Religious science

It is often said that the principles of Buddhist philosophy are supported by the science of quantum physics, but I have never seen an explanation of why this is so.

Here is one.

The first principle of Bhuddist thinking usually encountered by Westerners is the idea that objects are not solid and concrete but are transient and impermanent. The belief that objects are permanent is a great illusion leading to attachment to material gain that in turn leads to unhappiness and discontent. The example often given is the simple one of a table. It looks solid, but in reality it is in a constants state of transition and flux and decay which will end eventually in its disappearance. It is not the reliable permanence it appears to be. The argument expands from this: no object is permanent and it is only our minds and expectations that make any thing so, and ideas of the self are included. The self is an imagined entity and not a concrete thing, and it is subject to the same rules of change and decay as any other thing we consider to be permanent and real.

This is why Buddhists set such a high value on meditation as a way of finding and existing in the present. While this is accorded a religious function the role of meditation can be understood in an entirely secular way, as a means of detachment from a world we construct which is illusory. Buddhists teach meditation as an act of concentration upon stillness, training the mind to stop unbidden wandering and spontaneous trains of thought. A much used analogy is with a bucket of muddy water. Like the water, the mind only clears as the water becomes still and the mud in it settles.

We can think of the illusion of permanence as the drawing of lines across time. This line drawing is the creation of simple narratives, where we connect series of apparently related objects and events causally in our minds. When we do so we take for granted their reality. Selves, relationships and desires are all imagined in the course of this storytelling. However, the fragility of our stories frequently strikes us. Lucky and chance events are perceived to be life changing. We are always insecure, and often discontented and unhappy because of the decisions and choices we feel we have made, or have been unable to make.

Causality is an aspect of Buddhist thinking that confused me for a long time. Buddhists insist on the truth of cause and effect, but the causality of events – the material arrival and departure of things – and the deduced determination of past and future must be illusory if the permanence of the objects linked is unreal. However Buddhists refer not to a causality of events but of actions. Right thinking and right action are the essential means of determining only the right path, not any specific event, and this kind of causality does not infer any control over objects and events, or any power to determine the future in any material way. The difference drawn between an action and an event is subtle, but all important. To take an action is an internal decision, determined yes, but determined by state of mind, attitude and critically by positive or negative feelings. Sympathy and empathy, which Bhuddist practice believes can be engendered by meditation, are critical factors in right thinking and right action. An  event, on the other hand, may be beyond control. Buddhists do not attempt to predict what might or might not happen, but believe that right thinking leads to right action, which will lead to happier outcomes for human beings. So an action is something organic and internal, and it depends on your feelings and disposition. It may have happened, be happening or be about to happen. An event is something that has happened. It is external, and can only be reported afterwards. Actions determine and are determined by karma, events do not and are not.

There is another famous Buddhist example which (indirectly) shows the perceived difference between an action and an event. You are asked to imagine standing by on open window on a high level of a tower block. The story is about determining choice, and is told to demonstrate that consideration of even extreme negative possibilities is only human, and not mad or harmful in itself. To think about jumping, the anecdote goes, is normal. You are only mad if you jump. Lying behind this story is the belief that no event is necessarily determined. What happens next is not yet an event. Every human being would think about jumping. To consider jumping is not the event of jumping. Some human beings might feel like jumping. To feel like jumping is not the event of jumping. Some people might actually decide to jump. To decide to jump is not the event of jumping. Finally, a person does jump, and dies upon impact with the ground. It is now an event because it has happened, but at no stage has it been exactly determined. Even if we have jumped, it could have been otherwise to the very last infinite fraction of a second.

This point about determination is where we get a disagreement within science. Many scientists would argue that the act of jumping out of a window would be a material event that could be regarded as genetically predetermined in the form of, say, a mental illness. The argument is often made that in fact human beings have no free will. As we have seen, Buddhists are curiously ambivalent about free will. There is cause and effect, but it is of a different kind that is not able to determine material events, only your disposition towards them. From here, we can get into an undecidable argument about whether an internal attitude would be genetically determined in any case (and Buddhists would respond that it doesn’t matter since all material outcomes – the events considered to be determined – are unreal)). More often, there is a stand off between nature and nurture which leaves us in a deterministic no man’s land. However, if we want to avoid this impasse science does have an alternative view: if we follow the principles of quantum physics, intentionality is not considered at all. Using the example above, we would have to consider both that we have jumped and that we have not jumped, and regard each in the light of probability. There is no absolute event, and if we were somehow made to stand by the open window inside a large box, hidden from observation and with a malevolent gene that will at some stage fire a fatal trigger to our brain, we might be considered, like Schrodinger’s cat, to be both alive and dead, with a probability attached to each degree of outcome. (Of course, Schrodinger’s cat is a goner – we might not have the fatal gene at all, but I think that the reduction of risk does not negate the application of probability, it just changes the odds.)

To consider events as probabilities radically changes our perception of them. When we think in terms of probability, it is impossible to imagine a fully determined event. No matter how exactly we define the timing of an event, there are always an infinite number of times at which the event might happen. And when we consider the likelihood of occurrence there are always an infinite number of possible degrees of probability between 0% and 100%. So in this way we are considering infinity times infinity and literally anything can happen at any time. Nothing can be determined or predicted. Any ‘story’ can only be retrospective, based upon observation. In other words, we have reached the Buddhist view of material events.

Of course, the Buddha never mentions probability or suggests that we might be both alive and dead. However, Buddhism does view the world as immaterial and materially undeterminable. Things, events and human control are all illusory. Equally, quantum physics does not take a moral stance and suggest a course of right action. But it does suggest that our endless quest to identify events in terms of certain material outcomes is futile unless we are willing to address them in terms of probability and risk. So to add values of empathy and love to this immaterial world view may well be sentimental, but it is not necessarily unscientific.

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