Beyond the Big Picture


Two books just came out about science and the “big picture,” that is, what it is all about. Meta-meta, and all that.

One is “Beyond Biocentrism” by Robert Lanza MD with Bob Berman.

I suggest that you read it.

In full disclosure I have gotten to know one of the authors, Robert Lanza. He spoke at the Zen center where I practice (I encourage you to go to the Hazy Moon website where you can hear some of that talk) and I even collaborate on biomedical research with him. In fact, if you go back to my first blog on this site, he is the one who encouraged me to write in the first place by asking me about a GUT (grand unified theory) of Zen. After I demurred, I tried and came up with that first blog (and the much too cute, and much too grandiose, name for this website, Zengut).


I wrote a blurb that Bob Lanza included in the hard copy of “Beyond Biocentrism” (and on his website) calling it “…a must read for anyone who as ever wondered where modern science…. Is going. What does it all mean? Brilliant and insightful…” On Dr. Lanza’s website you can read a comment I made about his first book, “Biocentrism” where I wrote: “holy shit, this is a great book.” I will discuss “Beyond Biocentrism”  in the future in much detail and will compare and contrast it with the second book, which I have just started to read.

This second book is “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll. He is a physicist at the California Institute of Technology (I just gave a talk at their faculty club there on ocular inflammation yesterday!) and has written several books and produced a couple of lecture series for the Great Courses on physics for lay audiences. They are quite good. Dr. Carroll seems very smart, sincere and honest. I see at the end of his new book he tackles consciousness, and while I admit I briefly peeked ahead, I want to digest the whole book before writing about his approach and comparing it to Dr. Lanza’s approach and Zen and my own impressions.

But at this point I do want to say Dr. Carroll starts his book by describing his perspective as “naturalism” and notes that Buddhism takes a naturalist approach, at least to some extent. And I have already come across some material I really like.

  1. I often tease my scientist friends by telling them they are non-dualists. Because of the terminology that developed after Descartes where non-dualism refers to the unity of body and a soul in some quarters, they balk a bit. But then, not worrying about this putative “soul,” I point out, they believe mind and body are one. That all things are manifestations of energy, of fields, that ultimately are unified. That’s the whole idea behind a “theory of everything” or grand unified theory.” Sean Carroll gets this right, at least early on. On page 13 he writes of the process of science: “We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.” Yes, it is indeed.
  2. I also tease them by pointing out that they believe in spontaneous generation. After all life and mind “spontaneously” arose form atoms that are not living or conscious in the way many think. Scientists often don’t like this, but it is true. To them, spontaneous generation was something disproved by Pasteur over 150 years ago. Pasteur didn’t like spontaneous generation, by the way, because it didn’t go with his type of Catholicism with a single creation event. Scientists don’t like it because spontaneous generation historically was used against evolution and seemed mystical, justifying a belief in a separate “life force.” But evolution suggests lifeless carbon became alive and then later conscious. Spontaneously. Well, that isn’t how I see it (nor how it is seen in Dr. Lanza’s work), though I am a fan of evolution. Evolution is the functioning of the Universe; it isn’t in time,time is not a separate flow, evolution is time… but that’s another blog. Now, I don’t want to say yet how Dr. Carroll sees it, because we are getting to the nature and structure of the universe, the role of consciousness, of Mind (Buddha Mind in the Buddhist jargon), and I haven’t gotten to those chapters in his book. But he does at least have the honesty and courage as a scientist to broach the question of the dualistic implications. Dr. Carroll writes on page 12: “At a fundamental level, there are not separate “living things” and “nonliving things,”… There is just the basic stuff of reality, appearing to us in many different forms.”
  3. Dr. Carroll writes on page 13 “..Why this universe? Why am I here? Why anything at all? Naturalism, by contrast, simply says: these aren’t the right questions to ask. It’s a lot to swallow, and not a view anyone should accept unquestioningly.” This is very compatible with Buddhism. Buddha famously refused to answer such questions. He considered them minimally a distraction, comparing the person asking them to one shot with an arrow who wont let the surgeon touch it until he knows the name of the person who shot him and what type of wood the shaft of the arrow what was made from. You won’t hear much about an ultimate answer to “why” in Zen talks or read about it in the Zen literature. Asking big picture “Why” is usually about justifying our ego, to make a hard and fast image of who we think we are, trying to bring the Universe down to human terms and human scale, to allay our fears by giving our lives a “meaning” that we can grasp. But it usually is a meaning that is more story and construct than fundamental and useful. Basically, it just isn’t how the Universe functions. It isn’t answering any “why” question your limited experience and brain can have.
  4. On page 16 Dr. Carroll discusses the philosophical thought experiment of the ship of Theseus, which he leads into it by discussing Star Trek transporters. If a wooden ship is replaced plank by plank is it the same boat at the end? If you reassemble the old planks of the ship, are there now two ships of Theseus. Like all such intellectual quandaries there are quick and easy answers, but the question is valid. Consider: You would likely say it was at the first few planks. After all, if you loose a limb and replace it with a prosthesis, you have changed, but you still think you are you. Or if you get a liver transplant. Still you? Dr. Carroll writes: “Is the notion of “this particular human being” an important one to how we think about the world? Should categories like Persons” and thing” be part of our fundamental ontology at all?” Buddhism famously does not like the idea of permanent soul. Early writing refer to ever changing aspects of who we are, of what has karma, called the skhandas. Later teachings of the Mahayana on emptiness, like in the Heart Sutra, say that even these are too concrete and dualistic. This is straight out of the Diamond Sutra. In Buddhism we talk about the individual, we take responsibility, we have karma, yet we are admonished not to be attached to, or construct for ourselves an idea of a soul or an “entity.” We read in Red Pine’s translation of the Diamond Sutra: “…attachment to an entity is inexplainable and inexpressible….Foolish people, though, are attached.” [page 26]; “Neither beings nor no beings…” [page 22]; “Thus is it called ‘unexcelled perfect enlightenment.’ Without a self, without a soul, undifferentiated…”

The Diamond Sutra ends with this poem [page 27]:

“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space

An illusion, dewdrop, a bubble

A dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning

View all created things like this.”


