrated into our scientific understanding of the world? This we must judge for ourselves, and it is one aim of this book to introduce some of these techniques for appraisal. Of course, like the methods of physical science, they can be thoroughly appraised only if they are implemented.

    The contemplative practices discussed in these pages are drawn from Buddhism. In addition to the techniques themselves, some of the resultant psychophysical theories will be briefly introduced. In many respects these differ, in some ways profoundly, from contemporary Western ideas. How shall we respond to such differences? If the methods by which they are formulated are unreliable, they can simply be dismissed. If those methods earn our respect, however, a profound insight of Werner Heisenberg, one of the great architects of quantum theory, may help us in reconciling incompatible theories: "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

    When we first encounter a theory that either contradicts or transcends our own, we may insist that it be verifiable by means of our present methods of questioning. As Heisenberg's statement suggests, this may not be possible; indeed, it may be impossible to rephrase one theory in terms of another that is derived from a radically different mode of inquiry. Yet there is a strong human urge to formulate grand unified theories, while rejecting evidence that does not fit. The assumption underlying this motive is that reality itself is one grand unified system that can be represented by our theories. If this assumption is unfounded, the quest for an ultimate, comprehensive supertheory is futile. In that case, we must be satisfied with the more modest pursuit of developing complementary theories, each one seen as relative to the mode of questioning that produced it.

    Must the goal then be abandoned of knowing reality as it is apart from human sense perceptions and language? As we shall see, there are compelling reasons to believe that theories can never represent any reality existing independently of them. The conceptual mind, then, can never grasp a reality independent of thought; and the five senses clearly cannot penetrate beyond the veil of sensory appearances. The only possible access we may have to phenomena that transcend human concept and sensory perception is by cultivating states of awareness that themselves transcend language, concepts, and sensory experience.

    How are we to know that such experience is authentic and not mere fantasy? From our present vantage point, we can scrutinize the contemplative methods that are employed in this quest. Clearly we have no ultimate criterion for what does and what does not constitute sound practice in this regard. Nevertheless, there is no reason to place credence in methods that appear unreliable. In Buddhist practice, claims to the authenticity of such transcendent experience are made on the basis of the soundness of the mental discipline that results in such experience, the subjective appraisal of the experience itself, and the useful, lasting effects of such insight.

    The above discussion might suggest that by developing contemplative states of nonconceptual awareness, one can finally realize what is really out there, the true nature of the objective world. But this is not so. In such nonconceptual experience there no longer persists any sense of "out there" as opposed to "in here." The distinctions between subject and object, mind and matter, absolute and relative are all transcended. Words and concepts are incapable of describing such experience, and this, of course, is as it should be.

    In the Buddhist context, how shall we regard the use of disciplined contemplation as a means for investigating the phenomenal world and the nature of ultimate reality? Is it a religious pursuit, a form of philosophical inquiry, or scientific research? It is not easy to classify, for it includes aspects of all three while resisting inclusion in any one of those categories to the exclusion of the other two. Contemplative inquiry may help to integrate diverse fields of knowledge as well as to deepen them individually. In this book we shall begin to explore its potential applications and relevance to contemporary life.

The Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas
An Oral Teaching

By Geshe Sonam Rinchen
Translated by Ruth Sonam
Edited by Ruth Sonam

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright © 1997 Ruth Sonam. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Worlds Apart9
Chapter 2: Exploring the Nature of Empty Space18
Chapter 3: The Conception and Preservation of Energy28
Chapter 4: Views of Science and Reality through History34
Chapter 5: Scientific Realism Today45
Chapter 6: Assumptions of Scientific Realism51
Chapter 7: Theory and Discovery in Physical Science59
Chapter 8: The Hypothetical Realities of Physics65
Chapter 9: Quantum Reality70
Chapter 10: Uncertainty in the Quantum World77
Chapter 11: Scientific Realism in Review82
Chapter 12: Mathematical Realism87
Chapter 13: Instrumentalism96
Chapter 14: Seeking a Middle Way105
Chapter 15: Cosmology and a Participatory Universe111
Chapter 16: Concept and Experience119
Chapter 17: A Centrist View of Physical Science131
Chapter 18: A Centrist View of Contemplative Science138
Chapter 19: Experiencing a Centrist View145
Chapter 20: Realizing Personal Identitylessness152
Chapter 21: A Contemplative View of the Body161
Chapter 22: Subjective Experience and Objective Science167
Chapter 23: A Contemplative View of the Mind177
Chapter 24: Refining Human Consciousness191
Chapter 25: Worlds in Harmony200

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