Buddhism and Physics

In the course of discovering and analyzing the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist worldview, a westerner will find many ideas and processes which seem alien to the Occidental scientific tradition. This should not be surprising, since these two traditions evolved largely unaware of each other, in different geographic and social environments. Given the formidable barriers that face any who try to transcend the cultural packaging of ideas (language being just one of the more obvious), it is little wonder that only relatively recently has there been any effort to compare Buddhism with the physics of the west. When we consider the centuries-old split in the West between religion and science, it is not hard to understand why so few western scientists have even looked to see what this curiously packaged set of ideas holds. With Buddhism pigeonholed into the "religion" slot, for many reasons good and bad, a serious and rigorous analysis of the physical paradigm of Buddhist thought by westerners has been long in coming. Conversely, only recently have many experts in the disciplines required to understand Madhyamika (the logical base of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist worldview) been exposed to the ideas and technology-based science of the West.
The parameters of this paper are thus determined by the attempt to make the subjects discussed intelligible to one who knows western physics but little Buddhism as well as for one who knows Buddhism but little physics. For the first part of this paper, I will set aside the achievements of western science and embark on a description of the fundamentals of the Madhyamika theory of existence. My intent is to shed light on certain aspects of Tibetan methodology while exposing the architecture of the physics. I will not presume to exhaustively delineate the subtle differences between schools of thought in the Madhyamika tradition. Our path will be to access the logic of Madhyamika by means of a side door instead of a frontal assault on the central syllogisms. The side door is the issue of "particles", as used in a variety of arguments in pursuit of the correct understanding of the Buddha's statements regarding key concepts such as Emptiness, Dependent Arising and the Two Truths. There are three main reasons for choosing this route into the heart of Madhyamika. The first is that the arguments over how much (if any) substantiality should be attributed to conventional phenomena can be addressed at the level of the hypothetical "smallest particle", from which axiomatic truths are often applied to "composite" phenomena. In this context the issue of selflessness of phenomena will arise and be addressed. The second is that of all the disciplines practiced by Madhyamika philosophers, particle analysis has perhaps the strongest counterpart in the West. Thus it is more familiar turf for western analysts to tread. The third reason to use particle analysis as a means to open the way into Madhyamika involves recent theories of the history of science in the west, from westerners applying Madhyamika principles. A continuum between two extremes in scientific philosophies, those of Realism and Instrumentalism, suggests a Middle Way for science, one which avoids the untenable conclusions inherent in abiding in either of the extremes. The validation for this blatant use of Madhyamika tactics comes from western particle physics itself.
The balance of the arguments presented here will address the traditional schools' debates, as a way of briefly outlining the Madhyamika paradigm, with the interpretation of the status of particles as a focus for the greater questions. However, a comparison of concepts and methodology used by modern Tibetans and modern quantum physicists can provide a deeper understanding of both, if one is willing to entertain the notion that the logic and insight of Madhyamika addresses the same world that science describes.
"I have long thought that Western science and Eastern philosophy should join together to create a really complete and full-fledged human being for the modern world. Only in this way will we emerge strengthened from our present condition and become whole". (1)
-His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama
History of Madhyamika
The Sanskrit word "Madhyamika" means "one who holds to the middle". The concept of "The Middle Way" in Buddhism begins with the Buddha's description of his path to enlightenment as one which avoids the extremes of indulging in worldly pleasures, on the one hand, and engaging in severe ascetic practices on the other. The Middle Way of Madhyamika refers to the teachings of Nagarjuna, who, at a time when the Mahayana teachings were falling into decline, wrote his Six Treatises, four of which directly expound the doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness.
Emptiness refers to the ultimate nature of all things. It is the key concept in this physics. One who correctly understands emptiness is described as free from the extremes of existence and annihilation. To fall to the extreme of existence is to hold that, in the final analysis, phenomena truly exist. To fall to the extreme of annihilation is to hold that phenomena don't have any kind of existence at all. According to the theory of emptiness, phenomena exist in a relative state only, a kind of 'ontological relativity'. The term used to describe this mode of existence is dependent arising, which describes how it is that something which is empty of true existence can have any sort of existence - only in relation to something else. Phenomena are regarded as dependent events rather than things which have their own inherent nature; thus the extreme of permanence is avoided. By the same token, dependent existence is something more than none, and so annihilation is avoided. These doctrines of emptiness and dependent arising are central to all schools of Madhyamika.
The works of Nagarjuna and his immediate follower Aryadeva are considered the basis of interpretation and understanding by later Madhyamikas. There is much that the two "Model Text" Madhyamikas did not directly establish, however, and in the centuries after their passing (the dates are disputed, but essentially we are talking about the first few centuries A.D./ Common Era) the loopholes were exploited by various scholars interested in establishing their notions on these open subjects as the highest interpretation. There are many ways in which the different interpretations were and are divided into "schools of thought" or "tenet systems", etc. In India, the scholars seem to have been content to argue their positions without concerning themselves about labeling their system. When Buddhism began to spread into Tibet, however, the effort to organize and delineate the arguments led to various systems of classification.
During the early propagation of Buddhism in Tibet (c. 650-850 CE), one way to divide the schools of Madhyamika was to use the position held regarding certain aspects of ultimate truth, a method Tsongkapa (2) described as deluded.(3) Using position on the conventional (as opposed to ultimate) status of external objects as the criterium was an improvement, in that it classified schools of Madhyamika in a way that reflected the source-school of their assertions. Here, the system of Bhavaviveka, which attributed conventional existence to external objects, was called Sautrantika-Madhyamika, and the system of Santaraksita, which denied conventional existence to externals, was aptly named Yogacara-Madhyamika. This situation was nevertheless deficient because it failed to include the position of Candrakirti, who made even more subtle distinctions on the nature of external objects. This process was interrupted for a few centuries by the collapse of the Tibetan Empire and the persecution of Buddhism, but with the beginning of the later propagation in the 11th century came the distinction of systems which stands today, that of the Svatantrikas and the Prasangikas. The basis for this division was yet another loophole in Nagarjuna's writings; how the understanding of emptiness is to be produced in the mind of an opponent.(4)
The fundamental goal of Buddhism is to dispel the ignorance which is the root cause of our cyclic existence in Samsara: the lack of understanding of emptiness. To inquire what the various schools mean by "emptiness" is to open the can of worms, for their definitions are contingent upon which scriptures are held to be the word of the Buddha, and within that limit, which scriptures are definitive and which are interpretable. The major split of Hinayana and Mahayana derives from the first distinction, and as all Madhyamika schools are within the Mahayana branch they accept the same canon, which subsumes the Hinayana canon. It is inevitable that within such a huge body of information one will find many assertions which seem to contradict other statements. The explanation for this is that when the Buddha lectured he would speak to the level of understanding of his audience, at times teaching doctrines which were not ultimately correct but which would prod the understanding of his audience along in the right direction. It is said that those not prepared to understand or accept emptiness should not be taught it, lest they develop adverse reactions and so more harm be done than good. Forced to systematically divide the teachings, both Prasangika and Svatantrika accept that sutras which teach ultimate truths, emptiness, are definitive, while those that do not are interpretable. Exploiting yet another loophole, the Svatantrikas make the further distinction that a sutra must also be "literally acceptable"....
