Does everything observable have a physical explanation

This post is to explore an idea raised in another post: the difference between the physical domain and the non-physical domain

So this is an attempt to tease that out a bit. This is made up so hope it doesn’t upset anyway by bringing back bad memories:

Hypothetical situation:
John drives his car into a tree at speed and dies.


Answer 1:

  1. John’s brain sent a signal down the spinal cord to the muscles in his legs
  2. The signal triggers shortening of the muscle
  3. The shortening causes movement of the attached bones
  4. The movement of the bones causes down pressure on the car’s accelerator
  5. That pressure causes increased supply of fuel into the engine
  6. The combustion causes the wheels to turn faster
  7. The grip on the road of the tire tread causes the car to move faster
  8. The car contacts the tree at speed and John’s body is crushed
  9. The brain, heart, lungs and all internal organs are severely damaged
  10. John dies

Answer 2:

John found his wife having sex with another man

Which answer is right?

My hypothesis is that there is a physical domain, and the western scientific models beautifully explain what is happening in that domain. However, there is another domain, the non-physical domain. So answer 1 is right as it explains what happens in the physical domain. But that answer is wholly unsatisfactory to me. It is the mechanics of what happened, not the ‘real reason’ for what happened.

To tease this out further, you could do blood tests, a lumbar puncture and measure neurotransmitter levels, do an EEG, functional MRI, or an autopsy and examine the brain under a microscope all you like. You may well find things that are up or down or brighter or less bright than in a ‘happy brain’. However, none of those changes will be the primary ‘cause’ of this event if you like. The real reason, the necessary element for this sequence of events to happen is John’s love for his wife and his devastation that his conception of happiness is over, in ‘his mind’ (ie as distinct from what is going on in his ‘brain’).

As I see it

  1. Science is the operation manual for the physical and
  2. Dhamma is the operation manual the non-physical

Buddhism isn’t arguing against science, at its core, it is a science in its own domain.

The level that is most relevant is the fact that @Hasantha has body, and that body is the reason this entire inquiry is possible. That body is subject to change. No matter how intently you trace the origin of things in the world, the body is the only form that remains a material basis to any experience whatsoever.

This ↓ is slightly ironical, but perhaps states the difference between Dhamma and science more clearly :smirk:

Dhamma has no conflict with Science proper. Its methods are much the same (i.e., investigation of experience, remembering what has been investigated and forming a true view to accord with the factuality of experience investigated); but the material is different.
Reputable science (Physics) confines itself to the outside world and all science restricts itself (or should do) to publicly observable behaviour. Dhamma is concerned with investigating subjective mind, recognizing the outside material sphere, but leaving it to those who are interested in it. The purposes are different. Science is or should be guided by curiosity only and has no ethics; any ethics it employs are unfounded in it or borrowed from religions or philosophies which it rejects. It has no techniques for handling the subjective (pain, etc.) and can only handle behaviour illegitimately equated with pain (illegitimately because a scientist only knows of the existence of pain (in himself) by taking an unauthorized look into his own subjective unscientific experience). Dhamma is concerned solely with the elimination of pain, to which all else is subordinated. (Sep. 56)

Nanamoli Thera

Things’ we may say ‘obey the laws of science…except when they don’t.’ Or, to be more precise, ‘the laws of science are less uniformly valid in one region than in another.’ Details are not necessary here; what is important is the general idea.

But is it necessary to doubt the scientific assumption? Are we obliged to reject the simple and convenient view of the universal validity of science for the undeniably more complicated and tiresome view suggested above? Imagine that, by accident, you rest your bare arm on a hot stove. You will undoubtedly lift your arm in a hurry. Why? Because contact with the hot stove is painful, you may say. But this won’t do at all. What we want is an account of the changes that took place in your nervous system from the time your arm was rested on the stove to the time it was raised; and this account must be in strictly scientific terms. Pain, however, is not a scientific term. We can speak of an electrical or chemical impulse travelling along a nerve up your arm to your brain; for these are all things that can be publicly observed (in theory at least) by each one of a team of physiologists who are experimenting on you. But the pain you feel is strictly private: not even in theory can the team of physiologists observe it.[c] (You can tell them that you feel pain, of course, but this does not make the pain public: what is public here is the sound of your voice, and the meaning of the words you utter is quite irrelevant—to allow that your words are meaningful is to beg the whole question.) A physiologist can observe an impulse moving up your arm, but he cannot observe a pain moving up your arm; only you can do that (if, for example, a red-hot needle is moved on your skin from the elbow to the shoulder; but not, of course, if your nerve is stimulated at a stationary point, when all you will feel is a stationary pain). This means (and I shall emphasize it by underlining it) that a physiologist must make no reference whatsoever to feeling (pleasure, pain, indifference) in his account of human behaviour. If he fails to abstain he abandons scientific method.

