Map of Scientific Collaborations

I just came across a website where the author discusses his making of a map showing interactions among scientific researchers worldwide. Following the idea of a Facebook engineer who did his nice map showing how friends on Facebook are connected to one another globally, he did his own map showing scientific collaborations. Lines are drawn between two geographical points where two researchers collaborate in their research. For example, if two scientists jointly publish a paper, and one is in Town A and the other in Town B, then there’s a line linking the two towns together. I downloaded the map from the website and added something of my own to show where Bangkok lies. It turns out that Thai researchers are doing quite well. As expected most collaborating lines are drawn between Bangkok and the West (Europe and North America), and also with Japan. In fact most points outside of Europe, North America and Japan almost always link up to these three major destinations. This means of course that most scientific collaborations in the “rest of the world” are with European, American and Japanese researchers, and it is not surprising that the brightest areas on the map show the US, Europe and Japan. What is lacking are lines connecting dots in the rest of the world itself and not to these big three. This would mean collaborations among researchers in the “rest” themselves, such as, for example, a collaboration between a Thai and a Cambodian researcher. This would be highly beneficial.

So here is the map with my own addition. You can find the real map in the website mentioned above.

Map of scientific collaborations

 

When Will Time End?

Right now I am writing this post from the Royal Cliff Hotel in Pattaya. It’s a very upscale place, and the Commission on Higher Education spared no money at all in organizing this huge conference for its grantees. I’ll talk about this later on, but here is a video on a very philosophical and religious question: When Will Time End?

คำกล่าวเปิด “การเตรียมตัวตายอย่างมีสติ”

คำกล่าวเปิดการประชุมวิชาการ

“การเตรียมตัวตายอย่างมีสติ เพื่อวาระสุดท้ายอันงดงาม”

วันเสาร์ที่ ๒๑ สิงหาคม พ.ศ. ๒๕๕๓ เวลา ๙.๐๐ น.

ศาสตราจารย์ ดร. เกื้อ วงศ์บุญสิน

รองอธิการบดีฝ่ายวิจัย จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย

***

เรียน พระคุณเจ้าและท่านผู้มีเกียรติที่เคารพ

ผมมีความยินดีเป็นอย่างยิ่งที่ได้มายังคณะอักษรศาสตร์อีกครั้งหนึ่ง เพื่อมากล่าวเปิดการประชุมวิชาการ “การเตรียมตัวตายอย่างมีสติ เพื่อวาระสุดท้ายอันงดงาม” ซึ่จัดโดยศูนย์จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยีและมูลนิธิพันดารา ศูนย์จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี เป็นหน่วยปฏิบัติการวิจัยของคณะอักษรศาสตร์ที่ได้รับการสนับสนุนจากมหาวิทยาลัยในฐานะเป็น “ศูนย์วิจัยเพื่อความเป็นเลิศ” (Research center of excellence) มีวัตถุประสงค์ในการดำเนินการวิจัยเกี่ยวกับมิติต่างๆทางด้านสังคม วัฒนธรรมและจริยธรรมของวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี ดังนั้น จากวัตถุประสงค์ที่กล่าวมานี้ งานของศูนย์จริยธรรมฯ จึงมีลักษณะเป็น “บูรณาการระหว่างสาขาวิชา” อย่างชัดแจ้ง ซึ่งก็เป็นแนวทางสำคัญของพัฒนาการทางวิชาการในปัจจุบัน ที่นักวิชาการหลากหลายสาขาจะมารวมตัวกัน เพื่อช่วยกันแก้ปัญหาที่เกิดขึ้น โดยมุ่งยึดเอาตัวปัญหาเป็นหลัก มุ่งว่าจะแก้ปัญหานั้นๆอย่างไร แทนที่จะเป็นการเอาสาขาวิชาการที่มีอยู่แล้วเป็นตัวตั้งเช่นในอดีตที่ผ่านมา

