Monday, 16 February 2015

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


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.)

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.

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).

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

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

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.


Read more at 

Buddhist Philosophy

Quantum Buddhism

Meditation, Downward Causation, Neuroplasticity and the Quantum Zeno Effect


  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.

  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

  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 ( means nothing more than to apprehend (' 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

  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

  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.

  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.

  7. Jasbaku, as a physicists and Buddhist, I feel that it's not really faith that would lead physicists to the truth seen by the Buddha, but it's the same old way of meditation. The only faith needed is that meditation can lead one to see the truth. But nowadays there are many secular evidence of meditation being good for the mind that it reduces the role of that faith. Many physicists still view having faith in religion clouds the mind and make one deluded and self brain wash to see what one wants to see. Thus, it might be better to let secular research lead the path towards confidence in the power of meditation. And the subject of investigation and how to do it can be guided by the parallels between physics and Buddhism. Using convinent means to guide one to the truth. The guide is needed because one can still go to wrong view even with meditative experiences as seen in brahmajala sutta. Then again there is the faith element again. That this person without our modern equipment claims to have found a way out of suffering which happens to have so many similarities with modern physics

  8. For the interested reader having a solid physics background, there is a (serious!) book I've published on the Quantum Theory of Mind which has deep connections to Buddhism:

  9. "Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality" - "No they don't"

    Actually many do - the Dzogchen, Yogacara, Chittamatra (Mind-Only), Vijnanavada (Consciousness Way) and Shentong Madhyamaka do. According to Kenchen Thrangu Rinpoche ->

    ..all these various appearances,
    Do not exist as sensory objects which are other than consciousness.
    Their arising is like the experience of self-knowledge.
    All appearances, from indivisible particles to vast forms, are mind.

    Jayarava - you do not seem to know very much about Buddhist metaphysics and have not read many Buddhist philosophers.

    People may be interested in

  10. Totally agree. Buddhism anticipated the new concept of quantum physics. Particles have no own existence, equations in atoms are not deterministic there is a subtle impermanence in material substances. By John Wheeeler universe exists only in relation to the mind, as Bodhidharma said: all depend by the mind, you know the mind you

  11. From Matthieu Ricard p 273 - 274 in Buddhism and Science - Breaking New Ground

    " could be thought that consciousness is just a particular property of matter. It could also be thought-and this is the approach that Buddhism adopts-that no such duality exists, for neither consciousness nor the world of material phenomena have any intrinsic reality.

    It might therefore be useful to investigate the solid characteristics that we invest matter with at first sight, for it is actually in reifying matter that materialism comes up against its own failure to understand the nature of mind. The history of ideas tells us that the first atomic theory was posited by Democritus, who regarded his "hooked atoms" as the building blocks of the universe. In fact, however, it was much earlier, in the sixth century B.e.E., that Buddhism had already set out an analysis of the notion of atoms that was much more elegant. It was an analysis whose purpose was not to establish a physical science but to investigate the tangible nature of reality. Buddhist logicians asked themselves if there could be indivisible particles ("atoms" in the etymological sense of "the word) that are permanent, autonomous, and endowed with true existence and might, in some way, be the substance of the real world.

    They reasoned that an indivisible particle would have to be the equivalent of a mathematical point, without any dimension. If they had any dimension, and hence sides or directions, they would no longer be indivisible. Now, such particles could never be in contact with other particles except by merging with them, because if they were to retain their definition of being indivisible one particle would have to be in simultaneous contact with the entirety of another, and that would mean merging completely with it. A whole mountain of particles would therefore be able to dissolve into a single one. Reasoning of this kind is essentially aimed at breaking down our stubborn belief in the substantiality of things. So, twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddhism set out the hypothesis that elementary particles are neither solid nor endowed with independent existence but exist only in dependence on one another. Without making too much of the parallels with modern physics, it is difficult not to be reminded of Heisenberg, who wrote, ''Atoms and the elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts."

    Modern physics has yielded data that also lead us to doubt their solid reality. For example, we now accept that the phenomenon we call an electron can appear both as a particle and as a wave. While it is undeniable that the so-called electron has properties of a particulate nature, as well as others more characteristic of waves, it would nevertheless be hard to conceive of two more antinomic possibilities. Particles and waves are phenomena of totally different kinds. A particle is a localized object with a certain mass, while a wave is just the opposite..."


  12. If you are interested in the relationship between Buddhism, paradox and the D Wave quantum computer you may be interested to read...

  13. Axiomatic principal at work in dynamic space precisely point out in Sankhya and can be explored at with mathematical proof as well practical proof.


  14. The above comments as well as the article are not based on facts
    .See the ONLY AXIOMATIC THEORY IN EXISTENCE AS SANKHYA to learn reality is as real as you andme

    1. Hmmm, I would rather say its the perspective that matters, like how Newton's theory and Einstein's Thoery of Relativity are having a different model type, a different way of looking into things, both of them works, but one is much more accurate (Einstein). You can say both of these models are facts and in the same time, you can say they are not. You have to understand that this is what the Buddha see, what the Buddha believes. It's a fact that the Buddha believes in it, but thier way of looking into things might not be so. In the end, it is you who decide whether it is true or not. Experience it yourswlf, and you will decide the truth.

  15. The Gyalwang Drukpa is the honorific title of the head of the Drukpa Lineage, one of the independent Sarma (new) schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.

  16. That's why Buddhism spread all around the world: Buddhism in England , Europe, America .........

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