Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics, CH 1

Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics, CH 1 March 31, 2008

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I am working through a new book on Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics (one of my odd areas of interest). A friend of mine in Bristol, UK and I are going to be discussing chapters as we go along, and I’ll be posting revised editions of those discussions (my side at least) here.

CH 1

Discussing two seemingly distinct fields raises countless methodological issues and problems. Mansfield starts his first chapter trying to tackle these before moving into the meat of the book. The first of these is the power of presuppositions. I am reminded of the Boorstin quote:

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Mansfield points out that the West has been ruled by various sets of presuppositions over time that may impede further intellectual progress. On p.10 he mentions Aristotle’s views as a veritable straitjacket of Western thought in the Middle Ages. On p.24 he notes that despite 100 years of quantum mechanics, contemporary society – you and me – still view the world in Newtonian terms, as a collection of discrete objects moving through space.
Mansfield is pushing for a shift in thought amongst the public and the scientific community, so beginning by setting out presuppositions is a wise step. It is also a very philosophical way to begin, and some scientists may not find this useful. He quotes physicist Steven Weinberg as saying,

“I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.” (p.25 emphasis is Weinberg’s)

So while Mansfield may get plenty of attention from Buddhists/academics like us, this book – like the works of H.H. the Dalai Lama and Alan Wallace before it – will likely stay on the periphery of the scientific community.

But it also raises a significant advantage that we (students of Buddhist thought) have, and that is a head-start on what may become a significant paradigm shift in Western/scientific thought. Without sounding too New-Agey, our training in seeing reality in terms of interconnectedness and relationships rather than in Newtonian terms places us in a rather privileged position as this understanding continues to enter the mainstream. The site of our privileged position, according to Mansfield, is our – or Buddhism’s – ability to give or find meaning in the world (p.16-17). As he discusses in Ch 2, it is through interconnectedness that we can arrive at ethical principles that can lead to a better humanity.

Given this, Mansfield is quick to demonstrate that Buddhism (or Religion in general) and Science are not mutually exclusive concerns. Those of you familiar with Stephen Jay Gould will know the catchy phrase Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, of science and religion. Few, I believe, agree with Gould’s attempt to so clearly separate the spheres of interest and exploration, or magisteria, of science and religion. Yet I worry that Mansfield is again going to alienate scientific readers in this work. He notes the overlap, but he keeps it on a very theoretical level. Coming chapters cover such things as Quantum Nonlocality and Peace, and Relativity and The Arrow of Time. What scientists, by and large, are interested in are testable hypotheses, reproducible results, and experimental verification. All of these fit within the overlap of Buddhism and Science, but they are – at present – in the area of meditation/cognitive science. The work of people like Richard Davidson (U. Wisconsin) has actually stirred real interest in a growing scientific community, leading to the Dalai Lama’s invitation to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience on November 12, 2005 in Washington DC. But we’ll see. Perhaps Mansfield will strike a chord within the scientific community that has been otherwise silent (see Weinberg quote above) for over 60 years.

On to Chapter Two, where Quantum Mechanics and Compassion meet.

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