Science and Buddhism: at the crossroads

Trinh Xuan Thuan

Astronomy Department, University of Virginia


Vietnamese version

I. Are there grounds for a dialogue ?


Science and Buddhism have radically different methods for investigating reality. In science, intellect and reason have the leading roles. Science gathers knowledge about the world and condenses that knowledge into laws that can be tested. By dividing, categorizing, analyzing, comparing, and measuring, scientists express these laws in the highly abstract language of mathematics. Intuition is not absent in science, but it gives results only if it can be formulated in a coherent mathematical structure and validated by observation and analysis. By contrast, it is intuition – or inner experience – that plays the leading role in the way Buddhism approaches reality. Buddhism adopts a contemplative approach with an essentially inward gaze while science looks outward. Buddhism is mainly concerned with our inner self while science’s main preoccupation is the external world. Rather than breaking up reality in its different components like science does in its reductionist method, Buddhism with its holistic approach aims to understand it in its entirety. Buddhism has no use for measuring apparatus, and does not rely on the sort of sophisticated observations that form the basis of experimental science. Its statements are more qualitative than quantitative.


But the main difference between the pursuit of knowledge in science versus the same pursuit in Buddhism is their ultimate goals. The purpose of science is to find out about the world of phenomena. Its main focus is the understanding of the physical universe, considered to be quantifiable and objective, so as to gain control over the natural world. On the other hand, in Buddhism, knowledge is acquired essentially for therapeutic purposes. The objective is not to find out about the physical world for its own sake, but to free ourselves from the suffering that is caused by our undue attachment to the apparent reality of the external world. Empirical inquiry motivated only by intellectual curiosity is not a principal Buddhist aim. Rather, it wants to understand the true nature of the world to clear away the mists of ignorance and open the way to Enlightenment and the path to liberation. Instead of telescopes, particle accelerators or microscopes, Buddhism uses the mind as the instrument to investigate the universe. It stresses the importance of elucidating the nature of the mind through direct contemplative experience. Over the centuries it has devised a profound and rigorous approach to the understanding of mental states and of the ultimate nature of the mind. The mind is behind every experience in life. It determines the way we see the world. It takes only the slightest change in our minds, in how we deal with mental states and perceive people and things, for ‘our’ world to be turned completely upside-down. Thus instead of focussing exclusively on the objective third-person aspect of the world like classical science does, Buddhism puts also the emphasis on its first-person aspect.


Given these seemingly profound differences in their methods and aims, can there a basis for a dialogue between science and Buddhism? Would Buddhism have something to say about the nature of phenomena as this is not its main interest, whereas such preoccupations lie at the heart of science? The answer to these questions is an unequivocal yes. One of Buddhist philosophy’s main tasks is the study of the nature of reality. While science isn’t Buddhism’s main preoccupation, it has long been asking questions that are astonishingly similar to those that preoccupy modern science. Can separate, indivisible particles be the fundamental building blocks of the world? Do they really exist, or are they just concepts that help us understand reality? Are the laws of physics immutable, and do they have an intrinsic existence, like Platonic ideals? Is there a solid reality behind appearances? What is the origin of the world of phenomena, the world that we see as ‘real’ around us? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate, between the subject and the object? What is the nature of space and time? Buddhist philosophers have been studying and pondering over these questions for the last 2,500 years. Buddhist literature abounds with logical treatises discussing theories of perception and analyses of different levels of the world of phenomena. It includes many psychological treatises which explore various aspects of consciousness and the ultimate nature of our minds.


And while the investigative methods of Buddhism and science for exploring the world may look at first glance very different, a closer look reveals that Buddhism, just like science, relies also on the experimental method to find out about reality. The Buddhist method of analysis often makes use of  ‘thought experiments’ which are also widely used in science. These are  hypothetical experiments conducted in the mind, which lead to irrefutable conclusions, although the experiments are not actually carried out. This technique has often been used by the best practitioners of science, in particular by Einstein. For example, when studying the nature of space and time, the physicist imagines himself astride a particle of light. When thinking about gravity, he saw himself in an accelerating elevator. In the same manner, Buddhist scholars use thought experiments to dissect reality. Buddhism also resembles science in that it encourages skepticism in the prevailing beliefs. Buddha encourages us not to accept his teachings on faith, but only after thinking them through ourselves. He tells us: ‘Just as the wise accept gold after testing it by heating, cutting, and rubbing it, so are my words to be accepted after examining them, but not out of respect for me.’ If we take ‘science’ to  mean ‘a system of knowledge that is rigorous, coherent and verifiable’ or ‘a set of principles and procedures which involves the recognition and formulation of a problem, the formulation of hypotheses and the collection of data through observation and experiment to test these hypotheses’ (Webster dictionary), then Buddhism can be described as a ‘contemplative science’ or a ‘science of the mind’. But here the field of  investigation is not only the ‘objective’ material world which can be physically studied, measured, and calculated, a world which can be described only in terms of third-person quantitative methods. It is enlarged to the whole scope of our ‘subjective’ living experience including mental phenomena which can only be perceived through first-person introspective observation.


