Friday, April 18, 2014

The End of Time, non-self and Nibbana

Julian Barbour wrote a popular science book, advocating his idea of a particular interpretation of the Wheeler-DeWitt equation. The name of the book is called the end of time. The Wheeler-DeWitt equation is an early attempt to combine both quantum and gravity. The search for quantum gravity still continues today, possibly because of one problem that the Wheeler-DeWitt equation posed: there is no time in it.

Having read the book, I had saw many parallels in Buddhism that matches the description by Barbour. This article is an attempt to list down the parallels. However closely Barbour's interpretation might appear to fit in with Buddhism, I do not claim that Buddhism requires this interpretation to be the true picture of reality. This is because I have neither the empirical realisation of the truths claimed in Buddhism nor do we have the experimental data to test Barbour's interpretation. The emphasis on empirical data is in accordance to Buddhism's spirit that the ultimate arbiter of what is right is empirical experience. However philosophically, it can be said that Buddhism supports certain parts of Barbour's interpretation. I invite the readers to form their own conclusion.

I shall describe The End if Time in brief and draw the parallels with Buddhist concepts along the way when suitable. I've found that a dialogue form is nicer to read, and easier to write. So here's P, a physicist and B, a Buddhist who are knowledgeable in their area but also knows the other side well too.

P: Time does not exist in the ultimate sense. That is the hypothesis by Barbour. Time is only an agreement to track changes we see in the world with another thing that changes that are more regular and accurate. In a universe with only one particle, like an electron, there is no time, because there is nothing else to keep track of any change.

B: Indeed, for Buddhist there is only the present moment, the past is gone, the future has not come.

P: Good, but that's not what Barbour's picture is. Now Barbour invites us to image a universe with three particles only. It is possible to track their evolution by taking successive "instants of time" or pictures, with only these pictures, one can rearrange the order of them and extrapolate it's path in the past and to the future. To those three particles, what is intuitive is not the Newtonian absolute space and time we develop having lived on earth, but what is real to them is only the relative configurations of their positions. Each moment in time is just a representation of these relative configurations. The collection of all possible configurations is called Platonia, it represents all that can be. These moments in time are all also called Nows, if we add in more particles until we put in the whole universe, then Platonia becomes the space of all possible configurations.

B: That sounds more like everything exist, a doctrine of the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism.  He who affirms the existence of the dharmas of the three time periods [past, present and future] is held to be a Sarvastivadin. It might be that the Sarvastivada school acknowledged that time travel as General Relativity allows is possible but the other schools do not bother with it.

P: Time travel in Barbour's picture is possible. A point in Spacetime in General Relativity represents an event, a point in Platonia represents a Now. So in general Relativity, time travel is a closed loop around a point, but this is pointless in Platonia, the time travellers only has memory of when they came from if the Now they occupy is close but not exactly the same as Now they wanted to go back to. Barbour postulate that if time travel is possible, then it has very low probability of being realised. Of course time here is conventional speech, ultimately time does not exist. You might think that time is still needed to talk about progressions from one Now to another in Platonia. However, it is possible to attribute this persistent illusion of time and motion as just memories and histories. Barbour calls things that records the past as time capsules. We only remember and infer the existence of a time before us in the Now. It is because of time capsules that we were made to believe that we travelled in time from the past to the future when in fact, there is no travelling, no motion. Just that the person in each Now are aware of the experience of their Now including time capsules. Thus each person in their Now thinks that they came from someone from another Now (in their so-called past). 

B: Memory, it's part of the aggregate of perception in Buddhism. In Buddhism, we believe that ultimately a person is made up of 5 aggregates, of form (anything material), sensation, perception, mental factors, and consciousness. Barbour's picture if imported into Buddhist terms, would have Platonia including not just the physical world, but also at least the perception aggregate too.

P: It should include all 5 aggregate to be worthy to be called Platonia.

B: Doubtless. However, the thing is, in Buddhism we recognize 4 elements that makes up the form: Earth which represents solidity, water which represents cohesion, fire which represents heat and air which represents motion. And then there is space too. What is curious is that Barbour denies the air element. I don't think it would fit in with Buddhism anyway.

P: But don't forget, the 4 elements are meditation teachings on what humans can directly sense, not necessarily it is the fundamental way the world works.

B: It's debatable, but anyway, how do you fit in entropy here then?

P: The distinction between the past and future is only because the smaller volume and thus smaller entropy Nows are correlated with the past, while the Nows with bigger volume, are the ones with higher entropy and they also has the ability to contain time capsules that describes other Nows with lower entropy, thus they are perceived as the future.

B: I still find it hard to believe that there's a me out there in Platonia doing everything else.

P: Not all Nows are created equal. The Nows that life are breathe into are the most frequent one. This can be predicted by the wave function of the universe which is given by solving the Wheeler-DeWitt equation for the whole universe. The way to solve it is to look at the structure of all that is possible and then let them cancel each other out until you get the most likely path. It's inspired by the Hamiltonian mechanics principle of least action. Since the equation applies to the whole of Platonia which is timeless, there is no time in the equation. So our existence, what we do now, is a sum of all possible us.

