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Saturday, August 7th, 2004


The New Physics & Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama

by Arthur Zajone

A review by Doug Brown

I believe reviewers should state their prejudices, so here goes. I consider books which attempt to equate quantum mechanics with Eastern philosophy to be a blight upon the intellectual landscape. The suggestion put forth by some that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says the same thing as Taoism is to me an insult to both. However, I have always had warm impressions of the Dalai Lama, so I thought I would give this volume a chance. And I am very glad I did, because it is a fascinating, thought-provoking book.

The New Physics and Cosmology is not an attempt to equate disparate philosophies; it is an open sharing of richly different perspectives. The book consists of the transcriptions of a dialogue-based symposium attended by physicists, astronomers, and the Dalai Lama. Each day of the conference begins with the scientists presenting some aspect of our current understanding of the universe, from the particle/wave duality of matter and light to the inflationary model of the universe. Then the Dalai Lama asks questions, and spirited dialogue ensues for the rest of each chapter. Throughout, the Dalai Lama shows himself to be amazingly well informed about science. Try to imagine any other religious leader uttering this statement: "If you should ask why a certain frequency of light appears blue as opposed to yellow, there is probably some point at which you would say that's just the way it is. When a certain frequency strikes the retina it sets up electrochemical events in the visual cortex, but finally you just happen to see blue and there may not be any further explanation."

Buddhism has several core tenets which are shared by science. According to Buddhism, two causes of suffering are making assumptions about the world and ignorance. Discussions within Buddhism, as in science, work to expose statements that are unsupported by data and peel them away. The Dalai Lama would make an excellent peer reviewer for any scholarly journal, for he is a master at boiling things down to their essence and spotting assumptions masquerading as known entities. People often remark about blues guitarist B. B. King that when it is time for his solo, he only plays one note - but it's the right note. Throughout the conference the Dalai Lama would listen to a presentation and then ask one question, and it would be an insightful question. After hearing a description of the photoelectric effect, where light hitting something like a sheet of gold causes it to kick out electrons, he asked, "Do the photon particles actually displace the electrons like two billiard balls? Or, since they are different types of particles, can the displacement occur without actual physical contact?" Good question. We don't know exactly how the photoelectric effect works at the subatomic level, even though Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize for coming up with a mathematical description of it almost a century ago. In science, the philosophy of positivism states that all you can do is talk about mathematical descriptions of nature; we aren't allowed to ask what is really going on with subatomic particles, because we can't see what is really going on.

Many interesting perspectives and concepts to ponder are put forth. Allow me the indulgence of quoting a lengthier passage where the Dalai Lama talks about time:

Time is a designated entity because it is identified on the basis of something else that itself is not time. When you look at the clock, you say time is passing. What you are looking at is the second hand. The second hand is not time; but based on seeing the second hand move, you say that time is passing, that five seconds have just passed. That is a valid designation, but you are not putting your finger on time itself. You are putting your finger on something that is the basis for the designation of time.

The New Physics and Cosmology is packed with conversation stimulators like that, and would be a great book for a science book club.

One other quote I can't resist including, since it speaks not only to Buddhists, but to scientists, readers, and anyone with an inquiring nature:

It's imperative to engage with the material with an unbiased, open, unprejudiced mind. In the Buddhist treatises, three characteristics define a qualified student, one who is called a suitable vessel for learning, for engaging in spiritual practice, for receiving teachings. One of those three characteristics is having an open mind, a lack of prejudice or bias. The second is being perceptive and intelligent, and the third is having a genuine aspiration or yearning.

As I opened my review by stating a held prejudice, I obviously have a ways to go.

The scientists at the conference do not always agree with each other, sometimes the Dalai Lama will have differences of opinion on Buddhist perspectives with his Buddhist translators, and sometimes the Dalai Lama and one physicist will agree with one position while another physicist takes another position. Relativism is a theme that occurs over and over; there are not as many absolutes as was once thought, and thus differing perspectives do not necessarily mean someone is right and someone is wrong. There are simply different ways of examining the universe. The New Physics and Cosmology puts forth some of these different ways in engaging fashion, and, without straying into metaphysics, encourages us to be open to more than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

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