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From Issue Nineteen, February 2012 « Previous Article

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

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“Among scientists and Buddhists, there are many who are willing to question their most deeply rooted assumptions in terms of both beliefs and valid methods of inquiry.” —Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic


The establishment of the Church Scientific [a term coined by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), one of the founders of the journal Nature] in the late nineteenth century was an attempt to replace Christianity and all other religions with a new, all-encompassing vision of reality. With the many advances of science since the sixteenth century, the role of God in nature was replaced by a series of scientific discoveries, first in the fields of physics and astronomy, then in geology, and finally in biology. Only those areas that could not be explained scientifically were left to theology and a “God of the gaps.” At the start of the twenty-first century, many believed that there was simply no need for God or religion of any kind to explain the whole of the natural world.

The historical development that has resulted in this triumph of the scientific worldview began with the first great scientific revolution in the physical sciences, launched by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. The second great revolution took place in the biological sciences, ignited by Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection. Only after these two great scientific developments was a science of the mind initiated in the late nineteenth century. In light of this historical evolution of science, it was inevitable that the Church Scientific would come to insist that all mental phenomena emerge solely from biological processes, that all of life emerged from inorganic physical processes, and that the universe as a whole inexplicably emerged from a mindless, lifeless singularity at the dawn of time.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the methods and theories of physics were well established as the dominant paradigm for the natural sciences as a whole. So it was only “natural” for biologists to conclude that life originally formed from the inorganic stuff that is the domain of physics. And by the time the mind sciences began to develop, psychologists, behaviorists, and cognitive neuroscientists naturally concluded that the mind is formed from the organic matter that is the domain of biology. In the scientific worldview, the universe began with the emergence of lifeless, unconscious configurations of matter and energy; over the course of billions of years, these gave rise to living organisms, which gradually evolved into conscious, sentient beings. Although many fundamental questions remain concerning the origins of life and of consciousness, scientists take a “matter-of-the-gaps” approach, assuming that any future discoveries will necessarily take place within their familiar, materialistic framework. Anything else is unthinkable.

Materialism’s Blind Faith

The general assumption seems to be that it’s simply a coincidence that the evolution of the cosmos has followed the exact same sequence as the evolution of modern science since the sixteenth century. Was it a logical necessity that the first great discoveries within the natural sciences took place in physics and were followed by discoveries in the life sciences? Or do members of the Church Scientific believe that the hand of Nature caused the first pioneers of modern science to be physicists and caused them to be followed by biologists and finally by psychologists? Historians have clearly shown that the origins of modern science, beginning with astronomy, were deeply rooted in Christian beliefs and ideals, as natural philosophers like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo sought a “God’s-eye view” of God’s own creation.1 Had it not been for these Christian influences, the scientific revolution might never have occurred, or it might well have been rooted in biology or psychology, which could have given rise to an entirely different kind of worldview.

Materialists reject theism, but matter—as it exists in and of itself, independent of measurement—is as unknowable to the human intellect as God, who exists in and of Himself. The materialists’ belief—that the entire universe, as it exists independently of the human mind, consists solely of physical entities—entails a wild leap of anthropocentric faith. They are avowing that reality, as it exists independently of human concepts, fits neatly within the human conceptual construct of “physical,” as we define this term in the twenty-first century. This is an expression of blind faith in something that can never be verified or even put to the test of experience. If the term “metaphysical” denotes “the transcendent, or a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses,” then the physical world as it exists independent of all systems of measurement is metaphysical and therefore “supernatural.”

Virtually all neurobiologists agree that there can be no nonphysical influences on the brain, for this is impossible according to the seemingly inviolable and universal principle of the conservation of mass-energy. Sometimes expressed in terms of the “closure principle,” this states that in any closed system, the total amount of mass-energy is conserved. When the closure principle is applied to the universe as a whole, this means that all influences on the universe occur due to mass-energy transformations within this system—there is absolutely no possibility of nonphysical, supernatural influences on the universe from outside, such as angels, demons, or God. The same principle is then applied to the brain: all events occurring within the brain can be attributed only to mass-energy processes inside and outside the brain. There is no possibility of any nonphysical influences, such as from nonphysical virtuous or nonvirtuous mental processes or a soul. The macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the brain interacting with the body and physical environment can therefore be likened to a bank and its financial transactions with clients: the accounts of mass-energy transactions are always balanced, with nothing entering from the outside or leaving from the inside.

In fact, according to the energy-time Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the closure principle is violated regularly, and the shorter the violation, the greater it can be. Serious qualms may be raised about “balancing the accounts” of the conservation of mass-energy in the universe at large. According to the latest astrophysical reports, only about 4 percent of the total energy density in the universe is accounted for in the sense of being measurable. In fact, 22 percent of the gravitational force in the universe is unaccounted for, so it is attributed to “dark matter.” The word “matter” is simply a placeholder, and the word “dark” means scientists know nothing about it: a classic case of “matter-of-the-gaps.”