เนื้อหาของการประชุมครั้งนี้ ก็มีความเป็นบูรณาการระหว่างศาสตร์ต่างๆอย่างชัดเจน กล่าวคือในการประชุมนี้ เราจะมีแลกเปลี่ยนความคิดเห็น ตลอดจนเสวนาอภิปรายเกี่ยวกับเรื่องที่สำคัญมากที่สุดเรื่องหนึ่งในชีวิตมนุษย์ ได้แก่เรื่องความตาย เราจะมาแสวงหาคำตอบว่า ความตายคืออะไร เป็น “วาระสุดท้าย” จริงหรือไม่ และการปฏิบัติตนของทั้งผู้ป่วยและแพทย์พยาบาลที่ต้องเผชิญกับความตายควรจะเป็นอย่างไร อันที่จริงไม่เพียงเฉพาะผู้ป่วยเท่านั้นที่ต้องเผชิญกับความตาย แต่คนทุกคน รวมทั้งแพทย์พยาบาลเอง ก็ต้องเผชิญหน้ากับความตายด้วยกันทั้งสิ้น ด้วยเหตุนี้ การพูดอภิปรายเกี่ยวกับความตาย นอกจากจะเป็นการศึกษาข้ามวิชาการสาขาต่างๆแล้ว ยังเป็นการก้าวข้ามมิติอันสำคัญที่แบ่งแยกโลกของวิชาการ ให้ออกจากโลกของศาสนาหรือจิตวิญญาณออกจากกันด้วย การคิดค้นเกี่ยวกับความตายทำให้เราเผชิญหน้ากับความเป็นจริงอันหลีกเลี่ยงไม่ได้ ที่น่าแปลกใจก็คือว่า วิทยาศาสตร์สามารถหาคำตอบให้แก่เราได้มากมายมหาศาล แต่สิ่งหนึ่งที่วิทยาศาสตร์ยังตอบเราไม่ได้เลย ก็คือเกิดอะไรขึ้นหลังจากที่เราได้ตายไปแล้ว ทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างที่นักวิทยาศาสตร์รู้ได้เกี่ยวกับความตาย จะรู้ได้จากการสังเกตคนอื่นที่ตายไปแล้วเท่านั้น กล่าวคืออาจมีการบันทึกน้ำหนักของคนก่อนจะตาย กับหลังจากตายไปแล้ว หรือสังเกตกระบวนการทางสรีรวิทยาของผู้ตาย แต่สิ่งที่วิทยาศาสตร์ไม่ได้ทำเลย คือการศึกษาความตายภายใต้ “มุมมอง” ของผู้ตายนั้นเอง ซึ่งอาจจะเรียกได้ว่าเป็น “มุมมองบุรุษที่หนึ่ง” (first-person perspective) ของผู้ตาย มุมมองหมายถึงว่า เราจะรู้ได้อย่างไรว่าเมื่อตายไปแล้ว เราเองจะเผชิญกับอะไรบ้าง ในฐานะที่เราเป็นผู้รับรู้ประสบการณ์ต่างๆเอง ไม่ใช่ให้คนอื่นมามองร่างกายของเรา เราเองในฐานะผู้ตายจะพบประสบกับอะไรบ้าง เรื่องนี้เป็นจุดบอดที่สำคัญของวิทยาศาสตร์ แต่ก็ต้องยอมรับว่าเป็นจุดที่สำคัญที่ไม่อาจจะหลีกเลี่ยงไม่พูดถึงได้ เนื่องจากประเด็นที่ผู้คนสนใจกันเกี่ยวกับความตาย ไม่ใช่ว่าตายไปแล้วร่างกายจะมีน้ำหนักเปลี่ยนแปลงอย่างไร แต่ “ตัวเอง” ที่เป็นผู้ตายนั้น จะพบกับอะไรบ้าง หรือว่าทุกอย่างจะดับสูญไปหมด ซึ่งก็ยังพิสูจน์ทางวิทยาศาสตร์ไม่ได้เช่นกัน ว่าจะดับสูญเช่นว่าจริง เนื่องจากการดับสูญดังกล่าวนี้ ก็เป็นเรื่องที่ต้องรับรู้ได้ผ่านทางมุมมองของบุรุษที่หนึ่งที่วิทยาศาสตร์มิได้ศึกษาเช่นเดียวกัน

