Are the Laws of Physics Empty of Inherent Existence? – Modern Koans

Posted by in Modern Koans, Writings

Question: Are space, time and the “rules and laws” of physics conditioned like regular phenomena (as the buddha taught) or do they exist inherently? If they do exist inherently, would that mean they don’t need a cause? Doesn’t seem right…

Response: Really great question.  I don’t have the answer, but here are my thoughts.

This puzzle draws out the urge to say, “Well, the laws of physics are over there on the ‘reality’ side of things. So they’re different”

But, if philosophy has taught us anything, it’s that we have a tenuous relationship with “reality”. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem closed the book on this in the early 20th century.

If philosophy has taught us anything, it’s that we have a tenuous relationship with “reality” Click To Tweet

Gödel’s theorem gives us a clear sense that there is boundary between the human mind (theory) and the thing we call “reality”.  It’s also true that the scope of that disparity need not be dramatic. Our best theories meet some pretty high bars for accuracy, including explaining past phenomenon and predicting new ones.

But I do see a couple of ways you could argue the laws of physics are conditioned phenomenon (empty of existence, impermanent, and the result of some cause)

  1. Theories have change over time. Since thinkers like Bacon, William of Ockham, and Descartes established the groundwork for the modern scientific method, our understanding of the world has improved dramatically.  Improvement is change.  So, it’s not unreasonable to say that improvement will continue.
  2. Input Constraints – Our view of the universe is conditioned by the range and type of sensory input we’re capable of detecting and processing. Before we had instruments to detect infrared light or stars in adjacent galaxies, we either had no clue that some phenomenon existed or had very limited data with which to construct adequate theories. While we’ve significantly expanded the reach of the human mind, but there are some phenomena that remain beyond our reach (e.g. dark matter). It’s likely that there are some surprises out there.

I think this latter point is a common sense example of how the laws are an object of mind. All objects of mind are by definition impermanent, arise from a cause, and are therefore empty of inherent existence.

I would also suggest that cosmologists generally agree that the laws of physics could be different given a different set of causes.  It intuitively feels hard to prove this, but I think it’s because we have no view to the other side of the Big Bang.

I’m very interested in some of the quantum theory predictions that imply that the big bang may not be time zero. It seems possible, because all the points in time from now back to just after the big bang, 100% of them flowed from a past. What an odd exception to say that for one particular moment 14 billion years ago there wasn’t a past.

What an odd exception to say that for one particular moment 14 billion years ago there wasn’t a past. Click To Tweet

Do physics and Buddhism mix? Or are mysticism and science incompatible? Is this just nerd speak?

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I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Modern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important than their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton

Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst

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Andrew Furst

Author of two books, Poet, Meditation Teacher, Buddhist blogger, backup guitarist for his teenage boys, lucky husband and technologist
Andrew Furst
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