Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Buddhist Metaphysics
Claire McCahan & Sam Woodward


Summary by Allison Wirshing

Buddhist Metaphysics and its View of Quantum Mechanics


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

To have a discussion about the relevance of Buddhist metaphysics to quantum mechanics, a brief introduction into the religion of Buddhism was given first. Because most in the class were western thinkers, and none were Buddhists, this was an important first step.

Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddhists have no divine creator or creation and instead follow the teachings of Buddha. When Gautama Buddha was a child, a prophecy was made declaring that he was destined to become a prince or a priest. Buddha’s father strove to make him a prince. Buddha grew up behind palace walls and was completely isolated from the suffering of the surrounding people. On his 26th birthday, Buddha left the palace and became acquainted with poverty, sickness, and death. He was appalled by the conditions of life outside the palace. Unable to return to his previous sheltered existence, Buddha left his children, his wife, and his old life behind. He traveled and learned about suffering. At the end of his travels, after meditation, Buddha achieved nirvana, but rather than leave the cyclical existence of suffering, death, and rebirth, he chose to stay and teach others how to achieve nirvana. From these teachings the religion of Buddhism developed.

After this introduction to Buddhism, chapter three, Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics, from the book The Universe in a Single Atom, written by the Dalai Lama, was broken down into its main points:

Theory of Causation: This theory is stated in the book as “any effect is a manifestation of what was already there within the cause.” According to this theory, anything, action or object, present at any given moment could not exist without the causative preceding events and therefore is dependant upon those events. This idea translates well into physics. The law of conservation of energy and mass states that neither mass nor energy can be destroyed. This law holds true for quantum mechanics as well, except that the quantum mechanics uncertainty relation allows for minute fluctuations in energy at the atomic level. Conservation of starting material, either mass or energy, and an inability to create any independent new entities is common to both of these ideas.

Theory of Universals: As stated in the book, the Theory of Universals asserts that “the plurality of any one class of objects has a permanent ideal generality that is independent of all the particulars.” In other words, any one class of objects, say humans for example, is independent of the fact that all humans have different attributes. The concept of humanity exists and is separate from the individual identities of the humans that fall under it. This was related to Plato’s theory of Forms. In the previous example, humanity would be the Form or universal. Humanity is an abstract concept that does not exist in the material world; its instances, humans, do exist in the material world and thus are subject to change. Forms exist conceptually; they are not perceived by the senses, which vary from individual to individual, and they are separate from the changing material world. Because of this, Plato believed that Forms were the most fundamental kind of reality.

Theory of Emptiness: The theory of emptiness is perhaps better understood as the theory of the void. It illustrates how our perception that we are individuals independent of our surroundings is impossible in stating that “to possess independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete into themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena… Since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are not independent, although we may feel or intuit that we are.” This theory is key to understanding some important ideas in Buddhism. Being unable to accept the interconnectedness, and thus interdependence, of everything around us is believed to be at the root of “us”- and “them”- mentalities that cause class discrimination, racism, and other negative human interactions. This idea is also very relevant in looking at problems in our current relationship with nature.

Dependent Origination: This is stated as “there are no subjects without objects by which they are defined; there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them; 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 idea was somewhat difficult to interpret. Are there special things that are subjects, and if so, what qualities do they have that make them different from objects? Are only sentient beings subjects, or may other things be subjects as well? Are the only criteria for being a subject the ability to perceive, or is a more complex understanding required? Although many of these questions were left as such, it was determined that this idea is best understood as accepting that nothing exists in a void. In other words, a pen is no longer a pen with a purpose and use, if it is floating in empty space. It becomes a collection of atoms, and loses its identity as a pen without someone to use it. In this way, things do not stop existing without an observer (subject), they simply lose the relevant identity they had to the observer. In this way something’s identity, but not necessarily its existence, is dependent upon the observer.

