Monday, August 31, 2009

Buddhism and Quantum Physics

Christian Thomas Kohl (Special to WQ on Buddhism and Quantum Physics)Nagarjuna

What is reality? The mindsets of the modern world provide and oscillate between four answers:

  1. The traditional Abrahamic (Jewish, Islamic, and Christian) religions speak about a creator that holds the world together. It represents the fundamental reality. If it were separated from the world for even a moment, the world would disappear immediately. The world can only exist because this creator is maintaining and guarding it. This mindset is so fundamental that even many modern scientists cannot deviate from it. The laws of nature and elementary particles now supersede the role of the creator.
  2. René Descartes takes into consideration a second mindset, wherein the subject or a subjective model of thought is fundamental. Everything else is only derived from it.
  3. According to a holistic mindset, the fundamental reality should consist of both subject and object. Everything should be one. Everything should be connected with everything else.
  4. A very modern mindset neglects reality. It could be called instrumentalism. According to this way of thinking, concepts do not reflect a single reality in any one way. Concepts have nothing to do with reality but only with information.

Buddhism refuses these four concepts of reality. It was therefore confronted with the critical reproach of being nihilistic.

If there is neither a creator, nor laws of nature, nor a permanent object, nor an absolute subject, nor in both, nor none, what is there to believe in? What remains that can be considered a fundamental reality?

The answer is simple. It is so simple that we barely consider it being a philosophical statement: Things depend on other things. A "thing" is dependent on its cause(s). There is no effect without a cause and no cause without an effect. There is, for instance,

  • no fire without fuel
  • no action without an actor
  • no actor without action.

Things are dependent on other things. They are neither identical with each other, nor do they break up into objective and subjective parts. This Buddhist concept of reality [known as Dependent Origination] is often met with disapproval and considered incomprehensible. But there are modern modes of thought with points of contact.

For example, there is a discussion in quantum physics about fundamental reality. What things are fundamental in quantum physics?

  • particles
  • waves
  • field of force
  • law of nature
  • mindsets
  • information

Quantum physics came to express itself by certain key concepts: complementarity, interaction, and entanglement. According to these, there are no independent but only complementary quantum objects. They are at the same time both waves and particles. Quantum objects interact with others, and they show evidence of entanglement even when they are separated by great distances.

Without being observed philosophically, quantum physics has created a physical concept of reality. According to that concept the fundamental reality is an interaction of systems that interacts with other systems and with its own components.

This physical concept of reality does not agree on the four aforementioned approaches. If the fundamental reality consists of dependent systems, then its basics can neither be independent and objective laws of nature nor independent subjective modes of thought. The fundamental reality cannot be a mystic entity nor can it consist of information only.

The concepts of reality in Buddhism surprisingly parallel quantum physics.