Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Medical Evidence for Near Death Experiences: A Reply to Shermer - by Pim van Lommel

Dr. Pim van Lommel, one of the presenters at the Conference on Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Spirituality that was the subject of our last post, is a clinician who studies near death experiences. He and his colleagues published a landmark study in The Lancet in 2001 entitled “Near-death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest; a prospective study in the Netherlands.” Michael Shermer, in his article "The Demon-Haunted Brain" in Scientific American, wrote that the Lancet study ‘delivered a blow’ to the view that consciousness and the brain are separable. The following post is an abridged version of Dr. van Lommel’s response to Shermer. Dr. van Lommel’s book, ENDLESS CONSCIOUSNESS will be published in English in 2010. (The references refer to the original article. Reprinted with permission of the author.)


We performed our prospective study in 344 survivors of cardiac arrest to study the frequency, the cause and the content of near-death experience (NDE). A near-death experience is the reported memory of all impressions during a special state of consciousness, including specific elements such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings, and seeing a tunnel, a light, deceased relatives, or a life review. In our study 282 patients (82%) did not have any memory of the period of unconsciousness, 62 patients (18%) however reported a NDE with all the “classical” elements. Between the two groups there was no difference in the duration of cardiac arrest or unconsciousness, intubation, medication, fear of death before cardiac arrest, gender, religion, education or foreknowledge about NDE. More frequent NDE was reported at age younger than 60 years, more than one cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) during hospital stay, and previous NDE. Patients with memory defects after lengthy and complicated CPR reported less frequent NDE.

There are several theories that should explain the cause and content of NDE. The physiologic explanation: the NDE is experienced as a result of anoxia in the brain, possibly also caused by release of endomorphines, or NMDA receptor blockade.

In our study all patients had a cardiac arrest, they were clinically dead, unconscious, caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain because of inadequate blood circulation, breathing, or both. If in this situation CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die. According to this theory, all patients in our study should have had an NDE, they all were clinical dead due to anoxia of the brain caused by inadequate blood circulation to the brain, but only 18% reported NDE.

The psychological explanation: NDE is caused by fear of death. But in our study only a very small percentage of patients said they had been afraid the seconds preceding the cardiac arrest, it happened too suddenly to realize what occurred to them. However, 18 % of the patients reported NDE. And also the given medication made no difference.

We know that patients with cardiac arrest are unconscious within seconds, but how do we know that the electro-encephalogram (EEG) is flat-lined in those patients, and how can we study this?

Complete cessation of cerebral circulation is found in cardiac arrest due to ventricular fibrillation (VF) during threshold testing at implantation of internal defibrillators. This complete cerebral ischaemic model can be used to study the result of anoxia of the brain.


In cardiac arrest global anoxia of the brain occurs within seconds. Timely and adequate CPR reverses this functional loss of the brain because definitive damage of the brain cells, resulting in cell death, has been prevented. Long lasting anoxia, caused by cessation of blood flow to the brain for more than 5-10 minutes, results in irreversable damage and extensive cell death in the brain. This is called brain death, and most patients will ultimately die.

In acute myocardial infarction the duration of cardiac arrest (VF) on the CCU is usually 60-120 seconds, on the cardiac ward 2-5 minutes, and in out-of-hospital arrest it usually exceeds 5-10 minutes. Only during threshold testing of internal defibrillators or during electro physiologic stimulation studies will the duration of cardiac arrest hardly exceed 30-60 seconds.

From these studies we know that in our prospective study of patients that have been clinically dead (VF on the ECG) no electric activity of the cortex of the brain (flat EEG) must have been possible, but also the abolition of brain stem activity like the loss of the corneareflex, fixed dilated pupils and the loss of the gag reflex is a clinical finding in those patients. However, patients with an NDE can report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, and memory from early childhood was possible, as well as perception from a position out and above their “dead” body. Because of the sometimes reported and verifiable out-of -body experiences, like the case of the dentures reported in our study, we know that the NDE must happen during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last second of this period.

So we have to conclude that NDE in our study was experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem. It is important to mention that there is a well documented report of a patient with constant registration of the EEG during cerebral surgery for an gigantic cerebral aneurysm at the base of the brain, operated with a body temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, she was put on the heart-lung machine, with VF, with all blood drained from her head, with a flat line EEG, with clicking devices in both ears, with eyes taped shut, and this patient experienced an NDE with an out-of-body experience, and all details she perceived and heard could later be verified. (8)

Credit: NASA, ESA, T. Megeath (University of Toledo) and M. Robberto (STScI)

There is also a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science states that consciousness is the product of the brain. This concept, however, has never been scientifically proven. Research on NDE pushes us at the limits of our medical concepts of the range of human consciousness and the relationship between consciousness and memories with the brain.

