Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Buddhism, Quantum Physics and Mind


Convergence of Physics with Buddhist Philosophy
One of the interesting aspects of quantum physics from the Buddhist point of view is that particles, which in classical physics were once regarded as little pieces of matter, are now regarded as processes consisting of continuously evolving and changing wavefunctions.  These processes only give the appearance of discrete and localized particles at the moment they are observed.

So particles are forever changing, and lack any inherent existence independent of the act of observation.    Consequently, everything composed of particles is also impermanent and continually changing, and no static, stable basis for its existence can be found.

Therefore, at a very generalized level, the scientific view of the world has converged with the Buddhist view.   Buddhism is a 'process philosophy', holding that the underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence. Becoming is more basic than being, and existence is really just impermanence in slow-motion.  


The converse view is substantialism, which holds that constant realities or substances underlie phenomena.   In the transition from classical to modern physics, atomic theory has changed from substantialism to being in agreement with the Buddhist process view of reality.
 

Furthermore, when we look at the interaction of the wave-particles with the observer, we find additional interesting correspondences between Buddhist philosophy and quantum physics, as discussed below:


The observer is part of the system
The strange interactions of fundamental particles with the mind of the observer ('quantum weirdness') have long been of interest to philosophers. There are two opposing views: (i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind, versus (ii) The mind produces quantum weirdness. 


(i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind
Materialist philosophers have suggested that quantum weirdness offers a means  of filling the explanatory gap
(known as 'The Hard Problem') between the machine-like neurological functions of the brain, and the subjective sensations of the mind such as qualitative experience and 'aboutness'.

Materialists claim that quantum effects offer a way of generating non-mechanistic mental activity from a purely physical basis. These suggestions have met with a number of objections, and don't seem to have the explanatory power to fill the gap. (see The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture later in this article).

(ii)  The Mind produces quantum weirdness

In contrast, Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, which is 'axiomatic', in the sense of not being reducible to a physical basis, such as to the physico-chemical activities in the brain. 
 

Buddhists regard the mind as a primary fact of reality, like space-time, in which we live, and move, and have our being. This axiomatic mind cannot be reduced to other facts. It is implicit and foundational in all facts and in all knowledge. 

Mind is clear and cognizing, and for Buddhists is the basis on which all other explanations rest, and is one of the three foundations of functioning phenomena  (the other two being causality and structure).


Classical prediction vs. quantum observation

So where does the weirdness come from?
For Buddhists, the freakiness at the smallest scale of physics is the result of our realisation of our mind's involvement in producing reality - that 'the observer is part of the system'.

This mental involvement is actually also apparent on careful examination at our everyday scale of reality, but we don't think about it unless it is painstakingly pointed out, as with King Milinda's chariot. 

However, when we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality. 


Observation resolves the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details of mind/matter interactions see Quantum Buddhism. 



So how does quantum reality fit with Buddhist Philosophy?
The two aspects of Buddhist philosophy that are relevant to observations at the quantum level are The Four Seals of Dharma and the Three Modes of Existential Dependence.  These teachings were established centuries ago, long before modern physics evolved, and were derived from careful philosophical and meditational analysis of the world.   However their description of quantum reality is remarkably accurate, as they predicted that:

(1)  Particles are not inherently existent. No particle is 'a thing in itself' with a self-contained identity.   An inherently-existent particle would be indestructible, unitary and indivisible.

(2)  Particles are not causeless.

(3)  Particles are not partless, they do not exist as indivisible points.

(4)  Particles are not  'permanent' in the sense of having a unchanging, static identity.

(5)  Particles exist by interaction with the mind of an observer.



...and what we actually see is...

(1)  Particles cannot function as stand-alone entities.  They can only interact with the rest of the universe by exchanging something of themselves - for example gluons or photons. Their properties can only be known by their interactions with other particles, and thus cannot be completely accurately established.


