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The New Physics and Cosmology

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, May 2005

THE NEW PHYSICS AND COSMOLOGY: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, edited by Arthur Zajonc, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, ISBN 0 19 515994 2, pp. 246, 18.50.

This book is the fascinating record of an extended discussion between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a group of six leading scientists and philosophers. The discussion took place at the Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala over a period of five days in 1997, and was the sixth in a series of such dialogues organised by the Mind and Life Institute. Aimed at bridging the gap between Buddhism and Western science, the first of these dialogues took place in 1987 and the most recent, the twelfth, in 2004.

Most of the Mind and Life events have been concerned with the cognitive and behavioural sciences, which intersect directly with Buddhism's central focus on the world of the mind. The dialogue recorded in this book is somewhat different, dealing as it does with the hardcore physical sciences of quantum theory and astrophysics. With these subjects, the interest for Buddhism is not so much their subject matter which is the purely physical world but the way in which they delve into the fundamental nature of reality and existence. The Dalai Lama is the ideal sounding board for such ideas, combining a deep understanding of traditional Buddhist philosophy with a sharp intellect and the ability to ask the right question at the right time.

In the course of the discussion, His Holiness learns about wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement and the expanding universe. In turn, he tells the scientists all about karma, emptiness and dependent origination. Significant areas of common ground emerge, such as the notion that the closer you look at reality, the more fleeting and insubstantial it appears. In the middle of the book there is an extended comparison of the logical foundations of Buddhism and Western science, and these are found to be almost identical. Yet there are seemingly irreconcilable differences, too. The biggest of these, which is returned to time and again, is the notion of spontaneous, causeless events. Such events are rejected by Buddhism but an essential part of modern physics. After lengthy arguments by both sides, the most likely conclusion is that the difference is one of semantics (the word "cause" being used with two different meanings) rather than any fundamental incompatibility.

As a comparison of two widely different cultural traditions, this book is almost perfect in its format. The participants are all knowledgeable and uncompromising experts in their own fields, but their arguments never get too technical because they are being expounded in conversation with people who are non-experts. As a result, the treatment of both science and Buddhism goes deeper than popular accounts like Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics, while remaining just as accessible for the layman. The book's readability is enhanced by skilful editing, which transforms what could have been an indigestible transcript into a vivid reconstruction of a good-humoured and thought-provoking discussion.

Copyright © 2005 Andrew May

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