ด้วยเหตุนี้ การอภิปรายศึกษาค้นคว้าเกี่ยวกับความตายจึงมิเพียงแต่เป็นแหล่งรวมของวิชาการต่างๆ เช่นการแพทย์ สรีรวิทยา ชีววิทยา ปรัชญา กฎหมาย หรืออื่นๆเท่านั้น แต่ยังเป็นจุดร่วมระหว่างวิทยาศาสตร์กับศาสนาอีกด้วย ซึ่งศูนย์จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี คณะอักษรศาสตร์ ก็ได้ร่วมมือกับมูลนิธิพันดารา อันเป็นองค์กรเอกชนที่มุ่งสร้างเสริมความสัมพันธ์และความเข้าใจอันดีระหว่างประเพณีของพระพุทธศาสนาในวัฒนธรรมต่างๆ โดยเฉพาะไทยและทิเบต เพื่อจัดการประชุมวิชาการ สัมมนา ฯลฯ เพื่อสร้างเสริมการสนทนาระหว่างพระพุทธศาสนากับวิทยาศาสตร์ ซึ่งทั้งหมดนี้เป็นนิมิตหมายที่ดีอย่างยิ่ง

ท้ายที่สุดนี้ ผมขออวยพรให้การประชุมนี้เป็นไปด้วยดี บรรลุวัตถุประสงค์ทุกประการ ขอเปิดการประชุม “การเตรียมตัวตายอย่างมีสติ เพื่อวาระสุดท้ายอันงดงาม” ณ โอกาสนี้ ขอบคุณครับ

Bioethical Viewpoints: East and West

I am now attending the 11th Asian Bioethics Conference in Singapore. This is a grueling conference where all the papers are presented one after another in one big room from 8:20 am to almost 8 pm. So let’s see what will happen. Four days before this conference there was a bigger one, the World Congress of Bioethics.

The themes of both conferences focused on cultural perspectives on bioethical issues. During the World Congress there was a panel of no fewer than eight panelists who came together to discuss whether issues in bioethics are universal and culturally relative. For example, there has been an ongoing debate whether issues in bioethics, such as conducting research on human subjects, do admit themselves of cultural variety. In other words, since bioethics is a normative discipline, there is the problem whether those norms transcend cultures or are they restricted to the specifics of cultures wherein the norms take place. In conducting research on human subjects, it is well known that the researchers need to obtain signed informed consent forms from the participants (or subjects). In most cases the consent from the concerned individual is enough. The consent is an agreement between the participant and the researcher only. But in some other cases that is not enough. The research needs also to obtain consent of the community leader in order for them to conduct research on individuals within the community. This happens when researchers go to a remote village and contact individuals there directly. This violates a norm of the village itself, which views itself as a close knit community where decisions needs to be made collectively or through the village leader. Hence the need to obtain consent from the leader in addition to that of the individual herself.

This has generated a lot of debates among bioethicists. Key to the debate is the question of what justifies the need for community consent and also what justifies the need for individual consent in the first place. This is where philosophy can be very useful. But what happens is that when philosophers deal with these issues of justification, they have found that different cultures look at the issue differently. One culture may look at the requirement of community consent to be superfluous, or they may even look at this as an encroachment upon the autonomy of the individuals themselves. If somebody can make a decision about your body on your behalf, then you do not have much of control of yourself to begin with. On the other hand, another culture may believe that the addition of the judgment and decision making by the village leader is necessary, because the individual herself is not an isolated entity existing apart from others. The community is a self-subsisting entity, of which the individual is a part. For an individual to make a decision, such as to allow the researcher to perform research on her body, would mean that the individual is somehow cut off from the community, since the decision comes from herself alone. Furthermore, in real settings the individual may feel that she needs to consult the leader, who speaks for the whole community because she defers to the leader’s wisdom on this kind of thing.

Bioethics have been debating this issue for quite some time. At issue, of course, is the question whether community consent is justified. According to some ethical system, this is not necessary because the individual should control her own destiny and for others to decide things for her would be to limit her freedom and autonomy. But according to another system, this is justified because the individual’s ontological status is different. Instead of being fully autonomous, the individual in this system is only part of her own community.

