Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”


Science on Celluloid

I loved science classes in school. Actually, I loved them up until high school when teachers took all the wonder out of science. In elementary school and even in junior high school, science was full of wonder.

Some of my strongest memories of science in school comes from actual images on films. Celluloid projected by 16mm projectors in a darkened classroom.

In writing about the Sun yesterday, I was reminded of a film I saw in those early years that I still recall fondly and surprisingly clearly. It was one of the Bell System Science Series which were nine television specials made for the AT&T Corporation. They were some of the earliest things broadcast in color between 1956 and 1964. We didn’t have a color TV then, but I remember them from watching them in school where they were shown as films on that pull-down white movie screen that every classroom had in the front of the room along with a few big maps.

The film I recalled first is Our Mr. Sun which uses the premise of a scientist explaining to a writer about the Sun’s importance to humankind.

It was many years later when I was studying film and video as a college student that I realized that the film was produced and directed by Frank Capra. By then, I had seen and loved a bunch of Capra films – It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and others.

The film was a combination of animation and live-action in glorious Technicolor. Originally it was shown on TV in 1956 and 1957. I may have watched it. My father was working at Bell Labs in those years so he might have promoted it to us. But hundreds of 16mm prints were distributed to schools by the Bell Telephone System film libraries and they were shown (and reshown) for years after. Now, this and others in the series are in the Public Domain and available on YouTube and other sites.

In Our Mr. Sun, Eddie Albert stars as a writer who is learning about the Sun. Lionel Barrymore – evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life – is the voice of Father Time. But the star of this and 8 of the 9 films in the series is Dr. Frank Baxter as Dr. Research, the scientist who knows everything. As a kid, he was my image of a scientist or professor.

It was also years later that I learned that Dr. Baxter was not a scientist but an authority on Shakespeare with his doctorate in literature from Cambridge University, who taught Literature at USC.

It also didn’t register with me when I saw the Capra documentaries originally that Capra included some soft religious themes in his four films in the series. This first film actually opens with a title card with a quote from the Bible.

Another film in the series that intrigued me was About Time (1962). This was not a Capra production but came out of Warner studios.  Dr. Research was working with Richard Deacon (who I knew from, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and featured the famous scientist Richard Feynman who was also a consultant to the production. I think I might point to this film as the start of a lifelong fascination with the concept of time.

The third film I recall seeing is Hemo the Magnificent (1957)
about blood and the circulatory system. This was also written and directed by Frank Capra. All of Capra’s contributions to the series follow a similar structure.  This film has Dr. Research but Richard Carlson is the writer learning about circulation. Mel Blanc pops in as the voice of a squirrel and Marvin Miller is Hemo (as in hemoglobin).

I don’t recall seeing “The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays” (1957) which takes on the pretty heavy topic of what cosmic rays are and how they work. This one was co-written by Capra with Jonathan Latimer who was a crime fiction novelist and screenwriter. Their premise that cosmic rays are a mystery, like a detective story, got them to use the clunky idea of marionettes representing Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe (Huh?) who have to decide on the solution to the mystery. Bizarre.

The Unchained Goddess (1958) was the fourth and last film in the series that was produced by Frank Capra but directed by Richard Carlson, who also appears in the film. It is about the weather and climate but it has an early warning about climate change. The film was televised on February 12, 1958 and there was a smaller audience share and less than glowing reviews.

We leave the Capra years with Gateways to the Mind (1958) about what the five senses are and how they work. Dr. Baxter is still the “host.”

In The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959) has Dr. Baxter playing “Dr. Linguistics” which examines language and its history.  As an English teacher, I liked this film about a topic that doesn’t much interest most people. But they use characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Hans Conried is the Mad Hatter!

Thread of Life (1960) is about heredity, and how DNA works.

“The Restless Sea” is only a half-hour film and the last of the Bell Telephone Science Series. This one about the oceans was produced by Walt Disney Productions and hosted by Walt Disney, with the actor Sterling Holloway replacing Baxter as the scientist.

And so ended the series.

There Is No Objective Reality

quantum leve
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I came across an article online while I was reading in bed last night. It’s not the kind of thing you want to be thinking about as you fall asleep. The headline was that “a quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality.”

The physics of this is far beyond me but it doesn’t mean there is no reality. Despite all the silly questions I was asked to consider i undergraduate philosophy classes, reality is right in front of your face. Just look up from this screen. See it?

Physicists have been considering the idea of objective reality since quantum mechanics became a big deal. They are not as concerned with what you see before you as they are with things at a quantum level. They have supposed that two observers can experience different, conflicting realities at the same time.

Of course, you observe a different reality from other observers all the time. Just watch the news or look at your Facebook feed. But scientists have just performed the first experiment that proves it. Or proves something.