In the following sections, I will compare the views of reality as seen through the lenses of science and Buddhism. I will attempt to build gentle bridges between the sciences of the physical world and the science of the mind. It is not my purpose here to make science sound mystical nor to justify Buddhism’s underpinnings with the discoveries of modern science. Science functions well, is perfectly self-sufficient and accomplishes well its stated aim without the need of a philosophical support from Buddhism or from any other religion. In fact, it is when religion thinks it can tell the ‘truth’ to science that problems arise, as in the disastrous condemnation of Galileo by the Church in 1633. Buddhism is a science of the Awakening, and whether it is the Earth that goes around the Sun or the contrary cannot have any consequence on its philosophical basis. It has been in existence for some 2500 years while modern science did not get its start until the 16th century. But because both are quests for the truth, and both use criteria of authenticity, rigor and logic to attain it, their respective world views should not result in an insuperable opposition, but rather in a harmonious complementarity. The physicist Werner Heisenberg expressed this view eloquently: ‘I consider the ambition of overcoming opposites, including also a synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity, to be the ‘mythos’, spoken or unspoken, of our present day and age.’


I shall discuss and compare the world views of Science and Buddhism by examining in turn each of the three basic tenets of Buddhism. I shall consider the concept of  ‘impermanence’ in Section II, and that of ‘interdependence’ and of ‘vacuity’ in Section III. I shall discuss how, in contrast to theist religions, Buddhism rejects the concept of a ‘God’ or a ‘Creator’ in Section IV and offer concluding remarks in Section V.


II. Impermanence at the heart of reality


Buddhism distinguishes two types of impermanence. There is first the gross impermanence. This includes all the obvious changes of persons and things that we witness in our daily lives: the changing of seasons, the erosion of mountains, the passage from youth to old age, our varying emotions. Then there is the subtle impermanence: at each infinitesimal moment, everything that seems to exist changes. The universe is not made of solid, distinct entities, but is like a vast stream of events and dynamic currents that are all interconnected and constantly interacting. This concept of perpetual and omnipresent change in Buddhism is in accord with the underlying theme of evolution in all of 20th century science.


Consider modern cosmology. Aristotle’s immutable heavens and Newton’s static universe are no more. Everything is changing and moving, everything is impermanent, from the tiniest elementary particle to the entire universe, including galaxies, stars, planets and mankind. The universe is not static, but expanding because of the initial impulse it received from its primordial explosion. This dynamic nature is described by the equations of General Relativity. With the Big Bang theory, the universe is not any more eternal. It has a beginning, a past, a present and a future. It has acquired a history. According to the latest observations, it will expand forever, cooling ever more and die in an icy freeze. In addition to the motion of expansion, all of the universe’s structures – asteroids, comets, planets, stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters – are in perpetual motion and take part in an immense cosmic ballet: they rotate about their axes, revolve around each other, fall toward or move away from one another. They, too, have a history. They are born, reach maturity, then die. Stars have lifecycles than span millions, or even billion of years.


Change and evolution have also entered other fields of science. In geology, the continents which were thought to be attached solidly to the Earth’s crust are now known to move several centimeters per year, creating volcanoes and earthquakes at the boundaries where the continental plates meet. The surface of the Earth is constantly changing and remodeling itself. As for the biological sciences, the concept of evolution is ushered in by the naturalist Charles Darwin in 1859. Humans have no longer a divine lineage. They are not the descendants of Adam and Eve, themselves created by God, as thought before, but the product of a long evolution shaped by natural selection. Going back in time, man’s ancestors are in turn primates, reptiles, fishes, invertebrates and primitive unicellular organisms.   