A few more historical points are in order before discussion of the issues dividing these schools of thought. It should be stressed that the Prasangika view is considered the highest interpretation of Nagarjuna's Middle Way in modern Tibetan philosophy. Since the time of Tsongkapa, the Svatantrika way of understanding Madhyamika has been taught as a system to be refuted. However, the Svatantrika that is being refuted may not be identical to the originally intended system of the Svatantrika founders. It is said that heresy is merely the side that loses the fight for orthodoxy, and in a country like Tibet, where monasteries were often caught up in the political struggles of the times, it is possible that some doctrines were abandoned on grounds other than logical inconsistency. This is not to say that the subtle differences between Svatantrika and Prasangika were the cause of violent conflicts, as one sees so often in the history of early Christian disputes over Christ's physical composition. Rather, it might be more accurate to say that the positions held by Tibetan orders were, like the monasteries themselves, susceptible to the fortunes of the wars that their feudal (as well as Mongol) benefactors engaged in.
It is important to note that the Indian scholars who are credited with founding the branches of Madhyamika, the so-called Partisan Madhyamikas, did not recognize themselves as Svatantrikas or Prasangikas, and only Candrakirti among them recognized their subtle divergences on the meaning of emptiness.(5) As they developed in Tibet, the fortunes of Svatantrika and Prasangika through the Middle Ages reflected, to some extent, the Tibetan political environment of the times. The Svatantrika texts may not have been as thoroughly examined as they might by the generations of Tibetan scholars after Tsongkapa, who firmly established that the highest interpretation is found in Prasangika. This means that Svatantrika has not had truly committed proponents to champion its cause for many centuries. The Svatantrika found in the arguments of the Prasangikas, then, can only be described as Prasangikan Svatantrika. To determine the extent of the Prasangikan warp of Svatantrika would require a separate effort, so with the above qualifications in mind, we will get on with sorting out Madhyamika as we have it.
Logic's Point of Departure
It was stated above that in Tibet the final division of Svatantrika and Prasangika was dictated by the way each produces an understanding of emptiness in the mind of an opponent. The very names of the schools reflect their insistence on certain argumentative procedures: Svatantra means Autonomous Reason, while Prasanga means Consequence. In practice, this means that a Prasangika will be satisfied that any intelligent being, upon hearing the absurd consequence of some position, will perceive the correct understanding of the matter. A Svatantrika will insist that the implied result of the consequence must be explicitly stated in a syllogism of its own.
It seems that the Svatantrikas' and Prasangikas' logical modes of attack are based on preliminary preference for their respective beliefs regarding the mode of existence of conventional phenomena. According to Tsongkapa's Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment , "The reason why they assert autonomous signs [proofs] in their [Svatantrika] system is this conventional existence of own-character, that is, establishment by way of the object's own entity conventionally" (7). So it can be said that a Svatantrika's choice of reasoning methods derives from his view that conventional phenomena exist by way of their own character. Conversely, a Prasangika's use of the consequentialist method derives from her (8) view that phenomena don't exist by way of their own character. The difference of opinion may ultimately be traced back to the beliefs regarding scriptural interpretation rules as stated above.
Some might claim that by using scripture as a reference point, Buddhists employ a pre-rational methodology which can only lead to irrational results. However, the scriptural reference points described are just one aspect of the schools' theories of existence. A proponent of either view might easily maintain that due to the correctness of his logical methodology one can see that the rules chosen for scriptural interpretation were the correct ones. The axioms as well as the methodology are part of a system that is held up, as a whole, to the light of experience. A considered analysis of western science shows that it too has axiomatic truths founded on beliefs rooted in the cultures which gave it life. In a more concrete sense, just as a researcher working at a particle accelerator will refer to the works of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg when elaborating on his own ideas, so a Prasangika will refer to a well-known argument by Kay Drup or Tsongkapa to make a point that is generally accepted by the community in which he works. In both cases, it is the present experience of the experimenter that supports or denies the theory, not the voice of authority. The Buddha himself insisted that followers test his ideas rather than accept them just out of respect for him. Thus armed with the axioms of their tradition, Buddhists rationally explore the implications of their theories as they can be applied to experience. Leaving the paradigm comparisons for later, we can proceed to analyze the tools used to dissect existence in Madhyamika tradition.
The Lack of Being One or Many
When asked what an object, let's say a baseball, is made of, many people today will reply that it is made of atoms. If pressed, some can describe the world of subatomic particles, protons, electrons and so forth. Upon further investigation, a small army of different kinds of particles can be found inside that baseball, and the largest machines ever built are employed to find out just how many more are in there. Regardless of our current ability to physically dissect the components, however, questions remain; which part(s) of an entity can be described as "being" that entity? Is there any part of a baseball which can be said to exist absolutely as itself?
There are tests, independent of current technology, that a baseball can be put through which, if carefully pursued, can shed light on the nature of its existence. These tests, while very ancient, are still employed by the best of theoretical physicists today, who refer to them as "thought experiments". Our thought experiment comes to us from Santaraksita, the eighth century Indian scholar who, along with Tibet's King Trisong Detsen, was responsible for the founding of Tibet's first monastery. In a treatise entitled Ornament for the Middle Way , Santaraksita explains the meaning of various sutras which relate to the concept of the lack of being one or many. The Descent into Lanka Sutra says:
The entities of things are like
Appearances [of things] in a mirror
Which do not exist there
Because of lacking oneness or otherness (9).
