Quantum Emptiness -The Quantum Illusion-like Nature of Reality by Graham Smetham


In his book the Dalai Lama has sketched the beginnings of an exploration of the interconnections and parallels between modern Western science and Buddhist metaphysical philosophy.  The Dalai Lama, true to his nature, is extremely humble about Buddhism’s achievement in this area:  “Our explanations and theories are rudimentary when compared with those of modern science … and will have to be modified in the light of new scientific insights.”  However, in this brief article, based upon the ten year research project which led to my recent book Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness–Reality Revealed at the Interface of Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy, I shall endeavour to show that Buddhist philosophy, based upon direct insight and the rigorous dialectical analysis exemplified by the Madhyamaka (Middle Way conceptual analysis), achieved an extraordinary understanding of the ultimate nature of the phenomenal world, an understanding which only became apparent within the West with the advent of quantum theory at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In his interview Nottale focuses primarily upon the central Buddhist notion of ‘emptiness’ (shunyata) as indicating the relativity of all phenomena:

None has its proper existence, but only an existence in relation to another object acting as a reference point.  They are couple properties which cannot be attributed to either of the members of the couple taken separately.

In other words the actual ‘physical’ properties of any apparently independent ‘material’ object are not purely determined by the nature of the object itself but also depend upon its relationship and interconnection with other objects.  However, there is another, perhaps more fundamental, aspect to the Buddhist insight into the emptiness of phenomena which is that all phenomena are inextricably and intimately connected to, and even created by, the minds of observers.

This insight provides the fundamental perspective for the Yogachara-Vijnanavada (Consciousness-Only) and Chittamatra (Mind-Only) Buddhist metaphysical perspectives:

..all these various appearances,

Do not exist as sensory objects which are other than consciousness.

Their arising is like the experience of self knowledge.

All appearances, from indivisible particles to vast forms, are mind.[i]

Common sense, of course, would indicate that such a notion, that what appears to be an independent ‘material’ reality is actually of the nature of mind or consciousness, must be misguided, and in the ‘classical’, or pre-quantum, era of Western science such a notion would have appeared outlandish.  However, with the advent of the quantum revolution the notion that the ultimate nature of the physical world is mind-substance, or Mindnature, has become increasingly inescapable.

This was the conclusion of many of the ‘founding fathers’ of quantum mechanics. Erwin Schrödinger, the discoverer of the fundamental quantum equation, for instance, came to the conclusion that:

Mind has erected the objective outside world … out of its own stuff.[ii]

And Max Planck, the physicist who inadvertently initiated the quantum revolution, came to a similar conclusion:

All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.[iii]

More recently, in an article in the New Scientist (23rd June 2007) Michael Brooks, commenting on quantum entanglement experiments carried out by teams led by Markus Aspelmeyer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna, tells us that the conclusion reached by the physicists involved is that:

… we now have to face the possibility that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure. In other words measuring those properties is what brings them into existence. [iv]

This conclusion agrees with the fundamental insight of the Madhyamaka, or the Buddhist Middle Way analysis, that all phenomena lack ‘inherent existence’ or, to use Buddhist technical terminology, all phenomenon lack svabhava (‘own-nature’ or ‘inherent existence’).  Thus Vedral, in his recent book Decoding Reality, has concluded that:

Quantum physics is indeed very much in agreement with Buddhistic emptiness.[v]

Emptiness, or shunyata, is, in one aspect, the Buddhist concept of a fundamental non-substantial ‘empty’ ground of potentiality which gives rise to the multitudinous productions within dualistic experience through the operation of an internal primordial activity of cognition. Within Dzogchen (the ‘Great Completeness’ teachings) for instance the ultimate nature of reality is characterised as being a fundamental ground comprised of ‘emptiness and cognition inseparable’, or ‘empty cognizance’.[vi] And this is the kind of vision of the process of reality which Vedral considers is necessitated by the evidence of quantum theory:

The Universe starts empty but potentially with a huge amount of information. The first key event is the first act of symmetry breaking…[vii]

The results of quantum experiments indicates quite clearly that quantum reality consists of a field of non-substantial (using the term ‘substantial’ here to indicate materiality) potentiality which is triggered into experiential manifestation through the operation of the cognitive activity of consciousness.  This perspective is indicated in the most recent quantum proposal that quantum reality is ‘epiontic’, as quantum physicist Wojciech H. Zurek has indicated:

…quantum states, by their very nature share an epistemological and ontological role – are simultaneously a description of the state, and the ‘dream stuff is made of.’  One might say that they are epiontic.  These two aspects may seem contradictory, but at least in the quantum setting, there is a union of these two functions.[viii]

This cogent insight makes clear that, at the quantum level, being and knowing, perception and reality, epistemology and ontology, are inextricably entangled.  The ‘epiontic’ nature of the fundamental quantum ground, therefore, indicates that in some manner perception creates the ontological fabric of reality. The ‘first act of symmetry breaking’, then, is an act of primordial consciousness. As the physicist Henry Stapp, who has discussed such issues with some of the early quantum physicist, has indicated:

…this evolving quantum state would represent the ‘potentialities’ and ‘probabilities for actual events.  … the ‘primal stuff’ represented by the evolving quantum state would be idealike rather than matterlike, apart from its conformity to mathematical rules.[ix]

The greatly admired physicist John Wheeler wrote that:

The universe does not ‘exist, out there,’ independent of all acts of observation.  Instead, it is in some strange sense a participatory universe.[x]

Wheeler suggests that quantum theory requires a participatory universe, which means that somehow phenomena which appear to be external and independent of the minds of sentient beings cannot be so.  The Astronomer Royal Professor Martin Rees agrees with him:

In the beginning there were only probabilities.  The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it.  … The universe exists because we are aware of it.[xi]

As does cosmologist Professor Andrei Linde:

Thus we see that without introducing an observer, we have a dead universe, which does not evolve in time.  This example demonstrates an unusually important role played by the concept of an observer in quantum cosmology.  John Wheeler underscored the complexity of the situation, replacing the word observer by the word participant, and introducing such terms as a ‘self-observing universe.[xii]

As does Steven Hawking in his most recent book (written together with Leonard Mlodinow) The Grand Design; in fact according to Hawking (following Wheeler) observations have a creative impact even backwards in time:

…the universe doesn’t have just a single history, but every possible history, each with its own probability; and our observations of its current state affect its past and determine the different histories of the universe…[xiii]

Quantum theory, then, suggests that the universe might actually be vast cosmic dream created by all of its inhabitants. This might, at first sight, seem far-fetched, but it is not, which is why Zurek refers to quantum ‘stuff’ as ‘the dream stuff is made of.’[xiv]

Quantum physics clearly shows that we are involved, or are participators, in the existence of the universe. Indeed Wheeler also wrote that:

…no phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.[xv]

And he did not mean by this that some already existing entity is not experienced as a phenomenon until observed, he meant that the observation has a creative role in the existence of the apparent entity revealed by the phenomenon.  Speaking in April 2003 to the American Physical Society, he made the following remarkable; perhaps one might say ‘mystical’, sequence of remarks:

The Question is what is the Question?

Is it all a Magic Show?

Is Reality an Illusion?

What is the framework of the Machine?

Darwin’s Puzzle: Natural Selection?

Where does Space-Time come from?

Is there any answer except that it comes from consciousness?

What is Out There?

T’is Ourselves?