Impermanence rules not only the macroscopic world, but also the atomic and subatomic domains. Particles can modify their nature: a quark can change its family or ‘flavor’, a proton can become a neutron while emitting a positron and a neutrino. Matter and antimatter can annihilate each other to become pure energy. The energy of motion of a particle can be transformed into another particle, or vice versa, i.e. an object’s property can become an object. The electrons in the objects that surround us are never still. At this very moment, there are billions of fleeting neutrinos that go through my body every second. Because of the quantum uncertainty of energy, the space around us is filled with an unimaginable number of ‘virtual’ particles, with fleeting ghost-like existences. Constantly appearing and disappearing, they are a perfect illustration of impermanence with their infinitely short life cycles. There is not any doubt: the ‘subtle impermanence’ of Buddhism is everywhere in the description that modern science gives of reality.


III. The interdependence and non-separability of phenomena


1. The Middle Way


The concept of interdependence lies at the heart of the Buddhist vision of the nature of reality. It says that ‘nothing exists inherently, or can be its own cause.’ An object can be defined only in terms of other objects and exist only in relationship to others. In other words, this arises because that exists. Interdependence is essential to the manifestation of phenomena. Our daily experience makes us think that things possess a real, objective independence, as though they exist all on their own and have intrinsic identities. But Buddhism maintains that this way of seeing phenomena is just a mental construct. It calls this perception of distinct phenomena resulting from isolated causes and conditions as ‘relative truth’ or ‘delusion’. Rather it adopts the notion of mutual causality: an event can happen only because it is dependent on other factors. Because everything is part of the whole, nothing can happen separately. Any given thing in our world can appear only because it is connected, conditioned and in turn conditioning, co-present and co-operating in constant transformation. An entity that exists independently of all others as an immutable and autonomous entity couldn’t act on anything, or be acted on itself.


Buddhism thus sees the world as a vast flow of events that are linked together and participate in one another. The way we perceive this flow crystallizes certain aspects of the non-separable universe, thus creating the illusion that there are autonomous entities that are completely distinct from each other and totally separate from us. Thus phenomena are simply events that happen in some circumstances. This view does not mean that Buddhism denies conventional truth – the sort that ordinary people perceive or the scientist detects with his apparatus --, or that it contests the laws of cause and effect, or the laws of physics and mathematics. It simply holds that, if we dig deep enough, there is a difference between the way we see the world and the way it really is. 


The most subtle aspect of interdependence concerns the relationship between a phenomenon’s ‘designation base’ and is ‘designation’. An object’s ‘designation bases’ refer to its position, dimension, form, color or any other of its apparent characteristics. Together, they form the object’s ‘designation’, a mental construct which assigns an autonomous distinct reality to that object. In our every day experience, when we see an object, we aren’t struck by its nominal existence, but by its designation. Because we experience it, Buddhism does not say that the object doesn’t exist. But neither does it say that the object possesses an intrinsic reality. It has the view that the object exists (thus avoiding the nihilism that Westerners have sometime mistakenly attributed to Buddhism), but that this existence is purely interdependent. This is what the Buddha calls the Middle Way. A phenomenon with no autonomous existence, but which is nevertheless not totally inexistent, can thus act and function according to the laws of causality.


2. The non-locality of the quantum world


A notion strikingly similar to that of Buddhism’s interdependence is the concept of ‘non-separability’ or ‘non-locality’ in quantum mechanics. This was revealed by the famous thought experiment designed by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) in 1935 in an attempt to show that the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics is wrong, and that the theory is incomplete. In simplified terms, the thought experiment goes like follows. Imagine a particle that disintegrates spontaneously into two photons A and B. The laws of symmetry dictates that they will travel in opposite directions. If A goes westward, then we will detect B to the east. It all seems perfectly normal. But that’s forgetting the strangeness of the quantum world. Like Janus, light is double-faced. It can be either wave or particle. Before being captured by the detector, quantum theory tells us that A has the appearance of a wave. This wave being not localized, there was a non-zero probability that A may be found in any direction. It’s only when it has been captured that A ‘learns’ that it is moving westward. But, if A didn’t ‘know’ before being captured which direction it had taken, how could B have ‘guessed’ what A was doing and adjusted its behavior accordingly so that it could be captured at the same time in the opposite direction? This is impossible, unless A can inform B instantaneously of the direction it has taken. This would imply a light signal propagating at infinite speed, which would be in contradiction with general relativity. Because ‘God does not send telepathic signals’ and there can be ‘no spooky action at a distance’, Einstein concluded that quantum mechanics did not provide a complete description of reality, that A must ‘know’ which direction it was going to take and ‘tell’ B before they split up. He thought that each particle possesses ‘hidden variables’ which quantum theory did not take into account, hence its incompleteness.


