Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics

An excerpt of an article by the star of The Art of Life (a SAND film). Read the full essay.

The concept of “indistinguishability” is fundamental to both the Buddhist theory of Sunyata, or Emptiness, and the scientific theory of Quantum Mechanics. I will use this insight to show that

Quantum Mechanics is a consequence of the Buddhist doctrine of “The Two Truths.” The most basic doctrine of Buddhism is called The Two Truths. The Ultimate Truth is that nothing has inherent existence. The Relative Truth is that in our everyday human world, everything acts as if it had inherent existence. The doctrine that nothing has inherent existence, the Ultimate Truth, is also called Sunyata or Emptiness. In Mahayana Buddhism, completely understanding the meaning of Emptiness, this lack of inherent existence, along with developing Compassion, is said to take 3 long eons (which are each longer than the age of the present universe). These are called the Two Accumulations and their accomplishment is the path to Enlightenment.

What does Inherent Existence mean, why is it so difficult to completely understand, and why would this understanding (along with developing compassion) lead to enlightenment? Where to start? If you see a rock in front of you, that rock seems to exist independently of any context and seems to be distinguishable from what is “not that rock”. Surely that rock exists independently of whether I “observe” it or not, and it has certain properties independently of whether I observe these properties or not. It is just there and I can look at it or not look at it. This particular rock is not “inherently” special apart from the fact that I am observing it or that I consider it to be special. Also, something either happens or not, independently of whether I see it happen or know that it happened. The rock either fell over or it did not fall over. That is, in our minds, the way we perceive the world. In the “world itself”, the “Welt-an-sich”, there is no way to distinguish anything from anything else. It simply is. The Buddhists call this the “formless” realm and give it the name Dharmakaya. Each living creature interacts with the world with senses that have developed over evolutionary time to enable its ancestors to survive and reproduce. The world revealed to the creature by these senses, the everyday world of the creature, is said to be the “umwelt” of the creature. The form of the Two Truths given above, where the Relative Truth is that in our human umwelt, everything acts as if it had inherent existence, might be considered the Theravatic Buddhist version of the Two Truths. The Mahayana Buddhist version of the Two Truths is then that the Relative Truth is that in each living creature’s umwelt, everything acts as if it had inherent existence.

A film staring the author of this article

Living creatures have evolved many different ways of sensing their environments. These often involve vibrations in the surrounding medium e.g. hearing and seeing. Mostly “seeing” is restricted to a single octave of the electromagnetic medium (where most of the energy of the solar radiation is). Of course, that is our human specialty. Many creatures mostly sense using surface vibrations. An interesting example of this is the spider that creates its own “spider web” and senses the vibrations of this web. We might consider that humans in the last few centuries have created their own “human web” of scientific instruments to extend their “seeing” into the whole electromagnetic medium and to vastly increase the sensitivity of this seeing. Humans now live, perhaps a bit uneasily, in two umwelts: the human umwelt that we evolved into and the scientific human umwelt that is evolving from our scientific endeavors. The human umwelt has many peculiarities, as seen from the perspective of the scientific human umwelt, that result from its evolutionary origin. For example, looking straight down 100 feet and looking to the side 100 feet does not seem remotely the same, or a “rock” in front of us is solid to our senses but in the scientific view is a bunch of molecules that are overwhelmingly made up of empty space. This lack of correspondence between the human umwelt and the scientific human umwelt is sometimes used as an example of the interpretation of the Buddhist Theory of Sunyata that “things don’t exist in the way that they seem to”.

The question that we want to consider is “Do the Two Truths hold for the scientific human umwelt?” If not, is there some modified version of the Two Truths that does hold? A creature’s umwelt is built up by how its evolutionary ancestors successfully sensed their environment to survive and reproduce. This led to a particular body, behavior, and, eventually, a mind filled with “qualia”. In the everyday umwelt of the creature, there is no distinction between a quale and what it “represents”. However, in the human scientific umwelt, there is such a distinction. Consider, for example, the old question “When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If by a sound, you mean a quale in a mind, then the answer is no, but if you mean a pressure wave in the air, then the answer is yes. While in the ordinary human umwelt, there is only one thing, the sound, in the scientific human umwelt there are two things, a quale in a mind and a pressure wave in the air.

