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Quantum Weirdness and Buddhism


When we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what a particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's relational potentials and the manner in which it is observed. 


The strange interactions of fundamental particles with the mind of the observer ('quantum weirdness') have long been of interest to philosophers. There are two opposing views: (i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind, versus (ii) The mind produces quantum weirdness. 

(i) Quantum weirdness produces the mind
Materialist philosophers have suggested that quantum weirdness offers a means  of filling the explanatory gap between the neurological functions of the brain and the subjective sensations of the mind (known as 'The Hard Problem'). 

Quantum effects are claimed to offers a way of generating non-algorithmic mental activity  from a purely physical basis. These suggestions have met with a number of objections, and do not seem to have the necessary explanatory power to fill the gap. (see The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture later in this article).

(ii)  The Mind produces quantum weirdness

Buddhist philosophers claim the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, which is 'axiomatic', in the sense of not being reducible to a physical basis, such as to the physico-chemical activities in the brain. 

This axiomatic view is the identification of 'mind' as a primary fact of reality, like space-time,  in which we live, and move, and have our being. This axiom  cannot be reduced to other facts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. 

Mind is directly perceived or experienced, and there is no proof or explanation possible, or indeed necessary.   Mind is the foundation on which all other proofs and explanations rest, and is one of the three foundations of functioning phenomena, the other two being causality and structure.

Classical prediction vs. quantum observation

Where does the weirdness come from?
The apparent weirdness at the smallest scale of physics is the result of our realisation of the mind's involvement in producing reality - that  'the observer is part of the system'.

This mental involvement is actually also apparent on careful examination at our everyday scale of reality, but we don't think about it unless it is painstakingly  pointed out, as with King Milinda's chariot. 

However, when we look at the very foundations of reality, the involvement of the observer's mind becomes inescapably obvious.   The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's relational potentials and the manner in which it is observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details of mind/matter interactions see Quantum Buddhism. 

So how does quantum reality fit with Buddhist Philosophy?
The two aspects of Buddhist philosophy which are of relevance to observations at the quantum level are The Four Seals of Dharma and the Three Modes of Existential Dependence, from which one would expect to find that:

(1)  Particles are not inherently existent. No particle is 'a thing in itself' with a self-contained identity.   An inherently existent particle would be indestructible, unitary and indivisible.

(2)  Particles are not causeless.

(3)  Particles are not partless, they do not exist as indivisible points.

(4)  Particles are not  'permanent' in the sense of having a unchanging, static identity.

(5)  Particles exist by interaction with the mind of an observer.

What we actually see...

(1)  Particles cannot function as stand-alone entities.  They can only interact with the rest of the universe by exchanging something of themselves - for example gluons or photons. Their properties can only be known by their interactions with other particles, and thus cannot be completely accurately established.

(2)  Particles are brought into existence by energetic events.  The mother of all energetic events was the Big Bang, which brought most of the existing particles into existence.    But natural energetic events such as cosmic rays and beta decay continue to produce particles, and energetic man-made events in particle accelerators produce secondary particles by hadronization  and  creation of particle-antiparticle pairs.

(3)  The tiniest particles (quarks and leptons) do not have parts because they are physically indivisible, but according to the Madhyamika school they have directional parts and so are mentally divisible. If even these smallest forms have parts, it follows that all gross forms that are composed of them also have parts. - Ocean of Nectar p 164

But if, according to Buddhist philosophy, partless particles cannot exist, how can we avoid the infinite regress of small building-blocks being composed of even smaller building-blocks, all the way down for ever?

This infinite regress...

... doesn't happen with the building blocks of matter

The resolution of this apparent contradiction came with discoveries in quantum physics in the early twentieth century. When physicists arrived at the stage where further subdivision was no longer possible, they did indeed find numerically irreducible particles. However these particles are no longer discrete 'things', but are smeared out into a myriad of fuzzy probabilistic 'parts' - a continuum of probabilities distributed in a wave function with spatial 'directional parts'.   

And they can even be in two places at once.

(4)  All particles show 'subtle impermanence' - they do not remain in exactly the same state from one moment to the next.  In the nucleus, protons and neutrons are constantly exchanging mesons to hold themselves together.  

In the outer layers of atoms the electrons are never at a single location in their orbitals, but vibrate like a standing wave on a string 


(5) The act of observation turns potentiality into actuality, resolving the question of what the particle actually "is" through a combination of the particle's inherent potentials and the manner in which it is observed.

The mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they predict the potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation.

Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they are observed.  For a discussion of the experimental details see Quantum Buddhism.

Triple slit experiment

From Nature
by Jon Cartwright 

'If you ever want to get your head around the riddle that is quantum mechanics, look no further than the double-slit experiment. This shows, with perfect simplicity, how just watching a wave or a particle can change its behaviour. The idea is so unpalatable to physicists that they have spent decades trying to find new ways to test it. The latest such attempt, by physicists in Europe and Canada, used a three-slit version — but quantum mechanics won out again...  Full article

The Penrose-Hameroff Conjecture


Penrose's main argumentative line can be summed up as follows:

Part A: Nonalgorithmicity of human conscious thought.

A1) Human thought, at least in some instances, is sound , yet nonalgorithmic (i.e. noncomputational). (Hypothesis based on the Gödel result.)

A2) In these instances, the human thinker is aware of or conscious of the contents of these thoughts.

A3) The only recognized instances of nonalgorithmic processes in the universe are perhaps certain kinds of randomness; e.g. the reduction of the quantum mechanical state vector. (Based on accepted physical theories.)

A4) Randomness is not promising as the source of the nonalgorithmicity needed to account for (1). (Otherwise mathematical understanding would be magical.)

A5) Conscious human thought, at least in some cases, perhaps in all cases, relies on principles which are beyond current physical understanding, though not in principle beyond any (e.g. some future) scientific physical understanding. (Via A1 - A4)

Part B: Inadequacy of Current Physical Theory, and How to Fix It.

B1) There is no current adequate theory concerning the 'collapse' of the quantum mechanical wave function, but an additional theory of quantum gravity might be useful to this end.

B2) A more adequate theory of wave function collapse (a part, perhaps, of a quantum gravity theory) could incorporate nonalgorithmic, yet nonrandom, processes. (Penrose hypothesis.)

B3) The existence of quasicrystals is evidence for some such currently unrecognized, nonalgorithmic physical process.

B4) Future theories of physics, in particular quantum gravity, can be expected to incorporate nonalgorithmic processes. (via B1 - B3)

Part C: Microtubules as the means of harnessing quantum gravity.

C1) Microtubules have properties which make certain quantum mechanical phenomena (e.g. super-radiance) possible. (Hameroff/Penrose hypothesis.)

C2) These nonalgorithmic nonrandom processes will be sufficient, in some sense, to account for A5. (Penrose hypothesis.)

C3) Microtubules play a key role in neuron function.

C4) Neurons play a key role in cognition and consciousness.

C5) Microtubules play a key role in consciousness/cognition (by C3, C4 and transitivity).

C6) Microtubules, because they have one foot in quantum mechanics and the other in conscious thought, provide a window for nonalgorithmicity in human cognition.

D) Quantum gravity, or something similar,via microtubules, must play a key role in consciousness and cognition.


I would go along with this as far as B2, but I can't see how any scientific explanation can incorporate nonalgorithmic processes because:

(a) It's impossible to describe how non-algorithmic phenomena work (otherwise they would be algorithmic),   and

(b)  Scientific explanations and models require algorithmic compression to be effective and useful. It's difficult to see how algorithmic compression could apply to a system that was nonalgorithmic.

- Sean Robsville



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