Santaraksita renders this in syllogistic form:
A] These things propounded by ourselves and others [i.e. baseballs,etc.],
B] do not inherently exist, like a reflection,
C] because they lack in reality a nature of unity or plurality (10).
This argument captures the crux of the Madhyamika theory of emptiness and existence. An excellent elaboration of the proofs was produced by the 18th century Tibetan scholar Jang-gya, and it is with his guidance that we will find a way through the complexities of establishing the logical consistency of the argument. The criteria for establishing proof in Buddhist logic are threefold, in that there are three relationships or "modes" within the syllogism that must be correct in order for the proof to be established. In the above syllogism, A and B together make up the probandum, that which is to be proved. A is the subject, and B is the predicate, of the probandum. C is the sign, or reason.
The first of the three modes is called the property of the subject--the sign must be a property of the subject (C must be a property of A). Here, "lacking in reality a nature of unity or plurality" is said to be a property of "things", including our baseball of course.
The second of the three modes is called the forward pervasion--the sign is pervaded by the predicate (C is pervaded by B). The sign must be a member of the class of phenomena represented by the predicate. This means that "lacking in reality a nature of unity or plurality" is pervaded by (is coextensive with or a subclass of) "not inherently existing".
The third of the three modes is called the counterpervasion--the negative of the sign is pervaded by the negative of the predicate (-C is pervaded by -B), or in other words, the sign must not belong to the class of phenomena represented by the negative of the predicate. Thus, anything which did have a nature of unity or plurality would have to exist inherently.
In less technical terms, the argument can be reduced to a few basic points. There is no such thing as a truly existent unity, for reasons given below. If there is no particle that exists as an inherent unit, no amount of (non-inherently existing) particles will ever amount to an inherently existing plurality or composite. If a carbon atom is not a truly existing unit, the baseball made of carbon (and other) atoms must also not exist inherently. Since "one and many" exhaust the possibilities (nothing could be more than one and less than many), the conclusion is that there is no thing that exists inherently. All things are empty of true existence.
The First Mode
Now, to analyze the modes in more detail. Jang-gya points out that the proof of the sign being a property of the subject has two parts, the proof of the lack of being a truly existent unity and the proof of the lack of being a truly existent plurality (11). As for the first, we may begin with our baseball. Can the baseball be considered a truly existent unity? Well, to begin with it has smaller parts which we can see. Let's then consider the smallest particle within the ball. Can this particle be said to be a truly existent unity, a single thing? Again, no. The argument is that if a particle is to occupy space, it must have sides. Just as the baseball itself has a north side and a south side, so must each of the particles that it consists of. Without this aspect, the particles would have no "extension". By occupying no space, all the particles surrounding it would be in contact with the central particle at the same place. It follows that the whole universe, if it were made of these hypothetical particles, would occupy zero volume. If it is admitted that the central particle has sides that face the surrounding particles, then it must be accepted that they have parts and are not truly existent unities.The north side depends on the south side for its existence.
In addition to having extension in space, the particle also endures for some length of time. If there were no distinction between the particle now and the particle ten minutes from now, it would be absurdly held to occur over a period of zero time.The temporal series of this "one" particle is another aspect of its lack of inherent existence as a unity.
By implication of these arguments it is clear that the baseball also is not a truly existent unity, being a composite of particles as well as having sides, duration, etc. The fact that there is no such thing as a truly existent unity directly proves that there can be no truly existent plurality; if there is no truly existent unity, of what could the plurality be composed that would endow it with true existence? If there are no trees, there can be no forest.
This situation gives rise to the doctrine of the Two Truths, Conventional Truth and Ultimate Truth. It should be stressed that denying a truly existent baseball does not deny that a baseball can exist as a conventionally existent plurality. Tsongkapa's Essence of the Good Explanation says: When phenomena are established as having many parts, it is not contradictory for one phenomenon to exist as an entity of many parts, within conventionalities. However, damage is done to ultimate establishment [that is, true existence is called into question] because if parts and whole are different entities, they would be unrelated, and if they are the same entity, the parts would become one or the whole would become many. (12)
The Second and Third Modes
So far, we have briefly looked at the arguments which establish just the first mode, showing that the sign is a property of the subject. An exhaustive assesment of all possible objections would require more space than we have. It will not be possible to do more than establish the basic proofs of the pervasion and counter-pervasion, leaving the thorough evaluation of possible inconsistencies aside. Once these premises are described, we will have an adequate basis for comparison of Svatantrika and Prasangika differences regarding selflessness.
Once again Jang-gya, as the voice of Tibetan logic, explains the requirements for our proof. In order for the pervasions to be established, two more things are necessary: 1) a valid cognizer that refutes that there is a common locus of the sign (lack of one or many) and the object of negation (true existence), and 2) a valid cognizer that ascertains that the predicate of the probandum (non-inherent existence) and the object of negation are a dichotomy (13). While this sounds complicated, the short explanation is that there is a dichotomy of existence and non-existence, which are mutually exclusive, and do not allow for a third possibility. This answers the second part of the requirements. To refute that "lack of one or many" and true existence have a common locus (which would violate the rule of counterpervasion, which states that the sign cannot exist in the dissimilar class of the predicate), Jang-gya points out that that there is no common locus that both truly exists and lacks being a truly existent unity or plurality.
So finally, the hypothesis regarding one and many, by satisfying the three modes, becomes a plank in the Madhyamika platform. Like a mirror image, things seem to exist but they do not truly exist. Santaraksita's syllogism about the true nature of phenomena is accepted by Prasangika and Svatantrika alike; it is the nature of the reflection that they dispute.
To Be or Not To Be
By way of the above logical demonstration, Madhyamika raises its own peculiar questions regarding ontology, the way in which things exist. To say that nothing truly exists is all well and good, but what are we to make of the fact that existence generally seems to be happening? If things do not truly exist, how substantial is any object which conventionally exists? There is a broad spectrum of ontological possibilities between the extreme of true existence and the extreme of nihilism. Aside from the non-Buddhist schools of Indian thought, there are four main divisions of Buddhism which hold their respective positions regarding the status of external objects. In the interests of brevity the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika and Yogacara positions will be left aside so that we may concentrate on the disputes within Madhyamika.