How can we resolve this issue? The debates surrounding cultural perspectives on bioethics are actually about whether judgments in bioethics are universal and culture-transcendent, or whether they are culture-specific. In addition, the debate is also about “Eastern” and “Western” perspectives. The two kinds of debate are not exactly the same (although many bioethics have always tended to conflate the two). Furthermore, the debate can also be between the East and the West. These need to be spelled out clearly. The first kind of debate is between those who believe that ethical norms are universal and those who do not believe that. The second kind is between those who believe that the Western perspective is universal, and all other perspectives outside of the West are wrong (this also includes those who believe that only the Eastern perspective is right — they may differ about who is right, but they agree that among the two views, at least one must be true). The third kind, moreover, is a straightforward debate between the two perspectives. Instead of talking about “East” or “West,” those who enter the third kind of debate focus their attention on the concrete issues at hand, such as how to obtain informed consent from participants, or the best policy for mother surrogacy, and so on. Representatives from the eastern and western cultures can enter the debate of the third kind without realizing that they come from different cultures.

If this is the case, then we need to be clear first at what level the debate about cultural perspectives on bioethics is. It seems to be that most debates are of the second kind. That is, debates as to which system is universal. Most of the World Congress panelists believed that their judgments are universal and should be accepted and enforced by all cultures. In fact we need to take this position, because if we did not–if we believed instead that validity of arguments depend on where you are from, then there is no point in having intercultural discussion at all. So the standard of good argument needs to transcend cultures.

I think what is lacking in these debates about cultural perspectives is a kind of argument aiming at showing that judgment stemming from a non-western culture is a universal one that should be accepted by all bioethicists. For example, the view that the individual is embedded within the web of social and cultural relations and actually depends on the web for her being should be accepted universally, because it will help solve a lot of problems that we are facing globally in bioethics. It will emphasize he importance of compassion and sympathy, for example, but unfortunately this was not mentioned much at all during these meetings.

What is Emptiness?

I have talked quite a lot in this blog about emptiness, but in the Buddhist sense. However, here is a lecture by Kim Greist from University of California at San Diego on precisely the same topic, but from the standpoint of contemporary physics. Are things in the end one and the same?

How did “Zero” Give Rise to Everything?

While I am writing this, I am now in Singapore with my son Ken. I have attended the workshop on “Bright Dark Ages,” which is organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies here. Their aim is to rethink what is known as the “Grand Question” posed by the work of British historian of science Joseph Needham. For those who may not know him already, Needham is widely known for his monumentally huge work on science and civilization in China. And the Grand Question here is why it is the case that, given the tremendous advances made by the Chinese civilization in matters of science and technology for the past millennia, modern science did not develop there.

Many of the participants debated and analyzed this question from many angles, but I won’t focus on this point here in this post. I would rather talk about one of the papers presented in the workshop on the numeral ‘zero.’ As is well known, zero originated in India around the Middle Ages. However, the author, George G Joseph from the UK, pointed out that the use of the concept “zero” was found in many other cultures which were contemporary or even older than India. For example, the Egyptian had the concept nfr, which means ‘beautiful’. This happened when the account sums up the costs and expenses of some transaction and found that the two were equal. So the word ‘nfr’ is written instead of a numeral.

Back to India, Joseph told us that the numeral ’0′ originated from the Buddhist conception of “sunyata” or “emptiness.” So this was what perked up my attention. The idea is that from zero everything comes to be, and the zero is prevalent in anything and everything. I was immediately reminded of Nagarjuna’s dictum that emptiness gives rise to everything in the world, and that everything in the world resolves back to emptiness. Mathematics and reality are much more closer to each other than I thought previously.