For nearly 30 years, the EPR experiment remained as a thought experiment because physicists did not know how to carry it out in practice. It was not until 1964 that the physicist John Bell found a way to transform the central idea of EPR from a metaphysical speculation to a proposition that can tested in the laboratory. He devised a mathematical theorem now called ‘Bell’s inequality’ which could be verified experimentally if particles really did have hidden variables. At the beginning of the 80s, the technology was finally ripe for the physicist Alain Aspect and his team in Paris to carry out a series of experiments on pair of ‘entangled’ photons (i.e. photons that have interacted with each other). They found that Bell’s inequality was always violated. This means that there are no hidden variables. Quantum mechanics was right and Einstein was wrong. In Aspect’s experiments, photons A and B were 12 meters apart, yet B always ‘knew’ instantaneously what A was doing, and reacted accordingly. The physicists were sure that no light signal could have been exchanged between A and B because atomic clocks, connected to the detectors that capture A and B, allow them to gauge the moment of each photon’s arrival extremely accurately. The difference between the two arrival times is less than a few tenths of a billionth of a second – it is probably zero, in fact, but existing atomic clocks don’t allow us to measure periods of under 10^-10 seconds. Now, in 10^-10 seconds, light can travel only 3 centimeters, far less than the 12 meters separating A from B. What is more, the result is the same if the distance between the two entangled photons is increased. In the latest experiment carried out in 1998 by the physicist Nicolas Gisin and his colleagues in Geneva , the photons are separated by 10 km, yet their behaviors are perfectly correlated. This is paradoxical only if, like Einstein, we think that reality is cut up and localized in each photon. The problem goes away if we admit that A and B, once they have interacted with each other, become part of a non-separable reality, no matter how far apart they are, even if they are at opposite ends of the universe. A does not need to send a signal to B because they share the same reality. Quantum mechanics thus eliminates all idea of locality and provides a holistic view of space. For two entangled photons, the notions of ‘here’ and ‘there’ become meaningless because ‘here’ is identical to ‘there’. That is what physicists call the ‘non-separability’ or ‘non-locality’of space. This is akin to the concept of the interdependence of phenomena in Buddhism.


3. Foucault’s pendulum and the interdependence of the macrocosm


Another famous and fascinating physics experiment shows that the interdependence of phenomena isn’t limited to the world of particles but pervades the whole universe. This is the pendulum experiment carried out by the physicist Léon Foucault in 1851 at the Panthéon in Paris to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. We are all familiar with the behavior of the pendulum. As time passes, the direction in which it swings changes. If it was set swinging in a north-south direction, after a few hours, it is swinging east-west. If the pendulum were placed at either the North or the South pole, it would turn completely round in 24 hours (in Paris, because of a latitude effect, Foucault’s pendulum performs only part of a complete rotation in a day). Foucault realized that, in fact, the pendulum swung in the same direction, and it was the Earth that turned.


But there remains a puzzle not clearly understood to this day. The swing of the pendulum is fixed in space, but fixed with respect to what? The pendulum is attached to a building which is itself attached to Earth. The Earth carries us at some 30 km/s around the Sun, which is itself flying through space at 230 km/s in its orbit around the center of the Milky Way. Our Galaxy is in turn falling toward the Andromeda galaxy qt some 90 km/s. The Local Group of galaxies, the most massive members of which are the Galaxy and Andromeda, is moving at 600 km/s under the gravitational attraction of the Virgo cluster and of the Hydra-Centaurus supercluster. The latter is itself falling toward the Great Attractor, the mass of which is equivalent to that of tens of thousands of galaxies. Is the behavior of Foucault’s pendulum dictated by any of these relatively nearby structures? In order to find out which celestial object controls the swing of the pendulum, we simply set the pendulum swinging in that celestial object’s direction. If, as that object moves in the sky, it always remains in the plane of the pendulum’s swing, then we can say that the object is responsible for the pendulum’s behavior. Let’s swing the pendulum in the direction of the Sun. After a month, our star has already shifted by a whole 15° away from the pendulum’s direction of swing. Let’s now point the pendulum toward the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, which is 4 light-years away. The star stays longer in the swing plane, but after several years, ends up drifting away. The Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.3 million light-years away, moves away more slowly, but does drift off the plane. The time spent in line with the pendulum’s swing grows longer and the shift becomes smaller the greater the distance of the celestial object is. Only the most distant galaxies, situated at the edge of the known universe, billions of light-years away, do not drift away from the plane of the pendulum’s swing.