It should be reiterated that within the Madhyamika systems there are different ways of cutting the pie of conventional existence. Some of the same labels are used by the systems to designate aspects of theory whose definitions are not in fact interchangeable. More specifically, both Prasangika and Svatantrika consider that phenomena are 'posited by the power of an awareness', but they do not agree as to how this happens. A commonly used tool for sorting out the fine points is the analogy of the horse and pebble as described in Tsonkapa's Clarifier of the Meaning of the Middle Way. When the meaning of the analogy is described in terms of both Prasangika and Svatantrika interpretation, then their differences in the meaning of 'existing by way of own character' and 'posited by the power of awareness' will be clear.
There is a magician and an audience. The magician places on the ground a pebble. By casting a spell, the magician causes a horse to appear on the 'underlying base' of the pebble. The audience is affected by the spell in such a way that they see the horse and believe that it is really there. The magician also sees the horse, but in his mind he knows that it is not really there. A third party comes along and, having been absent when the spell was cast, sees no horse and does not believe that there is a horse. For him, there is only the pebble.
The central disagreement between Prasangika and Svatantrika concerning the nature of external objects is their difference over the conventional existence of an object's own character. The Svatantrikas describe the pebble's mode of being as conventionally existent from its own side, that is, it has an objective mode that is established by way of its own character. That is not the end of the story--the horse does not exist as 'horse' until somebody looks at the pebble, or to be precise, until it appears to a non-defective mind. So the objective mode of subsistence of the object which exists from its own side does not exist independently of the consciousness apprehending it, thus avoiding the extreme of permanence. On the other hand, the consciousness does not impute phenomena without any objective basis, for if external objects had no objective basis of existence this would be, according to Svatantrika, an extreme of annihilation. The mode of being established from own side which is posited through the consciousness apprehending it is the conventional/dependent mode of being.
In terms of our analogy, the magician understands that while he is seeing a horse, that horse's appearance is due to its objective mode of existence (the pebble) posited by the power of the magician's own mind. The pebble is dependent on the mind affected by the spell for its appearance as a horse. The magician represents those who understand emptiness inferentially, that is, he knows that the appearance of the horse is false, yet the horse nevertheless appears to him. The audience does not understand the nature of the dependence of the horse on their awareness for its existence, so they think there is a real horse in front of them and that it would be there if they left the room. The latecomer represents one who understands emptiness directly and sees only the inherently existing base of the pebble.
It is this inherent existence of the pebble that the Prasangikas protest. The Svatantrikas claim that existence by way of the object's own character, existence by way of the object's own entity, existence by way of the object's own entityness, existence capable of withstanding a search for the object designated, and inherent existence, do not ultimately exist, but are necessarily conventionally existent. If they were not, annihilation would result. The Prasangikas feel that asserting inherent existence of objects logically leads to the extreme of permanence, even though they are only conventionally inherently existent. Taking the lead from the Kasyapa Chapter Sutra, which says that phenomena are empty of themselves as being established as their own mode of being (14), Prasangikas constructed a different paradigm of conventional existence.
For the Prasangikas, because of the lack of a true self of an object, the awareness by which the object is posited imputes all the qualities of that object. If, because of the lack of being one or many, an object has no part that can be found to exist as the self of that object, then it is not possible to find any existence from own side, even conventionally. Tsongkapa describes how one might see a coiled rope in the dark and mistakenly impute the presence of a snake. The snake is real to the mind positing it, causing a fearful reaction etc., although the snake is not to be found there. "As a snake is imputed on a coiled rope, so should own character be understood as unestablished", wrote Candrakirti in the commentary on Aryadeva's Treatise of Four Hundred Stanzas (15). The root text says, "If there is no existence of attatchment,etc., without conceptual thought, who of the wise would hold these conceptual things as inherent objects?" (16)
Supposing that the pebble represents the mode of existence from own side of a horse which is not appearing to an awareness, there remains the dilemna of finding which part of the so-called inherently existing pebble becomes the horse. Another famous analogy, that of the chariot, describes how an object can be logically dissected into any number of different groups of parts. This analysis depends entirely on the awareness which is dissecting the chariot. Any part of the chariot you care to name, from the wheel to any of its constituent atoms, is analytically unfindable. Therefor all of these parts, and the whole chariot as well, exist only through the power of the consciousness designating them. The Prasangikas denounce the Svatantrika refutation of a self of phenomena as 'coarse', because although the Svatantrikas reject the notion that phenomena exist as their self without appearing to an awareness, they still accept a 'subtle' self of phenomena, inherent existence. The Prasangika find this contradictory and reject the subtle self as well. They assert that phenomena are posited by a conceptual awareness that entirely subjectively designates an object to its basis of designation.
The Eye of the Beholder
So far much has been said about the nature of phenomena perceived by an awareness, but this act of perception has not been described. The four schools of Buddhism maintain that there are 'sense consciousnesses', such as an eye consciousness, which perceive objects. Since Svatantrikas accept that phenomena are established by way of their own character, they believe that sense consciousnesses perceive an object as it exists, barring any superficial causes of error. The Prasangikas claim that this is like saying that our horse is appearing as it really is although it is actually an illusion. To perceive an object as existing by way of its own character is mistaken, but to avoid contradicting the world , it is said that sense-direct perceivers are non-mistaken conventionally. It bears stating at this point that throughout all of this talk about the false appearance of objects, it is not permissible to traffic with totally imaginary phenomena.The classic example of this is the horn of a rabbit - no such thing exists; any argument based on the existence of such is false, and any argument which fails to account for the ear of a rabbit, which does exist conventionally, is false.
A theory of how an object is perceived is dependent on a theory of what the sense object is made of. The founder of Svatantrika, Bhavaviveka, states that objects composed of minute particles are connected to each other such that each particle contributes to the entity of the object.(17) He rejects the Yogacarin claim that minute particles, while substantially established, are too subtle to serve as sense objects, and that therefor external objects do not exist. Since every particle is an aggregate (going back to the lack of one or many), a group of substantially established aggregates large enough to be seen ought to be substantially established as well. If not, at what magnitude do the particles become unestablished? (We will use an inverse form of this argument to poke holes in the western concept of particle-based existence.) Bhavaviveka's assertion that sense consciousnesses are generally non-mistaken due to perceiving an object which is objectively established as a composite of particles is similar to the position of the Sautrantikas. Although the Sautrantikas assert that that sense objects exist ultimately, while Bhavaviveka says they are only conventionally existent, the similarity in conception of external objects is the basis for calling Bhavaviveka's system Sautrantika-Svatantrika-Madhyamika.
