No. But Buddhism and quantum mechanics have much to teach each other.
- 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!
Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.
Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another.
- The trolley problem is a well-known thought experiment, and its variations provide the source of endless discussion.
- However, few people consider the problem holistically. Would you actually be able to pull the lever?
- A new essay reminds us that many philosophies have a holistic approach to moral problems that we should consider.
The trolley problem likely has the honor of being the most widely discussed thought experiment of all time due to its popularity outside of academic circles. Devised in its current form by Phillipa Foot in 1967 and existing in similar ones for decades before that, the experiment is an extremely accessible tool for interacting with the problems of ethical theory.
Compared to other, more outlandish thought experiments, it also presents a rather tangible problem for our consideration. Situations similar to the one proposed in the experiment have arisen in real life. However, while we may learn what the right thing to do in theory is by thinking about the problem, that alone does not provide us with the tools to actually pull the lever in the moment where we find ourselves facing such a stark moral choice.
Think about it for a moment—if you were actually watching a runaway train hurtle towards some people, could you think quickly enough to pull the lever in time? Are you physically strong enough to do so? Can you live with the guilt of having essentially decided to kill the person on the other track? Can you handle the guilt of doing nothing? These problems often go unasked, and the utilitarian philosophy most people turn to in answering the trolley problem tends to gloss over these issues even if it, hypothetically, could account for them.
This comprehensive view of the trolley problem and a variety of philosophies that advise holistic responses to such situations are considered in the newly published essay "Bruce Lee and the Trolley Problem: An Analysis from an Asian Martial Arts Tradition," written by Dr. William Sin and published in the journal Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy.
The difference between thinking about the trolley problem and pulling the lever
Dr. Sin, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, argues that the scenario described in the trolley problem is not a mundane occurrence but an extreme event that will require an instantaneous response utilizing not only a person's ethical convictions but also their physical strength, psychological composure, and other capacities.
He turns to certain Eastern philosophies and their often holistic approaches to ethical problems to explain this perspective. The Zen Buddhism of the Samurai and the personal philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee as exemplified by Jeet Kune Do, both approach fights as "extreme events" which cannot be overcome by just knowing what moves to make. A skilled martial artist must also remain calm during a battle, be able to strictly concentrate on the task at hand, and be able to differentiate between the actions done during practice and what is necessary during an actual fight.
A great fighter is not just one who wins, but one who does so well, with masterful control of themselves and their actions as they engage in something most people actively try to avoid. Dr. Sin connects this multifaceted understanding of fighting to how an individual must approach pulling or not pulling the lever in the trolley problem:
"The greatness or goodness of an action can't be judged purely by looking at its consequences, or by the type of action that it falls under in certain deontological categories. In addition, we need to consider the features of the moral battlefield that the agent is fighting against; these might involve how much blame/guilt that an agent is willing to carry, how demanding the situation is from the agent's viewpoint, how great the obstacles are for him to overcome, etc. In the trolley case, we can tell the difference between better or worse responses as some agents are able to maintain composure in an extreme situation and some aren't. A panicked or chaotic response may not mean much ethically, even if it saved more lives than it killed."
Three philosophies and their stances on complex moral problems
Unlike utilitarianism or deontology, which are primarily concerned with showing you what to do in a particular situation, the philosophies Dr. Sin examines, including Zen Buddhism, Bruce Lee's take on Jeet Kune Do, and Confucianism, often aim for the "practical refinement of life" rather than writing a decision process for difficult questions.
As Dr. Sin explains, this means these schools lend themselves to more holistic interpretations of approaching ethical problems and extraordinary events:
"While Jeet Kune Do prepares people for a physical encounter with their enemies in the street, a bar, or carpark, Bruce Lee emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself through the confrontations. The doctrines of Zen Buddhism were interpreted similarly by traditional Japanese swordsmen. But the practice and rigid discipline in Zen Buddhism is primarily proposed for the sake of self-realization: for practitioners to 'overcome the barrier between life and death (liaoshengjuesi了生決死).' Judgements about what people should do in particular cases stem from this direction of concern. The Zen Buddhists or traditional Confucians are not so interested in analyzing the balance of reasons in particular cases, or testing the consistency of ethical principles as such.
In the Analects, Confucius sometimes says different things to different students, seemingly contradicting himself. But he doesn't really care about demonstrating the overall structure of his "doctrines." He cares more about whether his words and deeds can help improve his students' characters, or highlight their mistakes when they arise. For Confucius, the objective of learning is largely about acquiring the know how for someone to become a better father, son, minister, etc. Confucius, in his teaching, does not like to engage in arguments. He prefers his students see the flaws themselves in their own reflection and correct them silently."