A physiologist is bound to maintain that the pain you felt when your arm was against the stove had nothing at all to do with the immediately subsequent removal of the arm from the stove (nor with your remarks about it); he must maintain this because he is obliged to claim, if he is to be consistent, that he can fully account for the movement of your arm (and the sound of your voice) in terms of neural mechanisms alone and without any reference to the pain. And if feeling plays no part in our actions we must count it a fortunate coincidence that the state of the nervous system to which the painful feeling of a burning arm corresponds happens to be one that brings about removal of the arm from the hot surface: if the converse were true, and the nervous system pressed the arm down still harder on the hot surface, we should have a pretty miserable time of it. Imagine it: each time we felt pain we should find the neural mechanism making the body do the very thing that aggravated the pain; and perhaps we should find ourselves recoiling from pleasure ‘as if we had been burned’. But no; our bodies, by some happy chance, do just what we should wish them to do—when there is pleasure the body acts in such a way as to prolong it, and when there is pain the body takes action to bring it to an end. Or can it possibly be that feeling does, after all, dictate—to some extent at least—what our bodies shall do? Were we perhaps wrong in so categorically rejecting your original explanation that you raised your arm because contact with the hot stove was painful?

Or consider the case of a man who takes alcohol. Are the motions of buying the bottle, opening it, pouring the contents into a glass, and finally swallowing, wholly to be accounted for without any reference to the fact that he finds it pleasant to be intoxicated? Certainly, there is good experimental evidence that our behaviour will accommodate itself, after a short period, to a change of environment in such a way as to give us the least possible discomfort in the altered circumstances.[d] This is the principle upon which the conditioning of reflexes depends—a rat is repeatedly made uncomfortable by an electric shock if he behaves in a certain way, and, in consequence, ‘learns’ to behave in a different way.

But if we are to allow, as clearly enough we must, that feeling is capable of affecting the state of the nervous system (either by determining a specific action, such as raising the arm off a hot stove, or by conditioning a fairly lasting change in behaviour), then we shall find ourselves obliged to abandon the postulate of the universal validity of the laws of science. So long as feeling depended upon the state of the nervous system and the state of the nervous system upon scientific determinism, all was well; but if, in addition, the state of the nervous system must be admitted to depend upon feeling, then (at least in the eyes of science) we enter the realms of chaos; for feeling, not being publicly observable, is not a scientific entity, and cannot therefore be governed by any laws of science, and the behaviour of the nervous system, accordingly, ceases to be wholly rational. In short, the living body, and the nervous system in particular, are regions where the laws of science are manifestly less uniformly valid than elsewhere.

The writing is cogent and “to the point,” so being impressed, looked into his work. Seeing some commonalities, continued to look into his life for the first time…


Not sure I want to look further. I’m thinking one’s nervous system should have the rationality and quiescence required for such a task.

In the philosophy of science, what you’re asking turns into ‘what is a scientific explanation’, ‘what is a mechanism?’ etc.

You’re probably not surprised to hear that very smart people have different ideas about which answer is right, or what it even means to explain something or give an account of why or how something happened.

One way to think which doesn’t need to divide the world into physical and non-physical, is to think in terms of necessary and sufficient causes.

E.g. having a nervous system is necessary but not sufficient cause to die in a car crash.

For John, being cheated on was a sufficient cause to die in a car crash (maybe he was on edge already?) The car, nervous system, having a partner, etc. are all necessary but not sufficient.

In other words, your intuition matches the idea of causal sufficiency because human motivations and feelings are more likely to be sufficient causes than necessary ones.

E.g. the psychological feeling of hunger is much more likely to be a sufficient cause of stealing than the necessary biological and cultural infrastructure wherein the concept ‘stealing’ is meaningful :slight_smile:

You might enjoy this article on necessary and sufficient causation by Pearl.

Edit: Thinking in terms of causation is a neat way to avoid having to divide the world up into substances – things just affect other things, it doesn’t really matter if it’s made out of something hard like bone, or if it’s ephemeral like the memory of a loved one.

1 Like

There is also the issue that even if there was a physical explanation for an observable phenomenon, there is no guarantee that it should be comprehensible to the human mind. This seems to be the case from very mundane situations where we are forced to designate something as “random” and could potentially include a whole swath of events happening in the Universe. Given that we need machines and instruments to access majority of the information content of the Universe, it is very likely that we are operating on an extremely limited level of information. That is compounded by our limited mental capacity to put two and two together.

Unfortunately, successes from sciences, arts, language, and dominance over other species have produced an exaggerated sense of our capabilities in the physical world. One forgets that even as far as sensory apparatus go, it would better to have our visual system augmented by those of the bees, sense of smell of dogs, geolocation of pigeons, echolocation of bats, and many other features all rolled into one body. That would be a mind blowing experience, probably literally.

The causal inference proposal is good but our instinctive survival-based quick and dirty approach to making inferences is prone to creating causal connections where none exist. Fortunately, this is now clear from many different areas of study and methods and procedures exist for doing it slightly better.

Majority of the claims made on what is possible because of meditation are going to be met with disbelief because they genuinely sound alien, not possible for someone with our sensory apparatus and brain. It is kind of pointless as a serious endeavor to prove or disprove because even is someone told us an incredibly complicated causal mechanism for something that looks magical to us right now, how will we understand it? What if it is truly beyond our human comprehension?