So, not bad for the first 16 pages, Dr. Carroll. Lets see where you are going with this.



Two Sutras, a Poem, the Brain and Everything


I like that Buddhism says that mind, as in brain process, not Mind as in Buddha-Mind, is a sense perception, that the brain is a sense organ, like the eye and ear in seeing and hearing.

The brain is indeed a sense organ in that it evolved to organize energy inputs and channel them to other parts of the brain, just like sense organs do. Only the brain’s output is a context, that is, a story. It is a “meta” sense organ in that it organizes the other senses. And just like the eye can generate it’s own output without “external” inputs (close your eyes and you will see things, colors and lights, generated by random firing of retinal cells) the brain can generate it’s own outputs without inputs; we call them thoughts.

In fact, some would say this is the nature of all of our experience of the dualistic world. We project the universe we experience our brain processes, like the Lankavatara Sutra says.

Too abstract? Try this. Each eye sees only 2 dimensionally. It has to; the retina is a flat sheet in the back of your eye. We project a 3 dimensional world. Our brain compares inputs from both eyes to make that story up. We can do it with one eye, even though there can be no 3 dimensional perception with just one eye. We do it by what we have been conditioned to expect, based on evaluating relative size, shadows, etc. That’s why pictures can look 3 dimensional to us, whether paintings, movies, photographs, TV, etc. It’s why optical illusions work and why one-eyed people don’t walk into walls (at least not a lot more than two-eyed people) and can drive.

How about this? You can’t see a “yellow” photon (that is, a photon at the energy we describe as yellow as shorthand). You have no yellow perceiving photoreceptors. Your brain puts yellow together from various inputs from the retina and projects it back out

Those inputs from one part of the brain (the visual cortex) to other parts of the brain (the visual association centers that put together the world into a coherent visual story) are no different on a brain level than the input of a photon on the retina of the eye that causes changes of energy that are then transmitted to the brain in the first place. Energy in, energy out.

So yes, the brain is indeed a sense organ. Well done, ancient Buddhists!

Lets go wide and deep on this.

first, go small, very deep, to strings, if they exist, we get to just energy patterns. At that level, there are no things, things disappear.

Go wide and big and in the vastness any thing, any fluctuation in the energy, you, the galaxy whatever, even our universe, is so negligible as to be essentially if not actually zero. Like a tiny + and – adding to zero. All change in the realm of what we (our scale of energy fluctuation) can perceive even extended by instruments, is no change at that scale, in the face of infinity, or 10^500 multiverses, or even in our known visible universe, or especially, as I understand it, if there is indeed no beginning no end. At that level, there are no things, things disappear.

So we are back to Shitou and the Tang dynasty Zen poem “The identity of Relative and Absolute” wondering what this vast UNI-verse, this undivided non-dualistic state, and awareness. What is that identity? How do we get to the reductionist stuff from the unified forces or to the unified forces form reductionist stuff? That is true science, the real theory of everything; only it isn’t a theory.

This brings to mind The Diamond Sutra, which says we should not attach to a person, a soul, a defined entity and identity of who and what we are.

To the state of being at the smallest of the small, say a “string” or the smallest quantum fluctuation of virtual particles in the void, at the smallest scale, you don’t exist. That is why a virtual particle, an expression of the vast limitless energy of the void, is “virtual;” it doesn’t feel us and we don’t feel it. Otherwise it would be a particle, not “virtual.” Yet some say that energy is where the big bang, or all existence, came from. It is fundamental. It is “the field.” Others say fields are just concepts that tell us how things act, to do the math (that is, quantum fields can be described by how they work, not what they are). In any case, there is nothing you can do to touch that string or virtual particle, you are too large, too coarse. That smallest world exists in a cosmos that isn’t yours, yet it is you. Yet you only exist as an individual entity (to the degree that you seem to do so) by virtue of the rules of the smallest of the small.

To the Universe/cosmos or multiverse or whatever, at the largest scale you don’t exist. You are too small a blip to register in the unending beginninglessness. Heck, even at the level of the galaxy, our solar system is too small to truly be said to exist as more than a small statistical fluctuation. At larger levels we aren’t even statistically present. Yet you only exist as an individual entity (to the degree that you seem to do so) by virtue of the rules of the biggest of the big.

And in fact, science tells us that there is no privileged time and space, that every point is the center of the universe

That cosmos, the smaller and smaller, or the bigger and bigger, that we can’t seem to touch, is us, because, well, here we are, right dab in the middle of it all.

The ancients would ask a new student “where did you come from?”

Meaning where are you? When are you? Who, what are you?

Good questions. And in some way, science and Buddhism start to converge in the answer.

You are the universe unfolding, without beginning or end, neither here nor there, neither existing or not existing, at least not in the way you think with your sense organs, your day to day relative existence, yet always at the center.

Please, lets take good care of that center!

fractal image