Author Topic: How Emptiness and Madhyamika Philosophy Solves the Mystery of Quantum Mechanics  (Read 455 times)

Offline Kenneth Chan

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The Buddhist teachings on emptiness can directly solve the mystery of quantum mechanics. This can be done by accepting the fact that our science is a science of our experience (and not a science of a universe “out there” that is independent of the observer), as well as accepting the fact that the conscious observer necessarily plays a role in quantum physics, and applying this understanding directly to the formulation of quantum mechanics.

A full explanation of how this can be achieved can be found in my paper, entitled “A Direct Experiential Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (at http://kenneth-chan.com/physics/direct-experiential-interpretation-of-quantum-mechanics/). Note that this paper is written specifically for the general reader and does not require any mathematics. I would, of course, also be happy to discuss this way of understanding quantum mechanics on this forum.

Below is the abstract, from the paper, which provides a brief outline of the approach taken in reaching a solution to the problem of quantum mechanics based on the Madhyamaka view of reality:

Abstract

The theory of relativity informs us that our science is a science of our experience, and not a science of a universe that is independent of us as conscious observers [see the other thread entitled "Relativity Supports Buddha's Words" at http://www.freesangha.com/forums/buddhism-and-science/how-relativity-echoes-the-words-of-the-buddha/]. This nature of our science is also reflected in the formulation of quantum mechanics, since the main formulation of quantum mechanics does not provide direct rules for the behaviour of particles. Instead, it provides rules that concern only the results of measurements by observers. This means that the observer is an intrinsic part of the main formulation of quantum mechanics, and what differentiates the observer from physical particles has to be mind and consciousness.

As John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner pointed out, this means that consciousness has an intrinsic role to play in quantum mechanics. Why then has there been so much resistance to recognizing this fundamental fact? And why have physicists, for more than a century, persistently tried to get rid of the observer, even if it meant—in defiance of Occam’s razor—having to insert, by hand, additional hypothetical ad hoc conditions to the basic formulation?

The underlying problem appears to be the need to fit this intrinsic role of consciousness, in quantum mechanics, into the prevailing view, in Western philosophy, of a mind-matter duality. An attempt to fit the role of consciousness into this framework of a mind-matter duality would unfortunately lead to solipsism, and that is the main problem. So the vast majority of physicists gravitate, instead, to the stance of materialism, and hence the need for them to free quantum mechanics from the conscious observer.

The formulation of quantum mechanics actually does not, in any way, suggest a mind-matter dichotomy, and it certainly does not suggest either materialism or solipsism. Quantum mechanics actually points to a middle way between these two extremes of materialism and solipsism, a realization that both Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli eventually reached. This means that the formulation of quantum mechanics actually points to the philosophical viewpoint of Madhyamika philosophy, also known as the Middle Way philosophy.

In this paper, the formulation of quantum mechanics is explicitly interpreted in terms of Madhyamika philosophy, and this can be done directly without any modifications to the original formulation of quantum mechanics, and without the need for additional ad hoc conditions. In other words, we can have a direct experiential interpretation of quantum mechanics that fits perfectly with Madhyamika philosophy. Thus, in addition to being supported by extremely precise logical analysis and deep meditational insight, there is now also concrete scientific evidence that the Madhyamaka view of reality is correct.

Offline stillpointdancer

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An interesting paper. Well done. I am a student of the Madhyaka school of philosophy myself, and find that it is of great help when trying to interpret those moments of insight that come with vipassana meditation. I agree with everything except your 'The case Against Materialism', which argues against a material brain being capable being responsible for consciousness. Things arise on conditions. The condition for our form of consciousness arises from the material set up of our brains, which arises from millions of years of evolution, and so on, perhaps to the startup conditions of our universe and beyond.
There may be other forms of consciousness arising from other conditions, maybe only available to us to experience during moments of enlightenment. However, science is for science and Buddhist enlightenment is for giving us glimpses beyond that, and both having their place in our exploration of ourselves and everything else. There is no 'mystery' of quantum mechanics to solve outside quantum mechanics, but we are free to explore everything in a different way through Buddhist practice.
On a lighter note, the concrete proof of a material brain producing our kind of consciousness is to drop a lump of concrete on it...
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

Offline Kenneth Chan

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Hi stillpointdancer. Thanks for your encouraging words.