Our modern scientific instruments allow us to “see” things that are much smaller than any living being, things that are not part of any living being’s umwelt. We have not evolved qualia to represent these “things”. However, we have developed a purely mathematical way of understanding the behavior of the world at these small scales, which we call quantum mechanics. Neils Bohr developed a philosophical foundation for Quantum Mechanics which is part of what is called the Copenhagen Convention. We have said that part of what is meant by inherent existence is that things seem to exist outside of any context. Bohr noted that, in a fixed context, everything acts as if it had inherent existence in the sense that a true statement has the property that its opposite is false i.e. the truth and falsity of statements are distinguishable. He thought that a deeper understanding required the simultaneous use of two contexts that are mutually contradictory. Then a “deep” truth would have the property that its opposite was also a deep truth. These two mutually contradictory contexts are said to be “dual”.The canonical example in Quantum Mechanics is wave/particle duality. The canonical example in Buddhism might be considered to be Compassion/Emptiness duality. Consider Umwelt/(Welt-an-sich) duality. Neither an umwelt or the Welt-an-sich has inherent existence. One can only say something about the Welt-an-sich, even if it exists, in terms of an umwelt. In the scientific view, the Welt-an-sich exists as consistency in the umwelt. It is tempting to think that the rock I see in front of me in my umwelt, that is, as a quale, “corresponds” to or “labels” a rock or something in the “actual” world, the Welt-an-sich. This, however, only makes sense in the umwelt, where everything is distinguishable. It makes no sense in the Welt-an-sich, where nothing is distinguishable. Considering this Umwelt/(Welt-an-sich) duality highlights the basic role played by distinguishability.

We have mentioned that the scientific human umwelt is based on having radically increased the human ability to observe the world. An equally important ingredient in the scientific human umwelt is the human ability for what is called “hypothetical thinking”. These are thoughts of the form “If …., then …”. Is such a thought just gibberish or does it make some kind of sense? If it makes sense, is it true or false, and what would that mean? One (psychological) interpretation of the Two Truths might be that all of our thoughts in our daily life are “hypothetical thoughts”, but the “If” part is implicit. It is completely left out of our conscious thought. In other words, the(Psychological) “solidity” of our daily world is based on the fact the “context” of our thought is unexamined and implicit so that our (psychological) daily world seems to exist independently of any context. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for different individuals to agree on what is gibberish and what “makes sense”, and what is “true” and what is “false”.

The ancient Greeks at the time of Euclid came up with the idea of isolating a small part of our thoughts and being quite clear that these were hypothetical thoughts. The “it” parts were called“axioms” and “postulates” and the “then” parts were called “Theorems”. In the modern way of looking at things, all of mathematics is hypothetical thinking. Further, to the mathematician, whether the statement “If…, then…” is true or false is completely determined by logic. Another type of hypothetical thought, used by physicists, is the “Gedanken Experiment”.Here the “If…, then…” is a conjecture about what happens in the world. The truth or falsity is determined by logic and by consistency with what is known, or believed to be known, about the world. Sometimes, as in the famous Gedanken Experiments of Albert Einstein, these hypothetical thoughts show that some deeply ingrained belief about the world is false e.g.that time and space exist inherently and independently of each other.

The bedrock of modern science is the determination of the truth of a hypothetical statement
by an actual experiment in the world. However, it is a little bit more than this. To show the truth of a statement of the form “If…, then…”, by an experiment, the experiment must be repeatable. There are two reasons for this. The first is social. How can one extend what everyone can agree upon beyond mathematics? In modern science, you don’t have to agree with me because I say so, you can do the experiment yourself. At a deeper level, something that happens once could have happened by accident. The more an experiment is repeated, the more likely it was not accidental, but was the result of the truth of an “If…, then…” statement.

Last but not least, hypothetical statements let the scientist make up “theories” about how the world works.

Read the full version of Michael’s Article

Watch the film The Art of Life by SAND Co-founders and filmmakers Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo about the author Michael and his life in Hawaii.

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