The conclusion we must draw is extraordinary: Foucault’s pendulum doesn’t base its behavior on its local environment, but rather on the most distant galaxies, or, more accurately, on the entire universe, given that practically all visible matter is to be found in distant galaxies and not in nearby stars. Thus, what happens here on Earth is decided by all the vast cosmos. What occurs on our tiny planet depends on all the structures in the universe.

Why does the pendulum behave in such a way? We don’t know. The physicist Ernst Mach thought it could be explained by a sort of omnipresence of matter and its influence. According to him, an object’s mass – that is to say, the amount of its inertia, or resistance to movement – comes from the influence of the entire universe through a mysterious interaction, different from gravity, which he did not precise. No one else has managed to do so since. Just as the EPR experiment forces us to accept that interactions exist in the microcosm that are different from those described by known physics, Foucault’s pendulum does the same for the macrocosm. Such interactions are not based on a force or an exchange of energy, and they connect the entire universe. Again, we are drawn to a conclusion that resembles very much Buddhism’s concept of interdependence: each part contains the whole, and each part depends on all the other parts.


4. Emptiness or the absence of an intrinsic reality


The notion of interdependence leads us directly to the third key idea of Buddhism (the two others being impermanence and interdependence) : that of ‘emptiness’ or ‘vacuity’. Since everything is interdependent, nothing can be self-defining and exist inherently. The idea of intrinsic properties that exist in themselves and by themselves must be thrown out. When Buddhism states that emptiness is the ultimate nature of things, it means that the things we see around us, the phenomena of our world, lack any autonomous or permanent existence. Here ‘emptiness’ does not mean ‘nothingness’, ‘void’ or ‘absence of phenomena’ as early Western commentators on Buddhism thought, but the absence of inherent existence. Buddhism does not espouse any form of nihilism. Emptiness does not correspond to nonexistence. If you can’t speak of real existence, you can’t speak of nonexistence either. Thus according to Buddhism, learning to understand the essential unreality of things is an integral part of the spiritual way. Emptiness isn’t just the true nature of phenomena, it’s also the potential that allows the manifestation of an infinite variety of phenomena. To quote the second-century Buddhist master Nagarjuna: ‘Since all is empty, all is possible’ or the famous scripture Perfection of Wisdom: ‘Though phenomena appear, they are empty; though empty, they appear.” If reality were permanent, and its properties too, then nothing would change. Phenomena could not appear. But because things have no intrinsic reality, they can have infinite manifestations.


On the subject of the absence of an intrinsic reality, quantum physics has once again something strikingly similar to say. According to Bohr and Heisenberg, the main proponents of what is called ‘the Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, we can no longer talk about atoms and electrons as being real entities with well-defined properties, such as speed and position, tracing out equally well-defined trajectories. We must consider them as part of a world made up of potentialities and not of objects and facts. Light and matter can be said to have no intrinsic reality because they have a dual nature: they can appear either as waves or particles depending on the measuring apparatus. The phenomenon that we call a ‘photon’ is a wave when the measuring machine is shut off and we are not observing it. But as soon as the apparatus is activated and a measurement is made, it takes the appearance of a particle. The particle and wave aspects cannot be dissociated. In the contrary, they complement each other. This is what Bohr calls the ‘principle of complementarity’. Thus the very nature of light and matter is subject to interdependent relationships. It is no longer intrinsic but changes depending on the interaction between the observer and the object under observation. To speak of a particle’s intrinsic reality, or the reality it possesses when unobserved, is meaningless because we can never apprehend it. Thus for Bohr, the ‘atom’ concept is merely a convenient picture that helps physicists put together diverse observations of the particle world into a coherent and logical scheme. He emphasized the impossibility of going beyond the results of experiments and measurements: ‘In our description of nature, the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of phenomena, but only to track down, so far as possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience.’ Schrödinger also warned us against a materialistic view of atoms and their constituents: ‘It is better not to view a particle as a permanent entity, but rather as an instantaneous event. Sometimes these events link together to create the illusion of permanent entities.’ Quantum mechanics has radically revised our conception of an object, by making it subordinate to a measurement, or in other words an event. Just as in Buddhism, only relationships between objects exist, but not the objects themselves.