So how did zero give rise to all other numbers? I don’t remember what Joseph said here in detail. Perhaps I have to look at his paper. But the idea is that without the zero, no mathematical computation that would give rise to more and more numbers than there are symbols for was not possible. If you have a symbol standing for a fixed number only, then you will have to have an infinite number of different symbols standing for an infinite number of numbers. That is certainly impossible. With zero, you can have the positional system of representing number, whereby the position a numeral is placed signifies the number times by the nth power of the base, which is usually ten. So the numeral ’2′ in 20 represents the number 20 but not number 2, and so on.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness gives rise to all things because for anything to be a ‘thing’ at all, it has to be delineated and outlined in such a way that its boundary is clearly marked from all other things. Without emptiness, such boundary construction would not be possible. There is a saying quoted in Joseph’s paper that emptiness must be there so that the architect could work on defining an area with walls — otherwise this defining an area would not be possible. Furthermore, one can also see that emptiness is also everywhere in anything. Since all things change their forms, their characters and so on, their “empty” feature needs to be present as a condition which makes the changes possible.

We can talk quite a lot about these things, but I’ll keep this for the later posts.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Before we speculate on the future of the Internet, let us go back deep in time, very deep indeed, just close to the beginning of the universe itself. I came across this amazing video from YouTube about the “Hubble Ultra Deep Field:”

It makes us wonder about what it is all about and why things are what they are right now, doesn’t it? The Hubble was pointed to an area in the sky where there was apparently nothing, but in the end it found out that this area was full of very distant galaxies, and as they are very distant they look very old from our perspective, so old that the light traveling from them shifted the wavelengths and they appear reddish to us. This phenomenon also corroborates the theory that the universe is expanding at a very fast rate, and they say in the video that it is faster than the speed of light itself.

This naturally makes us wonder. On the one hand we realize that we are just a tiny speck in the universe, but on the other, does the light from these distant galaxies are traveling toward “us”? It surely seems to be because we are the ones who are watching this video right now and are reflecting on the meaning of it all. So even if we are a tiny speck, we seem to be at the center of it all because we are thinking about it. The fact that we are conscious makes all the difference.

So what does the Buddhist say about this issue? The message of the Buddha is nothing if not directed toward the mind, toward realization of how to become one with reality such that we are released from the bondage of suffering. There is always a human dimension in the teaching. So it is well and good that we are perceive all these distant galaxies but the really important message  should be how these images point to our own realization inside ourselves. We are looking deeper and deeper at the outside, but are we beginning to look any deeper into the inside? Are we looking at our minds?

After all, it is our minds that comprehend the vastness of the univese and marvel at it. But what is more marvellous is our mind itself. In the end, however, there is not much difference between the two. Hubble ultra deep field may satisfy our curiosity, in the same way as vistas of unseen geographical regions satisfied the curiosity of our forefathers a century ago. We want to know what is out there. That is why we went to the North Pole and sent out subs to explore the ocean floor. But all these explorations would come to nothing if we do not explore the mind. If we keep on searching the outside, some part of ourselves will always be missing. Before long these images from Hubble will cease to be exciting and then we will crave more and more. More images, deeper resolution, going deeper in space and time, build a large telescope, and so on.

This is not a bad thing in itself. But if we do not accompany these yearnings by looking deeper at our mind, then we won’t be any different from what we are right now. We will still be yearning, suffering creatures we used to be even with much more powerful telescopes than the Hubble.

So the feeling we have, the sense of spirituality we feel through looking at these deep space images perhaps shows that there is a connection between the outside and the inside. We need to stop and reflect more and be more sensitive to what this feeling tells us. If we keep on doing so, perhaps one day we may arrive at a deja vu, things we have been yearning to see turning out to be what is already there in us all along.

Buddhism and Mathematics

One of the many topics that was raised during the talk on the Thai translation of Matthieu Ricard’s and Trinh Xuan Thuan’s book concerned the relation between Buddhist thought and mathematics. There have of course been quite a lot of talks about how Buddhism and science are related, but not much at all on Buddhism and mathematics. So that was a welcome change. Unfortunately we did not spend much time on this fascinating topic.

It was credit to Ricard and Thuan that they spend one entire chapter on this topic. The idea is how mathematics is related to reality and what the Buddhists think of that. The eleventh chapter of the book is entitled “The Grammar of the Universe” or something like that. What is interesting is how mathematics is an accurate description of reality at all. Which comes first, mathematics or the world?

