Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A little philosophical rambling

As for the title of this post ... I know that's what you come here for, is to hear some philosophical musings, no matter how far-out and fanciful they may be, right?

On my Mind & Life podcast, the topic of this one being physics (circa 2007), the participants were diving into a discussion of the tension between two ideas: the concept of causality (which is central to Buddhism, and I would suggest, all religious practice), versus the randomness that has been demonstrated to occur at the quantum level.

Buddhists believe that nothing can occur apart from so-called causes and conditions. This is a reference to the famous term, "karma." If you think about this belief, it's reminiscent of Old Testament references to natural disasters or diseases or other suffering being the result of human sinfulness. I don't know what causes Buddhists ascribe to things like natural disasters and disease, but they firmly believe that everything that happens is linked in a cause-and-effect cycle. Perhaps this is also described by "Samsara," the world that we are captured in, with its endless cycles of suffering. Thus, this philosophy declares that everything is relational. Nothing can occur by itself, without influencing or being influenced by something else. What does this imply for human "free will" as opposed to predestination?

However, quantum physics demonstrates that there are times when the action of a quantum particle is perfectly random. It cannot be predicted, because there is no pattern that emerges. This seems to fit in more closely with certain aspects of the human experience. For example, there are many possible life paths for each of us. Do you feel that your future could be predicted, the result only of causes and conditions? Or is there an element of seeming randomness to it? It certainly seems that misfortunes are often not due to causes and conditions, at least not any that could be controlled by people. What did people do to deserve the tsunami that struck Asia, or any other great natural disaster? I am no doubt grossly oversimplifying the concept here -- the Buddhist idea is that there are causes and results for each of these phenomena, and they could almost be predicted, that nothing that occurs is a random or unrelated event.

If randomness exists, it challenges the traditional notion of God. Where is God if things are happening that cannot be predicted, that were never created to happen in a certain way? This is what Einstein protested against when he said, "God does not play dice." But maybe God does? It also implies that there is no objective, constant reality ... no absolute truth ... no universal code of ethics ... nothing that can be known with total certainty, ever. Chaos! Confusion!

What is intriguing is the duality of these ideas, causality and randomness -- they both ring true, though they are contradictory. It makes life much more interesting to have both concepts in operation, rather than one or the other. And apparently, quantum physicists embrace duality as ardently as any philosopher. I'm not sure I am using the term duality correctly, because it could refer to a black/white view (either/or) of the world, which is the opposite of what I am describing -- rather, both/and, or many/and.

On a personal note, I am the embodiment of a dual-natured person, or someone with a multifaceted personality, perhaps? I think everyone is this way. We are all jewels, with many sides! Here in my blog posts, my alter ego speaks out, and I often am amazed at what comes out. It seems to have so little to do with my actual life! It's like remembering dreams, and wondering where they came from, and who thought of them. They can be quite alien to the nice, neat identity we like to give ourselves.

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