Quantum Physics - His Holiness the Dalai Lama Participates in the 26th Mind & Life Meeting at Drepung - Day 2

January 18th 2013

Drepung Lachi, Mundgod, Karnataka, India, 18 January 2013 - After yesterday’s Introduction, today was dedicated to Physics, specifically Quantum Physics. Before Arthur Zajonc began to speak about the Implications of Quantum Mechanics for Our View of Reality, moderator John Durant gently warned that quantum mechanics are not easy.

“Yesterday we talked about classical science, but 120 years ago, having worked hard and given great thought to physics, physicists felt they had reached the end. Kelvin said, ‘We understand everything except for a couple of small clouds on the horizon.’”

These two clouds were the colour of candlelight, which defied attempts using classical physics to predict it, and the discovery that light, unlike sound, passes through space without the medium of air. Light was considered to be a wave, so it logically followed that it would need a medium to carry it, yet none could be found.

Arthur Zajonc begins his presentation on quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity at the start of the second day of the Mind and Life XXVI conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 18, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
Out of these challenges two important developments arose: Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity. Between them these two theories changed scientists’ view of reality.

Arthur Zajonc showed pictures of two coins, which were identical on the one hand and yet bore marks and scratches which distinguished them. It was easy to tell them apart. However, he explained that at a much subtler level, if you have two hydrogen atoms, not only is there nothing to distinguish them, but from a Quantum Mechanics’ point of view, they occupy the same space and location. He introduced the ambiguity of ‘indistinguishability’.”

His Holiness remarked that according to the Buddhist Mind Only school of thought if there is cognition of it something exists, if there isn’t, it doesn’t.

Arthur Zajonc explained that on the level that indistinguishability takes place, relations between such objects, their interconnectedness, is known as entanglement.

Michel Bitbol, a philosopher of science, recalled that he had first begun to ask scientific questions when as a boy riding his bicycle he noticed that the moon seemed to move with him and stop when he stopped. He wondered why and came to understand that the apparent movement had nothing to do with the moon as such, but with the relations between them. Copernicus, contradicting Ptolemy’s astronomy, made similar observations when he saw that earth, in a lower orbit, rotates faster than Mars, so it was the relation between them that made it look as if Mars was sometimes going backwards. As a result of the emphasis on relations, what had been known as an object’s properties came to be known as observables. The famous physicist Nils Bohr remarked, ‘We may have to learn again what understanding means.’

Michel Bitbol discussed the question, what is reality? in several ways, including the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat, which is both dead and alive, (although moderator John Durant interjected that no actual cruelty had taken place during this thought experiment.) He concluded with a quotation that ‘Particles have the mode of existence of a rainbow,’ which is to say a relational existence involving the sun, drops of rain in the air and an observer. Bitbol commented,

‘To learn about these relations, you have to learn about dependent arising.”

His Holiness remarked,

Some of the many hundreds of monastics attending the second day of the Mind and Life XXVI conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 18, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL 
“Talking about things in terms of their relations is important. Look at the presentation of the latter two of the Four Noble Truths that express the Buddhist doctrine that there is cessation of suffering and there is a path to it. Seen in terms of the Two Truths, they are an investigation of reality and a counter force to our distorted conceptions. Wonderful.”

Arthur Zajonc was back with Quantum Physics and its Implications after lunch,

“Again and again in modern physics we try to objectify the world, but again and again we see that things exist in relationships.” Addressing His Holiness he said, “I’m going to work with you and relativity. I know you used to work with watches, that you liked to take things apart and put them back together again to see how they worked; classic physics, it works. In Quantum Mechanics we find something unlike the old ways of thinking. There are two sides to this: Quantum Mechanics and Relativity Theory. Einstein said, ‘It’s existence and reality that we want to comprehend.’

Demonstrating the contrast between classical physics and Quantum Mechanics was the solution to the problem of how to store a 25m pole in a 20m barn. According to the classical view, the pole is simply too long, but in terms of Quantum Mechanics it will become shorter if it is travelling faster. In this thought experiment, the pole merely has to be travelling fast enough that it becomes short enough to be enclosed, albeit briefly, in the barn.

Michel Bitbol returned to talk about Quantum Mechanics as a theory for a new view of the world, in the course of which he asked - what is science? Is it a mirror of nature; a projection of our minds or a middle way - the dependent arising of the knower and the known described by Francisco Varela, one of the founders of the Mind & Life?

Asked to respond, His Holiness said,

“This reminds me of an occasion in Delhi a number of years ago when Raja Raman, father of the Indian nuclear bomb, told me he’d been reading the works of the Buddhist master Nagarjuna in which he’d found an implicit account of Quantum Theory. It filled him with pride to think that an Indian had been pondering these ideas two thousand years ago.

“According to Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka presentation, an object exists, but if we search for it we can’t find it. If we investigate the object itself, we find its very existence is due to other factors, so we can’t say it doesn’t exist; only that it exists in relational terms; in terms of designation.

“Broadly speaking, although there are some differences, I think Buddhist philosophy and Quantum Mechanics can shake hands on their view of the world. We can see in these great examples the fruits of human thinking. Regardless of the admiration we feel for these great thinkers, we should not lose sight of the fact that they were human beings just as we are.”

Asked whether he wanted to stay beyond 2pm, His Holiness elected to do so, saying that he enjoyed the presentations and liked the opportunity they afforded to learn.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama listening to a presentation by Thupten Jinpa during the second day of the Mind and Life XXVI conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 18, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL
Thupten Jinpa switched out of his role as interpreter into presenter to provide a glimpse of the thought that Buddhists have given to some of the topics touched on today. He started with the early Buddhist theory of the atom, referring to its reductionist trends. He issued a caveat that nevertheless, in none of their discussions did reductionism result in Buddhist thinkers reducing the mental to the mere material. Aryadeva, a student of Nagarjuna, writing in 2nd century CE argued against the earlier theory in terms of its incoherence and because of causal agency. He mentioned the framework of the Two Truths that all Buddhist schools of thought subscribe to - conventional and ultimate truth. His Holiness commented that if Quantum Mechanics were explained in this context they would be easier to follow.

A question was asked about whether there were discussions in Buddhist tradition of the role of the brain. His Holiness commented that consciousness always goes together with energy and this can be subtle, as in the dream state, or very subtle as when the brain function has ceased. Actual experience of these states requires rigorous practice and training. In his final remarks he said,

“Analysis is one of the most important parts of my daily practice and has been for more than 50 years. As a result of prolonged familiarity, when I bring up the idea of emptiness or dependent arising, my view of the world almost has the flavour of an illusion. This is due to the power of negating the destructive emotions that are rooted in ignorance.” And he finished with a joke, “ But this is a secret I don’t want to share with scientists!

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