Interrupting the electrical fields of local neuronal networks in parts of the cortex also disturbs the normal function of the brain, because by localized electrical stimulation of the temporal and parietal lobe during surgery for epilepsy the neurosurgeon and Nobel prize winner W. Penfield could sometimes induce flashes of recollection of the past (never a complete life review), experiences of light, sound or music, and rarely a kind of out-of-body experience. These experiences did not produce any transformation.(15-16) After many years of research he finally reached the conclusion that it is not possible to localize memories inside the brain. Olaf Blanke also recently described in Nature a patient with induced OBE by inhibition of cortical activity caused by more intense external electrical stimulation of the gyrus angularis in a patient with epilepsy (17).

The effect of the external magnetic or electrical stimulation is dependent of the amount of energy given. There may be no clinical effect or sometimes stimulation is seen when only a small amount of energy is given, for instance during stimulation of the motoric cortex. But during “stimulation” with higher energy inhibition of local cortical functions occurs by extinction of the electrical and magnetic fields resulting in inhibition of local neuronal networks (personal communication Blanke). Also in the patient described by Blanke in Nature stimulation with higher electric energy was given, resulting in inhibition of the function of the local neuronal networks in the gyrus angularis.

And when for instance the occipital visual cortex is stimulated by TMS, this results not in a better sight, but instead it causes temporary blindness by inhibition of this part of the cortex. We have to conclude that localized artificial stimulation with real photons (electrical or magnetic energy) disturb and also inhibit the constant changing electrical and magnetic fields of our neuronal networks, and so influence and inhibit the normal function of our brain.

In trying to understand this concept of mutual interaction between the “invisible and not measurable” consciousness, with its enormous amount of information, and our visible, material body it seems wise to compare it with modern worldwide communication.

There is a continuous exchange of objective information by means of electromagnetic fields (real photons) for radio, TV, mobile telephone, or laptop computer. We are unaware of the innumerable amounts of electromagnetic fields that constantly, day and night, exist around us and through us as well as through structures like walls and buildings. We only become aware of these electromagnetic informational fields the moment we use our mobile telephone or by switching on our radio, TV or laptop. What we receive is not inside the instrument, nor in the components, but thanks to the receiver the information from the electromagnetic fields becomes observable to our senses and hence perception occurs in our consciousness. The voice we hear in our telephone is not inside the telephone. The concert we hear in our radio is transmitted to our radio. The images and music we hear and see on TV is transmitted to our TV set. The internet is not located inside our laptop. We can receive at about the same time what is transmitted with the speed of light from a distance of some hundreds or thousands of miles. And if we switch off the TV set, the reception disappears, but the transmission continues. The information transmitted remains present within the electromagnetic fields. The connection has been interrupted, but it has not vanished and can still be received elsewhere by using another TV set. Again, we do not realize us the thousands of telephone calls, the hundreds of radio and TV transmissions, as well as the internet, coded as electromagnetic fields, that exist around us and through us.

Could our brain be compared with the TV set that electromagnetic waves (photons) receives and transforms into image and sound, as well as with the TV camera that image and sound transforms into electromagnetic waves (photons)? This electromagnetic radiation holds the essence of all information, but is only conceivable to our senses by suited instruments like camera and TV set.

The informational fields of our consciousness and of our memories, both evaluating by our experiences and by the informational imput from our sense organs during our lifetime, are present around us as electrical and/or magnetic fields [possible virtual photons? (18)], and these fields only become available to our waking consciousness through our functioning brain and other cells of our body.

So we need a functioning brain to receive our consciousness into our waking consciousness. And as soon as the function of brain has been lost, like in clinical death or in brain death, with iso-electricity on the EEG, memories and consciousness do still exist, but the reception ability is lost. People can experience their consciousness outside their body, with the possibility of perception out and above their body, with identity, and with heightened awareness, attention, well-structured thought processes, memories and emotions. And they also can experience their consciousness in a dimension where past, present and future exist at the same moment, without time and space, and can be experienced as soon as attention has been directed to it (life review and preview), and even sometimes they come in contact with the “fields of consciousness” of deceased relatives. And later they can experience their conscious return into their body.