(2)  Particles are brought into existence by energetic events.  The mother of all energetic events was the Big Bang, which brought most of the existing particles into existence.    But natural energetic events such as cosmic rays and beta decay continue to produce particles, and energetic man-made events in particle accelerators produce secondary particles by hadronization  and  creation of particle-antiparticle pairs.


(3)  The tiniest particles (quarks and leptons) do not have parts because they are physically indivisible, but according to the Madhyamika school they have directional parts and so are mentally divisible. If even these smallest forms have parts, it follows that all gross forms that are composed of them also have parts. - Ocean of Nectar p 164

But if, according to Buddhist philosophy, partless particles cannot exist, how can we avoid the infinite regress of small building-blocks being composed of even smaller building-blocks, all the way down for ever?


This infinite regress...


... doesn't happen with the building blocks of matter


The resolution of this apparent contradiction came with discoveries in quantum physics in the early twentieth century. When physicists arrived at the stage where further subdivision was no longer possible, they did indeed find numerically irreducible particles. However these particles are no longer discrete 'things', but are smeared out into a myriad of fuzzy probabilistic 'parts' - a continuum of probabilities distributed in a wave function with spatial 'directional parts'.   
 

And they can even be in two places at once.




(4)  All particles show 'subtle impermanence' - they do not remain in exactly the same state from one moment to the next.  In the nucleus, protons and neutrons are constantly exchanging mesons to hold themselves together.  

In the outer layers of atoms the electrons are never at a single location in their orbitals, but vibrate like a standing wave on a string 

 


(5) The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.
 

The mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they predict the potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation.
 

Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they are observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details see Quantum Buddhism.



Triple slit experiment

From Nature
by Jon Cartwright 
 
'If you ever want to get your head around the riddle that is quantum mechanics, look no further than the double-slit experiment. This shows, with perfect simplicity, how just watching a wave or a particle can change its behaviour. The idea is so unpalatable to physicists that they have spent decades trying to find new ways to test it. The latest such attempt, by physicists in Europe and Canada, used a three-slit version — but quantum mechanics won out again...  Full article





The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture

From http://philosophy.uwaterloo.ca/MindDict/quantum.html

Penrose's main argumentative line can be summed up as follows:

Part A: Nonalgorithmicity of human conscious thought.

A1) Human thought, at least in some instances, is sound , yet nonalgorithmic (i.e. noncomputational). (Hypothesis based on the Gödel result.)

A2) In these instances, the human thinker is aware of or conscious of the contents of these thoughts.

A3) The only recognized instances of nonalgorithmic processes in the universe are perhaps certain kinds of randomness; e.g. the reduction of the quantum mechanical state vector. (Based on accepted physical theories.)

A4) Randomness is not promising as the source of the nonalgorithmicity needed to account for (1). (Otherwise mathematical understanding would be magical.)

Therefore:
A5) Conscious human thought, at least in some cases, perhaps in all cases, relies on principles which are beyond current physical understanding, though not in principle beyond any (e.g. some future) scientific physical understanding. (Via A1 - A4)


Part B: Inadequacy of Current Physical Theory, and How to Fix It.

B1) There is no current adequate theory concerning the 'collapse' of the quantum mechanical wave function, but an additional theory of quantum gravity might be useful to this end.

B2) A more adequate theory of wave function collapse (a part, perhaps, of a quantum gravity theory) could incorporate nonalgorithmic, yet nonrandom, processes. (Penrose hypothesis.)

B3) The existence of quasicrystals is evidence for some such currently unrecognized, nonalgorithmic physical process.

Therefore:
B4) Future theories of physics, in particular quantum gravity, can be expected to incorporate nonalgorithmic processes. (via B1 - B3)




Part C: Microtubules as the means of harnessing quantum gravity.

C1) Microtubules have properties which make certain quantum mechanical phenomena (e.g. super-radiance) possible. (Hameroff/Penrose hypothesis.)

C2) These nonalgorithmic nonrandom processes will be sufficient, in some sense, to account for A5. (Penrose hypothesis.)

C3) Microtubules play a key role in neuron function.

