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Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge.

TIBETAN BUDDHISM AND MODERN PHYSICS: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge by Vic Mansfield. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.180 pages. Paperback; $19.95. ISBN: 9781599471372.

Unlike such 1970s' works as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which were motivated by short-lived 1960s' interpretations of particle physics such as "particle democracy," this book seems to be a serious attempt to compare and contrast essential aspects of quantum theory (e.g., uncertainty and entanglement) with the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. Though Mansfield is a professor of physics, throughout the book he inspires trust that he also knows something about Tibetan Buddhism by sprinkling in references concerning conversations and experiences he has had in his personal acquaintance with the Dalai Lama.

Mansfield begins in chapter 1 by focusing on knowledge, being, meaning, and purpose, in the context of science and Buddhism. I must confess that I found many of the comparisons contrived. For example, he states that in science, the final arbiter is experiment, operating in the "public domain," meaning that experiments must be repeatable. Then he points to a contrast, the Buddhist concept of shamatha: shamatha occurs when the mind is focused upon itself. Since "first person accounts ... are not objectifiable or in the public domain" (p. 11), such essential Buddhist practice is different from science. However, he claims that "[s]uch subjective experiences are repeatable and controlled but not conventional scientific objects" (p. 11), and because experience is the focus in both cases, there is a similarity. As to purpose, according to the Dalai Lama, "the purpose of life is to be happy" (p. 16). As we learn later in the book, this principle leads to an ethic of compassion. What does this have to do with science? In contrast to a materialist view of the laws of physics in which no purpose can be found, Mansfield asserts that Buddhism concludes no such thing, because Buddhism includes phenomena that are both subjective and objective, personal and meaningful.

The main point of chapter 2, entitled "Quantum Mechanics and Compassion," is to make an analogy between the indistinguishability of fundamental particles and the fact that all humans find themselves in a similar situation with regard to the purpose of life, in the desire for happiness. According to Buddhism, the desire for happiness is closely intertwined with the freedom from suffering. Though everyone is unique as an individual, with respect to the desire for happiness and the right to achieve it, we are all identical (p. 33). Considering exchanging ourselves with one another leads to a kind of golden rule, that we ought to put ourselves in others' shoes and help everyone in the endeavor for happiness and the right to achieve it. Again, the analogy between particles and people is a stretch.

Chapters 3 and 4 are perhaps the heart of the book. In chapter 3, Mansfield introduces us to "Middle Way emptiness" which is a major tenet of Buddhism. The Middle Way doctrine seems to be a way of saying that nothing exists in and of itself, but everything is in relation to many other things. The claim is that if something were to exist independently, having no interactions, it would be an unchanging essence. (1) However, the Buddhist denies the existence of such an essence, and this denial leads to the concept of "emptiness." However, as Mansfield cautions, it is easy to get the wrong idea about "emptiness"; it does not mean "nothing," but rather it is a reference to changeableness, to impermanence, and to dependence. In chapter 4, Mansfield describes the Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen (EPR) thought experiment, Bell's inequalities, and provides a fairly clear explanation of the phenomenon of entanglement (2) that follows from these, which he links to the concepts of the "Middle Way" and "emptiness." Perhaps the most telling statement is that because quantum theory seems to tell us that particles do not have definite properties until measured, and the measurements inexplicably affect each other at a distance, "we can clearly see that the mind project[s] independent existence into the particles, but the experimental violation of Bell's Inequalities shows that nature refuses to accept the projection" (p. 90). In other words, we should not impose our ideas of definite properties on independent particles, for that is a projection of our thoughts on a reality that does not fit that experimental picture. The interrelatedness comports well with the Middle Way.

In chapter 5 Mansfield explains his uncomfortableness with the a-causal behavior of the quantum world. He states that cause and effect is an important principle in Buddhism in that "[o]ur past actions are the causes of our present condition" (p. 98) (think of reincarnation). Given that causes, as things, do not have inherent existence in Buddhism, there is still a notion of the "I," a "constantly changing mental designation upon the impermanent mind and body" (p. 104) that somehow propagates into the future, carrying its karma with it. But why should this nonphysical causality of Buddhism, which is "not susceptible to scientific analysis" (p. 106), be intertwined with the causality as found in the physical realm? That is not clear to me. Incidentally, it may be of interest that he uses the similarity of quantum a-causality to the random mutations in Darwin's theory to conclude that "there can be no purpose, endpoint, or teleology in Darwinian evolution." This is a point that many evangelical Christians have made, going back to Charles Hodge in the nineteenth century.

In chapter 6, Mansfield turns his attention toward relativity theory. His main point here is to claim that relativity theory implies that such quantities as mass, length, and time have no independent existence, because there is no preferred reference frame from which to measure them. This, he claims, comports well with the Middle Way. However, I think his claim goes too far. Each object when considered in its own rest frame has definitive rest mass and rest length, which can be considered to be characteristic of the object. Finally, in the summary chapter, he argues that the wave/particle duality is a confirmation of the Middle Way. Thus, he says, in order that knowledge and love may unite, we should not disassociate scientific knowledge from its role in relieving suffering. I guess this is his way of saying that Buddhist science is human science, a conclusion Christians might draw for entirely different reasons.

Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics is a book that covers a lot of ground, such that a short review cannot do justice to the project that Mansfield has undertaken. However, it also suffers for that very reason. In trying to introduce both the important tenets of modern physics as well as those of Tibetan Buddhism in one short book, I think he fails in introducing either well. There are reasonable discussions of some aspects of physics, such as his introduction to Bell's inequality and the EPR paradox, but most are cursory and some even suggest misconceptions. (3)

So when he tells us in chapter 3 that although "physics and Buddhism have significant similarities and differences," that "[nevertheless, no other religious worldview has such an arresting and detailed connection to modern physics," does he make his case? I think not; most Christians would find many of his analogies weak and unconvincing. Though I do not think his "compare and contrast" method is a particularly good way to integrate faith and science, I will say that the book was thought provoking.

Who would want to read this volume? From among the Readers of this journal, I would expect that there would be rather few. For those of you who want to keep up with what other religions are saying about science, or who simply like a stimulating recreational read, you might enjoy the book. But if you do not fit one of those categories, and you do not already know a fair amount about both modern physics and Buddhism, you will probably want to learn both your modern physics and your Buddhism elsewhere. I was left with too many misgivings about how the physics was presented, and with too many questions about Tibetan Buddhism, to recommend this book for either purpose.


(1) IntermsofGreekthought,this is reminiscent of Platonic forms.

(2) Entanglement is the phenomenon well known in quantum theory that the measurement of two particles at different places apparently affect each other instantaneously. So they are said to be "entangled."

(3) For example, in chapter 2, he says "indistinguishability leads directly to the famous Pauli exclusion principle (not true--one also needs the fermionic nature of electrons) and in chapter 6, he tells us that an "elevator's acceleration due to gravity cancels the gravitational force, and the freely falling elevator becomes an inertial reference frame" (gravity--that is, the curvature of space--causes the acceleration, rather than canceling it; by "inertial frame" we usually mean a non-accelerating frame).

Reviewed by Donald N. Petcher, Department of Physics, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750.
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Author:Petcher, Donald N.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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