Michael Shermer states that, in reality, all experience is mediated and produced by the brain, and that so-called paranormal phenomena like out-of body experiences are nothing more than neuronal events. The study of patients with NDE, however, clearly shows us that consciousness with memories, cognition, with emotion, self-identity, and perception out and above a life-less body is experienced during a period of a non-functioning brain (transient pancerebral anoxia).


Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Watershed Event: Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Spirituality - by Robert K. Forman

Conference, July 2-4, 2008, Freiburg, Germany

This article by Robert K. Forman, of The Forge Institute, summarizes a recent and important conference on neuroscience, consciousness, and spirituality. Its purpose was "to explore methodologies of inner experience, and explore consciousness, not only from the neuroscientific point of view but from all points of view, including the transpersonal and the nondogmatic." Many presenters addressed questions that resonate with those raised by the excerpt from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's book in our prior post. For example--- in the context of quantum physics---the previous post asks if the 'apparatus' or what it detects is more real! In the future, we hope to post about some of the work described in the summary of the conference. The article was originally published by the JOURNAL OF CONSCIOUSNESS STUDIES, 15, No. 8, 2008, pp. 110–15. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Frieburg (Germany) was far away from my home near New York City, and I was dreading going. I had heard by way of the grapevine that there would be a number of materialistic reductionists there; as the token religionist, I wasn’t looking forward to being bludgeoned or even worse, ignored. But there we were, happily ensconced in our pleasantly courtyarded Freiburg hotel, 30 of us, mostly men, mostly scientists, and mostly non-reductionists. And all open minded about the connections between spirituality, neurophysiology and consciousness.

I was to speak last to this ‘Meeting of Experts’. I was glad, for my planned remarks were aimed primarily at the ‘materialists’ who were not there; I would have been preaching to the choir. So going last encouraged me to listen well throughout and speak to what I was hearing. And I was glad because what I was hearing was as profound, as new, and as inspiring as it was coherent. I was indeed inspired enough to offer an summary of the surprising, exciting consensus I heard over the two days.

We humanists don’t often offer hypotheses, certainly not to august bodies of scientists. But I felt emboldened. After all, the purpose of the conference was to address the questions, ‘Can a modern day neuroscientific, functionalist or emergentist model of consciousness accommodate spiritual experiences? … What would a model of consciousness have to look like that is both true to our modern scientific knowledge and phenomena reported by spiritual traditions?’ As Harold Walach, our kindly and well organized chairman, put it, we were there to explore methodologies of inner experience, and explore consciousness, not only from the neuroscientific point of view but from all points of view, including the transpersonal and the nondogmatic. Or as youthful Antoine Lutz put it, we were there to ‘take subjectivity seriously.’ So that made me, someone who studies spiritual experiences, in as good a position to hypothesize as the next fellow.

So, being welcomed and being last, I offered the following as the emerging consensus I was hearing in the group. Since it was quite well received, I offer it here as a summary of what went on. We make no claims about universality. All positions about consciousness were not represented in the room. We were all folks who are interested in and open minded about spirituality; and God knows not everyone is. So I offer it here more modestly, as an hypothesis perhaps. Or, as clear eyed Jonathan Schooler put it, as a ‘bold thesis for us to consider’.

"Absolution of the Wind", © E. Corbato, 2009 www.ecorbato.com

1. Consciousness is fundamental element of reality, like an additional dimension.

_ Jonathan Schooler, Harold Walach and many folks in private conversations suggested that consciousness may exist in itself.

_ It is outside of time, pre-linguistic, yet somehow witness to time. Pim van Lommel, the belle of the ball, studies Near Death Experiences. He described his meticulous research which found that near death experiences (NDEs) are experienced as outside of time. Ernst Pöppel suggested that consciousness forms impressions that build towards language within a 3 second window; I offered that mystical experiences are experienced as outside of time.

_ As a fundamental element of reality, consciousness is non local or spread out. It is experienced by mystics as just that, non local or spread out. NDEs are experienced as interdeterminately beyond our human body; one experiences oneself as rising beyond the body. Brian Lancaster, in a fetching discussion of the connections between neurophysiology and Kabbalah, suggested that we can move from the personal to the divine indexing system.

_ The field of consciousness is parallel in some way to the quantum vacuum field. The theory of consciousness we were developing as an independent field out of time may connects with the quantum field in some way. Perhaps the connection is on the level of ions flowing in and out of the membranes in the brain, suggested Henry Stapp in a demanding talk on the role of physics in Quantum Collapse. There was no agreement in the room on how consciousness may connect with or parallel the quantum vacuum field.

