Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

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