- Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge
Although I never met Vic Mansfield in person, I was sad to learn, as I sat down to write the review of this book, that he had passed away last summer after a two-year bout with lymphoma, just shortly after this volume had been released from the printer. Mansfield received his PhD in theoretical astrophysics from Cornell University and taught at Colgate University from 1973 until his death. Over his long teaching career, he published a number of essays in scholarly and physics journals as well as book chapters. Prior to the book under review, he had also written Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making: Understanding Jungian Synchronicity through Physics, Buddhism, and Philosophy (Open Court, 1995), and Head and Heart: A Personal Exploration of Science and the Sacred (Quest, 2002). All three volumes are similar in the sense that Mansfield was writing autobiographically about his work at the interface of science and Buddhist philosophy. It was precisely in this sense that I felt a personal loss in learning about his demise, much more than just that an author, or a physicist, or a philosopher had died. The following reflections on Mansfield's latest and final testament are presented in his memory, in the hopes that they might spark others, including Christian readers of this journal, toward the union of love and knowledge that he sought.
Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics unfolds over seven chapters, with the first three laying out the need for dialogue, overviewing some preliminary observations of parallels and disjunctions between quantum mechanics and Buddhist compassion, and introducing the Middle Way Consequence School (Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika) of the Mahāyāna tradition. Although he received a Roman Catholic parochial education (and much later made peace with the religious tradition of his youth, as told in Head and Heart), Mansfield has long been a student of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and for many years taught a course in the Colgate core curriculum on Tibet. Now Mansfield is careful to warn against attempting to "prove" the truths of Buddhism by appeal to physics or science. Yet the apologetic temptation is undoubtedly difficult to [End Page 163] hold off completely, as when—even if such statements appear only sporadically—we read that "no other major religious worldview has such an arresting and detailed connection to modern physics" (p. 45). By and large, however, Buddhism and science are regarded as distinct, even if complementary, "languages."
Chapters 4–6 attempt to further the dialogue between the notion of quantum nonlocality and Buddhist emptiness, to explore the challenge regarding noncausality that quantum mechanics poses to the Tibetan tradition, and to engage the puzzles posed by relativity theory for both scientific and Buddhist understandings of time and temporality. Notable aspects of the discussion include Mansfield's observation that the incomprehensible and impossible (according to Newtonian physical laws) quantum fact of "simultaneous action at a distance" reflects the Buddhist notion that nothing has independent or self-inherent existence, even as quantum nonlocality may illuminate the mystery of interpersonal knowledge we have of other persons, not to mention the feelings of compassion and love we have for and receive from others. It is the parallels of such a quantum mechanically confirmed notion of interdependence with Middle Way Buddhist ideas that is suggestive of what Mansfield calls a "physics of peace" (p. 90)—or what we might also call an ontology of peace. Further, the quantum mechanical problem that there is no causal explanation for the collapse of the wave function is confronted head-on. This finds extension in the basically ateleological character of biological (Darwinian) evolution, but it is simultaneously problematic for a Buddhist tradition that is deeply indebted to a robust view of causality. On this issue, Mansfield courageously admits he can only hope that "holding this tension with intensity and integrity will allow some synthetic and satisfying point of view to arise, but there is no guarantee that such a view will...