_ Jonathan Schooler, in what was probably the most creative offering of the conference, showed a video of consciousness as like wave moving through time, and suggested that mystical experiences are like ‘riding a tidal wave of consciousness.’ From what I know of mystical experiences, however, consciousness is experienced by such people as more like a field than a wave. Both Schooler and myself suggest that consciousness is whole and undivided; that for which there is movement.

2. Consciousness is mediated by the brain, not excreted by it.

_ Throughout the conference we heard phrases suggesting that consciousness is a ‘transducer’ or like a ‘radio receiver’ or a ‘relay station’.

_ Pim suggested that the brain is a ‘conveyor not producer’. Jeffrey Schwartz, with his typically vivacious energy, exhorted ‘It ain’t in the brain, it ain’t in the brain!’

_ Matthais Braeunig, a youthful member of our hosting team, said ‘consciousness takes place with the help of the brain, but is not within it. Brains’, he added, ‘are transducing consciousness’.

_ Hartmann Romer was ill; in his presentation, his alter ego suggested that there is a ‘non local correlation between consciousness and the brain’.

_ Mario Beauregard suggested that there is no one sub organ like the thalamus that is active in the spiritual process, but rather there is a complex multi dimensional process. That’s why, suggested Antoine Lutz, that in meditation we see greater coherence across large brain areas, and high ‘amplitude gamma synchronicity’. This implies that the whole brain may be involved in some way in the transducing process.

3. Consciousness is independent of brain processes. (This stems from principle 1 & 2)

_ ‘As the field of consciousness is experienced through consciousness- transducing brains,’ said Matthais Braeunig. ‘Consciousness appears to exist independently of the brain, though it remains unobservable unless transduced by brains.’

_ Most so called anomalous experiences, often ignored or ridiculed by the scientific community, point to the possibility that consciousness is independent of the brain. Distant viewing and predictive (future) viewing, were mentioned.

_ Pim’s research on Near Death Experiences, which are sometimes veridical, clearly suggests that people can have experiences even when there is effectively no brain activity.

_ Thomas Metzinger described his creative studies on Out of Body Experiences (OBEs); they suggest that human beings can have experiences beyond the body.

_ Mystical experiences sometimes carry the sense of being non local or spread out beyond the body. There is brain activity during them, as Mario Beauregard effectively described, but this sense may reinforce the claim that awareness is not limited to our bodies. As Walach suggested, mystics can be aware of themselves and of the infinite, even simultaneously, which reinforces the hypothesis that consciousness is not limited to brain or egoic processes.

4. Our ability to connect with that which is larger may be a normal state of human beings.

_ In one of the most stimulating talks of the gathering, Matt Rossano took us back to the earliest days of hominid life, when Shamans brought people to health by having them focus their attention around the fire. In effect, he said, our ability to connect with that which is larger may have been one of the distinguishing capacities of human beings, as on of the original capacities that gave early human beings an advantage over other species.

_ Over time this ability to focus on that which is beyond led to our ability to hyper-focus.

_ In this hyper focus, we lost sense of the whole as we developed more and more automatized and culturally trained cognitive patterns. Thus enculturation may have overwhelmed our early ability to open to what is larger.

_ Thus as Arthur Deikman points out elsewhere, meditation may serve as a de automatization process, making it a way to recover that which is more fundamentally ours. Metzinger said effectively the same thing when saying that the ‘first step is to let go of all worldviews,’ helping us recover our lost sense of a connection to something larger. Or, as Kabbalah says, according to Brian Lancaster, we should ‘untie the knots from the self, step out of the structure we’ve created.’

Astonishingly enough, I found myself thinking, even surrounded by those hard headed scientists, in religious terms. Brahman, the non dual, panentheistic principle that is one core notion of Hinduism, is said to exist independently of the cosmos and of the person. Like our theory of consciousness, it is its own kind of stuff, a kind of dimension all its own. But, like consciousness, it forms itself into form, and comes to be ‘formed Brahman,’ much as consciousness comes to be formed as an individual. Thus formless Brahman, like the consciousness in this hypothesis, exists simultaneously and hidden within its formed aspect. The ‘formless within form.’ Finally our consciousness, which Hinduism calls Atman, can come to experience its true nature as Brahman; much as one might experience the independent domain of consciousness in certain anomalous experiences.

As I said, our emerging hypothesis was well received. We knew, and spoke of, the many, many questions that it opens up. Some that we named were:

- How might the body transduce consciousness?

- Can consciousness exist verifiably outside of brain/person? If so in what sense?

- Might there be any way to measure consciousness outside the brain? We jokingly asked if there might be a ‘consciousness o- meter?’