B: That smacks of the lack of free will. Of fatalism. Back in Buddha's time there was many other teachers teaching many other philosophy, one of which is fatalism, Makkhali Gosala. He taught that there is no point in doing good or striving, when a person's life cycle is finished, he will automatically attain to the end of rebirth. In Buddhism, a person has the habits due to unmindfulness, which leads them to be quite predictable as a biological, social, psychological machine. Yet, if we are mindful, we can choose not to be angry when the situation presents itself. We can exercise free will to change the course of our life. It is because of free will that people can choose to follow the path of Buddhism to enlightenment.

P: Barbour calls his picture as beyond free will and beautiful. You are what you are (Now) because you are what you are (in the whole of Platonia). There's also multiple instants, so instead of one possibility, if there is choices, the wave function can split up and follow those possibilities. However, each person only sees their possibility when the choice is made. I use person here as a conventional speech, ultimately each Now has a different person in it. There's no one person who travelled from one Now to another. There's just memory of each person thinking that they did.

B: This no self thing rings well with Buddhism. The parallels I can see with Buddhism is that a central concept in Buddhism is that we are deluded into thinking that something are permanent, happy and have a self. Whereas the ultimate view if we have a clear mind is to realize that all conditioned phenomenon are impermanent, unsatisfactory and thus doesn't have an independent existence as a self. This is usually summarized as non self or emptiness, empty of inherent existence. The reasoning is that all things depend on one another, for example, the fact that you are reading this is conditioned by you having the time, energy, and relatively healthy. It is also only possible if I wrote it in the first place, and it is published. And all these can be traced back to the conditions that allow humans to exist, the conditions to form earth, the sun and indeed the whole universe. So nothing ever exist independently of other things. 

P: On the surface, Barbour's picture seemed to agree with the non self of Buddhism. Yet within each Nows, Barbour allows for independently existing entities that are not subjected to causation because there is no time for cause to become effect. There are just all the possible configurations of the world including the Now in which a person experiencing the effect remembers another Now in which he or she had done a cause for the effect. There is another Now in which the memory is different but the likelihood of that inconsistent history to happen is low. Or at least Barbour claim that it should be low if we ever manage to solve the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to that detail. Herein lies that falsibility of his theory or interpretation. 

B: Thus these independent Nows are against the spirit of non-self. Yet, one can also argue that the Nows are not entirely independent, but are bound somewhat by the Wheeler-DeWitt equation which solution in turn depends on the structure of each Nows. 

P: Wow, we might need a philosopher in here to sort out our mess.

B: One last thing, another parallel concept I see is Nibbana. You kept on using conventional and ultimate view. In Buddhism we have that too. The conventional view is that the world has time, everything changes, with it, it has no self, and is suffering. However, in Nibbana, there is no time, no impermanence, still no self and no suffering. Two out of three makes Nibbana sounds like Platonia.

P: Indeed, if Barbour is right, there's nothing really to worry about death. No one died, it's just one Nows of the Platonia, memories and so on. Maybe realizing Platonia is equal to realizing Nibbana.

B: Well, some Mahayana teachings has this thing that Samsara (the conventional world, the rounds of rebirth) is the same as Nibbana, once you realize this, you realize Nibbana. These looks nice, but I doubt it, first off, Physics has practically no idea how to quantify suffering or unsatisfaction, much less the cause and the way out of it. Buddhism however is quite expert in it.

P: Sounds to me like we should construct the mathematics of suffering to introduce to the Physics world.

B: Anyway let's have a warp. A recap of the parallels and differences.

Barbour's Picture Buddhism
Time does not exist in the ultimate sense The past is gone the future has not come
Nows All exist doctrine
No one passed from one Now to another Non-self
Platonia Nibbana?
"Beyond free will" Free will is important, exercised when mindful.
Denies motion Form has the air element
Independently existing Nows?  Against the spirit of non-self.

P: So we have about 4 parallels, and 3 differences. Well, that's certainly strange, when I first read the book, I thought that it would fit in quite well. 

B: Well, that's Physics and Buddhism for you folks. No real answer, I'm going back to practicing for enlightenment. See ya! 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Immediate rebirth or not?

In Buddhism the idea of rebirth is split into two main schools: The Theravada school with its Abhidhamma would insist that the continuum of consciousness from one body to another has no gaps between it. The Mahayana and Vajrayana (and the Pali source text) would suggest that there is an in-between stage between rebirths.

For the book Rebirth by Francis Story where he described some of the case interviews, he encountered a few describing in-between memories of rebirth. For Theravada scholars, they interpret it as being temporary in hungry ghost realm, it is a form of rebirth.

Bring in Physics, and we can see that there might be a sort of resolution to this disagreement. In Physics, specifically in general relativity or just special relativity, time is relative, it is personal, depending on the relative velocity of the observer. So, if the kamma and ignorance, or whatever that passes on from one life to another is transferred, if they are physical or information, then they can be subject to the laws of Physics. Then the transfer cannot be faster than the speed of light at least according to special relativity. And if it is massless, it should travel at the speed of light, where at that speed, to itself, it doesn't experience time passing from its starting location to its destination. (Same reason as photons not having experiencing time.)

