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Buddhism and Science

by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, May 2000

I'm not sure if it was intentional or just coincidence, but James Higgo's article "The Fun of Physics" in this month's issue of The Middle Way provides a nice refutation of an assertion by Trevor Leggett a few issues earlier. In his May 1999 article "Thus Have I Heard", Mr Leggett criticises the view held by some scientists that the concept of an intelligent creator is unnecessary because the universe might just as well have arisen, by chance, without one. When I first read this, Mr Leggett's message struck me as oddly non-Buddhist, in that invoking a creator to explain the coherence of the universe seems akin to invoking a soul to explain the coherence of a person (and his analogy of the goatherd girl on the mountain sounds like something a non-Buddhist would come up with to contest the notion of anatta).

Having read Mr Higgo's article, I would now guess that the scientists Mr Leggett was referring to are subscribers to the "Many Worlds" interpretation of physics, or something like it. If all possible universes exist, most of them barren of intelligent life or anything else that would be recognisable to us, then somewhere among them it is inevitable that this particular universe would arise - without the need for any creator. "Chance", in the sense of the game of cards Mr Leggett describes, doesn't enter into it. What is important is not the a priori probability of our universe (which I agree may be very improbable indeed), but the fact that a posteriori it is an absolute certainty. Given that we can only observe the universe we exist in, then of course it's exactly the way it is. If we have a perception that it's special in any way, then this is an illusion caused by our internal perspective of it (much as the illusion of self arises from the internal perspective of a person).

Copyright © 2000, 2001 Andrew May

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