Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

Buddhism and Physics, Part One

Posted in: Science

Buddhism is a spiritual movement that began well over two thousand years ago. Physics is the modern science of the material universe. Given these differences, it might seem unlikely that there could be any similarities between them. Yet there are some very interesting parallels between two specific core Buddhist principles and crucial aspects of modern theoretical physics. These core Buddhist principles are ‘conditionality’ and ‘emptiness’.

1. Conditionality

What is meant by the Buddhist principle of ‘conditionality’?  This particular term is one translation of the original Sanskrit expression pratitya-samutpada.  This has various translations, for example ‘conditioned co-production’,‘interdependent arising’, ‘inter-related conditionality’, and ‘conditionality’.  Pratitya-samutpada is the principle that phenomena arise and fall in complex patterns of interaction. It points to the nature of existence, a nature that actually cannot be adequately conceptualized.  One ancient Buddhist phrase which expressed the principle of conditionality, to some extent, was ‘This being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises; this not becoming, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases’.

When it was originally used, by the Buddha himself, this principle was applied to human life. If one reads descriptions in Buddhist texts of how the principle was applied by the Buddha, it was in very pragmatic ways.  Using the principle of conditionality, he described important aspects of people’s behaviour and mental states, looking at how those different aspects influenced, or conditioned, each other.  In particular, he described how a specific set of psychological, ethical and other phenomena reinforce each other, so that, metaphorically, we go round and round in circles, stuck in the same old mental states and behaviour.  Alternatively, we might progress out of those vicious circles and develop more ethical behaviour, more positive mental states, and deeper wisdom about the world, in a process to which the Buddha also applied the principle of conditionality.

What is interesting, is that this is very similar to what is known as ‘formulation’ in clinical psychology.

Formulation is a way of looking at factors in someone’s life – aspects of their mental states and behaviour, as well as phenomena in the world around them – that perpetuate their mental health difficulties.  For example, if someone has a phobia, formulation involves looking at how that phobia is kept going, what factors maintain it in what one could call ‘vicious circles’ of feedback. This formulation is made in order to help the person understand what is happening, and to work out a practical approach to stop the phobia occurring. 

A specific formulation is not an exhaustive catalogue of all the factors affecting someone, but a pragmatic depiction of the important factors influencing the issues in question, especially how a person’s suffering is maintained.  In contrast, if we look at all the phenomena that influence human beings, both internal and external to them, they are very many and highly complex.  However, formulation focuses upon the crucial factors maintaining a specific psychological difficulty, in order to help bring about improvement.

This is very similar to the application of pratitya-samutpada by the Buddha. He identified various important phenomena concerning human suffering, and looked at how they condition each other, thereby contributing to the maintenance of that suffering.  He did this in order to help people escape such suffering, through methods including the deliberate practice of ethical behaviour, and improving mental states through meditation.

2. Conditionality as a general principle

However, pratitya-samutpada is also a general principle, as exemplified in the phrase ‘This being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises; this not becoming, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases”. We can therefore ask how it might apply in other areas than those which the Buddha considered, such as the phenomena of the physical world.  Does the principle of conditionality apply to the physical world, and if so, how?

If one attempts to apply it to the physical world, what is implied is that one must investigate the physical phenomena in question, exploring what exactly they are and how they condition each other – how, for example, with the arising of one phenomenon, such as an electric force, another phenomenon, such as an electron, is affected.

From this perspective, pratitya-samutpada is in effect a principle, or an underlying rationale, for empirical, or scientific, study.  I would suggest that it is the underlying principle for science.

Thus, one can take pratitya-samutpada to be a principle that one follows in order to find out more about the world, on whatever level.  The Buddha himself applied it pragmatically to aspects of human suffering, and how to become liberated from such suffering.   We can apply the same general formula to any area of evidence, any set of phenomena – but we have to do the empirical work of finding out precisely what those phenomena are, and what exactly the conditioning relationships between them are. 

One can also compare and contrast the principle of conditionality with the concept of ‘natural law’.  Historically, there developed in the West the belief that there are ‘natural laws’ underlying the world, on various levels.  Such laws were believed to underlie the physical world, and also phenomena such as human psychology, society and economics.  It was believed that science is about discovering what these natural laws actually are.

The principle of conditionality has similarities with the idea of natural law, if one thinks of a natural law as the explicit depiction of a specific pattern of conditionality.  On the other hand, there seems to be a crucial difference.  With pratitya-samutpada there is no mention of ‘law’.  The concept of ‘law’ implies the existence of a law giver, and in the Western historical context the law giver was believed to be a ruling, creator god.  (Ironically, atheist scientists still often use the term ‘laws of physics’.)  Buddhism does not recognise such a god, so to talk of ‘law’ with respect to pratitya-samupada is somewhat misleading. 

Pratitya-samupada contrasts with the idea of natural law in another way as well.  Pratitya-samutpada is about conditionality, about there being conditions, and if one ponders the formula one can come to realise that it is not only implying that one actively finds out about phenomena and their relationships, but also that there is a deeper implication.  This deeper implication is that, if the particular set of conditions one is studying and researching do not actually occur at times, then things might be very different. This is a marked contrast to the idea of natural law, where there is believed to be one set of laws which everything obeys.  It is more like there is conditionality, and one can find out patterns of how phenomena inter-relate, but that is as far as one can go.  Things might be different under other circumstances, other conditions. Thus there is a more ‘open’ aspect to pratitya-samutpada, compared to the idea of a ‘natural law’. 