Yet to an outside observer, there is some time lapse between the death and the subsequent rebirth if the distance is non-zero. Thus, to the person experiencing rebirth, there is no gap in between one body and the next. But to everyone else, there is a time gap. Satisfying both views from different schools. Yet, I suspect that this explanation would not work as in the case studies stories, the ghost in between lives seems to hang around some place, not moving, and since they can describe the experience, that means they experience time during the gap. Thus this is a nice idea, but refuted by evidence.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Time and Enlightenment

Dear readers,

Sorry for the lack of updates recently and of 2013. But I think I don't have the time now to write a full well done article too, yet I must write this note down to be expanded further later on before I forget it. Please excuse the brief and non-explanatory, non-citing nature of the following words.

From this article:
Physicists has experimental verification that time is emergent from quantum entanglement and not absolute. There has been books like "the end of time" by Julien Barbour which uses the Wheeler-Dewitt equation (that unites quantum and gravity) as the main basis for the interpretation in Physics that there's no time, but the idea in the article above is less interpretation, more hypothesis that is tested.

Time exists only for the observer inside the universe that entangles with the entangled particles in the universe itself. If an external observer uses a clock to measure absolute time against entangled particles in the universe, there is no observable change. The experiment is done using a toy model of the universe and verifies the hypothesis.

This reminds me strongly of the experience of enlightened beings vs unenlightened beings in Buddhism. I do not know if enlightened beings dwell outside of the universe, but it is said that Nibbana, where enlightened beings attain to, is not a place, does not change, is timeless, unconditioned, without suffering. This is in direct contrast with all conditioned things in the world. All conditioned things are subject to change, therefore they are not free from suffering. To attain to Nibbana, one has to see the impermanence, non-self and suffering nature of all conditioned phenomena and let go of all clinging of the five aggregates which compromises our world. To let go of clinging sounds to me like disentangling oneself from the rest of the universe which is changing, then in Nibbana, you see that there's no changing.

Yet there are some problems to be addressed in this parallel, is it true that all of the universe would stop for an outside observer or just the entangled parts, or is everything entangled to each other despite decoherence? The paper is in ArXiV now, so it has not been peer reviewed, it might contain some mistake.

There are also beings like Brahma, form and formless, who might conceivably live outside of the universe, then where does that leave Nibbana to? Why does Physics presents so close a story to Buddhism? Perhaps only a Buddha can answer these questions.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Higgs boson vs Rebirth

I've recently attended a talk on "Investigating Effects of Past Life on Present Life". The speakers include Ajahn Brahm and Peter Mack. Ajahn Brahm in particular had mentioned that the Higgs boson which recently had a Nobel Prize to its name have less evidence for it than rebirth, he has a Physics degree. 
For the uninitiated, Higgs boson is the last entry in the Standard Model of particle physics, the particle that explains how the rest of the fundamental particles acquire their mass. The Standard Model is used to build up subatomic particles, which leads to atoms, molecules, cells, living beings, the earth, and everything in the universe (not counting dark matter and dark energy). 
Rebirth is saying that after death, if one still have ignorance and craving, there would be a birth again, depending on the kamma (actions) of the individual, the form of the rebirth maybe in human or in other realms (most obvious to us, animal realms). So after death, the kamma and ignorance (including memories, some personalities) are transferred from one body to another. 
Well, seeing that I have a Physics degree too and I'm a Buddhist too, I decided to investigate this.
From these two websites, the way to find Higgs, an elementary particle is to find the evidence of the things it decays into. If there are events above and beyond the known background noise, then above a certain threshold (which is 5 sigma, or one in a million chance that this is due to the background noise) then the discovery can be claimed. The fact that two different detectors did it without sharing data to each other makes it all the more certain that this is not a fluke, it's real. The way that they know how to find these events is also to gather a lot of data, throw out the useless ones that doesn't fit into the model for detection, and then choose the ones that gives the signal. In a sense, even through it is just two different laboratory announcing the same discovery, the discovery was made by at least a thousand events on each energy levels (or a few hundred events above the background noise) selected among many more collisions events per second, running 24 hours daily in the LHC back in 2012. This paper detailed how some events are only predicted and expected to be observed to have about 100 or less events per energy level for the distribution. Regardless of the actual no. of events, the statistical analysis would confidently suggests that the Higgs is very unlikely to be a fluke and thus verified.

Now let's see the evidences for rebirth.
It would be instructive to see a case for rebirth first.
James, a little boy in an American Christian family knows a lot about planes have nightmares about crashing in planes. He said that he was fighting the Japanese in World War Two in a boat called Natoma, as in a previous life where his name was James. There was no normal way for the boy to learn about planes as he was looking at children programmes. Investigation by the skeptical parents and Carol Bowman eventually revealed that there was a pilot named James in the mission in world war two, the plane crashed, and the pilot died. They eventually found previous life James' sister and information no one else could have known were shared. They also had a closing burial for the previous James in the middle of the sea where the boy James broke down and cried.
This paper by Ian Stevenson on cases on reported rebirth by American children gave an indication on how the cases for rebirth are investigated. It is mainly through interviews, and cases are considered solved only if there are verifiable names or details about the previous lives that could be found in the real world but would not be possible for the child to learn in any normal way possible (abnormal way would include telepathy, the hypothesis about rebirth is that the knowledge came from memory of the past life). Not only they have to provide the verifiable details many of them are around 20+ details, those details has to confirm with what is found in reality for the cases to be solved.

