What does Buddhism provide physics?


Virtually 50 years in the past, two influential books on Buddhism and physics had been revealed. First got here The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics adopted. Each books had been worldwide bestsellers. Each tried to indicate how quantum mechanics — the physics of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles — recovered the core tenets of Buddhist philosophy. 

This weekend, Marcelo and I’ll attend a tremendous assembly known as “Buddhism, Physics, and Philosophy Redux” on the College of California, Berkeley Heart for Buddhist Research. Because the assembly goals to re-examine what, if any, relationship would possibly bind Buddhist views on the character of actuality to these of recent physics, I believed this could be a good time to elucidate why that aim is significant.

A matter of interpretation

I learn The Tao of Physics as a pupil in a freshman physics class in 1981. It blew me away, however extra for its wonderful descriptions of quantum mechanics than for its argument that Buddhism and physics overlap. Even then, I felt the argument stretched itself too skinny. Because the years progressed, I acquired my PhD in theoretical physics and started training Zen Buddhism critically. I developed a a lot better perspective on what Zukav and Capra had been arguing for, and I purchased their arguments even much less.  

The actual downside with each books is all about interpretation; particularly, quantum interpretation. From its very begin within the early 20th century, quantum mechanics was recognized to be bizarre. Classical physics builds a whole image of the world from tiny particles bouncing off one another like nano billiard balls. Quantum mechanics, then again, permits for no straightforward visualization. 

As an alternative, quantum mechanics tells us that particles like atoms may be in two locations on the identical time till a measurement is made. It tells us that the properties of these atoms may be inherently unsure, as in the event that they had been truly smeared out and didn’t have particular values. It additionally tells us that particles on reverse sides of the Universe may be entangled such that what occurs to 1 immediately impacts the opposite, regardless that no bodily sign had time to cross between them.

For the final 100 years, physicists have scratched their heads over this basket of quantum weirdness. And over those self same 100 years, they’ve developed totally different interpretations of the idea. Every interpretation paints a distinct image of what’s meant by an atom when it comes to bodily actuality. In the identical means, every paints a distinct image of what’s meant by a measurement as an interplay between one thing that’s noticed, and one thing else that’s the observer.  

One view amongst many

The factor is, there are various of those interpretations. One among these is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. It’s named after the town the place Neils Bohr, one of many founders of quantum mechanics, lived.

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The interpretation does appear to have some fascinating parallels with the classical philosophies that emerged from India and Asia when Buddhism was the dominant faith. Specifically, the Copenhagen Interpretation appears to open a path for observers to play a wierd however central position in grounding what can occur in a quantum experiment. Thus, the concept that the observer impacts the noticed is actually one thing the Copenhagen Interpretation may appear to permit for, and this could be linked with sure tenets of Buddhism. Now, there are couple of “mights” in that final sentence. You’ll find physicists who’re pro-Copenhagen Interpretation simply as you will discover Buddhist students who would disagree with it. However that was not the primary downside with Capra and Zukov’s thesis.

The actual downside with the Nineteen Seventies model of Quantum Buddhism was that it privileged the Copenhagen Interpretation. It by no means actually addressed the truth that Copenhagen was simply that — an interpretation with no extra validity than different interpretations (such because the Many Worlds view favored by of us like Sean Carroll). As time went on and Quantum Buddhism turned a staple of New Age wackiness, that key level — the Copenhagen Interpretation is only one interpretation — was fully forgotten.

A brand new take a look at what Buddhism and physics share

Fifty years later, it’s now time to re-examine Buddhist philosophical views and the frontiers of physics. The purpose is to not present that physics is confirming the truths of Buddhism. That may by no means occur, nor ought to it. As an alternative, as soon as we acknowledge that physics has all the time been influenced by philosophical concepts, we will acknowledge that all through its total historical past these concepts have come solely from Western philosophers. However half a world away, Buddhist philosophers had been encountering many comparable questions, like the character of time and causality, or how consciousness stands in relation to the world. 

As a result of they had been coming from a distinct historical past, these Buddhists explored different kinds of responses to the identical questions their Western counterparts contemplated. On this means, there could also be views within the lengthy historical past of Buddhist philosophy that show fruitful for physicists pushing at their very own frontiers — the locations the place we’re caught, or hitting paradoxes. That’s the reason I’m so very excited for what’s going to occur over the subsequent few days.


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