When asked if the principle of treating some ethical questions holistically went beyond fights and runaway trolleys, Dr. Sin largely agreed. "You can say that all performances should be evaluated holistically," he said. "We should always look beyond the actions, or their consequences, and study the territory in which the persons perform those actions. By 'territory,' I mean the kind of people the agents are, their histories, other features of the situation that are pertinent to them."
How can I use these insights?
Dr. Sin points out that many Zen monks apply this understanding in day to day life. "Some Japanese Zen monks adopt an attitude of seriousness to handle small things and routine matters. Apart from its intrinsic values (to achieve a small moral triumph), the practice itself is useful for self-cultivation."
There is no real reason that you have to be a monk to do that. He also suggests taking a look at the key texts of these philosophies. The "Analects" of Confucius and "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" by Bruce Lee, for example, both provide thought-provoking and useful ideas.
And for those wondering how a Zen Master or Confucian Sage might act when faced with an out of control trolley car, Dr. Sin reminds us that they would consider that to be the wrong question. "For, the 'solution' is dependent on the readiness of the agents in the case. As Nietzsche says, strong people can digest their experiences (including deeds and misdeeds) as they digest their meals. If the people are not ready, there is not much to be said here."
He went on to suggest a Zen monk might hit you with a keisaku for asking and that Bruce Lee might see how you react to a fury of fists stopping near your face.
While it is entertaining and often intellectually stimulating to consider what the right thing to do in the situation imagined by the trolley problem and its endless variations would be, Dr. Sin and the thinkers he references remind us that it is often not enough to merely know what we should do but also to have the capacity to act on that information. A total response to the extreme situation imagined in the trolley problem will require various skills that may need active cultivation before such an event occurs.
Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.
- Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
- Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
- Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
The news that Donald Trump got sick with COVID-19 prompted "karma" to trend on social media. The President downplayed the virus, openly mocked the practice of wearing masks, shared misinformation, and held super spreader events for thousands of followers. But what happened to him was not necessarily karma (or at least, we can't really know). Chances are, karma is not what you think it is.
Karma is not just a mechanism by which the universe brings snarky retribution for someone's misdeeds. It's not simple luck or even destiny. It's a Sanskrit word that means "action," "work," or "deed," and it really speaks of the spiritual cycle of cause and effect. The good intentions and deeds you perform result in an addition of good karma, while the bad ones add to the bad karma. Notice that karma doesn't necessarily have to be negative. It's more a law of consequences than a particular reward or punishment.
The notion is linked to the idea of samsara, which also originated in India and means "wandering." It is paramount to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism, and refers to the belief that all living beings go through cycles of birth and rebirth, which may continue indefinitely. With the details depending on the religion, the kind of karma you accumulate on the wheel of life or "karmic cycle" can influence both the future of your present life, but also the one you may have coming up. The soul transmigrates after death, bringing Karmic impulses from the life just finished into the new one. Conversely, it's important to note that karma you are experiencing today may be a product of not just your actions in this lifetime but based on what happened in the lives you had in the past.
If you're wondering, being reborn as an animal is looked at as an undesirable rebirth, leading to much additional suffering. Having a human rebirth would land you closer to being able to get off the karmic soul train.
How do you escape samsara? By working towards achieving enlightenment, or "Nirvana." Once you get there through good karmic deeds and spiritual practices, your desires and sufferings will go away and you will find peace and happiness. Of course, your physical body will die and you will no longer be reborn, but on the plus side, you will be awake to the true nature of reality and if you're Hindu, you'd reunite with Brahman, the universal God or soul.
Thanga Wheel of LIfe
Credit: Adobe Stock
7th-century Upanishads described the law of karma causality in this poetic way:
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;
And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.
It's significant to point out, the laws of karma, caused by individual actions, can affect the life you are leading. But what's also recognized are intentions. They are just as important in your karmic profile and the effect they have on you. Unintentional actions do not have that much influence. Even performing a good deed that stems out of questionable intentions can bring you negative karma.
Karmic theory also recognizes two forms of karma — the phalas and the samskaras. A phala is a karmic effect (visible or invisible) that's immediate or within your current lifetime. Samskaras, on the other hand, are invisible effects, that are produced inside you, impacting your ability to be happy or unhappy. This extends both to this and future lives.
While the specifics of karma theory differ based on specific spiritual practice, one thing may be for certain – what goes around comes around.