Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quantum Physics and the Dalai Lama? Or, Science and Buddhism: the Real Deal

I thought of this post last night as I was reading this entry on the Tricycle blog about the Dalai Lama, who was either misrepresenting what some physicists were telling him (I would assume unintentionally) or some physicists were being rather patronizing to him.   To wit:

Another very interesting part of today’s teaching was the discussion of Buddhism’s relationship to quantum physics.  His Holiness spoke of his conversations with highly intelligent western quantum physicists in which the striking similarities between Buddhist teachings and this fascinating field of science were touched on. Just like Nagarjuna describes in his text, these quantum physicists attest that when their work takes them very far into observation of matter and existence, they eventually get to a point where they can no longer prove anything exists at all! Obviously, the fact Buddhists are able to cite an ancient Buddhist text that says essentially the exact same thing as this cutting edge field of western scientific inquiry is quite impressive to the physicists.
Still, the Dalai Lama pointed one very important difference between Buddhism and quantum physics.  With science, one only looks at the external world and therefore what is gained is a massive amount knowledge. With Dharma practice, one applies the same investigative methods to the internal world of personal experience and what is gained is more than just knowledge; one gains a deeper type of understanding altogether. It is the type of understanding that helps one achieve happiness and act with true compassion. It is the type of understanding that gives one the ability to liberate oneself and others from suffering.

 Now, if you have a good background in probability, differential equations, statistics, stochastic processes, and signal processing, the elements of quantum physics, uh....aren't all that hard to understand.  Unfortunately, I realize that my training isn't your training, but all I'm basically saying is that it's a good thing in itself to have enough mathematical background to do this kind of work, which is roughly at the sophomore or first semester junior levels of engineering, physics or math majors.  While I can prove the Central Limit Theorem 5 ways till Sunday, you actually don't need the ridiculously specialized studies I've done to get a grasp of what quantum theory is.  It just sounds difficult.

That's what made me cringe about the above writing.  Quantum physicists aren't out to prove that anything or nothing exists. That's a job for metaphysicists, not physicists.  So I'm intrigued by how the above got that way.  While it's true that Nagarjuna teaches dependent origination, and quantum physics concerns the coupling or dependency of states of matter with its environment, they rightly belong to different spheres.  Science, like engineering, is actually based on a phenomenological outlook rather than from "grand view" of philosophy.  We observe, make tentative guesses or assumptions, and then create tests to observe if those guesses conform to further observation.

While to some extent this is a Buddhist practice as well, there are some serious differences between that arrived at through the Scientific Method and the speculations of Nagarjuna.  I lean towards acceptance of Nagarjuna's work because it conforms to observation, but Nagarjuna's work is blissfully unaware and stands wholly apart from an attempt to subject itself to observation, and the idea that Nagarjuna's work could be verified or not based on observation, would no doubt have been anathema to Nagarjuna, who would no doubt declare that science itself has no essence, that the scientific method is empty, and so forth.  In this way, actually Nagarjuna is actually much closer to the Deconstructionists such as Derrida than the quantum physicists, as anyone who spends an hour in the bathroom reading the linked book will tell you (assuming, that they've spent weeks or months going over Nagarjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Finally that last link - between the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and the work of Derrida - brings to mind this famous work by Alan D. Sokal, published in Social Text. Sokal, wanted to highlight the "emptiness" of literary theory based on postmodernism, and managed to get his hoax "postmodern physics" paper published by the aforementioned journal.   It seems to me that it would be very easy to execute a Quantum Tibetan Buddhist Physics hoax, especially since there have been such works already published by those who didn't get the science of physics. So that leads me to the following questions: Were the quantum physicists pulling the Dalai Lama's leg?  Was the Dalai Lama hearing what he wanted to hear?  Were the physicists too enchanted with the avuncular Dalai Lama to want to sugar-coat what they were doing in their explanations to him? Because as a guy who understands the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (position and momentum are Fourier Transform pairs) I have no better explanations.

Finally, Barbara's Buddhism blog today has a post on a recent article in the Guardian, about someone complaining about psychological research being supported by or in collaboration with by the Dalai Lama.

At a time when the relationship between science and spirit seems characterised by mutual suspicion, common ground for enquiry is all the more refreshing. Like at last Sunday's opening of the University of Wisconsin's centre for investigating healthy minds, where the Dalai Lama shared a platform with the new centre's director, Professor Richard Davidson.
The department is a hub of expertise in what is being called "contemplative neuroscience", and a natural extension of Davidson's ongoing quest to discover how various forms of meditation impact the brain. Among his discoveries so far: learning mindfulness skills is associated with greater, sustained activation in parts of the brain linked to happiness and resilience, practising loving-kindness contemplation increases production of gamma waves and affects areas related to empathy, and concentration meditation increases activity in regions linked to control of attention and decision-making. He has also found that the effects of these practices tend to be more marked in people who have been doing them for many years, suggesting that we can train our minds towards wellbeing in the same way as physical exercise can help us develop a healthier body.
Davidson's association with the Dalai Lama stretches back to 1992, when, having heard of his research, the Tibetan leader encouraged him to make a scientific study of traditional Buddhist practices.