Seventy-four percent of the force in the universe that opposes gravity and causes the acceleration of the expansion of the universe is also unaccounted for, so this is attributed to “dark energy.” The nature of this so-called energy is unknown, hence the qualifier “dark.” In effect, it has a weight almost twice that of all matter, observable and unobservable, or “dark.” Although physicists don’t know the nature of either dark matter or dark energy, they are confident that these unknown entities, existing in the objective universe independently of our measurements, fit within our human notion of “physical.” The designation is clearly tautological: if something exists, even if its nature is completely unknown, it is declared to be “physical.” This approach to preserving the principle of conservation of mass-energy by simply assuming that there are no nonphysical influences on the universe is nothing less than “cooking the books” in order to preserve the constancy of mass-energy in the universe. If a bank had such problems balancing its income and expenses, it would be forced into default, or it might receive a massive bailout from the government, thereby exporting its problems from the private sector to the public sector.

In summary, if the term “metaphysical” refers to things that lie beyond the observable universe, then 96 percent of reality is metaphysical, which materialists regard as “supernatural.” The metaphysical beliefs of scientific materialism turn out to be bankrupt: they are neither true nor meaningful.

Clouds of Uncertainty

The materialists’ worldview is fundamentally rooted in physics, so before we invest too heavily in the belief that all biological and mental phenomena must be emergent properties of lifeless, unconscious matter, it would be worthwhile to assess where cutting-edge physics stands today. The field of quantum mechanics is the most fundamental branch of physics, with the deepest insights into the nature of matter and energy. In his recent book entitled Quantum, science writer Manjit Kumar cites a poll about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken among physicists at a conference in 1999. Of the ninety respondents, only four said they accepted the standard interpretation taught in every undergraduate physics course in the world, thirty favored the “many-worlds interpretation” formulated by the Princeton theoretician Hugh Everett III (1930–82), and fifty replied, “none of the above or undecided.”2 The real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.

To investigate more recent advances in physics and where it is headed, we may look to a conference held at Caltech at the beginning of 2010, the Physics of the Universe Summit, which was designed to set the research agenda for the rest of the twenty-first century. This was intended to provide a setting in which physicists from around the world could avoid “groupthink” and “be daring (even at the expense of being wrong),” according to the instructions of Maria Spiropulu, who organized the event. But the results were not what the organizers had in mind. Joseph D. Lykken of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who helped coordinate the meeting, commented, “We’re confused, and we’re probably going to be confused for a long time.” Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist from Arizona State, added that not only are most contemporary theories wrong, but most data are also wrong—at first—subject to glaring uncertain-ties. The recent history of physics, he said, is full of promising discoveries that disappeared because they could not be repeated.3 The mysteries surrounding the real meaning of quantum physics may be clarified only when the ideological shackles of scientific materialism are discarded and scientists come to grips with the role of consciousness and meaning in the universe.

One direction to explore in this regard is Hugh Everett’s “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which has recently grown in popularity among physicists. First presented in 1957 in his doctoral thesis, which he developed under his advisor, John Wheeler, Everett called his hypothesis the “relative state interpretation of quantum mechanics.”4 But ever since Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt wrote papers on this theory, it has been known as the many-worlds interpretation.5 According to Everett’s hypothesis, in the act of measurement, the quantum world is divided into alternative classical worlds, each of which is equally “real.” The observer, however, subjectively perceives only one classical world, namely the one that arises in response to the specific measurements chosen by him or her. In any one of Everett’s worlds, because of the internal principles of quantum-mechanical evolution, all valid observers within the same cognitive frame of reference see the same thing, so their observations are consistent with one another. The selection of reality by each conscious observer is made in relation to those aspects of reality they consider to be most vital.

This view bears a strong similarity to the hypotheses presented by John Wheeler, Stephen Hawking, and Thomas Hertog. The gist is that there is no absolutely objective history of the universe as it exists independently of all systems of measurement and conceptual modes of inquiry. Rather, there are many possible histories, among which scientists select one or more based on their specific methods of inquiry. If we apply this insight from contemporary physics, we are led to a remarkable conclusion. In essence, quantum cosmology can be interpreted to imply that the current scientific, materialistic view of the origins and evolution of the universe is a projection of the origins and evolution of modern science over the past four hundred years. This may be called the “true or anthropological essence of scientific materialism.” It points to a “false or materialistic essence of scientific materialism,” namely, the view of Nature,as we experience it and conceive of it, as having an existence separate from and independent of humanity. We alienate ourselves when we project human history onto the physical universe, and the very act of attributing human qualities to the brain alone necessarily withdraws these same qualities from the human species. Materialists unconsciously project their desire for meaning and immortality onto the universe, giving the name “Nature” to what they themselves have projected. History repeats itself, from one Church to another. . . .

To escape from the monolithic domination by a single worldview, we may recall William James’s pithy aphorism, “for the moment, what we attend to is reality.”6 Materialists attend to physical reality, and it becomes all that is real for them. Contemplatives attend to multiple dimensions of consciousness and its relation to the rest of reality, and it becomes real for them. This reflects the ancient Greek theme of Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things,” implying that knowledge is invariably related to the knower.7 This is also reflected in the Hermetic aphorism “As above, so below,” attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which proposes that what happens on any level—physical, mental, and spiritual—happens on every other level.