C4) Neurons play a key role in cognition and consciousness.

C5) Microtubules play a key role in consciousness/cognition (by C3, C4 and transitivity).

Therefore:
C6) Microtubules, because they have one foot in quantum mechanics and the other in conscious thought, provide a window for nonalgorithmicity in human cognition.


Conclusion:
D) Quantum gravity, or something similar,via microtubules, must play a key role in consciousness and cognition.



Comment
I would go along with this as far as B2, but I can't see how any scientific explanation can incorporate nonalgorithmic processes because:
(a) It's impossible to describe how non-algorithmic phenomena work (otherwise they would be algorithmic),   and
(b)  Scientific explanations and models require algorithmic compression to be effective and useful. It's difficult to see how algorithmic compression could apply to a system that was nonalgorithmic.

For a discussion of why the mind is a non-physical, fundamental aspect of the universe which is not derived from anything else, see Confronting Materialism and the Delusion of the Mechanical Mind.




TIP - If some aspects of Buddhist beliefs seem unfamiliar, obscure, or confusing, then bear in mind that Buddhism is a process philosophy.   Difficult aspects of Buddhism often become much clearer when viewed from a process perspective.

 




- Sean Robsville

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6 comments:

  1. "Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality"

    No, they don't. At least none of them that I know do this. I think you should quote your sources when making such claims.

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  2. "If phenomena don’t independently exist than how do they exist? The Middle Way tells us that they dependently exist in three fundamental ways. First, phenomena exist dependent upon causes and conditions. For example, carrots depend upon soil, sunlight, moisture, freedom from rodents, and so forth. Second, phenomena depend upon the whole and its parts. Carrots depend upon its greens, stem, root hairs, and so on and the totality of all these parts. Third, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or designation. From the rich panoply of experience, I collect the sense qualities, personal associations, and psychological reactions to carrots together, and name them or designate them as "carrot." The mind’s proper functioning is to construct its world, the only world we can know. " Source http://www.buddhanet.net/timeimpe.htm

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  3. Also..."In addition to being dependent upon causes and parts, phenomena are also dependent upon their being imputed by the mind. This is a much subtler mode of dependence and is more difficult to understand than dependence on causes and parts. However, it is very important to grasp what this means. It is often said that all phenomena are merely imputed by the mind and that nothing whatsoever can exist independently of such imputation. But what does it mean to impute something with the mind? Actually, to impute (btags.pa) means nothing more than to apprehend ('dzin.pa). We may think of a lamp in our room at home. In thinking of it we apprehend it, and in apprehending it we are "imputing" it. Thus imputation is the mind's fundamental quality of apprehending objects."

    - Geshe Rabten, from "Echoes of Voidness," translated by Stephen Batchelor http://www.american-buddha.com/commen.void.htm

    ReplyDelete
  4. Also...
    "It is interesting to note that in the later dGe lugs commentarial tradition, three varieties of existential dpendence are distinguished: causal dependence, when an object depends for its existence on its causes and conditions, mereological dependence, when an object depends on its parts; and conceptual dependence, postulating the dependence of an object on a basis of designation, a designating mind,and a term used to designate the object" Source Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka - Jan Westerhoff p27 ISBN 978 0 19 538496 3

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  5. Quantum physicists!! So close to the truth yet so far!
    Don't you just want to shake them and explain emptiness to them sometimes? LoL
    They know about subtle impermanence and the conventional reality that objects are mostly made up of empty space, they just haven't taken the final leap of faith.

    * BTW 'Chittamatrin': A major school of Buddhism.
    Translates as 'only mind', meaning that all phenomena arise from the mind.

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  6. I wonder: on that last day under the Bodhi tree, when Buddha opened his eyes and saw the morning star, what was it that he was enlightened on? I don't know why but I keep feeling that he had somehow gained insight into something akin that of quantum mechanics.
    It's just strange how Buddha can get to know of things simply through meditation.
    Anyway, thanks for your posts. They give a very helpful perspective to Buddhism.

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