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Buddha on Causation, Science on Causality

Because of their ignorance, people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing the right viewpoint and, clinging to their ego, they take wrong actions. As a result, they grasp and become attached to a whole body of delusions. – The Teaching of Buddha1

We are all ignorant in at least certain areas. I have never followed baseball, nor have I ever been interested in it, so I can happily claim ignorance in this area. I have always been in love with science but bored to tears by the law, legal codes and the judicial system. Thus, I must claim some ignorance in that area… legal codes and precedents. And that’s okay (until such time as I get into legal trouble, fingers crossed).

I think our society, celebrating its possession of smart phones, is too judgmental. I also think our society, buoyed by access to GOOGLE, highly overrates its own level of knowledge. You may be able to pull down the formula for Ampere’s Law in 0.44 seconds, yet I would argue this does not make you a physicist.

It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests.

  • RICHARD DAWKINS, The God Delusion

We see that science allows itself to be ignorant yet does not intend to stay that way. Can the same be said about our society? How many times have I seen a celebrity embrace ignorance? Or a politician? In ancient times, knowledge was viewed as a kind of beacon, lighting the way to the correct path. How sad it has become, that the only beacons we have now are greed and consumerism with the pursuit of personal profit. This allows ignorance to multiply and absolutely ensures that wrong decisions (and actions) will take place in the future.

In reality, this body of delusion is their own mind and, therefore, it is their own mind that causes the delusions of grief, lamentation, pain and agony.1

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Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

There are of course other sources of grief, pain and agony in this world. Having to live paycheck to paycheck, being homeless (often through no fault of one’s own), and contacting a terminal disease, these are just some of the countless ways one can fall to grief or agony. Yet we also see that through ignorance, humankind creates a body of delusions, that leads to bad choices, and actual, verifiable pain and agony (witness climate change).

The whole world of delusion is nothing but the shadow caused by this mind. And yet, it is also from this same mind that the world of Enlightenment appears.1

As I hinted at in a previous blog, science offers us a way forward, a mechanism for illuminating truths about the universe and making better decisions for the future. Buddha existed before modern science (beginning mostly with pioneers such as Newton and Galileo in the 1600s). I am only beginning to learn about him and his teachings, yet I am sure he would have embraced most of what modern science tells us. Perhaps I am wrong? Tell me if you disagree!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

In this world there are three wrong viewpoints. First, some say that all human experience is based on destiny;1

To cite a phrase from one of my favorite TV shows (The Magicians), I am definitely ‘Team Sarah Conner’. In other words, as the saying goes, we have no fate but the fate we make for ourselves. It is possible that in ancient times, elite rulers and monarchs instilled the idea of ‘fate’ and destiny into those less powerful (“weaker”) than themselves, as a way to control their lives. What does science have to say about this? Patience… I shall tell you shortly.

second, some hold that everything is created by God and controlled by his will;1

Being Agnostic, I tend to take an open view on whether or not God actually created the universe. I do subscribe to the Big Bang Theory (which I will not discuss here, that is probably for a future post). It is possible the Big Bang was originated by God in some form, a creator, although we have no direct evidence for this. One thing I am sure of, however, is that the second portion of this verse, of being controlled by His will, which implies the “Puppet Master” version of God—pulling all the strings and turning all the dials and switches in his laboratory upstairs… controlling all of our fates and daily happenings… this cannot be true.

third, some say that everything happens by chance without having any cause or condition.1

I must say, science does not subscribe to the belief that everything that happens is just random chance.

God does not play dice.

  • ALBERT EINSTEIN

A key feature of quantum theory [is that] it deals with probabilities rather than certainties, not because we lack absolute knowledge, but because some aspects of Nature are, at their very heart, governed by the laws of chance.

  • BRIAN COX, JEFF FORSHAW, The Quantum Universe: Why All That Can Happen Does Happen

Okay, wait, time out! So, some aspects of Nature are governed by chance? This is obviously a much more complex situation. At issue here is determinism, the principle that all events, including human action, are determined by causes outside of will. I’m going to quote Stephen Hawking, who himself was paraphrasing Pierre-Simon Laplace:

“In effect what he said was, that if at one time, we knew the positions and speeds of all the particles in the universe, then we could calculate their behavior at any other time, in the past or future. There is a probably apocryphal story, that when Laplace was asked by Napoleon, how God fitted into this system, he replied, ‘Sire, I have not needed that hypothesis.’ I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it only holds when some supernatural being decides to let things run, and not intervene.”

How can we reconcile the fact that pure determinism is seemingly at odds with quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Again, I shall turn to my hero and mentor (well, he was in spirit anyway):

“Einstein’s view was what would now be called a hidden variable theory. Hidden variable theories might seem to be the most obvious way to incorporate the Uncertainty Principle into physics. … But these hidden variable theories are wrong. The British physicist, John Bell, who died recently, devised an experimental test that would distinguish hidden variable theories. When the experiment was carried out carefully, the results were inconsistent with hidden variables. Thus, it seems that even God is bound by the Uncertainty Principle, and cannot know both the position, and the speed, of a particle. So God does play dice with the universe. All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible occasion.”

At this point, I could really go off the deep end talking about the quantum view of nature versus determinism, but enough has been written on the subject. I think we can simply agree on one or two things… 1) in the quantum world, there is an inescapable ‘randomness’ which we are forced to acknowledge, 2) we still do not know enough about the entire multiverse and things such as consciousness to declare that absolutely everything is random and thus decided by pure chance alone (in other words, the jury is still out on free will). Actually, I realize statement #2 will be controversial, and I’ve had quite a few arguments with my scientific colleagues about this, yet I believe it is true. Perhaps you disagree? Post a comment!

What does Buddha have to say about all this?

If all has been decided by destiny, both good deeds and evil deeds are predestined, weal and woe are predestined; nothing exists that has not been predestined. Then all human plans and efforts for improvement and progress would be in vain and humanity would be without hope.

The same is true of the other viewpoints, for, if everything in the last resort is in the hands of God or of blind chance, what hope has humanity except in submission? It is no wonder that people holding these conceptions lose hope and neglect efforts to act wisely and avoid evil.1

Do you know someone who is a Christian, who believes God controls everything, and despite what he or she says openly, does not practice what they preach? Do you know a politician who refuses to care about things such as climate change? Do you know of a person who, proclaiming there is no God and no purpose for anything, behaves recklessly and flushes their life down the toilet with a string of addictions and bad choices? Not every Atheist or Agnostic behaves that way, me included (I am studying Buddha, but as I said, in general I still consider myself Agnostic). Not every Christian behaves that way, or politician. Yet many do. And perhaps people’s viewpoints are the key here. If one believes there is no control over their own lives, if it is all up to some deity or blind chance, what motivation do they have for improvement? Or to help other people live better lives? Or to take better care of the environment? Fear not, science may agree with Buddha on one thing.

It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world that everything is created by a series of causes and conditions and everything disappears by the same rules; everything changes, nothing remains without change.

*(Regarding the above three viewpoints): In fact, these three conceptions or viewpoints are all wrong: –everything is a succession of appearances whose source is the succession of causes and conditions.1

I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.

– STEPHEN HAWKING

Perhaps with causality in mind, we humans can begin to reflect more on our actions and make better choices.

  1. All quotes taken from ‘The Teaching of Buddha’, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, Tokyo, 1966. Please visit their website: http://www.bdk.or.jp/english/

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