On the one hand, this is a very simple point. We all know that two plus two equals four. So you have two things, add another two, and count the result, which is of course four. But the premise of mathematics is that you cannot get mathematics (or logic for that matter) out of empirical observation. You just cannot form a general statement “2 + 2 = 4″ from just observing two things and another two things. The reason is that you have somehow to know before hand that two plus two equals four in order for you to be able to get the conclusion that these two things and these other two make four! This is Kant’s main argumentative strategy in his entire critical philosophy. And for Kant mathematics is a prime example of what he calls “synthetic a priori” judgments, e.g., judgments that are true by virtue of their correspondence with some outside measuring point but which is known entirely through thinking alone.

We are not actually discussing Kant here; the point is that if the truth of mathematics does not come from observation, then it must come from inside. Ricard and Thuan discussed that perhaps this situation implies that there is some universal and all powerful mind whose thinking made all mathematical statements true (all the true ones, of course). It is this big mind that guarantees that two plus two equals four, that the sum of the squares on the side of the two legs of a right angle triangle is equal to that on the hypotenuse, that the law of modus ponens (‘p’ and ‘if p then q’ always implies ‘q’), and so on.

So this big mind might refer to God. So here the discussion went on to see what the Buddhists think about this. I don’t quite remember what Ricard, the Buddhist representative in the book, made of this, so I am going to present my own thought. I also did this during the talk last Saturday, but time was so limited then.

I think the main difference between the theistic religions like Christianity and Islam and non-theistic one like Buddhism might not appear as large as one might think. Buddhism would have no problem recognizing the Big Mind alluded to above, so long as that refers, not to some external being, but in fact to our own minds. It is us who create mathematics and it is ultimately speaking our own minds, working together collectively, that create the world such that it is true of mathematics. In other words, we could also say that we human beings are gods unto ourselves. There is a Big Mind that creates reality corresponding to math, yes, but that Mind is not apart from us.

Whether this is shocking or not depends on your view on theism. If you believe that humans are apart from God, then you’d find this shocking. However, this is entirely correspondent with the Buddhist attitude that salvation is ultimately the person’s own responsibility and lies entirely within the person’s power to achieve. The Buddha is only a teacher. You don’t need to follow his teaching. The Buddha has no power to drag you to Liberation. No being does. You have to do it yourself.

Coming down from theological discussion and back down to earth, we see that the idea that it is human mind itself that creates mathematics to which reality belongs makes quite a lot of sense. We form mathematics and we perceive the world according to the same conceptual structure that formed the math in the first place, so no wonder the world corresponds to it. However, even thought mathematics looks very certain, it does not describe what reality is like ultimately speaking. This is because all mathematics depends on concepts and language (so is logic), and once you have concepts, you have to divide reality into separate chunks. So at best mathematics is a model or a map, and no map can become identical to the reality it is the map of. This refers to the doctrine of Emptiness or sunyata. We can say that math can always approach that, but never reach it, because if it does, then it would cease to be the math that it is.

The Quantum and the Lotus

My next talk will be at Thammasat University this Saturday. It is on the new translation of the book The Quantum and the Lotus, which has just been completed by Suan Ngern Mee Ma Press. The book is an extended conversation between Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan. The former is a former molecular biologist who turned to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and the latter was born in a Buddhist culture and became a well known astrophysicist working in the US.

So we have a symmetrical contrast — a French scientist who became a monk and a Vietnamese who became a scientist. The symmetry would have been more perfect if Thuan had been a monk first and then disrobed. But that is not too necessary. The idea of the book is a dialog on various topics between Buddhism, represented by Ricard, and science, represented in Thuan. This in itself is a welcoming reversal to the perhaps stereotypical perception that science belongs to the West and Buddhism to the East.

The book started with a background of both Ricard and Thuan — how both became what they are right now, and it gave an account of the two’s long conversation together when they met in a conference, an event which led to the present book. The chapters deal with topics which are of interest to both Buddhists and the scientists, such as, the structure of matter, the beginning and the end of the universe, mind, consciousness, mathematics, whether real knowledge and truth can be obtained through either Buddhism or science, and so on.