The many-worlds theory implies that the particular world we experience ourselves as inhabiting is illusory in nature; it appears to be absolutely real and objective but is in fact essentially relative to our own subjective modes of measurement or observation. This bears a striking similarity to ancient Indian thought. The Sanskrit term referring to the world of appearances is maya, literally meaning “illusion.” It stems from a verbal root with the dual meanings of “to measure” and “to create illusions.” Like quantum physicists, Indian contemplatives connected the act of measurement to the manifestation of illusory appearances. To draw another parallel, the word “meditation” traces back to the Indo-European verbal root “med-,” which means “to measure” or “consider.” The recurrent theme here is that the act of meditation, or measurement, divides up the seamless fabric of reality, giving form to manifold worlds of illusory, dreamlike appearances, which are then deludedly reified as existing “out there,” independent of our measurements.

The Next Great Scientific Revolution

In this series of essays, I have focused primarily on breaking the ideological chains of materialism that shackle the minds of scientists and the modern world at large. Dogmatism and closed-mindedness creep into science as they do into every other tradition of inquiry, and Buddhism is no exception. But among scientists and Buddhists, there are many who are truly open-minded and willing to question their most deeply rooted assumptions, in terms of both beliefs and valid methods of inquiry. With mutually respectful collaboration between scientists and contemplatives of all traditions—not just Buddhism—a true revolution in the mind sciences may be launched, with profound repercussions for biology, physics, and our view of the universe at large. Such individuals are our hope for the future.

The essential message is that there is not one absolutely real world out there, whether it is described by science or by any other discipline of inquiry. The human tendency throughout history has been to reify one from among multiple worlds of possibility, thereby conceiving of a “universe,” literally meaning something that has been “turned into one.” As long as we are caught up in human conceptual theories, we are confined to one anthropocentric view of reality after another. As James concluded, “Thought deals thus solely with surfaces. It can name the thickness of reality, but it cannot fathom it, and its insufficiency here is essential and permanent, not temporary.”8 There is a way to escape the limitations of the human intellect, but it requires us to leave thought behind. This brings us to the practice of meditation and to the possibility of transcending the worlds of illusion. With this in mind, I return to meditation and leave the last word to William James:

I think it may be asserted that there are religious experiences of a specific nature, not deducible by analogy or psychological reasoning from our other sorts of experience. I think that they point with reasonable probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider spiritual environment from which the ordinary prudential man . . . is shut off .9


Excerpted from “The Many Worlds of Buddhism and Science” in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic by B. Alan Wallace, Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2012. All rights reserved.


Notes

1. Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brian Easlea, Witch Hunting, Magic, and the New Philosophy: An Introduction to Debates of the Scientific Revolution 1450–1750 (Brighton, NJ: Harvester Press, 1980).

2. Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality (New York: Norton, 2010), p. 358.

3. Dennis Overbye, “Physicists’ Dreams and Worries in Era of the Big Collider,” The New York Times, January 25, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/science/26essay.html.

4. Hugh Everett III, “‘Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics,” Rev. Mod. Phys. 29, no. 3 (1957): 454–62.

5. Bryce S. DeWitt and Neill Graham, eds., The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973).

6. William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover, 1950), 2:322n.

7. DK80b1. This is a reference from the Diels-Kranz numbering system, which catalogues quotations from the Pre-Socratics. See Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Zurich: Weidmann, 1985).

8. James, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 250.

9. James, A Pluralistic Universe, pp. 299–300.

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  • 3 Comments
  • Anonymous Icon

    justbeit Feb 04, 2012

    Beautifully captures the huge mystery without abandoning what some have called 'Big Hope'. In these seeming polarizing times, stilling and opening the mind from attachment to delusion remains our best practice for alignment and harmony.

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    WalkerOfWorlds Feb 04, 2012

    "In the scientific worldview, the universe began with the emergence of lifeless, unconscious configurations of matter and energy; over the course of billions of years, these gave rise to living organisms, which gradually evolved into conscious, sentient beings. Although many fundamental questions remain concerning the origins of life and of consciousness, scientists take a “matter-of-the-gaps” approach, assuming that any future discoveries will necessarily take place within their familiar, materialistic framework. Anything else is unthinkable."
    Well, think about it this way: the answer actually lies where the thinking mind can't go, which is the point - there is existence outside the realm of thought - reality is larger than the thinking mind, and what the thinking mind can encompass. Seek there.

  • jmysin1 Feb 05, 2012

    First I have to thank you for allowing me to join the large group of scientists who struggle with quantum mechanics. I took an undergraduate physics course in quantum mechanics and then again in physical chemistry. To be honest with you to this day I don't have a clue how to place quantum mechanics in my materialist world. I graduated with a degree in chemistry and then off to medical school. Materialism abounds in these fields so it was with great relief when I discovered meditation. The first half of my life was spent maximizing the benefits of that materialist world but the second half looks to be even more fulfilling as I learn to be aware of my consciousness. I will never forget one of my earliest teachings in mindfulness. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him..." At first I was appalled at such a callous statement but I am beginning to appreciate that it will not be through a materialist approach that I will reach my Buddha nature!

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