Science and religion have always seemed like two polar ends of the knowledge spectrum. Religion is borne from spirituality, in which man tries to find truth within oneself and within a higher power. Science, on the other hand, focuses completely on empirical data; through science, man tries to find truth through observation of the world we live in. If truth were a castle, science builds the castle piece by piece from the foundation, whereas religion “puts castles in the air”, giving each person the opportunity to “build the foundations under them (Thoreau)”. People tend to see science and religion as mutually exclusive; science represents the new world philosophy, whereas religion is seen as antediluvian and backward. As I stumbled across a meeting between the Dalai Lama and renowned quantum physicists, I realized that religion (especially Buddhism) has intimate connections with contemporary physics. It was extremely fascinating to me how two seemingly opposite disciplines can converge. My research focused on 3 areas of Buddhism and their links with modern theories in quantum mechanics. The three areas I chose were emptiness (sunyata), interconnectedness (through pratityasamutpada), and idealism (yogacara). The notion of emptiness is one of the hardest doctrines to understand in Buddhism. Emptiness, also known as sunyata, can be understood as a field of potential in which form emerges. Buddhists see everything as empty of inherent existence. Unlike nihilism, sunyata does not reject the existence of everything and does not argue that nothing can be understood. Instead, sunyata can best be understood as the opposite of Plato’s ‘world of ideas’ philosophy. To best understand this notion of empitness, it is best we use an example. A cup is devoid of inherent existence. The cup exists physically, but its existence is dependent on everything else in this world. The properties such as being hollow, made of class, cylindrical, etc, are not intrinsic to cups. What is a cup? The material isn’t a cup; the function isn’t a cup; the shape is not a cup. A cup is made of the convergence of all these aspects. Thus, only when all these conditions exist does the mind evaluate a “cup” as we know it. If some qualities of this cup are removed, through breakage, the cup ceases to be a cup. Thus, the physical essence of the cup remains elusive and ephemeral. The cup is empty. The existence of these physical essences gives way for infinite potential. If a spout were added to the cup, it would become a pitcher; if a handle were added, it would become a mug.
Although the definitions do not perfectly match up, I first linked sunyata to the emptiness of atoms. Atoms are 99.99… (12’9s) empty space. The feeling of solidity is in fact only an illusion. We never actually touch anything, but rather experience the repulsion of electrons. The inherent existence (true matter) of everything we see around us is overwhelmed by sheer empty space. The way we experience the world is through the amalgamation of properties that give the illusion of a world filled with true matter. Sunyata can also be linked with the Quantum Field Theory, which describes a network of electromagnetic waves in which reality emerges. If the ocean were to represent the quantum field, the crest of each wave would materialize into the perceptible reality. Most of the quantum field is the deep sea below, representing infinite potential. This seems to perfectly mirror the Buddhist notion of emptiness.
The second notion of Buddhist I explored was the idea of interconnectedness. As highlighted in sunyata, everything is connected via an infinite web of cause and effect. Since Buddhism does not feature a God, nothing can exist independently. The origination of everything, from sentient beings to material objects, arises from a network of causation. This network is called patityasamutpada in Buddhism. In terms of the individual, we tend to