Again, Bhavaviveka states that external objects exist conventionally by way of their own character, and so a sense consciousness can correctly perceive an object. According to Lopez, it is Tsongkapa's conclusion that "since Bhavaviveka asserts that each particle in a composite of particles serves as a cause of a sense consciousness and that each of the particles is substantially existent and seems to assert that each particle is final (that is, most subtle), Bhavaviveka asserts that partless particles are observed-object-conditions of sense consciousnesses".(18) However, the notion of 'partless particles' (not 'minute particles') runs counter to the lack of being one or many and the doctrine of dependent arising. It seems unlikely that Bhavaviveka would have overlooked such an obvious point. This statement of Tsongkapa's is an essential part of the Prasangika contention that Svatantrikas assert existence by way of own character, so perhaps there is some overlooked contradiction here in their claim.
Autonomy vs. Consequence-Part One
As stated earlier, the issue of existence by way of own character is strongly linked to logical methodology. When there is a debate involving the use of syllogisms, the Svatantrikas claim that the subject of a syllogism (as defined above in the syllogism of the lack of one or many) must be established as appearing commonly to both parties by a valid cognizer which is non-mistaken with respect to the subject's being established by way of it's own character. If two opponents are going to debate, they must agree as to the nature of the subject, predicate and sign, as well as the three modes. Svatantrikas, by asserting establishment by way of own character, believe that the appearance of the subject's own character to a consciousness or consciousnesses results in valid cognition. In this system, both sides agree as to the appearance of the subject.
Having arrived at this understanding, the definition of Svatantrika/Autonomous Syllogism by Jang-gya can be set out plainly without causing the massive confusion and anxiety which results from reading the definition cold: Autonomous means that an inferential consciousness realizing the thesis is generated without taking the lead merely from the opponents assertions, but by his having ascertained the establishment of the modes of the sign with respect to a subject that is established as appearing commonly to non-mistaken valid cognizers of both parties in the debate through the force of an objective mode of subsistence from the side of the basis of designation. Madhyamikas who assert the correctness of the necessity for such are Svatantrika-Madhyamikas.(19)
The Prasangikas, for their part, reject the use of autonomous syllogisms because of the necessary use of a commonly appearing subject, which implies the existence of phenomena by way of own character. This is a difficult position for one who is trying to teach Prasangika doctrine, since without a commonly appearing subject for debate it is impossible to prove anything positively. The solution is to use reasons which are known to the opponent in a way that generates valid understanding. Since only another Prasangika would hold that the modes of a sign do not inherently exist, a non-Prasangika opponent would hold that the three modes can be ascertained and validly established. The task, then, is to take the lead from the opponent's assertions and demonstrate the absurd Consequences of his position. By generating the three modes in terms of his own incorrect assertions, the opponent sees the logical errors. This way the Prasangika is free from asserting the subject and three modes herself.
One thing that Prasangika and Svatantrika do have in common with each other, and all other Mahayana schools, is the pursuit of realization of selflessness of phenomena. The 'lower' schools practices are aimed at realization of selflessness of persons. The path systems of the lower schools, the Sravaka (Hearer) and Pratyekabuddha (Lone Buddha) vehicles, are designed to root out the afflictive obstructions (desire,hatred,etc.) which prevent liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The Mahayana Boddhisattva path is designed to root out the knowledge obstructions which prevent achievement of a Buddha's omniscient consciousness. To attain this end, a Prasangika or Svatantrika aspirant must come to grips with sunyata of phenomena, and also sunyata of sunyata--for ultimate truth itself does not exist ultimately.
Buddhism and Scientific Method
If we recall the analogy of the horse and pebble, the magician and the latecomer represented the two ways in which sunyata can be understood: inferentially and directly. Direct understanding of sunyata is often described by way of the Greek term gnosis. This gnosis is achieved by means of meditational practices of various kinds, but it is based on a correct inferential understanding of emptiness, which is brought about by reason. The experience in meditational equipoise is rooted in the conceptual understanding of emptiness, but that conceptual understanding is also altered by the meditational experience. There is a feedback loop which can eventually lead the practitioner to the fruits of the path being followed, be it Sravaka, Pratyekabuddha or Boddhisattva. These paths to salvation are unique to Buddhism, as are some of the methods employed on the paths. It is this soteriological aspect of Buddhism which accounts for the western tendency to categorize it as a "religion" and nothing more. However, the practice of testing a hypothesis (one's inferential understanding of sunyata) against reason and experiment (meditation) has been the cornerstone of the "scientific method" since it took form in the days of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Given this general similarity in the methodology of science and Buddhism (specifically Tibetan Madhyamika), one might imagine that these two traditions could yield similar results. Since we have already explored, in a preliminary fashion, Tibetan modes of inquiry into physical existence, we will investigate western physics and see if it does not lend itself to the same sort of analysis.
Atoms and the Mechanical Worldview
The concept of the atom is an old one. The idea of little building blocks of matter was current among a number of philosophical schools in ancient Greece as well as in ancient India. In the East, the importance of 'minute particles' for scholarship and research was in proportion to their size--there was no way to observe such particles directly, and while they figured in many schools' paradigms of physical existence they were generally relegated to the baggage compartment while other topics were more hotly debated. In the West, speculation on the nature of 'atoms' eventually led to the rise of the mechanical worldview and a technology-based natural philosophy. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes created a model of the universe which was, physically, nothing more than collisions of particles playing out their endless chain of cause and effect. Although Descartes spoke of both mind and matter in his system, the followers of the mechanical worldview that he helped to create left the mind behind in pursuit of what we call the laws of physics. The unique combination of thought and technology through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries has led western science down a long trail of discovery in areas which the philosophers of Indian traditions could only investigate with their minds. Physicists focused on the nuts and bolts of matter, looking at ever smaller pieces and trying to fit them into the broader scheme of the mechanical tradition's insistence on an absolute ontology, that is, the belief that things have an objective existence which scientific method can uncover. It was this relentless poking around the insides of atoms which inadvertently led to discoveries that challenged the idea that phenomena exist wholly independent from our methods of investigation. One of these discoveries is known as wave-particle duality.