- Where does the domain of consciousness come from?

There are countless more.

Yet the feeling in the final go round was, I felt, one of sincere satisfaction. We had found a community, many said, always a gratifying sense. We had heard a cascade of excellent talks. One said ‘I did not have a single moment of boredom.’ But even more important, several mentioned that we seemed to be part of a larger movement that may lead to a paradigm shift, one which may lead to a new and fascinating approach to science and our larger worldview. We were encountering the possibility of a science that might take seriously the full range of experiences and in a non-dualistic way.

Jeffrey Schwartz captured the moment’s seriousness and importance that I think we all felt. ‘The implications here are enormous; they are political as well as scientific. And they are important. So as Franklin said when the founding fathers signed the declaration of independence on this day 232 years ago, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.”’

Whether or not that group turns out to be that important, the gathering was for many of us the first in which a group articulated a fascinating, bold and possibly true new approach that could tie together East and West, spirituality and science, brain and inner experience and could begin to account for anomalous experiences. I was honoured to be part of it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics - by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama provides a somewhat different perspective on the relationship of Buddhism and science than Dr. Donald Lopez, whose book was the subject of our last post. This excerpt is from the chapter "Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics" (page 64-69) from His Holiness’ book, THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE ATOM: THE CONVERGENCE OF SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination posits that all entities are “empty”---or lack independent existence at the deepest level---yet our usual, practical understanding of reality also has its place. He suggests that the “two truths” view developed by ancient Buddhist philosophers can serve as a possible model for the duality suggested by contemporary physics. Quantum mechanics points to a “profound interconnectedness at the heart of physics,” nonetheless objects have individual existence at the macroscopic level. The excerpt is reprinted with permission of the office of His Holiness.
In brief, the principle of dependent origination can be understood in the following three ways. First, all conditioned things and events in the world come into being only as a result of the interaction of causes and conditions. They don't just arise from nowhere, fully formed. Second, there is mutual dependence between parts and the whole; without parts there can be no whole, without a whole it makes no sense to speak of parts. This interdependence of parts and the whole applies in both spatial and temporal terms. Third, anything that exists and has an identity does so only within the total network of everything that has a possible or potential relation to it. No phenomenon exists with an independent or intrinsic identity.
And the world is made up of a network of complex interrelations. We cannot speak of the reality of a discrete entity outside the context of its range of interrelations with its environment and other phenomena, including language, concepts, and other conventions. Thus, there are no subjects without the objects by which they are defined, there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them, there are no doers without things done. There is no chair without legs, a seat, a back, wood, nails, the floor on which it rests, the walls that define the room it's in, the people who constructed it, and the individuals who agree to call it a chair and recognize it as something to sit on. Not only is the existence of things and events utterly contingent but, according to this principle, their very identities are thoroughly dependent upon others.
In physics, the deeply interdependent nature of reality has been brought into sharp focus by the so-called EPR paradox - named after its creators, Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen - which was originally formulated to challenge quantum mechanics. Say a pair of particles is created and then separates, moving away from each other in opposite directions - perhaps to greatly distant locations, for example, Dharamsala, where I live, and say, New York. One of the properties of this pair of particles is that their spin must be in opposite directions-so that one is measured as "up" and the other will be found to be "down." According to quantum mechanics, the correlation of measurements (for example, when one is up, then the other is down) must exist even though the individual attributes are not determined until the experimenters measure one of the particles, let us say in New York. At that point, the one in New York will acquire a value-let us say up-in which case the other particle must simultaneously become down. These determinations of up and down are instantaneous, even for the particle at Dharamsala, which has not itself been measured. Despite their separation, the two particles appear as an entangled entity. There seems, according to quantum mechanics, to be a startling and profound interconnectedness at the heart of physics.

