Monday, June 29, 2009

Buddhism and the permanence of matter

The Dalai Lama (the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the world’s most prominent Buddhists) has indicated that he believes that Buddhism is ready for scientific analysis in the age of reason. I agree with this assessment – indeed I believe all the world’s religions need to be ready for scrutiny and analysis in the age of reason. To this end the Dalai Lama has indicated that Buddhist scriptures disproved by modern science should be abandoned.

I was thinking about how some ideas from science may conflict with the idea of impermanence which plays a moderately prominent role in some Buddhist texts.

One example may be whether matter as we know it is permanent or impermanent.

At present science has never observed natural proton decay (a theoretical process whereby a proton (a basic particle of matter) will decay thus no longer being a proton). At present, science has not found any evidence that protons do indeed decay. If this is true then protons are permanent and their existence may conflict with some Buddhist interpretations of impermanence. In fact, a physics project in Canada (the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) indicates that the half-life of a proton is AT LEAST (2.1×10^29 years or 200 octillion years or 200,000 trillion trillion years – note that the accepted age of the universe is only about 14 billion years – a teeny tiny percentage by comparison). This sounds pretty ridiculously stable. Whether the proton will ultimately unravel in trillions of trillions of years or never may one day be demonstrated and would be very interesting in the context of Buddhist teachings.

The Buddhist idea of impermanence is often applied to the nature of a human's life. I have previously argued in favour of predestiny. If predestiny could be demonstrated to be true then the predestined nature of the universe would be fundamentally permanent.

Jacob Levman