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Buddhism and Quantum Physics

by Christian Thomas Kohl

Buddhism and Quantum Physics

by Christian Thomas Kohl

Summary of a publication in German: Buddhismus und Quantenphysik. Die
Wirklichkeitsbegriffe Nagarjunas und der Quantenphysik, Windpferdverlag, Aitrang
2005, 302 p.

Abstract. Rudyard Kipling, the famous english author of “The Jungle Book”, born in
India, wrote one day these words: “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the
twain shall meet.” In my paper I show that Kipling was not completely right. I try to
show the common ground between buddhist philosophy and quantum physics. There is a
surprising parallelism between the philosophical concept of reality articulated by
Nagarjuna and the physical concept of reality implied by quantum physics. For neither is
there a fundamental core to reality, rather reality consists of systems of interacting
objects. Such concepts of reality cannot be reconciled with the substantial, subjective,
holistic or instrumentalistic concepts of reality which underlie modern modes of thought.

1. Nagarjuna's concept of reality

Nagarjuna was the most significant Buddhist philosopher of India. According to Etienne
Lamotte he lived in the second part of the third century after Christ [1]. His philosophy is
of great topical interest. Right to this day it determines the thinking of all the traditions of
Tibetan Buddhism. We have no assured biographical knowledge about him, other than
various legends which I will not enter into here. The authenticity of thirteen of his works
is nevertheless regarded as etablished by the scholastic research. The Danish scholar Ch.
Lindtner was particularly concerned with the examination and translation of these
thirteen works [2]. Nagarjuna's main work, Mulamadhyamaka-karika [MMK], is
translated into German, English, French and other European languages [3]. Nagarjuna is
the founder of the philosophical school called Madhyamaka oder Middle Way. The
Middle Way indicates a spiritual and philosophical path that aspires to avoid extreme
metaphysical concepts, particularly the concepts of substantial and subjective thinking in
their various forms. In his main work [MMK] the Middle Way is described as follows:
24.18 “What arises dependently [pratityasamutpada] is pronounced to be
substancelessness [sunyata]. This is nothing but a dependent concept [prajnapti].
Substancelessness [sunyata] constitutes the middle way.” [chapter 24, verse 18].

Nagarjuna's philosophy consists principally of two aspects. The first aspect is an
exposition of a concept of reality [sunyata, pratityasamutpada], according to which
fundamental reality has no firm core and does not consist of independent, substantial
components but of two-body-systems. Of material or immaterial bodies which
reciprocally affect each other. This concept of reality is diametrically opposed to one of
the key concepts of traditional Indian metaphysics: 'svabhava' or 'own being'. The second
aspect is an answer to the inner contradictions of four extreme concepts of reality which
are not exhaustively presented but only indicated in principle. Nevertheless it is easy to
recognize the systems of thought to which these indications relate. This is important as it
is from this recognition that we can identify those aspects of our extreme metaphysical
positions that make it impossible for us to recognize the nature of reality. This is not only
a debate within the traditional metaphysics of India. I relate these four extreme
propositions to the substantial, subjective, holistic and instrumentalist modes of thought
found in the modern world. In order to effectively undermine these modes of thought one
first has to recognize them as such. Therefore without any claim to completeness I will
give a brief outline of these four modes of thought:


Substance is something that has independent existence [Webster's New World
Dictionary, New York 1968]. In Europe, substantialism is at the centre of traditional
metaphysics, beginning with pre-Socratic philosophers [like Parmenides and Heraclitus,
two critics of substantial thought] through Plato, up to Immanuel Kant. According to
traditional metaphysics, substance or own being is something that has independent
existence, something unchangeable, eternal and existing by itself. Substance is the
underlying basis for everything else, the non-material foundation of the world in which
we live. Plato made a distinction between two forms of being. Particularly in the second
part of his 'Parmenides' he distinguished between on the one hand singular objects, which
exist exclusively through participation and insofar as this is the case they have no own
being and on the other hand ideas that do have an own being. Traditional metaphysics
adopted this dualism from Plato. An independent own being is characzerised in
traditional metaphysics as something that, as an existing thing, is not dependent on
anything else [Descartes], existing by itself, subsisting through itself [More], which is
completely unlimited by others and free from any kind of foreign command [Spinoza],
and exists of itself without anything else [Schelling].In traditional metaphysics the
highest substance was often understood as God or as a divine being. Since Kant's so
called 'Copernican revolution' the primary question of philosophy is no longer to know
reality, but rather to know mind or the source of perception and knowledge. For this
reason the traditional metaphysics has lost ground in the modern world. In fact the central
concepts of the traditional metaphysics such as being, substance, reality, essence, etc had
been replaced by the reductionist modes of thought of modern sciences. Now atoms,
elementary particles, energy, fields of force, lows of nature etc are seen as the
fundamental ground for everything else.


By subjectivist modes of thought I understand the turning of attention to the subject that
resulted from the changes created by René Descartes. According to this doctrine,
consciousness is that which is primarily existent and everything else is merely content or
a form or a creation of that consciousness. The high point of this kind of subjectivism is
represented by the idealism of Berkeley. The ideas of Kant can be considered as a
moderated subjectivism or idealism. Since René Descartes, subjectivity or self-awareness
has become the fulcrum for modern philosophical thought lending evidential proof and
certainty of reality. This view has been continually brought into doubt by the modern
physical sciences, however these doubts have not lead to a new and complementary
concept of reality but to a calamitous separation between philosophy and the modern
physical sciences. It has served only to sharpen that dualism that preoccupies modern
thought. According to the physicist P.C.W. Davies electrons, photons or atoms do not
exist, they are nothing but models of thought. (See: P.C.W. Davies, ‘The Ghost in the
Atom’, Cambridge 1986.)


The view that an organic or integrated whole has a reality independent of and greater than
the sum of its parts [Webster's Dictionary, New York 1968]. This third approach tries to
avoid the calamitous either-or-scheme of the first two approaches by fusing subject and
object into one whole, such that there are no longer any parts but only one identity: all is
one. That whole is made absolute and is mystified. It becomes an independent unity that
exists without dependence on its parts. Wholeness is understood as something concrete,
as if it were an object of experience. As a philosophical approach found in great periods
of European history of philosophy, this view is connected with names like Thomas
Aquinas, Leibniz, Schelling. In quantum physics holism is represented by David Bohm


The fourth approach consists in refuting or ignoring the existence of subject and object.
Instead of favouring einther one or the other or the two together, this metaphysical
approach refutes them both. The search for reality is according to this viewpoint
insignificant or meaningless. Instrumentalism is very modern, intelligent [for example in
the person of Ernst Cassirer], and sometimes somewhat captious. It is difficult to
disengage from it. As an extension of subjectivism it consists of regarding thinking as
thinking in models, which is regarded as a working with information without concern as
to what phenomena the information is about. It inherits this problem from subjectivism,
about which the philosopher Donald Davidson wrote: “Once one makes the decision for
the Cartesian approach, it seems that one is unable to indicate what ones proofs are
evidence for”[5]. Instrumentalism is a collective term that denotes a variety of scientific
approaches. They have the common feature of considering the totality of human
knowledge, including scientific constructs, statements and theories, as not at all or
sometimes merely not primarily, realistic reproductions of the structure of reality. Rather
it considers them to be the result of human's interactions with nature ...

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