Indra's Jeweled Net- Credit: Gail Atkins
Once at a public talk in Germany, I drew attention to the growing trend among serious scientists of taking the insights of the world's contemplative traditions into account. I spoke about the meeting ground between my own Buddhist tradition and modern science-especially in the Buddhist arguments for the relativity of time and for rejecting any notion of essentialism. Then I noticed von Weizsacker in the audience, and when I described my debt to him for what little understanding of quantum physics I possess, he graciously commented that if his own teacher Werner Heisenberg had been present, he would have been excited to hear of the clear, resonant parallels between Buddhist philosophy and his scientific insights.
Another significant set of issues in quantum mechanics concerns the question of measurement. I gather that, in fact, there is an entire area of research dedicated to this matter. Many scientists say that the act of measurement causes the "collapse" of either the wave or the particle function, depending upon the system of measurement used in the experiment; only upon measurement does the potential become actual. Yet we live in a world of everyday objects. So the question is, How, from the point of view of physics, do we reconcile our commonsense notions of an everyday world of objects and their properties on the one hand and the bizarre world of quantum mechanics on the other? Can these two perspectives be reconciled at all? Are we condemned to live with what is apparently a schizophrenic view of the world?
At a two-day retreat on the epistemological issues pertaining to the foundations of quantum mechanics and Buddhist Middle Way philosophy at Innsbruck, where Anton Zeilinger, Arthur Zajonc, and I met for a dialogue, Anton told me that a well-known colleague of his once remarked that most quantum physicists relate to their field in a schizophrenic manner. When they are in the laboratory and play around with things, they are realists. They talk about photons and electrons going here and there. However, the moment you switch into philosophical discussion and ask them about the foundation of quantum mechanics, most would say that nothing really exists without the apparatus defining it.
Somewhat parallel problems arose in Buddhist philosophy in relation to the disparity between our commonsense view of the world and the perspective suggested by Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness. Nagarjuna invoked the notion of two truths, the "conventional" and the "ultimate," relating respectively to the everyday world of experience and to things and events in their ultimate mode of being, that is, on the level of emptiness. On the conventional level, we can speak of a pluralistic world of things and events with distinct identities and causation. This is the realm where we can also expect the laws of cause and effect, and the laws of logic such as the principles of identity, contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle-to operate without violation. This world of empirical experience is not an illusion, nor is it unreal. It is real in that we experience it. A grain of barley does produce a barley sprout, which can eventually yield a barley crop. Taking a poison can cause one's death and, similarly, taking a medication can cure an illness. However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, things and events do not possess discrete, independent realities. Their ultimate ontological status is "empty" in that nothing possesses any kind of essence or intrinsic being.
I can envision something similar to this principle of two truths applying in physics. For instance, we can say that the Newtonian model is an excellent one for the commonsense world as we know it, while Einsteinian relativity-based on radically different presuppositions-represents in addition an excellent model for a different or more inclusive domain. The Einsteinian model describes aspects of reality for which the states of relative motion are crucial but does not really affect our commonsense picture under most circumstances. Likewise, the quantum physics models of reality represent the workings of a different domain-the mostly "inferred" reality of particles, especially in the arena of the microscopic. Each of these pictures is excellent in its own right and for the purposes for which it was designed, but if we believe any of these models to be constituted by intrinsically real things, we are bound to be disappointed.
Here I find it helpful to reflect on a critical distinction drawn by Chandrakirti (seventh century C.E.) in relation to the domains of discourse that pertain to the conventional and the ultimate truths of things. Chandrakirti argues that, when formulating one's understanding of reality, one must be sensitive to the scope and parameters of the specific mode of inquiry. For example, he argues that to reject distinct identity, causation, and origination within the everyday world, as some interpreters of the philosophy of emptiness had suggested, simply because these notions are untenable from the perspective of ultimate reality, constitutes a methodological error.
On a conventional level, we see cause and effect all the time. When we're trying to find who's at fault in an accident, we are not delving into the deeper nature of reality, where an infinite chain of events would make it impossible to place blame. When we accord such characteristics as cause and effect to the empirical world, we are not working on the basis of a metaphysical analysis that probes the ultimate ontological status of things and their properties. We do so within the boundaries of everyday convention, language, and logic. In contrast, Chandrakirti argues, the metaphysical postulates of philosophical schools, such as the concept of the Creator or the eternal soul, can be negated through the analysis of their ultimate ontological status. This is because these entities are posited on the basis of an exploration into the ultimate mode of being of things.
In essence, Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti are suggesting this: when we relate to the empirical world of experience, so long as we do not invest things with independent, intrinsic existence, notions of causation, identity, and difference, and the principles of logic will continue to remain tenable. However, their validity is limited to the relative framework of conventional truth. Seeking to ground notions such as identity, existence, and causation in an objective, independent existence is transgressing the bounds of logic, language, and convention. We do not need to postulate the objective, independent existence of things, since we can accord robust, nonarbitrary reality to things and events that not only support everyday functions but also provide a firm basis for ethics and spiritual activity. The world, according to the philosophy of emptiness, is constituted by a web of dependently originating and interconnected realities, within which dependently originated causes give rise to dependently originated consequences according to dependently originating laws of causality. What we do and think in our own lives, then, becomes of extreme importance as it affects everything we're connected to.
The paradoxical nature of reality revealed in both the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and modern physics represents a profound challenge to the limits of human knowledge. The essence of the problem is epistemological: How do we conceptualize and understand reality coherently? Not only have Buddhist philosophers of emptiness developed an entire understanding of the world based on the rejection of the deeply ingrained temptation to treat reality as if it were composed of intrinsically real objective entities but they have also striven to live these insights in their day-to-day lives. The Buddhist solution to this seeming epistemological contradiction involves understanding reality in terms of the theory of two truths. Physics needs to develop an epistemology that will help resolve the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the picture of reality in classical physics and everyday experience and that in their quantum mechanics counterpart. As for what an application of the two truths in physics might look like, I simply have no idea. At its root, the philosophical problem confronting physics in the wake of quantum mechanics is whether the very notion of reality-defined in terms of essentially real constituents of matter- is tenable. What the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness can offer is a coherent model of understanding reality that is non-essentialist. Whether this could prove useful only time will tell.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Preface of Buddhism and Science - by Donald Lopez

In BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, Dr. Donald Lopez critically considers the compatibility of Buddhism and Science. He takes a step back from the generally taken for granted notion that they mesh almost seamlessly---something of which we are also guilty! Lopez writes, “This book surveys the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and Science in an effort to understand why we yearn for the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India, even one of such profound insight, to somehow anticipate the formulae of Einstein.” Dr. Lopez is a Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.The passage below was excerpted from BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2008 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

In the winter of 1870—71, Ernst Johann Eitel (1838—1908), a member of the London Missionary Society~ delivered a series of lectures on Buddhism at the Union Church in Hong Kong. Eitel was one of the great missionary-scholars of the Victorian period, an accomplished sinologist who also read Sanskrit. His ultimate goal was to demonstrate the falsity of Buddhism. Yet in his third lecture, he enumerated some of the ways in which Buddhism had anticipated science:

Though no Buddhist ever attained to the clearer insight and mathematical analysis of a Copernicus, Newton, Laplace or Herschel, it must be acknowledged that Buddhism fore-stalled in several instances the most splendid discoveries of modern astronomy. Teaching the origin of each world to have taken place out of a cloud, the Buddhists anticipated 2ooo years ago Herschel’s nebular hypothesis. And when those very patches of cloudy light or diffused nebulosities which Herschel believed to be “diffused matter hastening to a world birth” dissolved themselves before the monster telescope of Lord Rosse into as many assemblages of suns, into thousands of other world-systems dispersed through the wilds of boundless space, modern astronomy was but verifying the more ancient Buddhistic dogma of a plurality of worlds, of the co-existence of thousands of chiliocosmoi inhabited by multitudes of living beings.

Eitel invokes five great names in the history of astronomy: Nicolas Copernicus (1473—1543), whose On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) presented the heliocentric theory of the universe; Sir Isaac Newton (1643—1727), who invented the refracting telescope and explained the role of gravity in planetary motion; Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749—1827), who developed mathematical methods for calculating and predicting the motion of the planets; William Herschel (1738—1822), discoverer of Uranus and cataloger of nebulae; and William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse (1800—1867), who in 1844 built the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” the world’s largest telescope. Each of these figures would have been well known to Eitel’s expatriate audience in the Hong Kong church.

Laplace and Herschel were associated with the nebular hypothesis, a theory previously propounded by both Emanuel Swedenborg and Immanuel Kant, which postulated that a solar system originated from a mass of incandescent gas—for Herschel it was a shining fluid that he called “true nebulosity”—rotating on an axis, eventually contracting into a mass. The outer rings of this mass broke off to form planets, with the central core becoming their sun. One of the great debates in astronomy in the nineteenth century was whether this incandescent fluid indeed existed or whether it was instead a mass of distant stars. In early 1846, Rosse and his monster telescope showed that the Orion Nebula could in fact be resolved into stars.

These were some of the latest scientific discoveries of Eitel’s day. And he claims that they have been “forestalled” (by which he means “anticipated”) two thousand years ago by the Buddhists. Eitel is referring to a Buddhist account of the origin of the world. Faint winds, impelled by the force of karma, begin to blow in the vacuity of space, eventually converging to form a circle of wind, described as solid and indestructible. A thick cloud forms above the circle of wind, raining down drops of water of various sizes that together become a great ocean, supported on the circle of wind. In this ocean, a thousand golden lotus flowers appear. The churning of the ocean eventually gives rise to a ring of mountains that contains the waters. In the center of the ocean, a great mountain appears, with an island (flanked by two smaller islands) in each of the four cardinal directions. This is a world, and a thousand of these worlds is a Buddhist universe, what Eitel calls a “thousand world” or chiliocosm.

