Thursday, May 8, 2014

Physics needs Buddhism

Physics has been wildly successful in describing the physical universe. However, the answer to what is consciousness and the mind differs if you ask one physicist to another. There is this reductionism tendency to regard the whole is just the sum of it's parts, thus the mind is psychology, which is applied neuroscience, which is part of biology, which is applied chemistry, which is applied physics. Thus fundamentally, the mind is subject to physics laws and principles.

This view can no longer hold sway, as we discover and acknowledge the science of chaos, which states that it is not possible to predict deterministic outcomes in chaos situation. And the science of complexity, which studies the emergent properties of systems at the edge of order and chaos. Implicit in the assumption of emergence is that the emergent phenomena does not influence the more fundamental phenomena from which it is emergent from, but the other way around is true. Biological systems which reverses local entropy has to be an open system, but the concept of life has no impact on physics.

In the book time reborn by Lee smolin, he advocated some principles for building a true cosmological theory that describes and explains everything in the universe. The problem he finds with the current cosmological models is that there can be many fundamental quantum gravity laws that fits into the approximate theories of quantum, general relativity, and standard model. Not only that, there is also the freedom of choice for the initial conditions in cosmology. The thing is, we only have one observable universe. Thus the laws might easily apply to many different kinds of Multiverse which can be in principle unobservable.

This he says is the problem of applying the Newtonian paradigm to the whole universe. The Newtonian paradigm is to do Physics in a box. That means isolate a subsystem of the universe and then change the initial conditions in it to deduce the laws that apply to that phenomenon. Once we have the laws, we can predict all future and the past of the system with only information about the present. (In principle, the dynamics of quantum physics is deterministic until measurement, which is interaction with something outside the box, thus if the system is truly isolated, the wavefunction should not collapse.) Lee says because at least gravity is not blockable, no system within the universe is truly isolated, we cannot draw a box and assume that all that is in it is changing, but outside things are not changing. Thus he proposed that a true theory of the cosmos should dispense with Newtonian paradigm and describe the relationship of change between all things in the universe, no exceptions allowed, not even the differential structure of curved space time, or symmetry. He even elevated this to a principle, the principle of no unresipocated action.

So taking that principle and using it on the most basic fact of life we experience everyday, we see that the mind and matter has interactions between them. Matter affects the mind, this is clearly seen everytime we eat something good and felt happy, also the condition of the brain affects how our mind functions. Mind also affects matter, our decision to eat meat drives the economy of may production which contributes significantly to global warming, the connections in our brain is also rewired depending on how we train our mind.

A theory of everything cannot leave out this obvious fact of life. The interaction between mind and matter has to be figured out regardless of the philosophy and theories of what anyone has about what is the mind. It maybe same as the brain, it maybe the heart, it maybe a whole new separate thing, it may also be emergent. All these doesn't matter much in the exploration of the laws of the interaction between mind and matter.

It is wise to employ a tool of the mind to study the mind just as we employed matter to study matter. Meditation, a practise that has been secularly and scientifically confirmed to be effective in letting the user observe oneself and becoming happier is the ideal tool for the studies of the mind.

The idea is to gain a working knowledge of the laws of the mind, then see how the mind influences matter and the other way around.

So far there is no Buddhism in this discussion yet, now I am bringing it in.

Buddhism features amazingly detailed description on how the mind works. Most notably in the Abhidhamma, where the mind is classified to consciousness and mental factors. The model is linear in time, each consciousness arises for one thought moment before disappearing and the next one replaces it. Each consciousness is accompanied by several mental factors that drives it. According to the Theravada Abhidhamma, there are 89 or 121 different types of consciousness and 52 mental factors. Consciousness includes mostly functional aspects of the mind, wholesome and unwholesome mind and also states of deep meditation. Mental factors includes hatred, loving-kindness, feelings, perception, wisdom, delusion, and also volition. Having the basic building blocks, the Abhidhamma also describes what are the thought processes that arises from the input of our 5 senses and the subsequent analysis of the 6th sense, the mind itself to sense mental objects. So thoughts are mental objects and can be endless and infinite. What's more amazing is that the relationship and interactions between the mind itself, mind and matter, and between matter itself are described. 24 conditionality, which can be condensed into 4 are what links causes to effects. 

There is also the links of dependant origination. From ignorance is conditioned volitional actions, which conditions rebirth consciousness, which conditions mind and matter, which conditions the 6 sense bases, which conditions contact, which conditions feelings, which conditions craving, which conditions attachment, which conditions actions for becoming, which conditions birth, which conditions death, decay and suffering. It is primary concerned with the mind, but there is the clue on how the mind rebirth consciousness conditions which mind and body that the new life inhibits. This is one of the crucial links between mind and matter that should be considered and included in any theory ambitious enough to want to explain the cosmos. Implicit here is the assumption of the facts of rebirth, which many with a western, materialistic, and Abrahamic faiths and education would have prejudice against. My opinion of it is that it has enough empirical evidence to warrant it a naturalistic fact and scientific attention, unbiased thought, analysis and experimentation.

So far it is in my view that in order to advance Physics, the theories about the mind and it's interaction with matter cannot be ignored. Having found the analysis of exactly these in Buddhism, I conclude that more physicists and scholars of Buddhism should work together to crack up a theory that can be tested by scientific studies so that even the anti religion people would have to agree with the findings.


  1. Are you familiar with B.Allan Wallace and his work?

  2. I haven't read his book about Physics and Buddhism yet. But I have seen him before in a Buddhism and Science Symposium.