I agree with everything except your 'The case Against Materialism', which argues against a material brain being capable being responsible for consciousness. Things arise on conditions. The condition for our form of consciousness arises from the material set up of our brains, which arises from millions of years of evolution, and so on, perhaps to the startup conditions of our universe and beyond.
There may be other forms of consciousness arising from other conditions, maybe only available to us to experience during moments of enlightenment.

Here, I am mainly making the point that consciousness cannot arise purely from matter. The brain certainly can be considered one of the conditions that affects our consciousness, but it really is doubtful that it is the only condition needed for consciousness to arise. There is certainly no scientific evidence that that is so.

In any case, I think the part of my paper arguing against materialism speaks for itself, so for the sake of the discussion here, I will reproduce that section here below:

The Case Against Materialism

The case against pure materialism, and against the claim that consciousness must be derived from matter, is actually very strong. In the first place, there was no actual scientific evidence that consciousness arises from matter. All we have is evidence that the content of consciousness is linked in some way to the functioning of the physical brain, but that hardly amounts to concrete scientific evidence that the material brain must be the source of consciousness. A link between two things does not necessarily imply that one created the other.

Such a rash conclusion would perhaps be akin to the thinking of a primitive man should he stumble upon a modern television set. This primitive man, who has never encountered a television set before, notices that the picture on the monitor is linked to the control panel on the television. When he fiddles with this control panel, the picture on the screen changes, in the same way that we notice our consciousness being affected by any change or damage to our physical brain. However, if we then insist that this is proof that consciousness must be derived from the physical brain, that would be akin to the primitive man insisting that the picture on the monitor must be derived from the physical parts of the control panel itself. That would be totally illogical and unscientific. That is why we actually have no concrete scientific evidence that consciousness is derived from matter.

The very insistence that consciousness is derived from matter is, in fact, a curiosity in itself. This is because we have no conceivable idea how such a thing can be possible. In most cases of scientific ignorance concerning the cause of a phenomenon, what we do not know is which one of a whole range of possible causes is the correct one. This is definitely not the case with regards to how consciousness may be derived from matter. Here, we do not know of even a single mechanism how consciousness can possibly arise from matter! That is why philosopher David Chalmers calls this question the “hard question.” This fact alone makes it curious why so many scientists dogmatically insist that consciousness must, somehow or other, be derived from matter!

Now we have yet another strong reason to doubt this dogmatic claim that consciousness must be derived from matter, and that comes from the very formulation of quantum mechanics. Right from the onset we can see that quantum mechanics pivots around the observer. The formulation provides rules for what the conscious observer finds and not rules for the behaviour of matter directly.

A direct experiential interpretation of quantum mechanics, without ad hoc additions, inserted by hand, tells us that, in fact, particles are dependently originated. Crucially, this dependent arising of the object requires the act of measurement or observation by the conscious observer. Using Heisenberg’s terminology, we can say that physical particles only make the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ upon the act of measurement by the observer. How then can the reverse also be possible? In other words, how then can physical particles also be considered to be the cause of the mind of the observer? It would be like claiming that we can lift ourselves up from the ground by pulling on our own bootstraps. This is the fundamental incompatibility, and it needs to be recognized.

In other words, mind and consciousness cannot be derived purely from matter. It is quantum mechanics that tells us that this is impossible, since there is no inherently existing elementary particle that is not dependently arisen. And given that one of the factors required for its dependent arising as an actual particle is the mind that apprehends it, how can this entity, or collection of such entities, be what the mind is purely derived from, in the first place? That would be totally illogical.

