An astrophysicist connects the dots

Aliens, Billiard Balls, and the Blind Spot of Physics

Zen Bow: How did this happen?Did a little boy get up one morning and say, “I want to be an astrophysicist?”
Adam Frank: Yeah, pretty much. I have a vivid early memory of coming down to my father’s library and looking through his pulp fiction magazines, Astounding Stories and Amazing Worlds, or whatever they were called, and each one of them had cool illustrations on the front. I just knew I needed to do astronomy. I never wanted to do anything else. At one point my parents bought me a telescope, which is when I learned that I didn’t want to be an observer, I wanted to be a theorist. I’ve been very lucky that it worked out.

Now I wear a lot of hats. I teach one class per semester, but the main job of a university professor at a research university is to run and fund your research group. I have two graduate students plus a postdoc and a senior scientist. I follow everybody’s research, helping where I can, and we collude with a larger group. A typical day will entail a little of all that. But then I also have this second career as a writer, which takes up a lot of time.

For my Zen practice, I have to ask myself, why am I writing books? How much of it is ego, and how much of it is, I have something to say? I loved writing the last book [Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth], it was really important to me, but it was a lot of work, and the older you get, you start to think, what do I want to do with my time? Do I need to write a fourth book? Because there are mountains to climb. Literally, there’s time to be spent in the woods, there’s time to be spent on the cushion. I think I have a much clearer sense now of how I need to ask myself, for any project I take on, why am I doing it? What does it serve? Whom is it serving?

ZB: When did you start sitting?
AF: The pivotal event in my life was the death of my brother; he was killed in a car accident when I was nine and he was 15. That propelled everybody in a variety of directions. I was raised in an atheist family: it wasn’t actively hostile to religion, though there was some of the feeling that religion is the opiate of the people. But if you asked my parents, “Is there a God?” they would say, “Well, your mom and dad don’t believe there is, but you need to make that decision for yourself.” And you’d say, “I’m seven years old! That’s a little too much for me, okay? Yes or no would be fine.”

My brother’s death propelled my mom into siddhi yoga, which is a version of yoga with an emphasis on spiritual discipline. I read her stuff, and I had an inclination towards that way but of course I was still a hard-core atheist scientist—I still am an atheist scientist. I was really struck by the Upanishads, and also Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, and the biography of the Buddha.
I also loved comic books, I have to say. But there was a way in which the Buddha’s story and Spiderman’s story are kind of the same, you know?

ZB: A lot of dukkha.
AF: Exactly, right? And a lot of responsibility.

ZB: And you had been through that yourself.
AF: Yeah. Suffering often takes you. The first intensive I sat was at Naropa in Boulder. It was a two-day intensive and it really blew my mind, it was so hard, and yet so powerful. Of course, the first time you do it and see the mind, you’re going crazy, you’re just like, “I can’t,” and I had the entire Born to Run album track going, including the gaps between the songs. I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing! Your mind will do anything other than quiet down.” And then there was a moment when I thought, “I’ve gotta get out of here. I gotta leave. I can’t do this…” I was just about to get up, but the training was that when you have thoughts, label them. And just at the peak of that sort of intensive feeling, as I was about to get up, it was on the up breath, I labeled it “thinking,” and I realized, “Oh, this meant nothing. That was just a thought.” And then I had the recognition that this intensity of emotion—“Oh, I’m going to leave, I’m a failure”—ah, it’s just another thought. And that was the beginning.

ZB: Could you talk a little bit about the intersection of physics and Buddhist practice?
AF: Yes, I’m very interested in Buddhism’s encounter with the West, how the West is digesting Buddhism, and what will come of it. One of the things that actually led me towards Zen was the book The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra because, while it was a great book about quantum mechanics, it also explained how quantum mechanics shows Buddhism is true. And I was suspicious of that then. And now.

The problem of quantum mechanics is super interesting, but there are 50 different interpretations of quantum mechanics. Buddhists would point to quantum mechanics and say, “Well, you know, quantum mechanics shows us that the Buddhist perspective is true.” And, unfortunately, that’s not true, with the exception of one particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, out of the 50 different interpretations, that you could say was a lot like Buddhism. So it’s an over-simplification to say that quantum mechanics shows that Buddhism is true.

More than that, I think the answer is much more subtle and interesting, which is that science is an empirical way, science is an attitude about how you approach the world, and Buddhism is an attitude about how you approach the world. It’s a practice, right? The one wonderful thing I love about Zen: it’s the doing of it, it’s not some place you get to. It’s the doing of that is realization. So it’s subtle, and science is the same thing: science is a way of encountering the world, and an attitude you have when that encounter happens. Whether it’s biology or physics, it’s a practice.

