I've heard it said that some observations in modern Physics effectively confirm some of the things the Buddha taught.
- Is that true?
- If so, could someone provide some examples?
This is dangerous ground, and liable to a lot of fluffy thinking, especially when referring to the area I like to call "Quackum Mechanics". But fluff aside, I think the notion is indeed true. And it's not a surprise since both Buddhism and Physics are trying to understand the nature of reality.
One example is in fact that very-prone-to-new-age-woo area of Quantum Mechanics. Staying clear of the woo, and although there's still a lot of debate over how to interpret the results, I don't think there's much if any debate over the idea that whatever reality is, it's not what it looks like.
Now until QM came along, that idea -- that the underlying cause of our experience cannot be said to be the same as the experiences it causes -- was respectable among philosophers and philosophically minded scientists which, back in the day was almost all scientists. After all, "Physics" was often called, until only very recently, "Natural Philosophy". But it wasn't at that point a "scientific" idea. It was metaphysics.
However, with the advent of QM, the double-slit experiment, entanglement, and so on, we now have scientific reasons to believe that idea, as well as philosophical/metaphysical ones. We now know, for example, that whatever an electron "is", it's not simply a wee ball whirling around a blob of slightly larger balls. Now some interpretations of QM would go even further and say that whatever an electron is, it's some function of a consciousness interacting with something else. In other words, that interpretation says that "reality" is not properly described as subject/object -- that is, reality is "non-dual".
So I'd consider all of that to be a confirmation of one aspect of the kind of metaphysics proposed by the Buddha. He claims to have experienced some aspect of these things -- the illusory nature of our experiences, and the non-duality -- that only now, 2,500 years later, our Western science is beginning to pick up on.
Now, again, caution is needed. I don't for a minute think that the Buddha knew about the double-slit result, or could work with Schrödinger's equation and so on. In understanding his position in this I'd use the analogy of selective breeding versus genetic engineering. The Buddha is like the expert cattleman who over years of selective breeding transforms wild animals into domesticated cows. But he may not know the full details of how he does what he does. Then, in that same analogy, the Physicist is like the modern gene expert who now understands in scientific detail what the cattleman had figured out in general by practical trial and error.
It was not Buddha's point to teach on science. The focus of his doctrine was to improve the human condition and to stress ethical considerations.
Buddha's knowledge about natural phenomena was confined within the bounds of his time and his society. It was the society of the 5.th century BCE living in the Ganges flood plain. The great advancement of modern physics presupposes quite different methods of observation and theoretical methods, e.g. from mathematics.
I conclude that physics does not confirm any of Buddha's teaching because he left no teachings on physics at all.
...all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things. The Buddha compared the universe to a vast net woven of a countless variety of brilliant jewels, each with a countless number of facets. Each jewel reflects in itself every other jewel in the net and is, in fact, one with every other jewel... Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level...it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence. When you contemplate it, you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that sways it, the soil that nourishes and sustains it, all the seasons and the weather, moonlight and starlight and sunlight—all form part of this tree. As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is; that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else; and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing. This is what we mean when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence.
The following article in Wired last year discusses almost the same thing based on quantum entanglement and the arrow of time:
If the new line of research is correct, then the story of time’s arrow begins with the quantum mechanical idea that, deep down, nature is inherently uncertain. An elementary particle lacks definite physical properties and is defined only by probabilities of being in various states. For example, at a particular moment, a particle might have a 50 percent chance of spinning clockwise and a 50 percent chance of spinning counterclockwise. An experimentally tested theorem by the Northern Irish physicist John Bell says there is no “true” state of the particle; the probabilities are the only reality that can be ascribed to it.
Quantum uncertainty then gives rise to entanglement, the putative source of the arrow of time.
When two particles interact, they can no longer even be described by their own, independently evolving probabilities, called “pure states.” Instead, they become entangled components of a more complicated probability distribution that describes both particles together. It might dictate, for example, that the particles spin in opposite directions. The system as a whole is in a pure state, but the state of each individual particle is “mixed” with that of its acquaintance.
The above describes dependency between entities at a particle level, while the following quote from the same article describes dependency between entities at a macro level:
In the new story of the arrow of time, it is the loss of information through quantum entanglement, rather than a subjective lack of human knowledge, that drives a (hot) cup of coffee into equilibrium with the surrounding room. The room eventually equilibrates with the outside environment, and the environment drifts even more slowly toward equilibrium with the rest of the universe. The giants of 19th century thermodynamics viewed this process as a gradual dispersal of energy that increases the overall entropy, or disorder, of the universe. Today, Lloyd, Popescu and others in their field see the arrow of time differently. In their view, information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely. So, they assert, although entropy increases locally, the overall entropy of the universe stays constant at zero.
“The universe as a whole is in a pure state,” Lloyd said. “But individual pieces of it, because they are entangled with the rest of the universe, are in mixtures.”
