Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Buddhism and QM

Many religions seem to want to believe that their ancient scriptures predicted modern scientific discoveries, such as the distance to the Sun, the speed of neural oscillations, etc. I think it's all nonsense.

So, without any trace of irony, I present three ways in which the Buddha predicted modern results from quantum mechanics, with a scoop of woo to go along.

1) The doctrine of Emptiness.

Emptiness is the very core of Mahayana Buddhism, and also its most misunderstood teaching. Rob Burbea, a teacher I love, puts it most simply: it's the fact that there is no way that things "actually" are. There is the way that things appear, but fundamentally they have no essence; no substance. It is not that there is a "real chair" lurking somewhere "out there," independent of our minds. What is the actual truth then? That's a much more complicated question. It's an interdependent play of causes and conditions.

What has QM taught us? That when we're not measuring things, they have no well-defined objective properties. What does it mean to measure things? We don't know (though surprisingly many physicists will tell you that we have nailed this problem). Yes, particles in a sense can "measure" each other, but not in a way that makes the system as a whole well-defined. I would be roundly mocked for suggesting that the ultimate point of measurement is "consciousness," so I'll stop short of doing so. But it is.

2) There is no self.

This is the foundation of Theravada Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole, in some sense). There's nobody sitting at the center of your being; no soul. All of your properties (personality etc.) are incidental.

Here's a quote from Hugh Everett, who originated what is now called the "Many Worlds Interpretation" of QM:
“The price, however, is the abandonment of the concept of the uniqueness of the observer, with its somewhat disconcerting philosophical implications.”
The implication is that when the universe "splits" into multiple, it's not meaningful to say that either copy of "you" is actually you. In other words, your sense of personal identity is an illusion.

3) You choose which world manifests.

Wait, what? Neither Buddhism nor QM says anything like this. You're right; it's my own addition, extrapolated from both.

The point is that in any given moment, the question of "which particular objective properties will manifest" (i.e., which world will appear) is not dictated by anything external to consciousness itself. Perhaps it is not determined by consciousness either. Heck, in QM the statement is meaningless: all possible worlds are manifesting.

But here's something to explore. When consciousness is "constricted," the world appears to be constricting. When it is deeply relaxed and free, the world appears to construct itself in a way that justifies that, too.

It seems as though the "constricted" vs "free" quality belongs to the individual; i.e., the illusory being that is manifesting along with the world. That is, it cannot belong to consciousness itself, which is prior to the manifestation.

That may indeed be so. In that case, the "true" cause is something more subtle. The only option I see is this: it is the degree to which consciousness has woken up to itself. The more consciousness recognizes its own face, the less sense that it is bound by anything else, which manifests in the person as freedom, and in the world as justifications for experiencing freedom.

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