Or, is IT all just a Magic Show?[xvi]

To Wheeler’s question as to the possibility that reality might be an illusory ‘Magic Show’ Buddhist philosophy answers in the affirmative:

Phenomena as they appear and resound

Are neither established or real in these ways,

Since they keep changing in all possible and various manners

Just like appearances in magical illusions.[xvii]

In fact Buddhist philosophers have known about the dream-like nature of the universe for at least two thousand years:

…when we see houses and fields in dreams, we think of them as being external objects that are not created by the mind, even though they are nothing other than projections of our mind. All that we see when we are awake is also nothing other than a creation of the mind.[xviii]

And the Buddhist metaphysical perspective of the Chittamatra, or Mind-Only, philosophy actually gives an indication of the kind of quantum-perceptual mechanism that might be operating at the quantum level in order to create the extraordinary universal dream of the material world and its inhabitants:

The entire world was created through latent karmic imprints.  When these imprints developed and increased, they formed the earth, the stones, and the seas.  Everything was created through the development or propagation of these latent karmic potentials.[xix]

According to the Buddhist worldview all actions performed by all unenlightened beings, including seemingly neutral perceptions, cause repercussions. Karma-vipaka, action and resultant effect, action and feedback, is the universal process of cause and effect which operates on all levels of reality, including the appearance of a material world. This means that there is a dimension of the operation of karma which is involved in the manifestation of what we perceive as an external ‘material’ reality:

…since beginningless time we have been perceiving sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily sensations and these perceptions have been creating imprints or latencies in the ground consciousness. Habituation of having experienced a certain visual form will create a latency for that very form.  Eventually, that latency will manifest from the ground consciousness as a visual form again, but it will be perceived as external to ourselves.[xx]

A view which corresponds remarkably well with Wheeler’s assertion that:

Directly opposite to the concept of universe as machine built on law is the vision of a world self-synthesized. On this view, the notes struck out on a piano by the observer participants of all times and all places, bits though they are in and by themselves, constitute the great wide  world of space and time and things.

In other words all the phenomena of the apparently ‘material’ world are produced by the perceptual activities of the sentient beings inhabiting the universe.  And this, furthermore, means that none of the phenomena of the seemingly ‘external’ world are actually independent of mind.

The physicist and philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat uses the example of a rainbow to describe the way that the ‘classical’ world of apparent materiality emerges out of the quantum realm:

…a rainbow, obviously, may not be considered an object-per-se.  For, indeed, if we move it moves.  Two differently located persons do not see it having its bases at the same places.  It is therefore manifest that it depends, in part, on us.  … But still, even though the rainbow depends on us, it does not depend exclusively on us.  For it to appear it is necessary that the sun should shine and that raindrops should be there. Now similar features also characterize quantum mechanically described objects, that is, after all … any object whatsoever.  For they also are not ‘objects-per-se.’ The attributes, or ‘dynamical properties,’ we see them to possess depend in fact on our ‘look’ at them…[xxi]

In other words all the entities and objects of the ‘classical’ world emerge from the potentiality of the quantum realm in a similar fashion to the way that rainbow appear.  They are brought into experienced reality through an interaction of a deep level of consciousness and a quantum realm of potentiality.

The rainbow analogy is also employed within Buddhist exegesis:

By virtue of its all-penetrating freedom this Awareness that has no centre or circumference, no inside or outside, is innocent of all partiality and knows no blocks or barriers. This all-penetrating intrinsic Awareness is a vast expanse of space. All experience of samsara and nirvana arises in it like rainbows in the sky. In all its diverse manifestation it is but a play of mind.[xxii]

In particular the rainbow analogy corresponds with the Mind-Only metaphysical analysis and can be used to illustrate the ‘three natures’ presentation of the way in which the ‘classical’ ‘conventional’ realm emerges from the ground of ‘emptiness’ through conceptual ‘imputation. The Mind-Only viewpoint explains the process of reality in terms of three ‘natures’:

  • imputational nature – an imaginary, and therefore mistaken, perception which imputes an independent existence to an ’object’ which is in fact illusory.  The imputational nature imputes an object as existing independently by its own force or character.
  • other-powered-nature, or dependent nature – what appears as independent  entities are actually devoid of self character, they seem to arise as self contained entities because of the intersection of other causes and conditions.  The other-powered, or dependent, nature resides in the complex field of interweaving causes and conditions which supply the potentialities for possible imputational experience.
  • thoroughly established, or perfect nature – the fact that the other-powered-nature is ‘empty’ of the imputational-nature is called the ‘thoroughly established nature’ or ‘perfect nature’.  This is quite a subtle definition to grasp – it is the relationship of the absence of the imputational nature from the other powered nature which is the ‘thoroughly established nature.