The paper, published in 1983 said that there was over 2000 cases of such types around the world, assuming half of them are from India, which has 77% of solved cases, it means 770 cases of solid rebirth data to support the theory of rebirth. However, we need to think if we only need one data to show that the worldview of "there is no rebirth" to be false and untenable or do we need more? Typically, more is better, as statistics can be used to determine if the case is by chance or a fluke. However, it is hard to imagine how one can fluke a solid case of rebirth where according to this: and various other sources, there are cases where the family is not a believer of rebirth, there are cases where the children and family do not stand to gain by giving such data to the researchers and there are cases where it is impossible to explain the particular knowledge to be gained by the children other than rebirth. The knowledge can be the habits of the previous lives, the exact hiding place for a secret stash of cash, the shortcuts and knowledge of roads far from the main street, the knowledge of how things were arranged when they were alive in the previous life, and most of all, the emotional connection that cannot be faked between the previous family and the new child.

Criticism of such research can be that rebirth cases are mainly by one person: Ian stevenson, what if he decided to fake all his data? this website shows a lists of past life researchers: J├╝rgen Keil, Ian Stevenson, Jim B. Tucker, Satwant K. Pasricha, Erlendur Haraldsson, Majd Abu-Izzeddin, Titus Rivas, Antonia Mills, and many others. This list itself has more support than Higgs boson in terms of no. of independent observation of data of rebirth.

In addition, many books has been published for the public over the years on this type of research: this website lists 10 books.

Looking at the evidences part, I would say that rebirth has a stronger case for it if only because the evidences and research for it has been around longer than the Higgs, and there are many more independent researchers on the same topic.

The main difference between these two is obviously public opinion which is largely shaped by opinions of scientists and certain religions. in this website for example, the author had looked at evidences for rebirth, even in early Christianity, yet reject it because of philosophical grounds (that if rebirth and kamma are true, there would be no beginning and no end, obviously the author has not come across the 4 Noble Truths) and attachment to certain words in the current Bible. The bias in public opinion is not only fueled by attachments to current forms of certain religion (the YOLO, you only live once, meme popular nowadays can also count as part of a belief system) it is also fueled by scientific dogmatism. Ajahn brahm also mentioned this, the video has actually been removed from the official TEDx website. In this video, it says that the worldview of most people are that science has explained everything we know about the world and the rest is just details to be filled in. This is a belief system. He said that there are 10 dogmas we take for granted from this belief system, none of them stand up very well under close observation.
  1. Nature is mechanical, we are machines,
  2. Nature is unconscious, we are just an illusion of consciousness since we are made up of atoms, 
  3. Laws of Nature are fixed and the same,
  4. The total amount of energy and matter is always the same,
  5. There are no purposes in nature, evolution, etc...
  6. Biological heredity is material,
  7. Memories are stored in the brain, via connections,
  8. Mind is inside our heads,
  9. Psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible, 
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only one that really works, the others maybe placebo effect etc..
These are the default worldview of "educated" people. The speaker, a scientists says that we overlook data that suggests that the constants of nature change (measurements of these changes over time and are averaged out, even these changes over the years, but it's a constant! So nobody bothered to investigate why.), or that our minds extends out of our brains (we can feel if people stare at us from behind). 
Alan Wallace in his book Hidden Dimensions, argued that currently the investigation of science is limited by these scientific dogma, not allowing proper research into phenomenons produced by the mind and insisting on unsuitable scientific method to investigate such a different phenomena. In the science of contemplation, he says, one should not demand that all datas to be objective, but subjective, personal experiences of an individual should be a valid data point as a foundation to begin research into the phenomena of the mind. When we investigate biology, we don't use the language of particle physics. 
I believe that due to this widespread delusion that scientific dogmatism is scientific method, support and acceptance for rebirth is not there even when the data in this field has been established for so long. Contrasting it with the science which has Albert Einstein, produced quantum physics, the basis of our electronic appliances, atom bombs, Physics has it easy to have the Higgs receiving so much more recognition by the public even before the scientists themselves are completely sure they have discovered it. 
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design said that a good model is
  1. elegant
  2. contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements
  3. Agrees with and explains all existing observations
  4. Makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out.
In this sense, comparing two competing hypothesis of "there is rebirth" and "there's no rebirth, all evidences are coincidences or a conspiracy or anything else", we can see the hypothesis that satisfies the criterias above. 
  1. Rebirth, having a simple, well defined way of how it happens (via kamma) and transmission of kamma and ignorance (includes memory here) from one body to another seems much more elegant compared to having to utilize all sorts of different explanations depending on the weakness of a particular case of rebirth. 
  2. Rebirth contains far less arbitrary or adjustable elements (when combined with kamma) to explain why a person is borned poor or rich compared to the simple luck element which is just a summary of many different complicated variables suggested by the no rebirth theory. Besides, having to use different explanations to refute each individual cases, the no rebirth theory would have much more adjustable elements compared to rebirth theory.
  3. Rebirth theory can explain all data suggesting rebirth, no rebirth theory would have a very hard time to explain most of them, in some cases, it is impossible to explain the case without assuming rebirth or very performed telepathy/ miracle. The alternative explanations to rebirth is also not as elegant or they have more adjustable elements.
  4. The alternative hypothesis of no rebirth cannot predict any possible thing to verify or falsify. In contrast, there is this prediction system amongst the Tulkus in Tibet where a great master would leave a prediction letter of where to find his or her next life after his passing away.
Thus having read all these, I hope that you would leave behind your scientific dogmatism, use an open and critical mind to investigate the links above, especially on evidences of rebirth to see if you're really unbiased, really scientific, what's your honest conclusion?