The first chapter opened with a general account of the orientation of both Buddhism and science. What are the purposes or the objectives of both enterprises? Science, of course, aims at finding truth about the natural phenomena, theories that would explain how the phenomena came about and how they are to be understood. Buddhism, according to Ricard, aims at the same goal. Buddhism has an interest in knowing what the truth is like, because then the practitioner would gain an insight which will lead him or her to attain the Final Goal, that of liberation from all sufferings.

And here is the main difference between science and Buddhism lies. Science appears to want to know how things are just for the sake of it, or at least that is the version usually put to us by scientists, who claim that the purpose of basic, in contrast to applied, science, is just to know the truth without using the acquired knowledge for some other purposes. This account of the distinction between basic and applied science is very much contested, because even the so-called basic science is fraught with interests which are immediate and social, but that would take us further from the present point of this essay, so more on this later. The point here is that the version of the real distinction between basic and applied science here appears to contrast with Buddhism. For Buddhism it is not enough just to learn how things are just for the sake of it. Buddhists would say that that is an example of lobha, or desire, in this case desire for more and more knowledge. If this is so, then the desire for more knowledge would lead us further away from the Final Goal. So if science is viewed in this way, then the objectives of both seem to lead each in opposite directions.

The Thai version

The Thai version

That does not seem to be what Ricard has in mind in his dialog with his physicist counterpart. According to Ricard, Buddhism has an interest in finding truth about the natural phenomena, and he apparently believes that only through getting at this truth is the Goal possible. However, if such is really the case, then it becomes difficult to understand how the Goal has actually been achieved by countless practitioners of Buddhism throughout the ages. This is because even now such truth about the natural phenomena has not been fully achieved. Scientists are still debating among themselves and are frankly acknowledging that there is a lot that we do not yet know about our natural world. What, for example, is Dark Matter or Dark Energy? Right now there is no satisfactory account. Are there really parallel universes or ‘multiverses’ where our own is just one among countlessly many?

According to Ricard, one would have to learn about how things really are before one has a chance to gain Realization. After quoting the Buddha in one of the sutras when he told his students that his teachings were only a handful when compared to the whole of knowable things, which were as many as all the leaves in the forest, Ricard says:

But experience shows that it is necessary to understand correctly the nature of the exterior world and of the ego, or what we term ‘reality,’ if we want to eliminate ignorance. That is why the Buddha made this the central theme of his teaching. (The Quantum and the Lotus, Random House 2001, pp. 12-13.)

The problem here is how much of this ‘correct understanding’ would suffice. The Buddha’s parable of the leaves in his hand and the leaves in the forest shows that we can make do with the small amount we have and achieve the Goal. This would be all we need if what we really want is to achieve the Goal and nothing else. Science, on the other hand, seems to want more and more. You can’t stop at the level where you smash atoms to bits; you have to smash the bits further and get even smaller bits. You can’t stop at seeing this far out in space; you have see even further and further. But do the ever smaller bits belong to the leaves in the Buddha’s hands or out there in the forest?

It is true in a way that Buddhism has an interest in knowing the reality. Ricard’s examples of knowing the real nature of the ego and the “empty” characteristic of everything are good ones. But in Buddhism it does ultimately speaking not matter whether what you get is the real truth any way, so long as you sincerely believe it is. This is very difficult for non-Buddhists and especially scientists to understand, because they typically would think that our own thinking or conception of things is one thing, and what is out there objectively is another. But that is not the case in Buddhism. You will achieve Liberation if you sincerely believe that the ego is just a mental or conceptual construction and that reality is empty of inherent characteristics. What things really are outside of our conception or perception is not so important. They can be anything they like. They don’t matter at all.

One of the main practices in Tantric Buddhism is to visualize that the place that we are in right now is the Buddha’s realm full of jewels and the like. Every sound that we hear is mantra; every sight that of an enlightened being; the air we breathe is the air of Enlightenment, and so on. Here what scientists or empiricists usually take to be the “truth” has no place. In full visualization, in the eyes of an enlightened one, a “truth” is just that, a bubble in the water.