The above statement that "information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely" also resonates with Buddha's middle way teachings for e.g. the discussion of what happens when a person dies. He does not have a permanent soul that transmigrates, according to the Buddha. The newly born person is also not the same person as the one that died, yet not completely independent. However, the "information" is not completely lost and it reappears to a certain extent in the newly born person. This is a middle path between eternalism and annihilationism. There is a description of this in the Acela Sutta and some discussion in my previous answer to another question. Of course, this part is only my conjecture and rebirth is not described by science.
So, the article from Wired discusses that there is no eternalism (no independent particle and no independent cup of hot coffee), yet there is also no annihilationism ("information becomes increasingly diffuse, but it never disappears completely"). It also says that everything is interdependent (“The universe as a whole is in a pure state but individual pieces of it, because they are entangled with the rest of the universe, are in mixtures").
The above also coincide with Buddha's teaching that all conditioned things are impermanent.
Is it true that Physics confirms some of the Buddha's teachings?
I'm not sure how much value one should put into the phrase "confirming". That is because science is limited and that most of what we know is theories that change when new evidence is found.
I have divided the answer into 2 parts. First part is about the "limitation-aspect" of modern science. The second part is about how science could confirm/back up some of the Dhamma.
Here is a quote from the book "What Buddhists Believe" by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda. The quote is from the chapter: "Limitations of Science", p. 363-364:
Limitations of Science
Often one hears so much about science and what it can do, and so little about what it cannot do. Scientific knowledge is limited to the data received through the sense organs. It does not recognise reality which transcends sense-data. Scientific truth is built upon logical observations of sense data which are continually changing. Scientific truth is, therefore, relative truth not intended to stand the test of time. A scientist, being aware of this fact, is always willing to discard a theory if it can be replaced by a better one.
Science attempts to understand the outer world and has barely scratched the surface of humanity’s inner world. Even the science of psychology has not really fathomed the underlying cause of human mental unrest. When a person is frustrated and disgusted with life, and the inner world of this person is filled with disturbances and unrest, science today is very much ill-equipped to help him or her. The social sciences which cater for human environment may bring a certain degree of happiness. But unlike animals, humans require more than mere physical comfort andneed help to cope with their frustrations and miseries arising from their daily experiences.
Today so many people are plagued with fear, restlessness, and insecurity. Yet science fails to help them. Science is unable to teach the people to control their minds when they are driven by the animal nature that burns within themselves.
Can science make human beings morally better? If it can, why do violent acts and immoral practices increase in countries which are so advanced in science? Isn’t it fair to say that despite all the scientific progress achieved and the advantages conferred on humans, science leaves their inner selves unchanged: it has only heightened their feelings of dependence and insufficiency? In addition to its failure to bring security and confidence to mankind, science has also made everyone feel even more insecure by threatening the world with the possibility of mass destruction.
Science is unable to provide a meaningful purpose of life. It cannot provide humanity with clear reasons for living. In fact, science is thoroughly secular in nature and unconcerned with their spiritual goal. The materialism inherent in scientific thought denies the psyche goals higher than material satisfaction. By its selective theorizing and relative truths, science disregards some of the most essential issues and leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, when asked why great inequalities exist among people, no scientific explanation can be given to such questions which are beyond its narrow confines.
Once the Buddha was sitting at the Ganges River with his monks. Then a piece of foam came floating down the river and the Buddha said, you see o'monks that piece of foam. The monks said yes we see Ven. Sir. The Buddha then said that materiality, i.e. the 1st aggregate of form is like that piece of foam. From a distance that foam looks solid. It looks like it has a structure. But when one inspects that foam closely one will come too see that it is hollow and empty of any structure. - Chris W. provided us with the text-reference SN 22.95: Phena Sutta: Foam.
Modern science have figured out that physical matter is almost empty space. It's like 99,9% is empty space and the rest is physical matter. But even that physical matter that looks so solid is also devoid of structure and solidity.
When one examines that matter in a powerful microscope one will come to see atoms. When examining those atoms one will come to see that they too are made up of smaller parts such protons, neutrons and electrons. When examining those parts one sees that they are made up of even smaller parts such as quarks. Science believes that quarks also have substructures but does not yet have the technology to confirm that.
With quantum mechanics they have now gone a level deeper. All this have now turned out to be a cloud of probability meaning that an electron can be multiple places at once and that it "chooses" its location only when its measured by an external observer. For more information on that see the "Double-Slit Experiment".
An important thing to add to the need for an external observer is that without an observer there cannot be a universe existing outside the awareness of that observer, meaning that it makes no sense to talk about non-conscious experience. If there is no observer to consciously observe a phenomena then that becomes imagination. Imagination belongs to conventional reality which is based on concepts and has nothing to do with the true nature of reality, i.e. Ultimate reality.
These things could be understood to confirm or back up what the Buddha knew and taught 2500 years ago.
There is someone such as Paul R. Fleischman that in some way would agree with such a claim. For example in its Karma and Chaos essay he highlights how the Chaos theory enables we modern people to understand terms such as kamma, anatta. Elsewhere (Vipassana meditation and the scientific world view) he tracks other parallels such as:
Another classical source on this topic is Capra's The Tao of Physics book.