For me, it's as Ajahn Brahm said, rebirth has already been proven. To avoid this to be a dogma, please do your own research and read up. I did mine. Here's another case to get you started:

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Beginning (with some updates to be friendly to all)

The beginning of the universe is a great story to tell, however, the history of how physicists found the current theory of the beginning of the universe is very interesting as well. Let’s add in another spice to this. Religions in general also said something about the beginning or non-beginning of the world. Being a Buddhist, I would like to see how well does Buddhism fair in this respect in light of the current cosmology.
Too often have I seen religious people trying to use science to support their own religion. That is until a scientist criticized that the theory of science that they are using is outdated or worse: misrepresented.

I hope not to fall into their company, but to be fair to both Physics and Buddhism, I shall attempt to present each field from their own point of view and not use one to prove or disprove the other. Yet, if I slip up somewhere, I’m sorry.

First we start with Buddhism, then the description about cosmology along with the comparison.

In Buddhism, there is this Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) in which the Buddha told the people of Kalama village that there are ten specific sources which knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation to avoid fallacies:
1.       by revelations,
2.       by traditions,
3.       by rumor, gossip, hearsay,
4.       by scriptures,
5.       by logical conjecture (alone),
6.       by it is a point of view or common sense,
7.       by having considered the reasons (philosophical dogmatism),
8.       by agreement with one’s own theories,
9.       by experts,
10.    by the thought “this monk is our teacher” (authority).
but when you know for yourselves that,
•       these qualities are skillful,
•       these qualities are blameless,
•       these qualities are praised by the wise,
•       these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness,
then you should enter & remain in them.
In science, theories must be verified and vetted by the experimental or observational data.

So you can see that Buddhism is much more interested in teaching the avoidance of evil, the doing of good and purification of mind. This is the central teachings of Buddhism. Why so? Because there is kamma and rebirth.

Take for example a quote from this sutta (SN 15.13):
From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on.

Because beings undergo rebirth due to ignorance and craving, the central teaching is to recognize that there is suffering in life which is to be understood. And the cause of these suffering is due to ignorance and craving which is to be abandoned. The abandoning of the cause would lead to the end of suffering which is to be attained and the way to the end of suffering, morality, mental development and wisdom is to be developed. These are the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, the first and central teachings of the Buddha.

True to its spirit of asking us not to just believe but to investigate, the Buddha repeatedly ask his disciples to practice meditation or mental development so as to be able to see into the workings of the mind and past lives to directly verify for ourselves the truth of kamma and rebirth. Before that, it remains a working hypothesis for those with faith to start on the journey.

So questions like "Is there a beginning?" is of no importance to Buddhism as the Buddha said that one would die before those things are answered, emphasizing that he is only interested in leading people towards the end of suffering, not philosophical questions.

Thus conventional wisdom in Buddhism would itself be enough for a Buddhist to not be bothered by the development of cosmology in Physics. However, as I am both a Physicist and a Buddhist, this is of some interest to me.

Specifically the problem is: If rebirth requires a physical universe for beings to be reborn into, then Buddhism requires a beginningless model of the Universe.

Now let’s look into the cosmology picture of the beginning.

In Physics, the idea that there was a beginning came about in a hard fight in the field of cosmology. In the early days, Einstein (and most people then) believed the Universe was static, contrary to what his equation of General Relativity says, he added a term called the cosmological constant to the equation to reflect his belief. Later Einstein admitted that the universe is not static due to observational data by Hubble. He called his modification of the equations of General Relativity his greatest blunder. After that there were two main schools of thought.

First was the steady state theory which says that the universe is infinite, and that the observation that it is expanding because it has always been expanding. The idea is that not only is the universe the same overall in space, but it is also the same in time! The constant density of the universe can be explained by matter spontaneously coming into existence so that the universe is always in this state, and therefore have no beginning.

Second is the now familiar big bang theory. It says that if the universe is expanding now, then it must have been in a state of very high density. Extrapolating back in time, we get the beginning of the universe when the density goes to infinity. The universe was of zero size. Currently the estimated figure is 13.8 billion years ago. The moment of the big bang is called the singularity, the ridiculous state of the universe where most laws of physics break down.

Now if this article, or dialogue between Buddhism and Physics were to occur at that time, then Buddhists most likely bet that further observations will eventually support the steady state theory. After all, the Buddha himself said that there is no way to conceive of a beginning.

The Buddhist point of view towards the beginning is that if there is a effect, there must be a cause. Tracing back to the cause, it is an effect of another cause. Repeating this formula, how could we have a first cause without something causing it to happen? [1]

In almost the same sense, this is the physics dilemma too with the big bang theory. Once you are at the singularity, what caused it to expand in the first place? What guarantees that all the laws of physics that comes after is conducive for a life bearing universe? [2]

I for one am glad that I wasn't an active engaged physicist Buddhist at that time. Or else I would have a great punch in the face to my faith when experimental evidence supports the big bang theory and the steady state theory has died down.