It is the denial of this fact that consciousness cannot be purely derived from matter—a fact that is inherent in the very formulation of quantum mechanics—that has led to all sorts of ad hoc additions, inserted by hand, in order to try to make the original formulation somehow fit into some hypothetical scheme that negates the observer. The large number of repeated attempts at reaching a logically consistent interpretation of quantum mechanics, through ad hoc additions—like infinite parallel universes, hidden variables, spontaneous wave function collapses, collapses due to consistent histories, and so on—are essentially attempts at salvaging the idea of materialism. The fact that all these attempts have still not succeeded, after more than a century of persistent attempts at getting rid of the observer, is very telling!

Should physicists continue with this endeavour to remove the observer from quantum mechanics? Apart from not adopting the principle of Occam’s razor, there is, of course, no problem with trying, if one so wishes. Still, it is perhaps time to recognize that such attempts may be futile. This is because the very formulation of quantum mechanics revolves around the observer.

As mentioned, quantum mechanics does not directly provide rules for the behaviour of particles per se. Quantum mechanics, instead, only provides rules for the results of measurements by the observer. So all these persistent attempts at trying to get rid of the conscious observer, from quantum mechanics, may be destined to fail, simply because the observer is an intrinsic part of the quantum mechanics formulation. There is no point in denying this fact just to cling on to materialism. In other words, quantum mechanics is directly pointing to the fact that materialism is probably an incorrect idea.

Given that the theory of relativity is also telling us that our science is actually a science of our experience, and not a science of the material world “out there” independent of us as observers, it is surely reasonable now to end our dogmatic insistence that consciousness is derived from matter. At the very least, as scientists, we need to admit that we actually do not know that consciousness is derived purely from matter.

Offline zafrogzen

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I don’t know anything about physics and I’m probably in over my head here, but reading your piece I kept wondering about the role of time in this chicken and egg debate. If time, as Dogen implies in his essay “Beingtime,” is intrinsically bound up with consciousness and the observer, and might even have no actual existence apart from the observer, then cause and effect would collapse as well.

So it could be said that the brain and consciousness arise simultaneously and it is impossible to know which came first, which is cause and which effect, because they really are “interdependent.”

Materialism and strict observation of phenomena depend upon time (and space) to operate. If time and space, and the causes and effects therein, are conditioned by consciousness and the observer, than materialistic science, while quite good at dealing with external phenomena, becomes irrelevant for resolving such fundamental questions. No wonder they try to get around it. 
My first formal meditation training was with Shunryu Suzuki in the 60's and later with Kobun, Robert Aitken and many other teachers (mainly zen). However, I've spent the most time practicing on my own, which is all I do now. I'm living in a rather isolated area so I miss connecting with other practitioners. Despite my interest in zen I've made an effort to remain secular. You can visit my website at http://www.frogzen.com

Offline zafrogzen

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Quote
So it could be said that the brain and consciousness arise simultaneously and it is impossible to know which came first, which is cause and which effect, because they really are “interdependent.”

I should have said that the "brain and consciousness arise simultaneously," along with time.
My first formal meditation training was with Shunryu Suzuki in the 60's and later with Kobun, Robert Aitken and many other teachers (mainly zen). However, I've spent the most time practicing on my own, which is all I do now. I'm living in a rather isolated area so I miss connecting with other practitioners. Despite my interest in zen I've made an effort to remain secular. You can visit my website at http://www.frogzen.com

Offline Kenneth Chan

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I don’t know anything about physics and I’m probably in over my head here, but reading your piece I kept wondering about the role of time in this chicken and egg debate. If time, as Dogen implies in his essay “Beingtime,” is intrinsically bound up with consciousness and the observer, and might even have no actual existence apart from the observer, then cause and effect would collapse as well.