3. Conditionality and physics

Let us then look at physics.  What are the patterns of conditionality in the physical world? In answering this question I am going to proceed step by step. Here I will look a little at the patterns of conditionality that form the basis of classical physics.  In a later article I will discuss such patterns in modern physics.

Classical physics is based upon ideas and theories that come principally from Isaac Newton (as well as the work of others, such as Galileo).  It can often still be used successfully in important contexts, such as engineering. It gives very good answers to many practical questions, and is much easier to use than the two key theories of modern physics – relativity theory and quantum mechanics – which have supplanted it in important contexts such as sub-atomic physics.

Crucially, Isaac Newton developed the ‘laws of motion’ (as well as a ‘law of universal gravitation’).

His ‘first law of motion’ is this: a physical body continues to be at rest, or to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.  His second law states that the acceleration of a physical body is proportional to, and in the direction of, the external force. His third law states that two such bodies interacting will exert forces of equal magnitude on each other, in opposite directions.

If, for example, we consider the first law, this can actually be rephrased in a way reminiscent of the pratitya-samutpada formula which I quoted above.  Thus: “With the existence of an external force, acceleration happens; with no external force there is no acceleration.”

Of course, Newton’s laws go beyond the old Buddhist formula, because they are also specifically mathematical (and actually depend upon his discovery of calculus, as well as other mathematics).  There was no such mathematics at the time of the Buddha.  It is interesting, and of crucial importance for science, that aspects of the physical world can be ‘quantified’ and ‘measured’, and that this leads to the ability of humans to discover mathematical patterns of conditionality between those quantified phenomena.

The application of Newton’s laws revolutionized how people could understand the physical world, and transformed what humans are capable of. They led to world-changing developments in science, technology and material welfare. A world which had been basically agricultural, with most people living at, or near, poverty level, became an industrial world, able to provide much higher standards of living for a much-increased population.  This is something which, these days, we perhaps take too much for granted. There is a Buddhist practice of ‘rejoicing in merits’.  Here, I would like to rejoice in the many beneficial consequences of Newton’s discovery of the ‘laws of motion’.

4. The Buddhist principle of Śunyata and Newtonian physics

If one studies Newton’s original text (the ‘Principia’), one finds that he held a belief that the physical ‘quantities’ he was considering had an ‘absolute’ existence.  Thus, he talked of ‘absolute, true, and mathematical’ quantities of time and space.  For example, when he was considering the position of objects in space, using his laws of motion, he believed that there was such a thing as an ‘absolute’ position of an object in space.  Stemming from this, he believed in an ‘absolute motion’ of an object through space.  He contrasted absolute quantities with what he called ‘relative, apparent, and common’ quantities, by which he meant the quantities one actually obtains through the process of measurement.  Newton realised that one could not measure the absolute quantities, for example precisely where a planet was in space, but that what one actually measured are the relative quantities – how far that planet is from the Earth, or where it is in the sky as observed from one’s position on earth.  Nevertheless, he considered that the absolute values of the quantities do exist, even if they could not be directly measured.

Before Newton, people had come to understand that planets travel in orbits around the sun.  But if one studies the position of the planets in the sky at night, sometimes some of them seem to be reversing their direction, apparently travelling in a ‘retrograde’ direction.  People realised that the ‘going backwards’ in the sky was just an ‘apparent motion’ because of the motion of the Earth in relation to that planet, and that in reality that planet was still going round the sun in the same direction as it had been.

So, they had the idea that the real motion, in particular the real quantities of that motion, such as the velocity, might be different from the apparent motion and the apparent quantities.  Newton was generalizing from this, in assuming that there are absolute values for quantities, such as the absolute velocity of a planet going through space, or that there is a real absolute time that is the same everywhere.

This issue leads to the second of the Buddhist principles, that of śunyata, or ‘emptiness’.  Śunyata applied to any phenomenon, including a physical one, means that that phenomenon has no intrinsic existence of its own, unrelated to anything else.  So fundamental particles, and the atoms and molecules made from them, do not have any intrinsic existence.  Nor does any physical quantity, such as the distance between two things in space, or the time between two events. The principle of śunyata implies all this.  To use Newton’s terminology, it is saying that these phenomena do not have any ‘absolute’ existence.  Thus, there is no absolute time at any place, no absolute distance between two things, nor an absolute position in space.

Newton was saying the very opposite.  He was stating that there really are phenomena such as absolute distances, absolute positions in space, absolute velocities, and absolute times. Thus, there is an important contradiction between the Buddhist principle of śunyata, and what Newton believed.  Crucially, Newton’s belief in absolute quantities has been overturned by developments in modern physics, especially by the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.  In undermining that belief, these theories parallel the Buddhist understanding of śunyata. I shall explore this in my next article on Buddhism and physics.

Newton’s Laws of Motion in their original Latin form, in his ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’, with translations.

Lex I:
Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.

Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon.

Lex II:
Mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressæ, & fieri secundum lineam rectam qua vis illa imprimitur.

The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.

Lex III:
Actioni contrariam semper & æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales & in partes contrarias dirigi.

To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction; or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.

Featured Image
TNS Sofres, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.


Advayacitta is a retired clinical psychologist. He is the author of  'Thinking at the Crossroads - a Buddhist exploration of Western thought'.

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