Wave-Particle Duality
Atomic models began to resemble the still-popular image of electrons orbiting a nucleus at the beginning of this century. The electron was, of course, considered a real physical chunk. The first sign of trouble came in 1905 with Albert Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect. At that time it was easy to demonstrate and widely accepted that light traveled in waves, but the production of electricity from light striking metal led Einstein to hypothesize that a light wave also has the nature of a particle, now called the photon. The success of this theory inspired Louis de Broglie to turn the tables and describe the electron as a wave, which helped explain many features of the atomic model of that time.To make a long history of research and theorizing short, physicists developed a way to describe the behavior of sub-atomic phenomena in terms of both waves and particles by means of mathematics, specifically through the use of Max Planck's constant.(20)
The mechanical worldview, from which these theories of waves and particles sprang, had a pronounced streak of determinism. It had long been felt that it was possible, in theory, to know the future of the universe, if only all the collisions of particles could be charted at once. The human observer was merely a passive chronicler of events which were occurring absolutely, that is, independent of the observer's frame of reference or method of investigation. The dual wave-particle nature of electrons flew in the face of such beliefs. While Erwin Schrodinger came up with a mathematical equation which nicely described de Broglie's waves, others saw definite evidence of particulate behavior, which made the cloudlike wave pattern of the electron distasteful in terms of actual existence. The picture became clearer after Max Born hypothesized that the cloud was in fact a probability wave. If one finds an electron, plots its position, then repeats the process many times, eventually a pattern shows up. However, the wave pattern does not say where the particle is at any given moment, merely where it is likely to be. The rule established is that the square of the wave amplitude at any point in space gives the probability of finding the electron at that point.(21) Conversely, knowing where the particle is does not tell us anything about its wave function. It turns out that there is no way to simultaneously know both the position and path of the particle, not because of unsophisticated technology but because of the very act of observation.
The Uncertainty Principle
In order to predict the future position of an object, be it a baseball or an electron, you need to know its position, its momentum and its direction. A baseball in flight can be checked for each of these factors and its ultimate fate easily determined, as any outfielder can attest. Electrons and other subatomic phenomena are more slippery, due to the fact that they have the nature of a wave as well as the nature of a particle. For an object to be seen, it must give off light. Physics tells us that for an electron to be observed, a photon must be bounced off it. This is duly detected by a microscope--but then the photon causes the electron to recoil in a direction which cannot be known to us without making another observation. Thus, an electron cannot be observed without changing its state.
The dual wave-particle nature we use to describe these micro-entities is to blame for our frustration. If the microscope lens has a large diameter, the image on the film will be small, but due to the wave nature of the photon it will make an image somewhere within one wavelength-not an exact point that can be replicated, but a general cloud of spots will appear if the experiment is repeated. It is possible to know the speed of the electron's recoil, but it is impossible to know the exact direction of the photon upon entry into the wide lens. Thus momentum is fairly certain, but position is not, so we can't know the direction of the electron's recoil. If the lens is narrowed, the wave property of the photon causes it to diffract, making its wavelength much greater, so while the momentum of both photon and electron can be pinned down, the greater wavelength makes it impossible to accurately assess where the electron actually was. In a nutshell, the wide lens allows for an accurate measure of the electron's position, but makes it impossible to know where it is going, while the narrow lens reduces momentum uncertainty while making knowledge of the position less accurate.(22)
There is an inverse proportional relationship between knowledge of position and momentum which seems to preempt any attempt at prophesying the future of a single atom. The mechanists' old dream of plotting the future vector of each particle in the universe was destroyed, but this was not the most disturbing feature of the new atomic model. What really astonished the physicists of the 1920's, when quantum theory assumed the shape it still has today, was the fact that the existence of the phenomena they were studying was dependent on their consciousness cognizing the event.
Rough Interface
Simply put, science had no theoretical framework on which it could hang these experimental data. Consciousness was banned altogether in the behaviorist psychology theories of the day. Consciousness was an unquantifiable, unknowable phenomenon for the strict mechanists. Philosophy, the caretaker of the other half of Descartes' world, had made some progress in the field of mind, but in a way that was not subject to rigorous experiment. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had said that the effort to understand our sense data caused part of the reality which we falsely attribute to an objectively existing world, a strikingly Svatantrik position which in no small way prodded the work of Bohr and his colleagues in Copenhagen. One of them, Johann von Neumann, went so far as to say that it is not possible to formulate the laws of physics without direct reference to human consciousness.(23) He argued that if the unmeasured electrons are merely potentialities, as the wave equation of Schrodinger describes them, the particles that compose the measuring device which records the electrons must also be mere potentia, unable to collapse their own or any other wave potential into existence. His conclusion was that consciousness is directly responsible for calling any particle into being, which is paramount to saying that physics has stumbled upon the raw event of dependent arising.
Physicists of a more 'realist' bent claim that there is a boundary between events on the subatomic scale and our macroscopic scale. They claim that the momentum uncertainty is dependent on the mass of the particle in question. The value of Planck's constant h is so small that any object much larger than the atomic scale will no longer be susceptible to uncertainty.(24) This is supposed to excuse physics from having to explain how any number of subatomic particles, whose existence is dependent on conceptual designation, can get together to create objects that are not also dependent on conceptualization. Recalling the analogy of the horse and pebble, we could try to substitute the wave for the pebble and the particle for the horse and argue whether a wave constitutes any degree of existence from own side, etc. However much fun this might be, and regardless of the staggering implications if quantum physics and madhyamika had arrived at the same description of what happens at the subject-object boundary, the problem of quantum measurement is a bit too twisted for such a straight explanation.(25)
A more subtle and sophisticated (not to mention Prasangik) explanation for the coincidence of the current state of western science with madhyamika principles was formulated by B. Alan Wallace, a physicist trained in Buddhist logic, who recently published his musings in a book aptly titled Choosing Reality . He states in the introduction that to the best of his knowledge his is the first attempt to "apply the mode of inquiry of the Buddhist centrist view to the foundation of physics".(26) The crux of his analysis of the history of science in the west is that there has been a spectrum of ontological beliefs bounded by the two extremes of 'realism' and 'instrumentalism', which closely parallel the extremes of permanence and nihilism in madhyamika. The truth, in both systems, is found somewhere between the two.
