clw_uk wrote:Modern Science in the form of Quantum mechanics has shown that you can actually get sub-atomic particles coming out of nothing with no cause and hence no interdependent arising. Does this cancel out a fundemental Buddhist doctrine or interdependence?
I don't think quantum physics contradicts Buddhist teachings.
Quantum physics is tricky in that it supplies a general framework for theories that predict what you are likely to measure when you do an experiment, but which is compatible with several different descriptions of what is actually occurring to give rise to those measurements. People have differing opinions on which description makes the most sense, but since there isn't an experiment that can decide which is correct it's left on a somewhat philosophical level. These different descriptions are often termed interpretations. (See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretation_of_quantum_mechanics
The issues revolve around a certain kind of indefiniteness, whose significance is related to how you interpret it. Take some radioactive material look at the radioactive atoms in it. They appear as though they emit particles randomly. Each second, there is a certain chance that one of them will decay that way. The first question to get out of the way I suppose is whether it's compatible with Buddhist teachings that they are actually decaying at random (as they appear to be), or whether it indicates that there is always a set of causes sufficient either to make it happen for sure or to make it not happen for sure. I believe the answer is, the former, Buddhist teachings don't say that there isn't any randomness in the world, although I'm ready to be corrected.
One way to describe the situation is known as a hidden variable theory. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_variable_theory
) Some people favor a hidden variable theory that includes unobserved factors that actually determine the outcome. I don't favor such a formulation, but it's possible to make one compatible with quantum physics if you really want to. (Quantum field theory seems to make it ugly....) It seems unhelpful since there's no way to observe the hidden variables and thus be able to predict when radioactive atoms will decay and things like that, without disturbing them in a way that leaves you with an entirely different situation (like hitting the atoms with radiation that causes them to break apart immediately).
Another common interpretation says that the outcome remains indefinite until it is observed, at which point the aspect being observed becomes definite. So for example, if I put my radioactive atoms in a box, and don't look at them (or at anything being affected by them, which turns out to be impractical...) then whether they have decayed or not gradually becomes more indefinite, until I look at them, whereupon their status becomes definite, in a random way. Schroedinger expressed his dismay at this by imagining that something not merely subatomic (whether a cat continues to live) is made to be dependent on whether radioactive atoms decay. It seems perverse to say that the cat's being alive or not is indefinite until you look (and then it randomly becomes either alive or dead). I don't know how many people think of this interpretation as an "objective" description of what ultimately is occurring, but if one did, it would be saying that what happens in the world is both random and dependent on some kind of process of observation (whether conscious or not isn't clear. Some physicists are more comfortable assuming that there's a "purely physical" process that causes outcomes to become definite.)
A third type of interpretation says that in a sense the indefiniteness persists. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation
) This type of interpretation describes the process as deterministic, but for a different reason than the hidden variable theories. To put it roughly, in this interpretation all the relevant possibilities occur. The cat both lives and dies. When you look at it, you both see it alive and see it dead. But the two processes lose the opportunity to influence each other, losing it through a phenomenon known as decoherence, so you never directly perceive the situation as one in which both possibilities have occurred. This makes the situation much as if the two possibilities were taking place in parallel universes, hence the name "many worlds". Presumably the mental states (cittas) arising in each are just separate from each other.
I actually don't think any of these interpretations is incompatible with Buddhism. (The possibility of someone awakening in one parallel universe but not another is disconcerting, but I don't see anything inherently wrong with it.) To investigate further, though, I think one needs to be more specific on both sides: what kind of determinism and/or randomness is incompatible with Buddhism, and also what interpretation it is that potentially suffers from that kind of determinism or randomness.
I remember reading in the canon criticisms of philosophers who claim that events are fatalistically determined. It's not clear to me that the kind of determinism that some interpretations of quantum physics have is really the same thing as that. You refer to the opposite possibility, that of events completely without causes. I don't think the kind of randomness that some interpretations of quantum physics have is really the same as that either.
Take this issue of particles appearing out of nothing. I suspect part of the problem is that popular explanations of quantum physics have to make do with somewhat approximate ways of describing the theory, that can be a bit misleading. What one is really dealing with are cases where the number of particles in a region of space is indefinite in much the way that positions of particles and so on are. ("Quantum mechanics" is often used to refer to the more elementary version of the theory where the number of particles is assumed to be definite, but just the position and/or other aspects of their states is indefinite, while "quantum field theory" is where one treats interactions that may change the number of particles present, and in quantum field theory the number of particles will usually be somewhat indefinite.) Considering it from the point of view of observations, when you try to observe how many particles there are in a box, there is always a possibility of observing some. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_state
) So the appearance of particles is not causeless, but it is like radioactive decay in being at least seemingly random. In the interpretation that gives a special role to the process of observation, it's when you make an observation that the particles become definitely present.
My gut feeling is that quantum physics is actually more naturally compatible with Buddhism than previous theories of physics were.