(This is going to be a ‘philosophical’ entry.) The more I read about nanotechnology and look into the science, the more I wonder about the nature of reality. Serendipitously, the Dalai Lama was in Vancouver (Canada) recently which occasioned an article (by Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, p. C5) titled Exploring the nature of reality; Buddhism and science are not always in agreement, but they still have much in common. (The Dalai Lama is quite interested in science and he supported a series of dialogues between scientists and Buddhists which started in 1987.(
From the Buddhist perspective, reality is an illusion so there cannot be indivisible particles such as electrons and quarks which, according to scientists, are the basic building blocks for matter. Consequently, you cannot use measurements (of charge, mass, and spin angular momentum) to prove their existence as the measurements themselves are illusory. From the article,
The Dalai Lama put it this way: “things and their properties are mutually dependent … one can speak of an entity only in relation to attributes, and one can speak of attributes only in relation to an entity. Once you have conceptually removed all the attributes, it is nonsensical to speak of what remains.”
These Buddhist concepts are in sharp contrast to what many scientists believe, i.e. there are indivisible objects and matter is real.
Getting back to Buddhism, it reminds me a little of Bruno Latour’s work, Laboratory Life; The Construction of Scientific Facts, where he points out that the practice of science is very much informed by perception, social relations, and belief.
As as I’m concerned, it’s always been a’ best guess’ scenario and one proceeds with a theory as long as it works. I found out that I am not alone; there is a philosophy for thinkers like me, ‘instrumentalism’. From the article,
… [scientific] theories are seen as ways of explaining, predicting and controlling phenomena, and concepts like electrons are viewed as constructs that help us to make predictions and control nature. Instrumentalism therefore doesn’t deny reality. If it did, there would be no chance of making accurate predictions because there would be nothing to predict and nothing to control. Rather, instrumentalism merely says that our scientific theories don’t get to the ultimate truth about reality. But they work, and that’s what’s important.
(If you want to read more from the article, go here.) As noted earlier, I’ve been playing with these ideas as I’ve been exploring nanotechnology and the quantum world. In reading about nanotech and quantum realities, it’s always a leap of the imagination. The descriptions of what occurs at the atomic and molecular levels contradicts the sensory input I receive. Take this for example from an article by Michael Berger (Shaking hands with a virus — getting all touchy-feely with nanotechnology) on Nanowerk,
So while your ‘reality’ tells you that you are sitting in your chair right now as you are reading this, reality at the subatomic level means that you are not really sitting in your chair – thanks to the repulsion of your and the chair’s electrons you are actually floating on it at a height of a fraction of a nanometer.
This a complete contradiction of what I perceive and yet scientists say it’s so and on the basis of their work have made all kinds of quantum discoveries which have been applied to real world products.
In common with quantum particles, my objects too can be measured (they have weight, dimension, hardness, state [gas/liquid/solid], etc.) My perceptions and my measurements are the only proof I have of reality and yet according to scientists there is another reality at the nano scale and their means of proving that ‘nano’ reality is similar to mine.This all leads to the question I started with, what is the nature of reality? (more next week)
On a somewhat related note, I’ve got a lovely short story from Bruno Breathnach, A simple glass of water, which has a very Buddhist flavour.