Thursday, 28 January 2010

When Science and Philosophy Collide

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

The Higgs-Boson, a theoretical particle which some scientist have speculated give mass to all matter, has become the big new thing within the elite circles of the physicist community. The Large Hadron Collider(LHC), encompassing a 27 Kilometer tunnel straddling under the Swiss and French borders, will be coming on line piecemeal over the next 6-8 months, and finding this Higgs-Boson will become one of the primary objectives of the tests conducted by the Physicists. The Higgs-Boson has been nicknamed the God particle because the theory states it is a particle which never experiences change, and which always has solid mass.

It's no secret that I love science and I love how certain aspects of it fit in well to my Buddhist practice.I was watching a PBS documentary about both the LHC and the Higgs-Boson the other night, in which many of the scientists were expounding excitement over the anticipation of finding this particle, and spoke about the ramifications of it if discovered. One Physicist, grinning ear to ear, pointed to a chair in the room where he was being interviewed, and told the interviewer, “It is important because it will explain what give mass to all things, it is the reason this chair can exist. Without it, this chair could not exist.” As much as I love and respect these kinds of scientific endeavors, the Zen Buddhist in me immediately sprung into verbal hostility at the TV. “Exist?” I huffed out loud, as my girlfriend looked at me like I was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, “Haven’t they learned by now that all things change?” I inquired to her in a somewhat dramatic tone. To which she responded, “Did you take out the trash out yet sweetie?” That shut me up.

From the discovery of the atom to the electrons, protons and neutrons to that of quirks, each step was hailed at the time as being the smallest particle of mass in which all matter is created. And each time, new information and technology soon came to light to show that all these pieces were made up of yet even smaller more baffling pieces. Sometimes, in science, the most significant understandings of the true nature of reality come when a theory is dis-proven and the only thing that is found is just more questions. I love science and its dedication to finding truth and fact, with reason and logic and the ability to accept failure in light of new information. Sure, that chair the scientist pointed to exists, but it exists only in that smallest wisp of a moment before it changes, and more importantly exists only as part of the whole. This isn’t some off the wall, far flung theory; this is the immutable truth of transiency.

I think what worries some scientists is that at some point, all the experiments and equations and logic in the world will not be able to answer some of the most basic yet elusive questions concerning the nature of reality, and hence, must enter into a partnership with more philosophical understandings. Putting our finger on the ultimate nature of existence with ideas, equations and theories is like chasing our own shadow. We can see it, know it for what it is, but can never seem to catch it no matter how far and how long we chase it. Indeed, the only thing that really separates that chair and the scientist is, in fact, his mind.

I feel this isn't much different than the fear of some who hold fast to a static view of the world, those who see the world in black and white, who place blind faith over experience. It's amazing when you think about it, 2,500 years have passed, and people are still arguing over those same stubborn views of materialism vs nihilism. And no amount of calculations nor blind beliefs will ever be able to live up to or deny the answer of the middle way.

Perhaps, I should take out the trash now.


  1. Well I really hope science and philosophy will unite to try and make sense of the world.

    Yesterday I watched that series about the chaos that I found interesting in that respect (I actually found it on this blog

    In particular I liked the fact that they mentioned several times that order and chaos could emerge from the same root. I found that inspiring. Everything and its opposite created by a same origin...

    Very unifying, no?

    Also, I really like your typo: quirks instead of quarks? it gave me a good smile.

  2. HAHA I didn't notice the type, but I'm keeping it in. :-)

  3. Thanks Kyle. That was a great koan.

    Student: "Nothing exists! Everything changes!"
    Master: "Did you take out the trash out yet sweetie?"

    Deep bows

  4. As avid as I am about science, I loved this line:

    "Putting our finger on the ultimate nature of existence with ideas, equations and theories is like chasing our own shadow."

    And this,

    "the only thing that really separates that chair and the scientist is, in fact, his mind." Lol, true from both a Buddhist perspective, and a sub-atomic perspective!

  5. "Take out the trash" I think sums up Buddhist practice pretty well. Very nice that you have such a wise girlfriend :)

  6. Yes, I have said many times my girlfriend is much wiser than I. I should learn to take the trash out more often.