As I noted in a comment on Barbara's blog, the science will either be good science or it will not be, so whether the Dalai Lama supports it or collaborates with it to me is a non-issue.  He may not like the results that emerge, but that's his problem.   To me, though the issue though is the misunderstanding of science by non-scientists.  It behooves all to try to better learn this area, simply because scientists are saying important things about the world in which we live, and the best of science is done without selfish reasons or psychological motives, and stands on its own.  And Buddhists can learn from science that lack of selfishness as well.


David said...

I’m sorry but I don’t understand what your complaint is. I may be at a loss to understand because I was a liberal arts kind of guy who just got by in science. I don’t think the article you cited implied that quantum physicists are out to prove anything, just that “they eventually get to a point where they can no longer prove anything.”

I also don’t understand why some folks have such a hostility towards comparing science and Buddhism. I don’t know if that is the case with you or not. I might be too dumb to catch your drift. Maybe the issue is more about science and religion in general, but who decreed that they should forever be separate? I can’t speak for everything the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra have said about religion and science, but I think for the most part they are merely engaging in analogy, which is one of the most fertile sources of inference, although conclusions from analogy, despite sometimes having a very high probability, are hypothetical.

Often lay people, and some philosophers, speculate and conjecture at random, without following any method in forming philosophical ideas. That may be the nature of the complaint from scientists. Frankly, I suspect it has more to do with “un-scientific” folks encroaching on what they feel is their territory.

I also don’t get what the Dalai Lama said that is objectionable. In what you presented in your post, all he is saying is that Dharma practice uses an investigative method that is analogous to a scientific method. I don’t think he is trying to imply that it is the same as “Scientific Method.”

A more “scientific” philosopher, and I would put both Nagarjuna and the Dalai Lama in that category, follows an order of procedure, the chief aim of which is to distinguish knowledge from hypothesis and to obtain an organized body of knowledge as a foundation upon which any supplementary, hypothetical ideas may be based. What’s wrong with that?

Again, I studied poetry not physics, so forgive me if I have missed your point.

Mumon said...

To put it simply: Quantum physicists are not saying the same thing the Tibetan Buddhists are.

Buddhists are not able to cite an ancient Buddhist text that says essentially the exact same thing as what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does, and Western physicists would approach this pretty much the way one did with Deepak Chopra.

Claims like this are worse than superfluous, they presume there some kind of "magic" going on in Buddhism that does not accurately represent Buddhism or science.

David said...

I don't know that anyone is saying that Quantum physicists are saying the same thing the Tibetan Buddhists are or that Buddhists can cite an ancient Buddhist text that says essentially the same thing as what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle does, and as far as I know, Deepak Chopra does not teach Buddhism.

Mumon said...


I quote from the Tricycle blog:

Obviously, the fact Buddhists are able to cite an ancient Buddhist text that says essentially the exact same thing as this cutting edge field of western scientific inquiry [i.e., quantum physics] is quite impressive to the physicists.

So they're saying exactly what I said they were saying.

And one quibble: Nagarjuna was not Tibetan.

David said...

Who cited the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? What ancient text are they talking about? I don't know who the "they" are that you're talking about. This is one guy from Tricycle. Sorry, but I feel like you are kinda doing what you advised Barbara not to do on her blog.

I am well aware that Nagarjuna was Indian and not Tibetan, though I fail to see what that has to do with anything.

I apologize for being so contrary, but I just don't get what the hubbub is all about.

Mumon said...


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is fundamental to quantum physics. Anybody who's studied it knows that.

And that's precisely why I thought it was useful to call out the Tricycle blogger, who claimed to be repeating the meaning of what the Dalai Lama said. Of course it's not the same thing, but it is implied when one says that there is some essential sameness between what Nagarjuna wrote and the subject matter of quantum physics.

And why do I know?

Because I've studied both of them.

christianthomaskohl said...

Buddhist philosophy's central point is the dependence of things, the space between two things. This is
important in quantum physics. Here a keyword is entanglement: When quantum objects are seperated they are still together. The space between two objects is important.

Christian Thomas Kohl

Liam Bean said...

The phrase "essentially the exact same" is a self-negating statement. That and the fact that the Dalai Lama didn't actually say this make this entire argument somewhat moot. It's the blogger claiming that they are the same, not Tenzen Gyatso.