IV. In search of the Great Watchmaker


1.The fine-tuning of the universe


Modern cosmology has discovered that the conditions that allow for life and intelligence to emerge in the universe seem to be coded in the properties of each atom, star and galaxy in the cosmos and in all of the physical laws that govern it. The universe appears to have been very finely tuned in order to produce an intelligent observer capable of appreciating its organization and harmony. This statement is the basis of the ‘anthropic principle’ from the Greek ‘anthropos’ which means ‘person’. Concerning the anthropic principle, there are two remarks to be made. First, the definition I gave above concerns only the ‘strong’ version of the anthropic principle. There is also a ‘weak’ version which doesn’t presuppose any intention in the design of nature. It almost comes down to a tautology – the properties of the universe must be compatible with the existence of mankind – and I will not discuss it further. Second, the term ‘anthropic’ is really inappropriate as it implies that humanity was the goal toward which the universe has evolved. In fact, anthropic arguments would apply to any form of intelligence in the universe.


What is the scientific basis of the anthropic principle? The way our universe evolved depends on two types of information: 1) its initial conditions such as its total mass and energy contents, its initial expansion rate, etc; and 2) about 15 physical constants: the gravitational constant, the Planck constant, the speed of light, the masses of the elementary particles, etc. We can measure the values of these constants with extreme precision, but we do not have any theory to predict them. By constructing ‘model universes’ with varying initial conditions and physical constants, astrophysicists have discovered that these need to be fine-tuned to the extreme: if the physical constants and the initial conditions were just slightly different, we wouldn’t be here to talk about them. For instance, let’s consider the initial density of matter of the universe. Matter has a gravitational pull that counteracts the force of expansion from the Big Bang and slows down the universe’s rate of expansion. If its initial density had been too high, then the universe would have collapsed into itself after a relatively short time – a million years, a century or even just a year, depending on the exact density. Such a time span would have been too short for stars to accomplish their nuclear alchemy and produce heavy elements like carbon, which are essential to life. On the other hand, if the initial density of matter had been too low, then there would not have been enough gravity for stars to form. And no stars, no heavy elements, and no life! Everything hangs on an extremely delicate balance. The initial density of the universe had to be fixed to an accuracy of 10^-60. This astonishing precision is analogous to the dexterity of an archer hitting a one-centimeter-square target placed 14 billion light-years away, at the edge of the observable universe! The precision of the fine-tuning varies, depending on the particular constant or initial condition, but in each case, just a tiny change makes the universe barren, devoid of life and consciousness.


2. Is there a principle of organization?


What are we to make of such an extraordinary fine-tuning? It seems to me that we are faced with two distinct choices: the tuning was the consequence of either chance or necessity (to quote the title of the French biologist Jacques Monod’s book, Chance and Necessity, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1971). If we opt for chance, then we must postulate the existence of an infinite number of other universes besides our own forming what is called a ‘multiverse’. Each of these universes will have its own combination of physical constants and initial conditions. But ours was the only universe born with just the right combination to have evolve to create life. All the others were losers and only ours is the winner. If you play the lottery an infinite number of times, then you inevitably end up winning the jackpot. On the other hand, if we reject the hypothesis of a multiverse and postulate that there exists a single universe, ours, then we must postulate the existence of a principle of creation which finely adjusted the evolution of the universe.


How to choose between these two options? Science does not help us here because it allows both possibilities. Concerning the chance option, there are several ways that have been suggested to create a multiverse. For example, to get around the probabilistic description of the quantum world, the physicist Hugh Everett has proposed that the universe splits into as many nearly identical copies of itself as there are possibilities and choices to be made. Some universes would differ only by the position of one electron in one atom, but others would be more radically different. Their physical laws and constants, their initial conditions wouldn’t be the same. Another scenario is that of a cyclical universe with an infinite series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Whenever the universe is reborn from its ashes to begin again in a new Big Bang, it would start with a new combination of physical constants and initial conditions. Yet another possibility to create a multiverse is the theory proposed by the physicist Andrei Linde and others whereby each of the infinite number of fluctuations of the primordial quantum froth created a universe. Our universe would then be just a tiny bubble in a super-universe made up of an infinite number of other bubbles. Except for our own, none of those universes would harbor intelligent life because their physical constants and laws wouldn’t be suitable.     