A keyword in that headline is “suggests.” They say that the experiment produces an “unambiguous result.” There are a number of assumptions at play here: universal facts actually exist and that observers can agree on them; observers have the freedom to make whatever observations they want; choices one observer makes do not influence the choices other observers make. Those three assumptions are valid IF there is an objective reality that everyone can agree on,

This new experiment suggests that objective reality does not exist which would mean that at least one of those assumptions is not valid. Which one(s) might it be?

I don’t know that I believe that there is a reality we can all agree on, and I don’t have a lot of faith in our freedom of choice. The third assumption (which physicists call locality) is something I also question. Therefore, I don’t seem to believe in objective reality.  That can keep you up at night.

Occam’s and Other Razors

William of Ockham.png
William of Ockham CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I was explaining recently to someone a reference in the program The Undoing to Occam’s razor. It’s a pretty well-known problem-solving principle, sometimes called the principle or law of parsimony. It states that simpler explanations are more likely to be correct and that you should avoid unnecessary or improbable assumptions.

But why a “razor”?  The principle is attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham. But the principle had nothing to do with his shaving habits.

In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate (“shave off”) unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions.

There are several other razors or razor-like principles that you hear referenced or applied less often.

Paul Grice, a philosopher of language, also has a razor principle of parsimony. Parsimony refers to the quality of economy or frugality in the use of resources. For linguistic explanations, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context. This gets more complicated than Occam’s Razor. Grice worked in pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics and semiotics that studies how context contributes to meaning.

I am a fan of the simpler Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Hitchens’s razor seems appropriate to much in the news the past decade: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Hume’s Guillotine is a larger and more complex razor: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. “If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.” Hume’s law or Hume’s guillotine is the thesis that, if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements.  This is also less-interestingly called the is-ought problem.

The Sagan Standard is a neologism abbreviating the aphorism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It is named after Carl Sagan who used that exact phrase on his television program Cosmos, though he was not the first to state it. It illustrates a core principle of the scientific method and of skepticism.

Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle: comes from the philosophy of science. For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable. For example, the statement “All swans are white” is falsifiable because “Here is a black swan” contradicts it. That seems clear. But what about “All men are mortal”? It is not falsifiable because, unlike a swan being black, a man being immortal is not an inter-subjective property—there is no shared procedure to systematically conclude to immortality. You can think about that one for a bit.

The exciting Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (I’m not making up these names.), states that “If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.” It is also known by the less exciting name of Alder’s Razor.


That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

Element 115

Simple Periodic Table Chart-blocks.svg
Periodic chart by User:Double sharp CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

My high school chemistry teacher made us memorize the periodic chart and would periodically give students an oral quiz. “Kenneth, tell us family 1A.” Then, I was supposed to recite 1A, the alkali metals – hydrogen, lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. I thought this was such a stupid exercise. We had a large chart of the periodic table on the wall but he had turned it to the wall. I had read that a reporter once pop-quizzed Albert Einstein at a press conference asking something like “What is the atomic number of rubidium?” Einstein supposedly replied, “Why would I memorize something I could easily look up?” I wanted to tell my teacher that anecdote. I never did. I memorized – and have since forgotten all of it.

The periodic chart changes. I read that elements with the atomic numbers of 113, 115, 117, and 118 were added to the periodic table by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). The one that interested me is Element 115. It has an interesting history.

Back in  1989, Bob Lazar was known as an Area 51 whistleblower. He claimed that he examined an alien craft that ran on an antimatter reactor powered by element 115, which at the time had not yet been synthesized. He said that the UFOs possessed by the government in Area 51 were powered by Element 115. His claims were not taken seriously by the scientific community.

In 2003, his claim gained more attention when a group of Russian and American scientists managed to create the elusive element. In 2016, it was confirmed after numerous tests which verified its existence. It was named Moscovium and is an extremely radioactive element. Its most stable known isotope, moscovium-290, has a half-life of only 0.65 seconds. That means the element decays in less than a second and so it cannot be utilized for anything.

The scientific version doesn’t match Lazar’s version. In 1979, IUPAC recommended that the placeholder systematic element name ununpentium (Uup) be used until the discovery of the element is confirmed and a permanent name is decided. The name was used in the chemical community on all levels, from chemistry classrooms to advanced textbooks, but the recommendations were mostly ignored among scientists in the field. They called it “element 115” (symbol E115 or just 115).

Lazar dismissed the early findings surrounding Element 115, stating that he was confident that eventually an isotope from the element would be found that matched his initial description. He was subjected to a polygraph and maintained that UFOs that the government possessed were built and piloted by extraterrestrial beings. His claim was that they were made out of one single piece (no welding points) and were made from a material unknown on Earth and powered by Element 115.

Since I do want to believe that we are not alone in this universe, I’d like to find out that spacecraft exist at Area 51 or at some facility and that they are made of some unknown material and powered by some incredible technology. So far, no proof.

Area 51 sign
A warning sign at the Area 51 border stating that “photography is prohibited” and that “use of deadly force is authorized.” image via Wikimedia