This story above tells us of the danger of trying to mix up science and religion, using science to support or to disprove religion.

When the big bang theory won out, physicists have been working on the details of almost every part of the evolution of the cosmos. Even up to now, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN would be recreating the conditions near to the big bang and exploring the new physics there (the LHC would be restarting around 2015).

The singularity is the problem. Physicists haven't solved it yet because the largest problem so far is the combination of the 2 main pillars of modern physics: General Relativity and Quantum physics near the singularity. General Relativity is used when gravity is strong or cosmological scales are considered. Quantum physics is more at home with the behavior of nature at the very small scales. Both theories are incompatible in a fundamental level. Yet, near the singularity at the region called Plank scale where gravity is strong and the size is very small we must use a theory that combines General Relativity and Quantum Physics harmoniously. This is so that we can not only predict everything that happened up to the Plank scale, but also beyond it, where physicist are confident that the singularity from General Relativity will fade away in light of a more accurate model of the universe: Quantum Gravity. [3]

There are two possible contending Quantum Gravity theories currently popular and both of them predict a different scenario to replace the singularity. They are the
·         M-Theory, the 11 dimensional form that combined 5 string theories (everything is made up of strings of Plank length). M-theory contains branes (fundamental things that are more than just one dimensional) too. It is General Relativity in the language of Quantum.
·         Loop Quantum Gravity, that spacetime is made out of quantized loops; it is Quantum theory in the language of General Relativity.

To know how the universe began, we should look at how it could end. There were proposals of how the universe will end. One of the most symmetrical way for it to end is the natural combination of the big crunch plus the big bang, producing a big bounce. It requires that the universe is dense enough so that gravity will pull everything back together again in the reverse of the big bang into a big crunch. Then by some magic of Loop Quantum Gravity, after passing through the Plank scale, a super repulsive gravity is generated, hence the cause of a big bang can be explained, and there can be no beginning to the universe, or series of multiverses, separated in time.

It's a beautiful theory that can fit right into Buddhism. And if Buddhists happen to cling on to this idea, they will soon be disappointed as well because the theory of the infinite big bounce has a theoretical flaw.

There is sacred law in physics called the second law of thermodynamics. It states that entropy, the measure of disorder, always tend to increase in a closed system. Applied to the universe as a closed system, entropy does not get reversed during the phase of the big crunch. The arrow of time is still toward disorder. Eventually, with each new universe, the entropy will increase and makes the next cycles longer and bigger. As the previous cycles are shorter, there will be a beginning. Thus the multiverse in time idea is ok, but still has a beginning. However, stronger than this flaw is the observational data.

Data from 1998 cosmological observation suggests that the universe is not showing signs that it is slowing down, but rather it is accelerating out at an increasing rate. [4] This created the need for postulating dark energy (we called it dark because we have no idea what it is) as the source of this repulsive force. Eventually our universe most probably will die by the Big Rip, where everything expands out faster than the speed of light with respect to everything else, including the subatomic particles in our body. Thus a Big Crunch is not likely to be the end of our universe.

Now I’ll present three different possible theories of beginningless universe and a closed universe with a beginning in cosmology literature.

First, the inflationary universe theory is required to explain a number of observational data in the universe. According to it, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light for a while near the beginning and then stopped and expanded at the slower than the speed of light rate. Most inflation theories allows that some parts of the universe to keep on inflating while some other parts stop to create a universe. Ours could be one of them. Thus stretching this back to the past and to the future, we get an infinite series of multiverse with no need for a beginning and no end. In fact there’s a recent paper of possible observational data for this model. [5]

Second, the Baum-Frampton model gives an application of how a model of dark energy can lead to a sudden turnaround of a small patch of universe to a small volume just before the Big Rip. That patch will have its entropy reset (by throwing out most of the stuffs in the universe) and then inflation restarts the cycle, beginning the Big Bang all over again. This also produces more universes for each cycle. If there is an infinite amount of universe, then there would be no primordial (first) universe. [6]

Third, the Steinhardt-Turok model. This model is based on M-theory and assumes that our universe lives on a 4-dimensional brane (a fundamental object of the theory) that can collide with another universe of 4 dimensional brane in a higher dimension. Each brane is infinite in volume thus allowing for the accelerated expansion of the universe. In fact the expansion would clear the universe to vacuum again (solving the entropy problem) before gravity pulls two neighboring branes to another collision, producing the Big Bang. The collision would also explain away the things that standard cosmology uses inflation to explain. Since this cycle can repeat indefinitely, there is no beginning to this type of multiverse. [7]

Finally, in the book The Grand Design, the authors said that because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. [2]

However the discussion is far from ending in cosmology, reference [8] argues that there is a beginning for eternal inflation, cyclic evolution, and the emergent universe. Reference [9] replies that for all practical purposes, the universe is past eternal. This is because of the existence of future eternal universes. Imagine that time is like a real line in mathematics that starts from zero to positive infinity. We are like the people living far on the real line, even if the universe started at time zero, and we can’t see the zero. To us, there is practically no beginning!

In conclusion, for physics, the field of cosmology is far from dead, it’s just the beginning to gather more and more accurate data for precision cosmology.

