Does quantum mechanics favor Buddhist philosophy?
No. But Buddhism and quantum mechanics have much to teach each other.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Quantum mechanics is so weird that it has challenged scientists and philosophers to divine some greater insights about the nature of reality.
- One attempt is known as the Copenhagen interpretation, and some believe that this interpretation lends itself to a Buddhist worldview.
- Even though I'm a Buddhist, I reject the notion that physics proves my worldview.
The first book I read about quantum mechanics was not a textbook. Instead, it was The Tao of Physics by Frijof Capra, a 1975 bestseller claiming that discoveries in quantum mechanics supported the ancient worldview of Buddhism. I read The Tao of Physics in my freshman year, and in it, Capra, a physicist, offered beautiful descriptions of both quantum science and Buddhist philosophy.
I bought in to each… separately.
Forty years later I am both a Buddhist practioner (Zen in particular) and physicist with a keen interest in quantum foundations. But I never bought into the claim that one supported the other, and today I want to reflect on that mistaken link and, perhaps, a better way to think about Buddhism and physics.
Does Buddhism follow naturally from quantum mechanics?
Capra's book was part of a wave of interest in so-called "Eastern philosophies" and quantum physics. There was also The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukov. Soon it became a staple of New Age mumbo-jumbo to stick "quantum" in front of whatever was being sold: quantum healing, quantum spirituality, quantum colon cleansing. While the first impulse of Capra and Zukov represented a genuine interest in how the well-known weirdnesses of quantum mechanics overlapped with the new (for these western students, anyway) territory of Buddhist philosophies, things got out of controls quickly. The most egregious example of the downward spiral was a 2004 documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!? which was so full of nonsense that I literally threw my box of popcorn at the screen during my viewing.
So, what is the problem with what we might call "quantum Buddhism"?
Let's start with the physics side of things. Quantum physics is theory dealing with the very small, things like atoms, protons, and quarks. Physics at this minuscule scale are really weird compared to the physics we've learned on more human scales. The most important weirdness for the relationship to Buddhism is what's called the "Measurement Problem." Like classical mechanics that is governed by Newton's equations, quantum mechanics has Schrodinger's equations that describe how quantum systems evolve. But here's the weird part: Once the system is observed, Schrodinger's equations no longer apply. The measurement takes precedent over the equation. Why should a physical system care that it's been observed? No one knows, and folks have been arguing over the Measurement Problem since quantum mechanics was first formulated.
Those arguments got crystalized into what are called quantum interpretations. While physicists know exactly how to apply the rules of quantum mechanics to build things like lasers and computers, they don't agree on what the equations mean in a philosophical sense. They don't know how to interpret them.
This is where Buddhism comes in. There is one interpretation of quantum mechanics that seems to mesh well with the philosophical perspectives of Buddhism. Capra and others noted that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, developed by many of the founders of atomic science, saw quantum mechanics as giving us something different than an objective picture of atoms as little balls existing in-and-of-themselves. Instead, quantum mechanics demonstrates a kind of entangling of the observer and the observed. For Copenhagenists, quantum mechanics is epistemic rather than ontological. It's about uncovering knowledge of how the world works rather than attempting to determine a "correct" perspective. In other words, the Copenhagen interpretation posits that there is no perfectly objective God's Eye view of the universe.
Buddhism, or at least the version of it known well in the West, also has an epistemic focus and eschews the idea of a completely objective perspective on experience. For many Buddhist philosophers, the world and our experience of it are inseparable (at least as far as descriptions and explanations go). There are no essential, timeless properties, and everything arises interdependently.
Why Quantum Buddhism doesn't work
What then is the problem with linking quantum mechanics and this Buddhist view? The trouble is not the with Buddhist side of things. Buddhism has existed for a few millennia and has done just fine on its own. You can choose to engage with it as a philosophy or as a practice if it suits you. If not, that's fine too. But it certainly doesn't need physics for support.
Buddhist monk Barry Kerzin participating in meditation research. Credit: Antoine Lutz - Barry Kerzin via Wikipedia / Public Domain
Instead, the problem is with singling out the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and claiming, "That's what physics says." There's a long menu of possible interpretations of quantum mechanics: the many worlds interpretation, the pilot wave theory, objective-collapse theory, relational quantum mechanics, and (my current favorite) quantum Bayesianism. Some of these would not find any commonality with Buddhist philosophy. In fact, proponents of some of these other interpretations would be justifiably hostile to Buddhist claims about the relationship between knowledge and the world. Most importantly, until there's an experimental means to distinguish between the interpretations, no one really knows which is correct.
So, the fundamental mistake of Quantum Buddhism is bias. Its advocates privileged one interpretation of quantum mechanics over all the others because they liked. And they liked it because they liked Buddhism. I like Buddhism too (I've been staring at a damn wall for 30 years), but that doesn't mean I think quantum mechanics "shows" it to be true.
A dialogue between Buddhism and physics
Can there be a relationship, a dialogue, between Buddhism and physics? Absolutely, and this is where I think there are new roads opening up. Physics, whether we're aware of it or not, is saturated with ideas, concepts, and attitudes inherited from the philosophical traditions that began with the Greeks. These were then mixed with the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and then were shaped by the Renaissance. This long philosophical tradition in physics constitutes an ongoing dialogue about the nature of cause and effect, identity and change, and time and space. When physicists working at the foundations of their fields try to imagine new paths, they naturally draw from this tradition be it consciously or unconsciously.
What the classical philosophies of India and Asia (a much better term than "Eastern Philosophy") offer is a new partnership in discussion. The millennia of philosophical discussions occurring in the Buddhist milieu asked questions similar to those occurring in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Europe. But the Buddhist conversation had a very different set of concerns and foci. In this way, an engagement between physics and Buddhist perspectives can, perhaps, offer a larger set of ideas and perspectives to consider when thinking about foundational issues in physics.
This kind of dialogue is something I get really excited about because it's not a matter of bringing the two together to "prove one is true," but instead, it's about enlarging the sandbox of possibilities in thinking about the world and our place in it. Next spring I'll be participating in a conference in Berkeley called Buddhism, Physics, and Philosophy Redux on exactly this kind of overlap. Hosted by the wonderful scholar of Buddhism Robert Scharf, it promises to be Big Fun!
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb, which is publishing in paperback on July 21. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.
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