1997 – VI

The New Physics & Cosmology

Dharamsala, India
October 27-31, 1997

The New Physics and Cosmology An edited selection of dialogues from this conference has been published as The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama.

This meeting explores contemporary understandings of the natural world that have arisen through groundbreaking advances in physics and astrophysics made during the twentieth century.

These advances have exerted a profound influence on our conception of the world, changing it fundamentally from the views which reigned until the end of the nineteenth century. For example, through the careful study of atomic processes, quantum physics has raised deep epistemological and ontological questions, which are addressed with great sophistication and profundity in the Madhyamaka view expounded in Tibetan Buddhism. Likewise, general relativity, when taken together with recent discoveries concerning the distribution and movement of stars, has fundamentally transformed our understandings of space, time and the evolution of the universe.

Here too, Tibetan Buddhism presents provocative theories and practices pertaining to our understanding of space, time, and consciousness, which are arousing the interest of increasing numbers of Western scientists and philosophers. While the main purpose of the meeting will be to explore the implications of the new physics and cosmology, we will also examine the methods of Western scientific inquiry and Buddhist contemplative inquiry, in order to understand the limitations as well as the power of each of these possibly complementary modes of research.

Scientific Coordinator

Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Amherst College


Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
David Ritz Finkelstein, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
George Greenstein, Ph.D., Sidney Dillon Professor of Astronomy, Amherst College
Piet Hut, Ph.D., Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
Tu Weiming, Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy, Harvard University
Anton Zeilinger, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, University of Innsbruck


Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., Cambridge University
B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Visiting Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara


October 27, 1997

Scientific Coordinator Arthur Zajonc will briefly describe the ways in which physics and cosmology have been approached in Western natural science. Professor Tu Weiming will assist Professor Zajonc in formulating the questions and issues to be explored together each afternoon. Through his intimate knowledge of Asian and Western cultures and their respective philosophies, Professor Tu will assist the participants in a careful engagement with the subject matter at hand from Asian as well as Western perspectives.

Presentation: An Introduction to the Experimental Foundations of Quantum Mechanics
Anton Zeilinger, Ph.D.

Physics since the seventeenth century has been founded on observation and experimentation. Quantum mechanics is no exception. We will therefore begin by demonstrating a few of the most essential features of the quantum nature of light. These will include a demonstration of the famous two-slit experiment which shows the wave nature of light, and contrast that with the particle-like behavior of photons upon detection. Working from wave-particle duality, we will explore the more general principle of complementarity advanced by Niels Bohr. The detection of quanta is inherently probabilistic. The statistical uncertainty common to classical science is due to a lack of knowledge. By contrast, quantum events are objectively random. What is the source and significance of their difference? The irreducible influence of the observer on the observed is yet another essential feature of quantum mechanics and is embodied in the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg. Finally, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of quantum mechanics is “entanglement” which can occur in multi-particle systems. Entangled states are those in which the notion of individual properties of objects loses meaning.

Discussion theme:
An exploration of the morning’s themes, from both the Tibetan Buddhist and Western scientific/philosophical perspectives. What is Buddhism’s understanding of the ultimate constituents of substance? What is the relationship between observer and observed in both traditions? How can one understand the relationship between two objects after they have interacted (i.e., entanglement)? In what sense are the properties of an object inherent, or, alternatively, do they arise through the act of observation?

October 28, 1997

Presentation: Space, Time, and Quantum Paradoxes
David Finkelstein, Ph.D.

Modern physics made two extensions of relativity in the early twentieth century. The first was Einstein’s relativity of space and time. The second, which went deeper, was Heisenberg’s “non-objective” quantum theory, with its relativity of ontology. Einstein’s spacetime physics deals with signals. It limits how fast information can get from one system to another. It leads to a fundamental paradox: Twins can have different ages depending on their travels. Heisenberg’s quantum physics deals with actions of an experimenter on an otherwise isolated system. It limits how complete the information of the one system about the other can be. It too leads to a pair paradox: Opening a second path can stop a flow. This is easily demonstrated with a laser and two slits, or with three polarizers.

The quantum paradox leads to a revised logic of actions. The laws explicitly mentioned by Aristotle still work: A or not A; not both A and not A. But we used to think that “A, and either B or not B” is equivalent to “A and B, or A and not B.” This does not hold for quantum predicates. All the quantum paradoxes are examples of this anomaly.

The spacetime and quantum paradoxes both say that the result of two actions depends unexpectedly and counterintuitively on the order in which we carry them out. For both spacetime physics and quantum physics the actions in question can be exactly represented by changes in a picture due to changes in the perspective of the viewer.

Descriptions of the new quantum physics in the ontological terms of the old classical physics are common and make quantum theory sound much stranger than it actually is.

