Written by Arjun Walia
“Broadly speaking, although there are some differences, I think Buddhist philosophy and Quantum Mechanics can shake hands on their view of the world. We can see in these great examples the fruits of human thinking. Regardless of the admiration we feel for these great thinkers, we should not lose sight of the fact that they were human beings just as we are.”
– the Dalai Lama
Scientists and Buddhists from all over the world are starting to see the similarities between their disciplines, and the research which is emerging as a result is truly exciting. A classic example of a scientist diving into ancient wisdom is Nikola Tesla, whose work was heavily influenced by Vedic philosophy. You can read more about that here.
Here is a great clip of world renowned quantum physicist Dr. John Hagelin at an event discussing transcendental meditation.
Findings within neuroscience, dealing with things like past lives and reincarnation, also correlate with Buddhist philosophy; perhaps this is why Carl Sagan said that reincarnation deserves serious study, and since his passing, it has received some. In 2008 University of Virginia psychiatrist Jim Tucker, for example, published a review of cases suggestive of reincarnation in the journal Explore. You can read that study and find out more about it here.
Without a doubt, various ancient Eastern traditions are closely tied with certain aspects of modern day science. Though it may seem counterintuitive to some, it seems as though science is actually working to catch up to the teachings of ancient philosophy and mysticism rather than the other way around.
Leading Neuroscientists & Buddhists Agree: “Consciousness Is Everywhere”
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
– Max Planck, theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918
It’s great to see that in today’s day and age, multiple prominent scientists from all over the world have started to study non-physical phenomena and human consciousness.
Christof Koch, the Chief Scientific Officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and a leading American neuroscientist, has illustrated how new theories in neuroscience suggest that consciousness is present in all things. A couple of years ago he took a trip to India to discuss the topic with a group of Buddhist monks and ended up debating with the Dalai Lama for an entire day.
During his conversation with the Dalai Lama, Koch was most struck by his ideas about ‘panpsychism’: the belief that consciousness is everywhere, “and that we have to reduce the suffering of all conscious creatures.”
Sam Littlefair Wallace from Lion’s Roar offers some insight into Koch’s background and views:
Koch, who became interested in Buddhism in college, says that his personal worldview has come to overlap with the Buddhist teachings on non-self, impermanence, atheism, and panpsychism. His interest in Buddhism, he says, represents a significant shift from his Roman Catholic upbringing. When he started studying consciousness — working with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick — Koch believed that the only explanation for experience would have to invoke God. But, instead of affirming religion, Koch and Crick together established consciousness as a respected branch of neuroscience and invited Buddhist teachers into the discussion.
Below is the video of Koch at the event in India:
Integrated Information Theory (IIT)
IIT is a theoretical framework for understanding consciousness which was developed by Giulio Tononi, MD, PhD, from the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Koch collaborates with Tononi on a regular basis, and believes ITT to be the only truly promising fundamental theory of consciousness.
The theory states that physical systems all contain consciousness, and that this consciousness can be measured as a theoretical quantity, which they are calling phi.
Tononi has developed a measuring system for phi in the human brain, where scientists send a magnetic pulse into a human brain and observe the pulse echo through the neurons. The idea is that the longer and clearer the reverberation, the higher the tested subject’s level of consciousness. The test can be used to tell whether a patient is awake, asleep, or anesthetized.
What Tononi and his team are trying to do is measure consciousness. The fact that it has yet to be measured explains why a large portion of mainstream academia rejects the notion of consciousness existing as a separate entity, outside of the brain.
Tononi and Koch recently published a paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, emphasizing that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, like other aspects that we can see and perceive with our senses.
The theory states that any object with a phi greater than zero possesses consciousness. This would mean that even protons are conscious beings, which wouldn’t be too far off considering that when you observe them at the quantum level, their behaviour changes, almost as if they know they are being watched.
In the video, Koch describes how Buddhist teachings led him to study consciousness scientifically:
I was confronted with the Buddhist teaching that sentience is probably everywhere at varying levels, and that inspired me to take the consequences of this theory seriously . . . When I see insects in my home, I don’t kill them.
It’s fantastic to see this merging of science and philosophy, even if determining the source of consciousness remains a task beyond our grasp. Scientific theories like IIT help to further push the much-needed study of consciousness into mainstream academia.
At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists discovered empirical phenomena that could not be explained by classical physics. This led to the development, during the 1920s and early 1930s, of a revolutionary new branch of physics called quantum mechanics (QM). QM has questioned the material foundations of the world by showing that atoms and subatomic particles are not really solid objects—they do not exist with certainty at definite spatial locations and definite times. Most importantly, QM explicitly introduced the mind into its basic conceptual structure since it was found that particles being observed and the observer—the physicist and the method used for observation—are linked. These results suggest that the physical world is no longer the primary or sole component of reality, and that it cannot be fully understood without making reference to the mind.
– Dr. Gary Schwartz, Professor of Psychology, Medicine, Neurology, Psychiatry and Surgery at the University of Arizona (source)
Below is a great video from Dr. Gary Schwartz (quoted above) in which he discusses whether consciousness is the product of the brain or a receiver of it. It’s a fantastic and short overview of an immense amount of research; this subject has tons of peer-reviewed scientific research behind it which not many people have the time to go through themselves, and he has thoughtfully condensed that research to allow more people access to it.