Friday, December 11, 2009

Keeping the woo out of 無

The confluence of a post by PZ Meyers mentioning one Robert Lanza, and a post on The Buddhist blog on "Biocentrism" makes me realize that it's a good idea to put up a post on science and Buddhism. Perhaps it will illuminate other posts and comments made this week.

This is something I'm quite passionate about as an engineer (we are applied scientists, you know). And I'm quite passionate about it as a Buddhist. So so so much of what spiritual hucksters push is based on the assumption - often a correct one - that their markets are ignorant and gullible. This is true whether you're talking about "meditation technology," "voice dialogue," or creationism and textual literalism. It's all bunk.

Science has to do with the observable, measurable, that can be explained within the natural world. We may need machines to help us with the observation, but if we can't make an experiment that can answer questions about it, it's not falsifiable and it's not science.

For more on this, see "Baloney Detection Kit" (google with Carl Sagan).

Or watch this:

Now having said all that, what is outside the range of what can be measured and observed rightly belongs to the metaphysical, and make no mistake about it, even die hard methodological naturalists who say "There is nothing else!" are making claims about the metaphysical.

When we say "Buddha nature pervades the whole universe" we are making a statement about Buddha nature and the universe. To a certain extent this seems to comport with observation (the impermanence of phenomena, e.g.) and to a certain extent we are making a statement that is beyond physics (an aware Buddha nature pervades the whole universe). When we speak of satori (悟り)we are making claims about awareness that likely are correlated with observable patterns in brainwave activity that themselves are absent when the living brain ceases to exist. The permanence or impermanence of awareness is a metaphysical question, though from all available evidence the idea that this memory (of myself, or even my particular experience of 悟り - assuming I have had it of course) survives brain death is absurd, or at best unprovable, especially given what we know about brain damage and the structure in which memories are formed in the brain. That there may be a universal awareness is another issue entirely, but it - like the very issue of subjective awareness itself - seems to elude the ability to assess an objective repeatable observation.

Now while as a Buddhist and a scientist I have no problem with "What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness," and ". Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined," there are other "tenets" of Biocentrism that are simply absurd from a scientific (and should be therefore from a Buddhist) point of view. Quoting from James Ure's quotes from Wikipedia:

  • The behavior of subatomic particles, indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

    This is mashing up a few concepts from quantum physics and imposing a metaphysical subjectivism on the whole mush. There are quantum states linked to specific probability distributions. Wave/particle duality - a phenomenon that has to do with specific ways of making specific experiments - should not be invoked to conclude that without an observer all particles are in some kind of shadow maybe existence. This is a big leap away from what the actual theory says! In fact, these theories imply that there is are well-known predictable relationships among the parameters describing the objects! In particular, they imply that position and momentum are Fourier transform pairs, and it "just falls out of the mathemtatics" that there is forever dual uncertainty in both measurements.

    Moreover, if one reads a bit about quantum physics on the 'net, you'll see the idea being referred to with respect to observers is quantum coupling of states (i.e., multiple normally separate systems are connected somehow), which again, need not invoke living beings.

  • The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism.
    It should be immediately apparent that this is not the case.

  • Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception.

    To a certain extent this is a metaphysical statement; but it seems to be absurd given what we know about cosmology (i.e., it is pretty much a given that spatial dimensions and time came into being with the advent of the universe).

I could go further, much further on this.

That we "inter-be" with the rest of the universe does not mean that the laws of physics depend on us for their existence, and if we were all to perish, and there was no way to communicate in a sophisticated way inter-specially, we could not have a way to assess the human aspect of biocentrism, and so we could not assess the theory.

But let's go in one more direction (sorry for the length of the post). Recently...

Scientists say they've made a breakthrough in their pursuit of computers that "think" like a living thing's brain - an effort that tests the limits of technology.

Even the world's most powerful supercomputers can't replicate basic aspects of the human mind. The machines can't imagine a wall painted a different colour, for instance, or picture a person's face and connect that to an emotion.

If researchers can make computers operate more like a brain thinks - by reasoning and dealing with abstractions, among other things - they could unleash tremendous insights in such diverse fields as medicine and economics.

A computer with the power of a human brain is not yet near.

But this week researchers from IBM are reporting that they've simulated a cat's cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, using a massive supercomputer.

You see where I'm going I hope: is the computer included in biocentrism? Why not? Why?

We might be electrochemical thinking meat machines. We can't seem to observe otherwise. Clearly we're connected to the rest of existence, and we can sometimes sense a greater awareness of that than at other times.

But let's not push woo into 無 (which is pronounced as "wu" in some forms of Chinese, in case you didn't get the pun).

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