Interdependence in Buddhism

In order to understand Buddhist cosmology, we have to comprehend one of the key concepts of Buddhism, that of "interdependence". One of the aspects of that interdependence is the relationship between humanity's consciousness and the reality we perceive around us. According to Buddhism, all the proprieties that we attribute to the phenomenal world are not necessarily intrinsic to the object itself, but are conceived by our mind and filtered through our perceptions. Thus the same reality may appear differently to different intelligences. Objects are thus devoid of intrinsic and autonomous properties and do not possess solidity and permanence. That is the profound meaning of "vacuity." It must be emphasized that vacuity in Buddhism is not nothingness as the word has sometimes been misunderstood - Buddhism has at times been accused totally wrongly of nihilism. Vacuity is the absence of independence and autonomy of things. Because of interdependence, there is the potential and capacity for phenomenon to vary in an infinite number of ways, to develop in infinite directions. The only real nature of phenomena is thus their "interdependence". Vacuity is the ultimate nature of things because phenomena are devoid of an existence that is permanent and independent of the observer.
In Buddhism, there are thus 2 distinct levels of reality, that of conventional reality, which we are all familiar with in our daily lives, and that of ultimate reality, which has the quality of vacuity. Conventional reality concerns the transformation and change of things in the phenomenal world. These changes are governed by causal laws that are similar to the physical laws discovered by science in Nature. In that sense, the Buddhist view of conventional reality is very much like that of a scientist, with the difference being that, in addition to the physical laws, Buddhism introduces the laws of karma that say that the consequences of our acts, be they positive or negative, will lead unavoidably to our future happiness or suffering. But conventional reality is mere appearance. On a deeper level, phenomena do not have an objective existence. Using poetic language, Buddha often compared reality to mirages, magic illusions or dreams.
This interdependence between the nature of reality and the mind of observer is not totally foreign to the scientist himself although we usually think of science as being totally "objective". The information that nature sends us is inevitably altered by the instruments used for observation and analysis, be it a telescope, a bubble chamber or a computer, and by the brains of the observers who interpret it. Reality is filtered through a nightmarish web of electronic circuits; it is manipulated, digitized, and reconstituted by powerful computers and complex mathematical treatments.
In 1609, when Galileo first pointed a telescope toward the sky, he had, at the beginning, a very hard time convincing his colleagues that the wonders visible through his telescope were not optical illusions. The problem of the veracity of images is a thousand times worse in modern astronomy. There have been so many steps between the raw signals and the final image that it is quite legitimate to wonder what "objective truth" remains in the image. Fortunately, there is a way to weed out erroneous observations in science. A result or observation is not accepted until it has been verified independently by other workers, using other techniques or other measuring instruments. It is highly unlikely that the same error would be repeated each time, or that the instruments or machines should fool us on every occasion.
Thus, in principle, technical difficulties are surmountable. If we could rely upon machines alone, reality could, in theory, be rendered as objective as possible. But what cannot be avoided is the human brain. Human beings cannot observe nature in an objective manner. There is a constant interaction between our inner world and the outer world. The inner world of the scientist is full of concepts, models and theories acquired during his professional training. This inner world, when projected onto the outer world, prevents the scientist from seeing the "bare" objective facts, free from any interpretation. We only see what we want to see. On that subject, Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, told a charming story: He spent a whole day on a river bank and saw nothing but stones and water. Eleven years later, he returned to the same spot, searching for traces of earlier glaciation. This time, the evidence stuck out like a sore thumb. Not even an extinct volcano could have left more visible traces of its past activity than this old glacier. Darwin discovered what he was looking for as soon as he knew how to see.
Science goes even further: the very act of observing can modify reality. The science of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles, says so. The properties of a particle are unavoidably disturbed when it is observed because one has to shine light on it. Light and particles going through two holes behave like waves when the observer does not attempt to find out which hole the light or particles have gone through. But behave like particles as soon as one attempts to find out their precise path by placing detectors after the holes. This interdependence between observer and reality has been emphasized many times by the founders of the science of quantum mechanics.
Let's listen for example to Heisenberg who remarks: "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning." or to Bohr who says: "As our knowledge becomes wider, we must always be prepared, therefore, to expect alterations in the points of view best suited for the ordering of our experience. In this connection, we must remember, above all, that, as a matter of course, all new experience makes its appearance within the frame of our customary points of view and forms of perception."
Not only is there interdependence between the observer and the observed, but there is also interdependence between particles in the subatomic world. This is shown by a famous thought experiment proposed in 1930 by Albert Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (known as the EPR experiment). Imagine, they said, that a particle disintegrates spontaneously into two photons A and B. Nothing allows us to say a priori in which directions these two photons will propagate. There is one certainty however: because of symmetry, they will leave in opposite directions. If A goes toward the west, B will go toward the east. Let us set up our instruments and check. Yes, A goes west and B goes east. It is as expected.
But this does not take into account the indeterminacy of the subatomic world. Quantum mechanics tells us that A has no precise direction before it is captured by the measuring instrument. It was wearing its guise as a wave and could take any direction. It is only after it has interacted with the detector that A turns into a particle and "learns" that it is going west. If A did not "know" what direction to take before being captured by the measuring instrument, how could B "guess" in advance the direction of A, and arrange its trajectory so that it would be captured at the same time in the opposite direction? This does not make sense. Einstein and his colleagues concluded that quantum mechanics had therefore gone wrong. But this not the case. Laboratory experiments have always confirmed quantum mechanics, and the theory does truly account for the behavior of atoms. How then are we to resolve the EPR paradox?
The paradox exists only because we assume that reality is "localized" on each of the two particles. The paradox is no more if we accept the idea that the two photons, even if they are separated by billions of light-years, are part of a single reality before they are recorded by the measuring instruments, and that they are in permanent contact with each other by some sort of mysterious interaction. Everything is interdependent. Reality is no longer local, but global.