I am not familiar with this essay by Dogen, but it appears to me that he is referring to time here as the "experience of time." In Madhyamika philosophy, we can say that both time and the observer are dependently arisen, and hence are both empty of inherent existence. This does not mean that they are nonexistent. It means that they only exist in dependence upon other factors, i.e. they are dependently arisen.

In this sense, you would be right to say that time has no actual existence apart from the observer. But time does exist in dependence upon the observer. It is empty of inherent existence, on its own right. But that does not mean that it is totally nonexistent.

So it could be said that the brain and consciousness arise simultaneously and it is impossible to know which came first, which is cause and which effect, because they really are “interdependent.”

Yes, they are both dependently arisen. There is no need for one to come first.

Materialism and strict observation of phenomena depend upon time (and space) to operate. If time and space, and the causes and effects therein, are conditioned by consciousness and the observer, than materialistic science, while quite good at dealing with external phenomena, becomes irrelevant for resolving such fundamental questions. No wonder they try to get around it.

The "external world" is not irrelevant. It is, however, empty of inherent existence, on its own right. That's the key point in Madhyamika philosophy: All things are empty of inherent existence because they are all dependently arisen. It is the failure to realise this that is the cause of the problem in interpreting quantum mechanics.

When the physicists tried to fit in the role of consciousness in quantum physics into the prevailing Western philosophical framework of a mind-matter duality, they end up with solipsism. And so they try, instead, to negate the role of conscious observer in quantum physics. They have been trying to do this for more than a century now and they have still not succeeded. The problem is in the philosophical framework of a mind-matter duality.

In the Madhyamaka view of reality, this problem of solipsism does not arise. In my paper, I have shown that a direct interpretation of quantum mechanics, based on the Madhyamaka view of reality, can be achieved without contradictions and without the need for additional ad hoc conditions. That essentially solves the main mystery of quantum physics. And this, in turn, means that there is now actually concrete scientific evidence that the Madhyamaka view of reality is correct.

Offline stillpointdancer

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My problem with statements like this: 'there is now actually concrete scientific evidence that the Madhyamaka view of reality is correct' is not whether they are correct or not. It's that you have to let go of everything to make progress along the path. The tighter you hold on to any version of 'the truth', the further you get from enlightenment.

For me, the Madhyamaka view of reality is no more correct than any other view of reality, since we all have to understand reality for ourselves, as the path unfolds for us.
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

Offline Kenneth Chan

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My problem with statements like this: 'there is now actually concrete scientific evidence that the Madhyamaka view of reality is correct' is not whether they are correct or not. It's that you have to let go of everything to make progress along the path. The tighter you hold on to any version of 'the truth', the further you get from enlightenment.

Sure, we certainly do not need concrete scientific evidence to progress along the path. The benefit of having concrete scientific evidence is not for those already on the path, but mainly for helping others to become interested in the path.
 
For me, the Madhyamaka view of reality is no more correct than any other view of reality, since we all have to understand reality for ourselves, as the path unfolds for us.

I agree that what is important is the development of our own understanding of reality. But I really cannot agree with the statement that "the Madhyamaka view of reality is no more correct than any other view of reality." I don't think this is true.

Offline stillpointdancer

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I think apologies are in order. It's not your arguments, which I thoroughly enjoy, I think that it's my own problem about overlap between science and religion. As a retired science teacher I am much too defensive about science and the way others try to bring religious arguments as a kind of 'proof' into science where they have no right to be, especially in terms of the continuing problems with evolution.

If we get away from science, and into a conversation about the understanding of reality we get from the Buddhist path, and from the Madhyamaka viewpoint, I would have to say that I feel the insights that I have experienced through meditation have more validity for me than anything else. I don't think that science will ever come close to this, but then I don't think that's the function of science.

On the other hand, if, say, you experience Madhyamaka understanding of consciousness behind emptiness and this gives you something to work on in quantum physics, I don't think that's any less valid than, for example, looking for patterns of other universes impinging on ours. From what I have experienced, your ideas should lead to some interesting results!
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka

 


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