Book Review: 潘宗光.《佛教與科學》(Buddhism and Science). 香港:佛學推廣協會,2015.

Professor Poon Chung Kwong (潘宗光) is a well known scientist in Hong Kong, and his book ‘Buddhism and Science’《佛教與科學》is a popular book in Hong Kong and China. The book reveals an admirable passion to bring science and religion into dialogue and to make the world a better place. There are however a few areas of concern, and in what follows I shall highlight three of them:

  1. Poon’s narrative mixes real science (e.g. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) with pseudoscience with which he tries to justify the truth claims of Buddhism. If the reader is not careful, he/she might regard the latter as real science as well.

For example, Poon mentions that ‘scientific studies have shown that human consciousness can affect the forms of water crystals’ (‘實驗證明,人的意識可以影響水結晶體的狀態’ p.11), citing《生命的答案,水知道》by 江本勝 (Masaru Emoto). However, the work by Emoto, who is said to have proved that water responds to the emotions of those around it, has been widely rejected by scientists. As Kenneth G. Libbrecht, Professor of Physics and chairman of the physics department at Caltech observes,

‘Mr. Emoto has never published his work in a reputable scientific forum, where it would be scrutinized.’ (http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/myths/myths.htm).

It is inappropriate, therefore, to allow this kind of pseudo-science to be mentioned as‘實驗證明’.

  1. Prof Poon writes that human consciousness can affect the states of quantum particles as well, and he thinks that this was what the Buddha predicted (‘這不正是佛陀所説「境隨心轉」及「一切唯心造」嗎?pp.9-11,19).

Poon’s argument presupposes Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, but he fails to note that there are alternative defensible interpretations of quantum mechanics. As physicist Victor Stenger observes, ‘other viable interpretations of quantum mechanics remain with no consensus on which, if any, is the correct one.’[1]  Issues concerning which interpretation is to be preferred belong to the field of philosophy of science, and Poon fails to mention, let alone engage, with the arguments for alternative interpretations, such as those found in this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-bohm/ .

In any case, even if one presupposes Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, Poon’s argument is still based on a misconception. As the eminent quantum physicist John Bell points out,

‘I think that it is not right to tell the public that a central role for conscious mind is integrated into modern atomic physics…It seems to me irresponsible to suggest that technical features of contemporary theory were anticipated by the saints of ancient religions… by introspection. The only ‘observer’ which is essential in orthodox practical quantum theory is the inanimate apparatus which amplifies the microscopic events to macroscopic consequences’.[2]

  1. Poon says that ‘every material thing comes from “nothing”, a product of the Big Bang,’ and he thinks that this what Buddha predicted..’ (‘一切物質是「無中生有」的, 是大爆炸及大膨脹后產生出來的. 這不正是佛陀所說:「色即是空,空即是色」…’ p.19).

By 一切物質是「無中生有」Poon is referring to the proposal that the universe originated from a ‘quantum vacuum’.

However, by saying「色即是空,空即是色」, the Buddha was originally talking about the impermanence of phenomena (现象的无常) rather than the origin of our universe.

Moreover, even if the Big Bang originated from a quantum vacuum, we should note that the quantum vacuum is not absolute nothingness, rather it contains a ‘zero point energy’, the energy remaining in a substance at the absolute zero of temperature (0 K), which gives rise to vacuum fluctuations.[3] Ellis observes that quantum vacuum’ proposals cannot truly ‘solve’ the issue of creation, ‘for they rely on some structures or other (e.g. the elaborate framework of quantum field theory and much of the standard model of particle physics) pre-existing the origin of the universe, and hence themselves requiring explanation.’[4] One can argue that, since an actual infinite regress of effects-and-causes is not possible[5], there must still be a First Cause which is uncaused, beginningless, timeless, has free will[6] (hence Personal) and is the ultimate source of all things, including the Big Bang and the universe. The Big Bang can therefore be understood as the event by which this Personal First Cause brought about the universe. Otherwise, an accidental explosion would have resulted in disorder and debris, rather than the ordered systems (solar system, quantum system etc) that we see in our universe. Thus there is good reason to think that the Big Bang was not an accident but the work of an intelligent First Cause, i.e. a Personal Creator.[7]

The purpose of this review is not to attack Buddhism, but rather to highlight to readers concerning the use of pseudoscience, the misinterpretation of Buddhist scripture and the misconceptions mentioned above.

Reviewed by Andrew Loke

Endnotes:

[1] Victor Stenger, Has Science Found God? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2003), 188–89, 173.

[2] Cited in http://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness139.html .

[3] “Vacuum state,” in A Dictionary of Physics ed. John Daintith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] George Ellis, ‘Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology,’ in Philosophy of Physics ed. J. Butterfield and J Earman (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007), Section 2.7.

[5] Andrew Loke, ‘A modified philosophical argument for a beginning of the universe,’ Think 13(2014): 71-83. Cambridge University Press.

[6] W.L. Craig and James Sinclair, ‘The Kalam Cosmological Argument’, in W.L. Craig and J.P. Moreland (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 191-194.

[7] For details see Robin Collins,  ‘The Teleological Argument,’ in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes, A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

 

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