I would advise caution. This is a very tricky subject and it is too complex to be answered in a short way. If you are interested in this topic I recommend you read the book "Choosing Reality" by B. Alan Wallace and was published by Snow Lion (now Shambhala Publications). Alan studied physics at Amherst College, graduating summa cum laude. Later in 1995 he got a PhD in religious studies from Stanford University. Since 1970 he devoted himself to study and practice Tibetan Buddhism and since 1976 he has been teaching in Europe and North America. He is a real expert. Choosing Reality is the best book I have read about physics and Buddhism. It should answer your questions very well, as it did to me.
One of the things that has always impressed me about the Dalai Lama is that he has said that scientific discoveries should supersede scripture (exact wording may need correction, but that's the gist of it). Over the years I've followed science and technology news, and many times I've observed it appearing to provide evidence for Buddhist teachings, or beliefs, term used loosely. For instance, there's heavy emphasis on the notion of emptiness, and we've since learned that on a subatomic level, we're mostly empty space. That's just one of many examples. I would be extremely interested to see a listing/database of all of these occurrences supporting the insights from ancient wisdom traditions, realizations obtained by many generations of human mediation. Honestly, I'm a little baffled by some answers here--they appear to imply the question is almost irreverent, or view it as a forbidden question/knowledge, possibly because they are unaware that a very solid argument can be made that modern physics, chemistry and quantum theories actually very much tend to back up Buddhist perceptions. I think it would add quality and value to this Q&A site if we actually researched this question further and compiled a list, I know there are many more but can't think of them off the top of my head. In fact, I found your question by searching on whether this question had already been asked, because I am more than curious myself to see a compilation of such documented correlations.
Before answering this, you must know a bit about science, so read this: (it is an image) https://up1.ca/#DZ7gVZ7ijMLB1aRZCwNMEQ
Is it true that Physics confirms some of the Buddha's teachings?
No: no, in my opinion that's basically not true.
The Buddha wasn't teaching Physics. The Buddha said,
Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress.
The Buddha also said that things have characteristics: as stressful (dukkha), as impermanent, and as not-self.
These are statements about the truth of conditioned things. They are not statements within the realm of Physics. Physics cannot make those statements. And Physics cannot talk about ethics or mindfulness or wisdom, about good or bad, about profitable and unprofitable, about the end of stress.
Suppose a poet were to say, "When two people come together, then they love each other and they feel attracted to each other; but then when they're separated, they no longer feel that attraction."
Suppose that a Physicist (Isaac Newton) were to come along later and discover the law of gravitation,
Newton's law of universal gravitation states that any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Would you then say that,
Newton's law, "inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them", confirms what the poet said about "love": i.e. attraction when they're close and less attraction when they're apart?
I don't think you should say such a thing, I don't think such a claim would be true: they (i.e. the statements of the poet and of the physicist) are two different statements, describing different types of object and different types of behaviour.
Suppose the Buddha were to say that it's not wise to see the skhandhas as self. Suppose that statement were understood as saying that skhandhas are "not-self" or "empty of self". Suppose that "everything is interdependent and conditioned" were added, and that the statement were further revised so that now it says, "everything is empty of self"; and finally, just says "everything is empty".
Suppose your car were to become empty of fuel; or your bank account, empty of money; or your cup, empty of water. Would you say, "This confirms what the Buddha said: everything is indeed empty"?
Suppose science were to discover that strong nuclear radiation can penetrate through brick and other matter. The fact that it can be penetrated by radiation shows that apparently-solid matter is mostly empty. Again, would you say, "This confirms what the Buddha said: everything is indeed empty"?
I don't think you should: they're different statements describing different types of object and different types of behaviour, based on different types of observation, and making different predictions.
The above is the bulk of my answer, but I have a few small points left to clarify at the end:
On the subject of "this reminds me", this reminds me of the few paragraphs in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which begin ...
Aristotle fouled up what Phædrus wanted to say by placing rhetoric in an outrageously minor category in his hierarchic order of things. It was a branch of Practical Science, a kind of shirttail relation to the other category, Theoretical Science, which Aristotle was mainly involved in. As a branch of Practical Science it was isolated from any concern with Truth or Good or Beauty, except as devices to throw into an argument. Thus Quality, in Aristotle’s system, is totally divorced from rhetoric. This contempt for rhetoric, combined with Aristotle’s own atrocious quality of rhetoric, so completely alienated Phædrus he couldn’t read anything Aristotle said without seeking ways to despise it and attack it.
... and end with ...
Phædrus guessed that Aristotle’s diminution of dialectic, from Plato’s sole method of arriving at truth to a "counterpart of rhetoric," might be as infuriating to modern Platonists as it would have been to Plato. Since the Professor of Philosophy didn’t know what Phædrus’ "position" was, this was what was making him edgy. He might be afraid that Phædrus the Platonist was going to jump him. If so, he certainly had nothing to worry about. Phædrus wasn’t insulted that dialectic had been brought down to the level of rhetoric. He was outraged that rhetoric had been brought down to the level of dialectic. Such was the confusion at the time.
Similarly, equating Buddhism with Physics seems to me mistaken.