Discussion theme:
Some physicists are working to extrapolate quantum theory to the elements of spacetime. Is it possible that a quantum unit of spacetime, in contrast to a truly discrete unit, would not violate the observed laws of energy and momentum conservation? Is it possible that the concept of an irreducible space-time event is also relative, namely to our modes of interaction? Such considerations would suggest the process of relativization may not be over.

October 29, 1997

Presentation: The Relation Between Scientific Knowledge and Human Experience
Arthur Zajonc, Ph.D.

Major conceptual changes in our view of the world have been prompted by developments in twentieth-century physics. Yet this physics continues to rest on a traditional and often unconscious understanding of what does and does not constitute science. The discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity theory challenge one part of the conceptual framework of classical physics, but it leaves another aspect in tact and unexamined, namely the relationship of science to subjective and ethical dimensions of life. Historically science has considered itself immune to or beyond such considerations, but we can ask whether this is justified. In an effort to objectify phenomena, qualitative experience is systematically replaced by formal and abstract elements of theory. These theoretical representations are then treated as the hidden realities behind phenomena. We will explore the manner in which this takes place in two instances, one drawn from classical physics the other from quantum physics.

This systematic replacement of nature has led to an intellectual and technical mastery over nature, but we can inquire concerning possible down-sides and alternatives. Might it be possible to reframe science to include subjective experience, and what would be the merits of doing so? We will examine particular attempts to integrate subjective or qualitative experience into scientific research methodology.

Finally we will treat the ethical implications of these competing approaches in the context of this century’s dramatic technical developments as exemplified by atomic energy.

Discussion theme:
What is the relationship between experience/experiment and scientific theory? Likewise, what is the relationship between experience and knowledge in Buddhist thinking?

Both modern science and Buddhist philosophy possess highly developed, formal descriptions that are articulated in a technical language. What are the benefits and dangers of this approach? What is the relation between formal theory and insight or discovery? Buddhism speaks about the twin goals of wisdom and compassion. In research are these complementary endeavors, or can they be integrated into a unified approach?

October 30, 1997

Presentation: An Introduction to Modern Cosmology
George Greenstein, Ph.D.

Advances in observational astronomy have allowed astronomers to see to the very edge of the universe, and to study celestial objects in unprecedented detail. On the basis of their observations and modern astrophysical theory, traditional questions can be framed anew.

Is the cosmos infinitely old or did it have a beginning? Is it infinitely large or does it have an edge? Remarkably, these and many other ancient questions have been given new life by modern astrophysical discoveries. A variety of studies all provide evidence that some extraordinary event occurred 10-15 billion years ago: however, it is not known whether this constituted the true origin of the universe. Similarly, Einstein’s idea of curved space resolves the paradox posed by the notion of an edge of the universe, but current evidence supports the model of an infinite cosmos, and the problem of how to comprehend something infinitely large has been thrown into question by recent studies of the distribution of galaxies in space.

Dr. Greenstein will also discuss the role life plays in the universe, and the highly speculative idea that has been put forward that the universe is “fine tuned” for life.

Discussion theme:
What, if any, are the implications of a “closed” versus an “open” universe? What are the fundamental assumptions of modern cosmology? How do they affect our understandings of the cosmos? A serious scientific search is underway for intelligent extraterrestrial life (SETI). Does Buddhism have a view on this possibility? Western physical science regards life as a phenomenon derived from the workings of inanimate objects. Is this a valid view? Can Buddhist thought help us formulate ways to think about something that might be infinite?

October 31, 1997

Presentation: Natural Science and Philosophy: In Search of a World View
Piet Hut, Ph.D.

The enormous success of the physical sciences stems from a sensitive interplay between theory and experiment. Viewed from afar, science may seem to have grown in a steady process. A closer look, however, reveals the fact that the underlying ideas and concepts have changed as much as the resulting predictions and applications. Science retains its vitality exactly because there is a willingness to start from scratch, whenever necessary, in order to uncover a more basic layer of understanding. This implies that the conceptual structures erected in science are built in a rather unusual way: everything keeps afloat, even when the ‘foundations’ are taken out and replaced altogether. From a phenomenological point of view, the real basis for science lies elsewhere, in what is given in experience, before the various filters of science are applied. These filters determine what may pass through, from the full human experience to the description of scientific experimentation and observation. Through a detailed investigation of these filters, we can gain a clearer understanding of the logic inherent in the various physical sciences. We are then in a better position to compare the scientific world view(s) with other ways of viewing the world.

Discussion theme:
What is the status of a scientific world view? How does it compare with the various religious world views? Would it be possible to find a common ground within religious world views, resembling something like the universality inherent in science? How does the role of experiment in science compare with the role of experience in religions? Science, after starting with an ideal of objectivity, is extending itself to contemplate the role of the subjective, across the board, from physics, to biology, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Can science find inspiration from other world views, to carry out this transition?