The imputational nature, or imaginary nature, consists of the imputed appearances of definite, inherent and independent entities that are conceived of as existing in an external realm separate from the perceiving consciousness. According to the Mind-Only perspective, the way that the entities of everyday life are imputed as existing independently and substantially from the mind is, from an ultimate point of view, mistaken.  The dependent nature is closer to the way reality actually is, it is a ground of potentiality which arises from the multitudinous perceptions and activities carried out by all sentient beings.  It is a vast karmic echo of potentiality for dualistic experience. The final nature, the thoroughly-established-nature highlights the fact that the imputational-nature is an ultimately illusory imputation, or superimposition, by imagination into the potentialities of the other-powered-nature, or dependent nature:

The non-existence of such an imaginary nature in a dependent nature is a thoroughly established nature.  … An object which is a different entity from a subject does not exist; a subject which is a different object from an object does not exist…[xxiii]

An example which is often used to illustrate the three natures is that of a mirage. The three natures may be likened respectively to (a) the mistaken belief that water exists in a mirage; (b) the appearance itself of the mirage, dependent on atmospheric causes and conditions and the presence of the observer, and (c) the empty nature of the mirage, inasmuch as it is completely dependent on causes and conditions, including the observer. The belief that water exists in the mirage is completely false and is similar to the imaginary, or illusory, nature.  The causes and conditions which give rise to the appearance of the mirage are similar to the dependent nature. The empty character of the mirage, inasmuch as it is dependent and conditioned and exists nowhere except in the mistaken mind of the observer, is similar to the thoroughly-established-nature. The belief in the mind of the observer that there is water in the distance corresponds to the imputational nature.

This analysis can be likened to the quantum situation. The realm of quantum potentiality which includes the observing consciousness or consciousnesses, provides the interdependent ground of potentiality which constitutes the other-powered nature and, because there is a tendency within the process of reality for the inner nature of this ground to misperceive itself, a realm of seemingly independent and inherently existent phenomenon manifests within an illusory field of duality.

It is important to comprehend the fact that the ‘three natures’ analysis describes a deep process of reality functioning at a level of mind corresponding to the quantum level. The Mind-Only analysis asserts that the play of the dualistic world of appearance emerges from a deep nondual realm because of an internal function of cognition which misperceives itself as being divided. The dualistic world is the illusory domain of the ultimately non-existent imputational or imaginary nature, which is the domain of experienced duality of apprehender-apprehended, subject-object. The relationship between the conventional arena of the experienced ‘material’ world, which seems to emerge through the apparent transition from the quantum state to the ‘classical’ state, which is called the ‘collapse of the quantum wavefunction’, can be likened to the ‘superimposition’ of the imputational nature onto the field of other-powered potentiality.

This ‘Quantum Mind-Only’ model of the functioning of reality can be compared with the ‘rainbow’ illustration of the quantum situation (fig 1) offered by d’Espagnat.  In this analogy the sun, raindrops and observer correspond to the other-powered realm of interdependent phenomena and the appearance of a seemingly external rainbow corresponds to the imputational nature.  The Mind-Only perspective uses the term ‘imputational’ to indicate not just a surface conceptual imputation but a directly experienced sensory imputation such as the rainbow example.  The rainbow does not exist at all as an independent phenomenon, it is therefore ‘imaginary,’  This corresponds exactly to the quantum situation because, although all the phenomena of the everyday world clearly are overwhelmingly convincing as being independent of mind and self-existent phenomena, quantum theory tells us this is not so at all. Furthermore quantum theory tells us that all phenomena are like this; they are ‘illusions’ generated out of the quantum realm of potentiality by the operation of mind.  As physicist Lee Smolin has pointed out:

How something is, or what its state is, is an illusion.  It may be a useful illusion for some purposes, but if we want to think fundamentally we must not lose sight of the essential fact that ‘is’ is an illusion.[xxiv]

At the end of the last programme in the television series ‘Atom’ the physicist-presenter Jim Al-Khalili says, looking very serious: ‘if you ever want to see fear on the face of a physicist ask him about the measurement problem.’  The quantum measurement problem is precisely the quantum rainbow problem, the fact that all the ‘seeming’ phenomenon of the ‘classical’ dualistic world are etched out of the deeper quantum level of potentiality by the continuous ‘measuring’ activity of consciousness.  And, indeed, this quantum discovery, the fact that the material world is not really there in the way that it seems to be, did cause, if not ‘fear,’ then absolute astonishment and bewilderment.  As physicists Bryce DeWitt and Neill Graham say:

No development of modern science has had more profound impact on human thinking than the advent of quantum theory.  Wrenched out of centuries-old thought patterns, physicists of a century ago found themselves compelled to embrace a new metaphysics. The distress which this reorientation caused continues to the present day.  Basically physicists have suffered a severe loss: their hold on reality.[xxv]

If one reads accounts of the reactions of physicists as the solid independent reality that we still all think exists ‘out there’ actually disappeared from their grasp one is reminded of the reaction of some of the Buddha’s disciples when he (supposedly) expounded the Prajna-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) view that:

all phenomena are empty. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. … in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no phenomena … no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment.

It is remarkable to find this central Mahayana Buddhist teaching echoed by respected quantum physicist Henry Stapp:

…no such brain exists; no brain, body, or anything else in the real world is composed of those tiny bits of matter that Newton imagined the universe to be made of.[xxvi]

In the Vajjracchedikasutra we are told that there is a danger of becoming fearful upon hearing such an emptiness teaching. As Buddhist scholar G. Schopen points out:

The repeated emphasis on fear, terror and dread in connection with hearing the Perfection of Wisdom being taught or explained would seem to indicate that the authors of our texts were clearly aware of the fact that what they were presenting was above all potentially terrifying and awful, and that a predictable reaction to it was fear.[xxvii]

As physicist Brian Greene has pointed out:

…because experiments confirm that quantum mechanics does describe fundamental physics, it presents a frontal assault on our basic beliefs as to what constitutes reality.[xxviii]

[i] Thrangu Rinpoche, Kenchen (2001)

[ii] Schrödinger, E. (1944) p121.

[iii] Das Wesen der Materie” (The Nature of Matter), speech at Florence, Italy, 1944 (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)

[iv] Michael Brooks: ‘The Second Quantum Revolution,’ New Scientist 23rd June 2007

[v] Vedral, Vlatko (2010) p200

[vi] Schmidt, Marcia Binder (Editor) (2002) p29

[vii] Vedral, Vlatko (2010) p211

[viii] Barrow, John D., Davies, Paul C. W., Harper, Charles L. (eds) (2004) p136 – Wojciech H. Zurek: ‘Quantum Darwinism and envariance.’

[ix] Stapp, Henry (2004) p223

[x] Dolling, L.M.; Gianelli, A. F. & Statile, G. N. (eds) (2003) p491 – John A. Wheeler (1978): ‘The ‘Past’ and the ‘Delayed Choice’ Double-Slit Experiment.’

[xi] Rosenblum, Bruce and Kuttner, Fred (2006) p

[xii] Barrow, John D., Davies, Paul C. W., Harper, Charles L. (eds) (2004) p450 – Andrei Linde: ‘Inflation, quantum cosmology and the anthropic principle.’