Instrumentalism vs. Realism
Generally speaking, the realist position is the belief that everything that exists has a 'self', an intrinsic nature, which scientific method, over the decades and centuries, is capable of cataloging in a way that is both correct and exact. The Universe exists in a way that is just exactly so, and by carefully sifting evidence which we get from asking the right questions humans can discover that absolute nature. Instrumentalism (i.e. the theoretical extreme) holds that scientific theories and models of the universe are valid only in the sense that they are useful in predicting events and explaining data consistently, while at the same time making no claim that anything they describe actually exists.
To illustrate these positions, we can again use our particles as a base. The Cartesian model said that the world is made of particles of matter, whose behavior was described in classical terms of collisions like the ones that we see on our scale. As research exposed more of the microworld, physicists continued to describe it in visual terms which had analogues in the macroworld. When the electron was first introduced into the theories, the two main atomic models were the Plum Pudding (electrons embedded in the nucleus) and the Planetary (electrons orbiting the nucleus) models. The effect of the quantum revolution was to force the experts to admit that there was no longer any way to visualize the electron wave/particle by analogy to anything on our scale.(27) All they could use to relate what they considered to be the reality of the electron was mathematical description.
Here, an instrumentalist could enter and explain that we can never do more than 'save the appearances'. One should develop a hypothesis that 'doesn't contradict the world', explain the data neatly and cleverly, but don't expect to describe ontological reality. The realist may retort that the mathematical description is valid as the 'visualization' of the atom, in fact, it is really the most accurate model. Stemming back to the days of Pythagoras, who maintained that numbers were reality itself, western thought has tended to accord mathematics special status as axiomatic truth. However, developments such as non-Euclidian geometry in the last century, as well as Karl Godel's incompleteness theorem of the 1930's, have made it difficult to rely on the axioms of math for absolute proof of anything other than statements made within the framework of the math itself. In fact, says Wallace's instrumentalist, mathematical truths are just as conventional as the laws of physics we use math to describe. These things are handy as experience filters, but they have no reference to physical fact. Theories of subatomic particles can be as logically self-consistent as you like, but the whole scheme is entirely arbitrary.
The instrumentalist will point out that for a given observed phenomena, there can be many theories which provide a rational explanation. Each one is consistent with itself, but at the same time each could contradict the explanation offered by other theories. The history of science is full of examples. For instance, in the midst of the 'Copernican revolution', astronomers had a choice between a heliocentric or a geocentric model of the universe. Both had advantages and drawbacks, each was consistent with the data available, neither was better than the other at predictions. Debate about the nature of light, whether it was a wave or a particle, continued from Newton's time until Einstein; more than two hundred years of relating to light experimentally without any proof of what it really is. Of course, the current explanations for the vast group of phenomena that fall under the category 'light' is not what it was ten years ago, nor for that matter can two scientists have exactly the same conception of light. If the scientific method is supposed to eliminate all false hypotheses in order to arrive at the truth, the truth will never be found because of the infinite number of hypotheses possible.
The Middle Way
It is Wallace's contention that due to the destruction of the pre-rational assumptions of realism, most working scientists and mathematicians will admit, if questioned, to the relative nature of their work. However, in practice and in education the metaphysical assumption of absolute existence from the mechanical worldview is rarely considered, much less challenged. An odd feature of this method of analyzing beliefs about ontology is that by holding to the extreme of absolute existence/realism, one implicitly falls to the extreme of instrumentalism/ nihilism as well. Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way states:
Whatever exists inherently is permanent,
Since it does not become non-existent.
If one says that what arose before is now non-existent,
Then it follows that this is [an extreme of] annihilation.(28)
This is perhaps the bluntest logic used to destroy the doctrine of existence by way of an entity's own nature. If anything had a 'self', it would be unable to interact with anything without changing some aspect of its self. Belief in a permanent existence along with belief in a world that changes in any way is contradictory. Candrakirti says in his Clear Words that "Since inherent existence is not overcome, that which is said to exist inherently never becomes non-existent. In that case it follows that through asserting it to be just inherently existent, one has a view of permanence. Because one asserts that things inherently exist at an earlier time and then asserts that now, later, they are destroyed and thus do not exist, it follows that one has a view of annihilation."(29) In other words, anyone who does science with the realist attitude that he is exposing the way something really is, independent of method or concept, by consequence of this mistaken doctrine admits to instrumentalism.
History reveals that scientific theories are as impermanent as anything else. They get replaced by newer theories which account in a more satisfactory way for observation. So what are we to make of current scientific accounts of nature? Are terms such as 'particle' and 'wave' nothing more than conceptual links in a theory, as the extreme of instrumentalism insists, to be written out of existence later when they no longer serve? For that matter, how could it be that without some kind of independent physical existence, people generally share many experiences of their environment in common? What about, the suspicious will ask, causality and the fact that interactions occur in an apparently very regular way in the natural world regardless of anyone's awareness of them? In short, what alternative is there to 'independent existence'?
The answer is, 'dependent existence'. In the analysis of the lack of one or many, a particle was said to have various attributes, such as extension and duration, which result from the dependence of one part to another. With the help of modern physics we can speak of more attributes, such as mass, charge, wave functions and the uncertainty principle. Investigation of the relationship between the electron and its attributes shows that there is no one attribute that can be said to be that particle's intrinsic existence.These attributes, and therefor the entity we have endowed with these attributes, exist, but only in dependence on our conceptualization of them. The Middle Way suggests that our physical models can be valid conventionally, that is, empty of true existence but functional for that very reason.