From the side of Buddhism, there is no practical need to care about these models too. The best consistent model for Buddhism would be the Baum-Frampton model for predicting that the universe expands and contracts (there are other Buddhist texts that says the world expands and contracts), yet taking the lesson from the story above, I would not put down any money to bet that this model will ultimately win out amongst others. Who knows what’s the next top model in cosmology will be?

So, for Buddhist, the conclusion is the same as always. Paraphrasing Richard Feynman, shut up and meditate.


[1]Dalai Lama, The Universe in a single atom, United States of America: Morgan Road Books, 2005.
[2]S. Hawking and L. Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books: United States of America, 2010.
[3]S. Hawking and R. Penrose, "The Singularities of Gravitational Collapse and Cosmology," Proc R Soc A, vol. 314, pp. 529-548, 1970.
[4]Riess, A. G. and others, "Observational evidence from supernovae for an accelerating universe and a cosmological constant," Astron.J., vol. 116, pp. 1009-1038, 1998.
[5]S. M. Feeney, M. C. Johnson, D. J. Mortlock and H. V. Peiris, "First Observational Tests of Eternal Inflation," Phys. Rev. Lett., vol. 107, no. 7, p. 071301, 2011.
[6]L. Baum and P. H. Frampton, "Turnaround in Cyclic Cosmology," Phys. Rev. Lett., vol. 98, no. 7, p. 071301, 2007.
[7]P. J. Steinhardt and N. Turok, "Cosmic evolution in a cyclic universe," Phys. Rev. D, vol. 65, no. 12, p. 126003, 2002.
[8]a. [hep-th], "arXiv:1204.4658".
[9]a. [hep-th], "arXiv:1204.5385".

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Artificial Intelligence & Cases of Rebirth

Well, strictly speaking, artificial intelligence is not under Physics purview, and cases of rebirth are not needed in the study and practice of Buddhism. Yet, both are quite close to Physics and Buddhism respectively and both are related and very real.

The current field of artificial intelligence is very obvious in terms of the voice activation control. Just look at Apple's Siri.  Sorry, I'm really lazy to explain the basics of A.I. which I don't think I have enough knowledge of anyway. There is this Turing test and Cleverbot. Well, not the best conversationalist, but still she gives unexpected answers sometimes. The point that I want to make is, that as computers and technology improve, as the internet gets more and more information from us, as the research in A.I. increases and gets better and better....

Eventually, we can see the top down and the bottom up approaches may make up something that resembles humans. Especially if we add in one more technological advance called quantum computer. There has been some speculations that human brains and thinking involves something quantum-like, and thus making a quantum artificial intelligence may have a better chance of it getting to one stage we call self-awareness. Where it is an another being, with feelings and free-will, not just complicated expressions of trillions of lines of codes.

Buddhist psychology may offer some help in this regard where the mind is analysed in terms of four aggregates: Feelings, perception, mental formation and consciousness. Each of these maybe programmed separately, but also somehow fits in together again. If a knowledgeable Buddhist is working on A.I. development based on Buddhist psychology, that is.

Anyway, let's say that one day we have a real self-aware A.I. What will it be like? In Buddhist terms: Can it gain enlightenment? Is it fundamentally different from us because it can think in parallel, and we can't? Does it have until 8 consciousness (Mahayana concept)? Or just 6? Does it even suffer like us?

A more interesting question is: what if the self-aware A.I. is just like the case of rebirth?
Here are some videos of these case studies in case you're unfamiliar.
In case this happens, then A.I. or robots are just new bodies and consciousness for beings to be reborn into.

Then, can we differentiate between the A.I. who undergoes rebirth and A.I. that does resemble humans but are fundamentally different because they do not suffer like us. (No craving.) Yes it seems quite easy to differentiate them then. Maybe the Buddhas and Bodhisattva may manifest into them too! Interesting ideas for science fiction.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ultimate and conventional Truth- Lagrangian, Noether's Theorem

Today in my Advanced Dynamics class, in the process of showing Noether's Theorem, I found an interesting connection with Buddhism and the play of different generalized coordinates that you can put in the Lagrangian.

The power of the Lagrangian way of doing Classical Mechanics is that one can choose any generalized coordinates to solve the same problem, so some coordinates maybe more suitable to the problem than others. Also if the Lagrangian does not have explicit dependence on one particular coordinate (called cyclic coordinate) in the chosen generalized coordinates, then there will be something that is conserved. Specifically, it's the conjugate momentum of the Lagrangian with respect to the cyclic coordinate. If the generalized coordinate is chosen badly, then one might not see this symmetry and the conserved quantity may not be so obvious.

Let's call the generalized coordinate that we can see the symmetry directly as Q, and the one that we cannot, let's call it q. It might be for example that although q does not reveal the symmetry directly, but the equation of motion that it generates from the Lagrangian might be simple and usable in our everyday life. And the Q form of the Lagrangian might be more troublesome to interpret in its equation of motion form, so a transformation to the q view would make the equation easier to work with.

This is what I see as the duality between conventional truths and ultimate truths as well. (Do note that there is a range of q and Qs, but there is only one ultimate truth, and the conventional truth maybe many, but should not be too complicated either.)