The point is that it doesn’t matter which answer is right. Because no matter how it really is, only one person can decide what is right or wrong in an absolute sense - you for yourself. And if you are not developed in terms of virtue, composure and wisdom, then the only criterion by which you will decide for yourself what is right or wrong, what is truth and what is not, will be the feeling you experience at the moment of making such a decision and your craving, and nothing more. Regardless of your intellectual abilities, your education, your erudition, your ability to rationalise, the criterion will be exactly the same - your and only your feeling and your craving.

So, as you can see from here, the problem that the Dhamma solves is far more fundamental and primary than any of these kinds of questions.

Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised! They say if you ask two experts a question, you usually get three distinct answers LOL :slight_smile:

I don’t disagree with the necessary and sufficient concept, but that is something happening in parallel to, not an argument against, my thesis. You have listed things some of which are physical, and some of which are not, hence supporting my thesis that there are two distinct domains…at least that is how I see it. So both can exist together, and do I think.

You could ask why bother asking which answer is right. Actually, I wasn’t suggesting that one answer is right and one answer is wrong, what I was suggesting is that the question would be answered in different ways in different domains, but many do not see that there is the other domain. They say human emotions are generated or caused by physical things- e.g., alcohol’s effect on the brain, or dopamine or serotonin etc. What I am suggesting with the example above is that whatever measurements you make on John, his brain waves, the function or anatomy of his brain, would be epiphenomena or secondary to the actual root cause- his love for his wife and his devastation that she cheated. If you see alpha waves on the EEG before and theta waves after, the materialist would say that was why he drove into the tree, I am saying they are physical manifestations of the depression caused by the abstract concepts of love and loss…neither of which have a basis in physical matter (either subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves or anything else in the observable universe).

In the other thread someone is musing that they dont see how a life in one location can “magically” arise in another. Thats my point. They are seeing a non-physical object (the mind) as a physical object that should obey the laws of physics and have a place in space and time…as all objects do. But, if the mind is seen as a non-physical object, it doesn’t need to obey the laws of physics as it doesn’t “go” anywhere as it was never here in the first place to be reborn “over there”. It isnt “in” either location…it is not a physical object requiring location.

1 Like

Furthermore, if physical objects need a time and space but non-physical objects do not, this could go at least some way to explaining the concept of enlightenment in a way that is at least partially understandable: as something beyond the concept of time (like an “eternal present” for want of a better description). As one passes through the stages of enlightenment and detach from space and time, an Anāgāmi exist in the formless realm, with no location or physical form of any sort, but still tethered by time, until released from that final tether and “enter” Nibbana (again for want of a better description!).

Aha :slight_smile: this sounds a lot like conscious realism; taking our conscious experience as the fundamental unit of reality, rather than the stuff we are conscious of, like brains and nerves. Donald Hoffman is a neuroscientist who has developed this view based in evolutionary theory applied to perception. His book ‘The case against reality’ is really convincing!

I still think the mind is subject to natural laws like kamma. In the Buddhist view, the body (with it’s brain waves etc.) is actually old kamma, meaning it was produced by old actions.

Actions, again, stem from intentions, i.e. the mind. So the mind is the forerunner of all things, our bodies included. But this still happens in a law like way, and the mind is just as impermanent, suffering, and not-self as flesh according to the Buddha :slight_smile:

Funnily, was just watching some interviews with Donald Hoffman yesterday! Agree, very interesting stuff

Never said the non-physical realm is not subject to laws! I completely agree. In fact, as I see it, karma is the identical law to the laws of physics: one is cause and effect law in the non-physical realm and one is the cause and effect law in the physical realm.

It seems like a simple elegant solution to me!

1 Like

One of the standard way of describing nibbana is the end of greed, hatred and delusion. From what I’ve heard from teachers, jhanas are close to this (greed, hatred and delusion are suppressed for a time) – hence they’re called sambodhisukha (bliss of awakening) by the Buddha – but only wisdom can make them end forever :slight_smile:

In other words, I would conjecture that what it feels like to be in deep meditation could also make nibbana more understandable. Though we all know deep meditation is not nibbana :nerd_face:

Not saying your way is bad, just adding to what you’re saying.

Congratulations, you have managed to reinvent 17th century Cartesian Dualism, and with much the same rationale that motivated Descarte to propose it in the first place.

1 Like

“The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemically objective science of that domain.”
—John Searle.

A very natural point of view to take, along with the view of a stable independent observer viewing the outer world.
Certainly both views have serious problems, but the ubiquity of these views is something to be noted.

…and Rene reinvented the 500 BC Nama Rupa doctrine, you might say!

Well I was part of the Cartesian club at school, so it was always to be expected. But he made logical leaps that didn’t necessarily follow:
“I think therefore I am”

Nope…there are assumptions there. You assume an I is doing the thinking and thereby proving that the I exists. Circular. I think all you can say is:
“There is thought. Thoughts exist”

1 Like

You might say that about just about every assertion in this thread :joy: :pray:

…present company excluded of course :slight_smile:

1 Like

Nah, it is turtles all the way down :joy: :pray:

1 Like