[xiii] The Grand Design p83

[xiv] Kaufman, Marc: ‘Shining a Light on a Dream’ – FQ(x) (The Foundational Questions Institute) February 8th2008.

[xv] Dolling, L.M.; Gianelli, A. F. & Statile, G. N. (eds) (2003) p492 – John A. Wheeler (1978): ‘The ‘Past’ and the ‘Delayed Choice’ Double-Slit Experiment.’

[xvi] Sarfatti , Jack ‘Wheeler’s World: It From Bit?’ – Internet Science Education Project, San Francisco, CA.

[xvii] Brunnhölzl, Karl (2007) Straight from the Heart: Buddhist Pith Instructions p25

[xviii] Thrangu Rinpoche, Kenchen (2001) p16

[xix] Thrangu Rinpoche, Kenchen (2001) p28

[xx] Thrangu Rinpoche, Kenchen (2001) p34-35

[xxi] d’ Espagnat, B (2006) p348

[xxii] Dowman, Keith – Flight of the Garuda

[xxiii] MOE p389

[xxiv] Smolin, Lee (2002) p53

[xxv] Herbert, Nick (1985) p15

[xxvi] Stapp, Henry (2007) p139

[xxvii] Schopen. G. (1989) The manuscript of the Vajjracchedikasutra found at Gilgit. In Studies in the literature of the great vehicle: Three Mahayana Buddhist texts )pp 89-140). L. Gomez & J. Silk (Eds.), Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

[xxviii] Penrose, Roger (1995) p237

Author’s BiographyGraham Smetham, B.A., studied Mathematics at Essex University, England and Philosophy of Religion at Sussex University. During his time at Sussex he taught a subsidiary course for scientists on the interconnections between Western science and Eastern philosophical perspectives and it was through the investigations undertaken during the preparations for this course that he began to have the insights which later developed into wide ranging and detailed explorations contained in his book Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness. At Sussex he was also part of the Religious Studies society and at one of its meetings he met the inspirational Western Theravadin monk Ajahn Sumedho, then the abbot of Chithurst monastry, Sussex, who electrified the audience with his joyful effervescent presence. At the time Graham was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Western academic practice of endless conceptual juggling with no transformational practice and the contact with the community of Chithurst monks and nuns convinced him of the need for both intellectual understanding and transformative meditation practice.

Although at that time Graham had a publisher eager to publish his work, personal misfortune, illness and increasing disillusionment with Western-style academic life forced him to abandon an academic career and he subsequently began to lose contact with his intellectual and spiritual roots as he pursued other aspects, ultimately less fulfilling, of life’s pathways. During this time, however, Buddhism and the philosophy of science always played a part in the background as he was always drawn to these subjects and somehow ‘knew’ that they were significant for him. It is very difficult to explain this strange feeling that somehow something which had been left behind was still lingering in the wings, so to speak. An example would be the fact that he would be drawn to various books on the philosophy of science and when he read them instantly and intuitively saw mistakes and ‘knew’ at an intuitive level that Buddhist philosophy had something to offer but did not at that time have any idea of the full scenario.

At a later point, some twenty years after leaving Sussex University, at a time of extreme personal crisis, Graham returned to a serious meditation practice, something that had fallen by the wayside. During one meditation session he was astonished to have a profound meditation vision, like having a cinema screen inside his head, during which he was surrounded by an assembly of Manjushris whilst a bowl of orange nectar at his heart radiated channels of orange nectar to the hearts of the surrounding Manjushris. At the time Graham was not aware of the spiritual identity of the buddhas with yellow hats, previously he had only studied Theravada philosophy. Graham was even more astonished to come across a book in which the vision was described as being one of a set used by Buddhist philosophers prior to writing dharma texts. Graham subsequently joined a Buddhist community and resumed the researches that he had abandoned twenty years earlier. The result is Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness–Reality Revealed at the Interface of Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy.

Graham’s website is at http://www.quantumbuddhism.com./ where you can find details of where you can buy his book.

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