Convergence between Buddhism & Physics

Though there appears to be some phenomenology vs. positivism tension between them (e.g., between people who make the point that we can see only our brain’s constructions of reality vs. those who argue that, in order for humans to have survived on Earth for so long, our brains probably have evolved the ability to make constructions that fairly accurately represent an outside world, at least when in Earth-like conditions; see also the Pali commentary on niyama, namely how much of what we experience is determined by karma vs. how much by the available natural and social worlds), I see a convergence between Buddhist notions of becoming (e.g., see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “Paradox of Becoming“), Buddhist atomism, and mindstreams, with Western things like presentism and Julian Barbour’s timeless physics.

The idea is that, in every conscious moment, the brain constructs the consciousness of a self and other/world, which is a combination of how the brain desires to exist and the sensory input it is physically able to receive and process. This usually happens continuously in healthy people — people with brain damage, such as from a stroke, sometimes perceive that time slows down, skips sporadically, or stops altogether — such that a stream of related perceptions is apparent, and the person has a feeling of time passing. When awake and presented with physical stimuli, people usually can only construct their presently lived self-other world. But, when they are dreaming and/or lack physical stimuli, they can construct anything they can imagine. However, dreams usually skip around between topics and events, and lack the consistency of waking constructions. Dreams also usually take the form of physical types of consciousness similar to what one would experience while awake (i.e., sights, sounds, pressure, temperature, etc.). As long as a healthy brain, or other way of encoding mental phenomena exists — Buddhists often think that mental phenomena either can exist independently or can be encoded/recorded by the brain onto things like electromagnetism, so that some part of a person can survive death (see the Buddhist concept of Gandhabba, in the sense of a mind between lives) — mental constructions can include how the past was experienced (“memory”), to the degree those those mental phenomena have been preserved from then until now (i.e., they can become distorted, corrupted, or modified over time). But one cannot actually live in either the past or future. The past became the present, and the present will become the future.

The convergence of Buddhism and timeless physics I see centers around how early and Theravada Buddhism conceive(d) of reality as being a field of atoms in certain states that were always changing/transforming into different states. Fields of different kinds of matter supposedly can support different kinds of bodies and minds (e.g., see Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Questions on Kamma“). Fields of more dense or hot matter perhaps can support more corporeal of minds (like human, animal, and plant minds), and fields of less dense or colder matter perhaps can support more refined, purified, heavenly minds. Some people wonder if absolute zero temperature, which is the most devoid-of-energy quantum vacuum state of matter, is the support for a nirvanic mind. Theravada Buddhists often associate the levels of jhana with levels of heavens. The four rupajhanas correspond to the four brahmaviharas, where brahmavihara means “divine dwelling/abode” (see also Buddhist cosmology). I have wondered if the Buddhist notion of hell might very literally correspond to beings whose bodies and minds are based on things like rock, lava, and molten metal inside the Earth and other celestial bodies. The more different that another being’s body / mental substrate is from ours, the harder it might be for us to think like them or communicate with them. The notion that even rocks and light host some kind of life/consciousness also may be related to the Buddhist notion that saṃsāra emerges due to the basic tendency for atoms, matter, and even living beings to cluster together, becoming attached to each other and dependent on each other.

One only can say how a field of matter is now, compared with how it has been, and how it might become. There are spatial dimensions, but no inherent time dimension. Both physical laws and mental desires might allow a field’s state changes to form coherent streams, which are individuals’ bodies and minds. In Theravada, as I understand, people’s bodies and minds are real (unlike in Mahayana and Vajrayana), but they are made up of matter in a transient/impermanent state, which means that people inevitably experience change and the loss of both themselves and others, which causes them suffering. Nirvana might mean learning how to stop basing one’s mind on transient matter, and learning how to base it instead on a more stable kind of matter (often called the “Deathless”). Thai monks I know claim that Deathless matter exists side-by-side and mixed-in, but rarely interacting, with our transient matter. That sounds to me like the baryonic matter vs. dark matter distinction in particle physics, where the nirvanic dark matter in question might be W.I.M.P. particles.

One thought on “Convergence between Buddhism & Physics

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