Eitel sees in the Buddhist rain cloud an anticipation of Herschel’s nebulae, and in the Buddhist “thousand world” an anticipation of galaxies, anticipated without the assistance of Rosse’s giant lens.These worlds were inhabited by “multitudes of living beings.” Eitel, in keeping with the views of many astronomers of his day, believed that the planets were populated. Indeed, late in life, Herschel had published a paper arguing that the sun was inhabited, with two layers of dense clouds protecting the inhabitants from the intense light of the luminous shell observed from earth; sunspots may be the peaks of tall mountains rising through the shell.

We see, then, a Christian missionary, almost a century and half ago, making grudging claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science. Over the ensuing decades, such claims have continued to be made with a remarkable persistence. This book is a study of that persistence.

Its central claim is a modest one. It is that in order to understand the conjunction of the terms Buddhism and Science, it is necessary to understand something of the history of the conjunction. It might be dated back to the sixteenth century, when Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary to Japan, noted that the Buddhists do not understand that the world is round. It might be traced back to the Reverend Dr. Eitel’s lectures from his Hong Kong pulpit. Or it might be traced to the year 1873, when the Wesleyan minister David da Silva in Sri Lanka held up a globe during a debate with a Buddhist monk and asked him to locate Mount Meru, the cosmic peak that rose from the waters to form the center of the Buddhist world. That these events occurred in the course of Christian missions to Buddhist Asia suggests that Buddhist claims about Science originated in polemic, with Buddhists arguing that their religion is not superstition but science. Yet such claims have persisted after the opponent in that polemic has disappeared, or has at least become less visible. And the claims of compatibility have not always originated among Asian Buddhists. The discourse of Buddhism and Science has been transmitted through networks that crisscross the nebulous boundaries of East and West. Asian Buddhists have argued for the compatibility in order to validate their Buddhism. European and American enthusiasts and devotees have argued for the compatibility in order to exoticize Science, to find it validated in the insights of an ancient Asian sage.

A second assertion of this book is that for more than 150 years, the claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and Science have remained remarkably similar, both in their content and in their rhetorical form. This similarity has persisted despite major shifts in what is meant by Buddhism and what is meant by Science. In the early decades of this history, Buddhism generally referred to what European scholars dubbed “original Buddhism,” the Buddhism of the Pali canon, preserved in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. In the period after the Second World War, although the Theravada continued to be regarded as “Buddhism” in some quarters, Zen came to the fore. And since the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhism has displaced Zen to become the chief referent of Buddhism in the Buddhism and Science dialogue, largely through the influence of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Still, over the course of almost a century and a half, the Buddha is said to have somehow anticipated the most up-to-date view of modern science as thousands of pages of the calendar have been turned.

The referent of Science is also nebulous. At times, science has meant a method of sober and rational investigation, with the claim that the Buddha made use of such a method to arrive at the knowledge of deep truths about inner and outer worlds. At other times, science refers to a specific theory: the mechanistic universe, the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, the big bang, whose antecedents are to be found in Buddhist doctrine. At other times, science has referred to a specific technology— the microscope, the telescope, the spectrometer—that has been used to discover what the Buddha knew without the aid of such instruments; as more precise instruments have been developed over the past century, the claims of the Buddha’s knowledge have remained constant. And at still other times, science has referred to the manipulation of matter, with dire consequences for humanity unless paired with the compassionate vision of the Buddha.

From the traditional perspective, the Buddhist truth is timeless; the Buddha understood the nature of reality fully at the moment of his enlightenment, and nothing beyond that reality has been discovered since. From this perspective, then, the purpose of all Buddhist doctrine and practice that have developed over the two and a half millennia is to make manifest the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment. From the historical perspective, the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment is irretrievable, and what is called Buddhism has developed in myriad forms across centuries and continents, with these forms linked by their retrospective gaze to the solitary sage seated beneath a tree. From either perspective, in order to make this “Buddhism” compatible with “Science,” Buddhism must be severely restricted, eliminating much of what has been deemed essential, whatever that might be, to the exalted monks and ordinary laypeople who have gone for refuge to the Buddha over the course of more than two thousand years.

If something is lost, what is gained? This book surveys the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and Science in an effort to understand why we yearn for the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India, even one of such profound insight, to somehow anticipate the formulae of Einstein.