So in the conventional truths, (coordinate q), there exist you, me, I, the car, etc... which makes everyday living and talking (equations of motion) smooth and easy. Yet in this view, we cannot see the conserved quantities of everything. That's where the ultimate truth comes in (coordinate Q) wherein the true nature of the situation is revealed and we see impermanence, non-self and subject to suffering in all things (timelessly-corresponding to the conserved quantities) and yet it is not convenient to operate in purely ultimate truth view. One would have to say: "this 5 aggregates has arisen the wish to go to abandon some water at the particular location wherein the electromagnetic waves are shielded from the light receptors of other 5 aggregates." which in conventional terms is: "I would like to go to the toilet."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Physics and Buddhism, internalization

Continuing from the link above,

The more textbooks of physics I'm reading, the more I feel that Physics is indeed not in the paper, or books, or even the form of the equation or maths. You can have a totally different way of formulating mathematics and writing down the equations, but the concepts will have to be there, the computational abilities of equations has to be there. So in other words, we are playing with our minds, our intellectual mind if you will.

The reason we write it down is for unambiguous communication and to compute. To show my point of Physics is a mind made object and exercise, show all these complicated looking equation to a normal five year old, they can barely make out the symbol for addition, and a few numbers if there are some in there, but other than that, it's all jargon to them. So we need to teach them how mathematics is done on Earth and then they learn those and the physics concepts, and the derivations, and finally when they look back at the same equations 18 years later, meaning is assigned to the pattern of inks on a paper.

The pattern of ink itself did not change, it is the mind of the Physicist that changed. Therefore Physics lives inside the collective consciousness of all Physicist. If all human beings one day go extinct, but our records of Physics and mathematics and language still exist, and one day some intelligent alien discovered the remains of our civilization and learn our knowledge, then Physics lives on in their mind.

Yet, they will also have to do the same experiments as we did to verify the results of our claims, follow the maths or translate it to their own mathematical symbol, however they write it as, and then they can fully fill in what is Physics in our world now.

The same is true for Buddhism. (I shall be using these brackets for the analogy for Physics)

The Dharma lives in the Sangha, for as long as there are beings who are enlightened in the world (knows how to do Physics, all of the core Physics...or derive all the equations of Physics from the still unknown theory of everything),  the Dharma is still very much alive and doing it's job of liberating people. The Sangha learn about the Dharma, and then practice, realize and share the Dharma.(Physicist learn, do physics, that is realize more of the world than we previously did and then teach people about it by publishing papers, sometime even more, by writing popular books, teaching in universities, etc...)

The same thing happens when all the Dharma disappear in the world, it can be rediscovered by a Buddha and re-spread the message out to the world. One will have to do all the Morality-Mind-Wisdom training in order to fully realize the truth. (The experiments of physics and the theories behind it.)

So the Dharma is very much a mental phenomena. Not to test on the intellectual skills, but to cool it down, to calm the mind, so that it can be sharpen and then penetrate to the truth of life and suffering. (In contrast, physics needs the intellectual mind to create and think of concepts that might model the world.)

So maybe the fusion of both ways to use the mind can help in Physics? Because it is known for a long time now that the active intellectual mind making philosophy and fabrications (like this blog) is a hindrance to the real practice in Buddhism.

Also, for the formula: To learn (same to learn), To practice by upholding morality (getting the basic physics concepts right), and meditation (Doing the maths correctly), To realize wisdom or insight, of getting to know things by ourselves (Doing the experiments and getting new theories never before seen in the world), To share (Publish papers!).

Friday, November 2, 2012

5 Powers

Being a full time theoretical physicist is very similar to being a monk practicing Buddhism.

  1. Both are in the mind. It doesn't matter how much stuffs you read, the words, equations are just that, they translate to what you understand in the physics case, and what you realise in the Buddhism case.
  2. You have teachers to teach you. Full time. Physicist works under a prof, until they trained up for a few year and go build their own team. Same thing with Buddhist monks, well, just that Buddhist monks don't call it teams. And both get paid/ offered donations all day for this mental activity. One in terms of money, the other food and other supports.
  3. Both requires the usage of the 5 powers: Mindfulness (the present awareness of what we are doing), Concentration (the discipline to sit down and calculate/meditate), Energy (the effort to remain on an object/ mathematical equation), Faith (trust in the teacher to follow and guide you), and Wisdom (knowledge of basic Physics/Dharma, and realizing it via direct experience/ mathematical equations.)
  4. And the outcomes: Both emphasize on teachings, on value transmission, on transmission of understanding, of realizations. Both are best started while young too.
  5. The goals: Enlightenment, complete and full liberation for Buddhism, and for Physics? I'm still searching, is it for the love of it, for the sheer joy that I do it? Or for the benefit of future engineers which may not even be within my lifetime, or is it for accurate Science-Fiction writing, or just to teach? I suspect it should be because that Physics itself, the equations, and the understanding that comes with it is so beautiful that one cannot resist but to want to devote one's whole life in answering the deepest physical questions of the universe.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Buddhism and Science related stuffs on my other blog

This is some posters that I've made, notice that poster no. 4 has been made into a post here. The rest are still pending.

This is one of the few of those feelings posts I'll be making more of:

This is strictly not physics, but it does concord with how should we do mind science:

This is another one on time, I should rewrite this, it's becoming unreadable.