The same concept can be applied to phenomena. The old saying “if a tree falls and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” was brought up as a way of understanding dependent origination. According to science, the tree must make a sound regardless of there being an observer. If the idea of dependent origination is interpreted such that the tree is silent without an observer, then it is counter to the core concept modern science is based on. Scientists strive to describe the natural world around them. Science is based on the idea that phenomena occur under sets of natural laws and that phenomena are independent of the observer. If this were not so, then scientific laws could not be considered laws, and they would only operate while an observer was present. This is clearly not the case, because the Big Bang occurred before any observers existed and there is ample evidence to support the Big Bang. To reconcile dependent origination and modern science, the tree saying was altered as follows, “If a tree falls in the woods and there is no observer present to interpret the sound waves emitted as sound, then no sound is observed, but the waves in the air and the reverberations in the earth still occur.” There was no sound without an observer present, but the physical results of the tree falling still existed. Interpreted this way, dependent origin can be understood within the context of scientific reasoning.

Another way suggested to explain the existence of the Big Bang and other phenomena without an observer is to use the theory of causation. Based on this theory, the universe as it exists today can be viewed as a result of the Big Bang. Because results cannot exist independent of their causes, the Big Bang must have occurred.

Overall, the relationship between Buddhist Metaphysics and physics/quantum mechanics was best understood using a combination of the Theory of Causation and the Theory of Emptiness. The law of the conservation of energy and mass and the idea that for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction are relevant to science and easily connected to the theory of Causation. The theory of emptiness is relevant to efforts being done today to advance quantum mechanics. Modern physicists are striving to find an overarching law, or set of principles, that can connect all of the current laws/theories. The search in physics for a common set of laws applicable to all phenomena parallels the Buddhist belief that every phenomenon and the interacting components are connected.

From this point forward in the discussion, the focus veered away from physics and quantum mechanics, and more attention was given to trying to better understand other concepts of Buddhism.

An important concept in Buddhism is the idea of reincarnation. After death, an individual is either reborn as another life form, or he/she achieves nirvana and leave the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth. The theory of Emptiness, however, seems to suggest that there is no such thing as an individual. If no unique individuals exist, then how can their passing from one life form to another be observed or explained? To understand this, the meaning of an individual and its relevance to the theory of Emptiness was refined. There are individuals with unique sets of identifiable characteristics, but they are not individuals in the sense that they can exist separately from the whole. In this way, unique characteristics of an individual do exist and can appear in different life forms.

The characteristics that are passed on to different life forms were compared to the western idea of a soul. It was agreed that this soul is probably not a physical object that is passed from one organism to another. If it were a physical object, it would be impossible to explain its movements around the globe using physics; either the laws of physics are wrong, or the soul is not physical and those laws do not apply to it. To allow the laws of physics and our idea of the soul to coexist, the unique sets of characteristics that define an individual were compared to a unique wave pattern, rather than a particle, that could be present in different organisms. Exactly how this pattern could be observed, or any other characteristics about the wave, was not discussed.

A lot of time was spent understanding the role of the soul and the individual in Buddhism. Western philosophies place a lot of importance on the individual. Our most prominent religions focus on leading a good life so that our soul can enjoy a good afterlife and that we as individuals can be happy. Buddhism places much less significance on the individual and is much more concerned with how things are connected to and dependent upon one another. It is difficult, then, to understand why so much effort is put into achieving nirvana for the individual and why it matters if the individual leaves the birth death cycle.

This difficulty may have stemmed from a lack of clarity on what nirvana is and why it is desirable. Nirvana was described as completely losing one’s identity, something westerners value, and accepting the interconnectedness of everything. People who have achieved nirvana are totally disconnected from those around them. They witness and understand the emotions of others but are not negatively or positively affected by those emotions. In this way, they can experience no pain, but it seems that they can also experience no pleasure. Nirvana and why it is appealing was difficult to grapple with.

Another question left unanswered was, if Buddha had achieved Nirvana, why he still felt compelled to return and help those around them. It is said that Buddha returned because he felt compassion for all sentient beings and wanted to end suffering. Through the course of the discussion, we were unable to pin down how one can have empathy while being completely disconnected from those around them. How could Buddha have felt compassionate about the suffering of his fellow sentient beings without empathy? How can there be true empathy without any connection with the people around us?

The discussion ended, as usual, with many open questions.