 3. There is not a Creator in Buddhism


What is the position of Buddhism regarding the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe? Does it accept the notion of an all-knowing Creator or some sort of principle of creation that finely adjusted the evolution of the universe? Or does it attribute the remarkable harmony and precision of the universe to chance? The question of whether or not there is a creating God is a key point of distinction between Buddhism and the other great spiritual traditions of the world. For Buddhism, the notion of a ‘first cause’ does not stand up to analysis. And that’s because of the concepts of vacuity and interdependence discussed before. Buddhism considers the question of ‘creation’ irrelevant because according to it, phenomena aren’t really born, in the sense that they pass from nonexistence into existence. They exist only in terms of what is called ‘relative truth’ and have no actual reality. Relative, or conventional, truth comes from our experience of the world where we suppose that things exist objectively. Buddhism says that such perceptions are deceptive as, ultimately, phenomena are not objective, i.e. they have no intrinsic existence. This is the ‘absolute truth.’  In these terms, the question of creation becomes a false problem. The problem of an ‘origin’ comes about only from a belief in the absolute reality of phenomena. The idea of creation is necessary only if we believe in an objective world. It disappears when we realize that phenomena, although they can be clearly seen, have no separate existence and are not ‘objective’. And if creation is not needed, the idea of a Creator is also not required.


The Buddhist view does not, however, exclude the possibility of the unfolding of the world. Obviously the phenomena we see around us aren’t nonexistent, but Buddhism maintains that if we examine how they exist, then we soon see that they can’t be viewed as a set of independent entities, each with its own existence. To quote Nagarjuna, the great second-century Indian philosopher: ‘The nature of phenomena is that of mutual dependence; in themselves, phenomena are nothing at all.’ Thus their evolution is neither by chance nor fixed by divine intervention. Instead they follow the laws of cause and effect in a global interdependence and reciprocal causality. Because things have no independent reality, they can’t really ‘begin’ or ‘end’ as distinct entities. The idea of the universe’s beginning and ending belongs to relative, not absolute, truth.


How does this view square with present scientific cosmology? The only sort of universe that would have no beginning nor end would be a cyclical universe, with an infinite series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches in the past and in the future. But the scenario of our universe one day collapsing into itself in a Big Crunch appears to be not in agreement with present-day observations. These say that the mass densities of luminous matter (0.5% of the total mass and energy content of the universe), dark matter (29.5%) and dark energy (70%) add up to be just the critical density. This means that the geometry of the universe is flat, i.e. it will expand forever, its expansion velocity not reaching zero until after an infinite time in the future. Thus our present state of knowledge seems to exclude the idea of a cyclical universe.


4. Streams of consciousness coexisting with the material world


How about the anthropic principle? As far as Buddhism is concerned, the extraordinary fine-tuning of the universe for consciousness to emerge is not the work of a Great Watchmaker since the latter does not exist. Nor is it the product of pure chance as suggested by proponents of the multiverse idea: we are here because we just happen to live by chance in the universe with the right combination of physical constants and physical conditions. Buddhism considers that the material universe and consciousness have always coexisted since beginningless time. To coexist, phenomena must be mutually suitable, hence the remarkable fine-tuning. The latter arises because matter and consciousness cannot exclude each other, because they are interdependent. How does that point of view chime with modern neurobiology? Biological sciences are still a long way from being able to explain the origin of consciousness. However, the vast majority of biologists think that there is no need to postulate streams of consciousness that coexists with matter. They hold that that the former can emerge from the latter, that mind can arise from matter. Consciousness arose once the networks of brain cells in living beings reached a certain threshold of complexity. In their view, consciousness emerged, just as life itself, from the intricate assembly of inanimate atoms.


One question arises: when Buddhism conjectures that consciousness is separate from, and transcends the physical, isn’t it falling back into Descartes’s mind-body dualism, in which there are two distinct types of reality, that of the mind (or thought) and that of the material world? The answer is no. Buddhism’s view is radically different from Cartesian dualism. There’s merely a conventional difference between matter and consciousness because, in the end, neither of them has an inherent existence. Because Buddhism refutes the ultimate reality of phenomena, it also refutes the idea that consciousness is independent and exists inherently.


