Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Buddhist Metaphysics
Claire McCahan & Sam Woodward


Summary by Tyler Kellerher

Buddhist Metaphysics and its View of Quantum Mechanics


Dalai Lama, “The Universe in a Single Atom“ Chapter 3

The discussion of class seven on Monday the 21st of March was Buddhist Metaphysics and its view of quantum mechanics. This is an inherently difficult discussion, since the entire class has been raised in the West and its culture has been ingrained in us since birth. Many of the Buddhist concepts brought up in the discussion run contrary to ingrained beliefs and our shared Western view of the world. To help overcome this we first engaged in a brief summary of the origins of Buddhism and its core beliefs. This summary was followed by explanations of Buddhist theories and how they relate to quantum mechanics and our own assumptions on the origins of human existence.

Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. The story goes that Siddhartha was a young prince, and when he was a baby, a prophecy was told that he would either be a great prince or a great holy man, depending on what he saw life was like outside the palace walls. His father, wanting him to become a great King, did not allow Siddhartha to leave the palace grounds. He piled luxuries upon his son, not allowing him to want for anything. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left the palace to see the outside world. Outside the palace he had four different encounters with the suffering of ordinary people. He met an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and finally a holy man content with the world. These experiences convinced him to leave the palace for good and to take up a spiritual quest.

Siddhartha tried numerous spiritual paths, studying under various teachers, nearly starving himself in the process of following asceticism. He accepted milk and rice from a worried villager when he realized that the practice would not take him any closer to ending suffering. He then sat under a fig tree and meditated and made a vow not to rise until he had achieved enlightenment. He achieved this and became a fully enlightened being leaving behind the circle of life and rebirth and the suffering that went along with it. He then spent the rest of his life traveling around India teaching what he had learned under the moniker of Buddha. Buddhism is an atheistic religion, since there is no central god or divine being that grants nirvana or enlightenment. This is because the cycle of rebirth is how the universe works. Much of the reading for class written by the Dalai Lama is a comparison between Buddhist metaphysics and quantum physics. In it, he draws correlations between the two, as well as stating that Buddhism must update its beliefs to fit in with our current knowledge of the Universe.

On the 21st of March we discussed three Buddhist theories that describe the workings of the Universe, and how we can use them to view our Universe from a different perspective. We did not delve too deeply into the correlations between Buddhist metaphysics and quantum mechanics. Instead the question of intrinsic value, the existence of souls, and whether or not intrinsic value is a good thing or a bad thing.

The theories discussed in class were the Theory of Causation, the Theory of Universals, and the Theory of Emptiness. The Theory of Universals is a contrasting theory to the other two aforementioned theories. It states that the “plurality of any one class of objects has a permanent ideal generality that is independent of all the particulars.” The take away from this was that “there can be more than one perspective of the same thing, depending on the choice particulars.” An important analogy was drawn between the Platonic theory of Forms and the theory of Universals, and how these similar perspectives arose in both Buddhism and the cradle of modern Western culture; Greece.

The Theory of causation states that “any effect is a manifestation of what was already there within the cause”. This theory is a supporting theory of the Theory of Emptiness. The Theory of Emptiness in brief is the idea that all things in the Universe are connected in some way, shape, or form. The belief that things can “possess independent intrinsic existence” would mean that things and events are complete unto themselves. According to the Theory of Emptiness, this is wrong. If it were true, then nothing would have the ability to interact with other phenomena. Since things do interact and change one another, then things do not possess independent existences. The consequence of believing that both things and sentient beings have independent existences and varying intrinsic values creates and sustains the “dysfunction in our engagement with the world and with our fellow sentient beings.” In other words, the belief that objects and people have different values creates imbalances such as racism, and ultra-nationalism.

Western philosophy was discussed in contrast to these theories, such as Plato’s Forms. It was also compared to Baruch Spinoza’s theory, which is similar to the Theory of Emptiness in the belief that all things are interconnected or were constituents of a single thing, God or Nature. Much of the class was spent dissecting the Theory of Emptiness. It was stated that “there are no subjects without objects by which they are defined, there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them, and there are no doers without things done. Not only is the existence of things and events utterly contingent but their very identities are thoroughly dependent upon others.” This made it clear that there are subjects and objects. The question was then asked if there were no subjects to perceive the big bang, did it actually happen? The answer can be found using the Theory of Causation: the Universe as it is now, including sentient beings, is a manifestation that was already within the cause (the big bang).

The subject of Souls was then brought up, more precisely their existence or non-existence based on the Theory of Emptiness. It was generally agreed that many of us had different definitions of what a soul is and a general back and forth of these definitions bounced around the room.

The impermanence of self was discussed, the idea that human beings perceptions are fluid. This fluidity of self comes about through a process of adding experiences, through a changing perception of subjects over time. An analogy of this was given as a ripple started inthe middle of the ocean is added to and modified as it comes into contact with more waves.

The general consensus at the end of the discussion was that things are unique, but it’s in the context of a greater whole.