Autonomy vs. Consequence-Part Two
Again, physicists like to posit a boundary between the quantum scale of existence and our own. It is one thing to say that a vanishingly small particle we cannot directly apprehend exists as dependent on our conceptualization. It's harder to dispute that a normal object such as a baseball has any existence other than the one we usually attribute to it. A Svatantrika would agree that the baseball, due to having an objective mode of subsistence, can appear to two observers as it exists conventionally. On the basis of this common appearance, the two can proceed to 'generate inferential consciousnesses' in each other's mental continuums, that is, produce a train of thought through reason that will bestow a conceptual, not direct, understanding of the emptiness of the baseball. The Prasangika view is that the baseball can not appear commonly because it has no objective mode of existence. The Consequentialist maintains that the Autonomist's position (that the baseball exists by way of its own character) can by logic be lead to the (absurd) consequence, 'It follows that a baseball is not a dependent arising because of inherently existing', which may generate in the opponent the (correct) understanding that a baseball does not inherently exist due to being dependently arisen.(31)
The Roots of Buddhism and Science
A detailed breakdown of the logical steps taken by this Consequentialist would be good but, as Jang Gya would have said, it would be far too much. If we connect just the various points made above, a larger picture of the relationship between science and Buddhism already begins to emerge. We can see that it is possible to interpret physics within a Madhyamika relative paradigm of existence, and that this interpretation avoids many contradictions inherent in the traditional western claims about truth and knowledge. But will the west have any interest in learning from such an interpretation?
It is commonly pointed out that the successes of Christianity and Buddhism in the ancient world were due to their flexibility in accommodating the ways of many different tribes and nations. As 'universal' religions, each was able to perform a role as a homogenizer of the peoples in their respective empires. It can be said that there was a relationship, in the states of Ashoka and Constantine, between the growth of the empire and the need for such a common faith--local religious chauvinism is still a threat to the security and welfare of any state. In medieval times, both these religions ceased to exist in their homeland, surviving instead in foreign countries where they continued to exert forces of cultural change. There are many peoples in the world which saw their first glimpse of 'civilization', literacy and so forth, because these religions had the ability to adapt themselves to general human conditions, rather than a strict cultural identity which potential believers would have to adopt.
One point where these two religions diverged is the development of their 'natural philosophies'. Christian Europe inherited a worldview that was a synthesis of Greek and Roman thought and the Bible--in effect, a pagan European science inhabiting an alien religion. Medieval Islamic science was a similar mix. The revealed word of God did not always agree with Aristotle's logic, however, which pretty well assured that at some point one of them would have to go. Islamic culture was actually a leading force in science, math and medicine until the absolute nature of the Islamic faith put an end to much of the speculation necessary to develop ideas. In western Europe, Christianity waged a long, ultimately unsuccessful campaign for supremacy in the interpretation of natural philosophy. Today, science looks back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century as the triumph of logic over religion. On the other hand, the Tibetan Buddhist worldview grew out of and is compatible with much of classical Indian thought. Just like any 'personal philosophy' of ancient Greece, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism, Buddhism emphasized the need for logical consistency. While Europe was ultimately unable to reconcile its religion with its natural philosophy, in Tibet the two remained inextricably linked, having come from one and the same source.
The Mindless Brain
The schism in the west has produced a science which, in reaction to Christianity, declares vast areas of what use to be natural philosophy taboo. A large section of this off-limits turf can be summed up with the word 'consciousness'. The mechanical worldview disapproved of any theory which postulated the existence of something that cannot be established. It suspected any theory that allowed for hypothetical constructs such as 'mind' without trying to explain events without that construct. Many would still insist that the mind, as unreachable as it is for our technical measuring devices, cannot be granted our license to exist.
To disallow consciousness, science must be able to account for the natural world without the use of it. Reflection on the uncertainty principle shows that this has not been accomplished. The July, 1992 edition of Scientific American describes the latest failed attempts at cheating the uncertainty principle. The physicists cited were largely annoyed at the fact that there was no way to account for the phenomena without positing the existence of consciousness.(32) However, instead of doing so, most attempt to muddle through the problem by trying to reason why their experiments failed to achieve the desired end. Many were prepared to admit to hopeless ignorance rather than postulate the existence of consciousness. Another recent edition of Scientific American was devoted to an overview of the state of the art in 'mind and brain' sciences, but here especially the west has a thoroughly empirical attitude. Out of eleven articles, only one addressed the issue of consciousness, and this was a concerted effort at equating consciousness with specific electrochemical events in the brain. "Clearly", writes Sir Francis Crick, "the problem of finding the neurons whose firing symbolizes a particular perception is not going to be easy. It will take many careful experiments to track them down, even one kind of percept".(33)
The reductionist tactics of both physics and psychology are a result of the unconscious acceptance that to know what a thing is, you must take it apart and examine its pieces. While this approach is very useful as a means of discovering facts, it makes it difficult for the right hand to know what the left is doing. In classical Greece and India, questions about existence, knowledge, perception, ethics, and physics were all answered within the framework of each of the popular philosophies. Buddhist scholarship continues to provide a coherent view of these areas of study, while western science does not. Physics found experimental evidence for consciousness, while psychology bends over backwards in its attempt to deny any such thing. Undoubtedly, severe evaluation of any proposition is what makes science as succesful as it is in many fields, but it is prone to contradiction on the larger scale when the work load is divided among such different fields.
Paradigm Shift
Historians of science like to point out that when a theory is in question, its demise is often signalled by the appearance of another theory that can make its case by resorting to fewer ad hoc reasons. In the world of Buddhist debate, the trump card of Madhyamika was its aesthetically pleasing refutation of both extremes. Dependent arising is called the king of reasonings because it allows the Madhyamikas to refute both extremes simultaneously, while the Yogacarins needed two separate reasons to abandon the two extremes as they saw them.(34) By postulating the existence of consciousness and adopting the theory of dependent arising, it is possible that many sciences may find a shared ground on which to relate to each other instead of being islands of knowledge separated by the seas of disparate theory and methodology. It is my contention that the appeal of such simplicity is what may eventually draw more scientists into contact with the dharma of the Tibetans. Western science and Tibetan Madhyamika are late 20th century vestiges of the values of a pair of ancient Indo-European peoples, the Greeks and the Aryans. Their common heritage in the distant past may have left a residual echo in the common bias for simplicity and economy of thought. I will let Thomas Kuhn, the father of the history of science, have this last word;
"Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternates. But that invention of alternates is just what scientists seldom undertake except during the pre-paradigm stage of their science's development and at very special occasions during its subsequent evolution. So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is clear. As in manufacture, so in science-retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it. The significance of crises is the indication they provide that an occasion for retooling has arrived."(35)