V. Science and spirituality: two windows into reality


I have attempted above to show that there are striking convergences between the views of reality of Buddhism and modern science. The concept of ‘impermanence’, a key Buddhist concept, echoes the concept of evolution in the cosmological, geological and biological sciences. Nothing is static, everything changes, moves and evolves, from the tiniest atom to the largest structures in the universe. The universe itself has acquired a history. Darwinian evolution coupled with natural selection rules the constant changes in the living world. The concept of ‘interdependence’, which is at the heart of Buddhism, resonates with the globality and non-separability of space implied by the EPR experiment on the atomic and subatomic scales, and by Foucault’s pendulum experiment on the scale of the universe. The Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’, the absence of any permanent and autonomously existing phenomena, finds its scientific equivalent in the dual nature of light and matter in the quantum world. Because a photon is a wave when we do not observe it and a particle when we make a measurement, it can be said not to have an inherent and autonomous existence, its appearance depending on the observer.


I have also pointed out that Buddhism rejects the idea of a beginning of the universe and of a God or a creative principle which fine-tunes its properties to allow the emergence of consciousness. Buddhism considers that consciousness is coexistent with matter, but does not derive from it. Because both are mutually interdependent, there is no need for to fine-tune the material universe for it to harbor consciousness.


The above convergences are not surprising, given that both science and Buddhism use criteria of rigor and authenticity to attain the truth. Since both aim to describe reality, they must meet on common grounds and not be exclusive of each other. Whereas in science the primary methods of discovery are experimentation and theorizing based on analysis, in Buddhism contemplation is the primary method. Both are windows which allow us to peer at reality. They are both valid in their respective domains and complement each other. Science reveals to us ‘conventional’ knowledge. Its aim is to understand the world of phenomena. Its technical applications can have a good or bad effect on our physical existence. Contemplation, however, by helping us to see the true nature of reality, aims to improve our inner selves so that we can act to improve everybody’s existence. Scientists use ever more powerful instruments to probe nature. In the contemplative approach, the only instrument is the mind. The contemplative observes how his thoughts are bound together and how they bind him. He examines the mechanisms of happiness and suffering and tries to discover the mental processes that increase his inner peace and make him more open to others in order to develop them, as well as those processes that have a destructive effect in order to eliminate them. Science provides us with information, but brings about no spiritual growth or transformation. By contrast, the spiritual or contemplative approach must lead to a profound personal transformation in the way we perceive the world and act on it. The Buddhist, by realizing that objects have no intrinsic existence, lessens his attachment to them, which diminishes his suffering. The scientist, with the same realization, is content to consider that as an intellectual advance which can be used to further his work, without changing fundamentally his basic vision of the world and how he leads his life.


When faced with ethical or moral issues which, as in the field of genetics, are becoming ever more pressing, science needs the help of spirituality in order not to forget our humanity. Einstein expresses admirably that need for the union of science and spirituality: ‘The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It will have to transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology Encompassing both the natural and the spiritual, it will have to be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, considered as a meaningful unity… Buddhism answers this description…If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.’


Suggestions for further reading:


The themes discussed here are developed in greater detail in:

Ricard, Matthieu, and Thuan, Trinh Xuan, The Quantum and the Lotus, New York, Crown, 2001; Paperback edition: New York, Three Rivers Press, 2004


Over the last 20 years, there have been a series of ‘Mind and life’ meetings between the Dalai Lama and a number of eminent scientists including neurobiologists, psychiatrists, philosophers and physicists. The emphasis of these meetings has been mainly on the mind since Buddhism has devised over 25 centuries a profound and rigorous approach to understanding mental states and the ultimate nature of the mind, and can bring much to Western neurobiology. Published accounts of these meetings include:

Goleman, Daniel, ed., Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health, Boston, Shambhala Publications, 1997

----. Destructive Emotions: A scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, New York, Bantam Doubleday, 2002

Hayward, Jeremy W., Shifting Worlds Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet, Boston, Shambala Publications, 1987

Houshmand, Zara, Livingston, Robert B., Wallace, B. Alan, eds. Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brainscience and Buddhism, Ithaca, New York, Snow Lion Publications, 1999

Varela, Francisco, J. ed., Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1997

Varela, Francisco, J. and Hayward, Jeremy, eds., Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, Boston, Shambhala Publications, 2001

Zajonc, Arthur, ed., The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004  


Other works that discuss the relationships between science and Buddhism are:


Wallace, B. Alan, The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a new science of consciousness, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000

---- ed. Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, New York, Columbia University Press, 2003