Newtonian Science and Buddhist Phenomenology: Another view


Professor Shelton Gunaratne, writing from Moorehead, Minnesota (Island, 2-11-2016) has made some strong claims about Newtonian science, communication science and Buddhist Phenomenology. Since similar claims are often made in the popular press, I beg to present a different opinion, which is in fact the main-stream view of most practicing scientists as far as I know.

Dr. Gunaratne, and many other writers make statements in the popular press about the "linearity" of the "Newtonian-Cartesian-Paradigm", that classical science "glosses over part-whole/system-environment relationships" and that it is "reductionist", and not "holistic". Prof. Gunaratne says that "the PS (Pattichcha Samuthpada) paradigm holistically examines the interconnectedness of all living systems by illustrating the nonlinear interactions of the Five [interdependent] Aggregates.

Eng. Asoka Abeygunawardena, a JHU activist and engineer, writing under the title "Wither the Toxin Free Nation" (24-09-2016, Island) asserts that "The scientific basis of holism is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Holism) rejects the idea of studying components to understand the whole as scientifically untenable ... Reductionism maintains that changes in nature are linear but holism understands that it is cyclic and that nature exists in a state of dynamic equilibrium".

I claim no expertise on Buddhist "Phenomenology" except for growing up within a Buddhist culture and having been a President of the Vidyodaya University which started as a "Buddhist" university, and having personally known many Buddhist scholars like Ven. Walpola Rahula in Sri Lanka and in France, and other scholars in USA. Hence I know enough of Buddhism to contend that there is no concept of heresy in Buddhism, and that each person has to understand it according to one's individual ability and culture, aided by instructions from the "Elders", as emphasized in "Ehi passiko". Ven. Walpola Rahula regarded the mind as an organ (an "indriya", or faculty) that has arisen out of the brain, in agreement with the position taken in the Visuddhi Magga by Ven. Buddhagosa. Instead of such issues, here I will concentrate mostly on what Dr. Gunaratne has said about Newtonian science and modern science.

Of course, it is impossible to answer all these issues in a short article. I tried to answer many such questions in a nearly 600-page book entitled "A physicist's view of matter and Mind" (World Scientific, 2013). Some of that material is readily available in a more preliminary form at the website As these questions interest many others, we examine the issues raised by Dr. Gunaratne.

Newtonian science, and its modern progeny which is quantum physics, have been my disciplines of research and teaching for over four decades. Communication science too has become part of these disciplines since Claude Shannon at Bell labs, and his successors like Rolf Landauer (at IBM) quantitatively linked communication science to concepts like Entropy and Quantum Information. Digital representation of all sensory inputs to an extent well beyond the cognitive capacity of human perception is available today, as seen in high-definition TV and virtual reality. We have even gone beyond binary bits to qubits. The sixth sense, namely intuition, is also used by scientists and formalized into the power of mathematics. Mathematics is NOT merely an extension of logic, but something more, as established by the failure of the program of Russell and Whitehead, and the emergence of Goedel's theorem.

Let us first take this claim that Newtonian Physics, or the Cartesian Paradigm, is linear. None of these writers has ever told us in what respect (i.e., in what variable), it is supposed to be linear. Since Dr. Gunaratne writes from a Buddhist perspective, he will grant the universality of change - everything is a variable. In Science, microscopic changes in any variable are known as a "differentials". The laws of physics (i.e., of all science) are equations among these differentials. Such "differential equations" found in Newtonian physics are NOT linear. That is why water flowing quietly along a river can become full of eddies, form waves and even tsunamis. There are not only orderly processes, but also chaotic processes in nature. Not only do we have cyclic processes, but also fractals and other complex structures, which all follow from the differential equations of Newton. So what is this "linearity" that Dr. Gunaratne talks of? Why does Eng. Abeygunawardena think that "reductionist" Newtonian science is linear while "holisms" are cyclic? If holisms are simply limited to circular processes, it would make them useless for anything.

There are a lot of misconceptions about holisms and reductionisms. If you have to study a drop of water, an ingot of Uranium, or an earthworm, what is the difference in practice between studying any of them "holistically", and by "reductionism"? A scientist studying water will break it down and find that it is made up of two atoms of hydrogen, and one atom of oxygen. But scientists do NOT say that water is just the SUM of one oxygen and two hydrogens. Water is the sum of one oxygen, two hydrogens AND the interactions (i.e., force fields) among the atoms. Given the components, and their force fields, everything about water can be predicted and confirmed by observation. In science the whole is equal to the parts and their interactions.

Can Dr. Gunaratne say what additional "holistic" properties are found in water, that scientists cannot predict using the fact that water is made up of two H atoms, and one O atom and their Coulomb interactions? The same method works for more complex systems. We even know the complete "brain circuitry" of the earthworm (thanks to Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner and his team) and we can effectively predict its behavior. Biology is within the ambit of physics. The study of the "brain circuitry" of the sea slug (by Nobel Laureate Eric Kendall and his team), a primitive creature with a small number of neurons, enabled neuroscientists to produce a successful drug for Schizophrenia, and also understand how human memory works.

We already noted that Newtonian-Cartesian science is highly nonlinear. In fact, the dynamical laws of Newton (which govern most phenomena relevant to human activities) lead to what are known as Hamilton-Jacobi equations, which are extremely non-linear in the relevant variables. So there is no basis to the claim that Newtonian science is "linear". On the other hand, the laws of the new physics based on the Quantum theory use differential equations which are linear. Hence it is the new physics which is a linear theory! Also, its predictions are valid only in a statistical sense! God (i.e., laws of nature) does play dice, to the consternation of Einstein! And yet, popular writers never seem to attack modern physics, because they believe, after having read Fritjof Capra, Henry Stapp or others, that the "individual mind" can once again "take control". They think that the "new physics" allows them a place for anything from eastern mysticism to new-age revelations. These "interpretations" are highly popular with the public, and are often supported by misquotes from Einstein or Schrodinger, taken out of context. Van Kampen, a famous Dutch physicist and student of the foundations of science has called it the "Scandal of Physics Popularizations" that pander to the public hunger for the supernatural.


Chandre Dharmawardana,

Ottawa, Canada

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...