As Buddhism marched eastward from India and then down into Vietnam and up into Tibet, and over into China, and Korea, and Japan, each culture it touched was changed by it. And Buddhism was changed by the culture. In China, Buddhism and the Tao mixed to make Chan. In Japan, Chan was touched by particular Japanese sensibilities to become Zen. And for the West it’s going to be about science. The main contribution we’re going to make to changing Buddhism is science, that empirical approach to the world. I think that’s really what’s most important, what’s really interesting. It’s not so much physics, it’s science in general: the attitude of curiosity, of open inquiry.

“Beginner’s mind” is what you should tell every graduate student: “You should approach this with beginner’s mind. Don’t come at this problem with your preconceptions.” Both contemplative practice and scientific practice have this emphasis on inquiry. And that’s what sets Buddhism apart from all the other religions. Specifically, the fact that it really asks you to do your work, to be a lab unto yourself. Buddha says it so clearly: “Don’t believe what I’m saying.”

ZB: You have written about what’s called “the blind spot” in physics. It seems to me that you were talking about the concept of the Observer, is that correct?
AF: That article [available at] came from a year-long project I’ve been working on with my longtime collaborator Marcelo Gleiser, who is a high-energy physicist, and Evan Thompson, who is a philosopher of cognitive science as well as a Buddhist scholar. We all love science, and Evan actually does science as well as being a philosopher. What we’re trying to point to is that there’s a whole set of philosophies, metaphysics literally, that people claim are science, when in fact they’re just philosophies, and they have nothing to do with science. It’s much like the interpretations of quantum mechanics we were talking about. Things like reductionism, things like materialism, those are metaphysical biases, which somehow people claim for science: “Science shows us that blankety blankety blank.” Actually, no, science doesn’t show that. And, in particular, the role of the Observer… well, it’s not even the Observer, it’s the role of experience.

The verb “to be” is something that science doesn’t really know how to deal with. What has happened is that scientists have often ignored it and tried to pretend that it doesn’t exist. They’ve sort of defined it away, and that’s actually fine for some problems—doing that has actually allowed science to make a whole lot of progress. For instance, if you’re just talking about balls on a pool table, fine: you can totally get the Observer out of it. But there is a whole class of problems that are at the very root of some of our deepest questions, like the nature of consciousness, the nature of time, and the nature of the universe as a whole, where doing that [taking the Observer out] limits you in terms of explanations, and it’s really bound us up in a lot of ways. And it has really important consequences, both for science, our ability to explain things, but also for the culture that emerges out of science.

In order to remove the Observer you have to treat the world as dead, you know? One of the things that for me is really important is to move away from like words like “the Observer” and focus on experience. Because part of the problem with experience is that it’s so close to us that we don’t even see it. And it’s only in contemplative practice that you really have to deal with it.

ZB: It’s the water that you’re swimming in.
AF: That’s exactly it, or the air if you’re a bird flying. And that’s why, when you try to talk to scientists about it they respond, “Well, what do you mean? Oh, you mean observations.” No: an observation is many, many levels downstream from experience. To do an observation means that you’ve already approached the world with an attitude that you’ve thought about. You’re going to pull certain things out of experience and reify them, turn them into things or numbers, or metricize them, so observation already has a whole architecture of concepts and ideas and attitudes and behaviors that goes along with an “observation.”

Everything emerges from the raw nature of experience. My codification is that it’s not atoms that are irreducible. That’s what the philosophies of reductionism and materialism say, that the world is just atoms. In the end, your emotions are just neurons or atoms, end of story. It’s all just matter, dead matter. And so, atoms are fundamental. Or maybe the atoms aren’t fundamental, but the things that make up atoms, the quarks, they’re fundamental. And you know, my codification is, no, it’s experience that’s fundamental.

Experience can’t be reduced, because nobody’s ever experienced the world without experience! Experience is where we all start, and it is fundamentally mysterious and weird, and pretending it’s not, or trying to erase it, again that’s fine for doing billiard-ball science, but at some point there are certain questions you’re going to ask where the issue of experience is going to come back. That’s why we call it the ‘blind spot’: it’s the inability to see that experience is irreducible, and that it’s the root of everything—art, science, whatever—and at some point it’s going to come and bite you in the ass. Which means certain questions are going to remain opaque, or you’re going to come up with dumbass solutions to them if you don’t find a way to take the blind spot into account.

This is where Buddhism can have an effect on the West: because Buddhism changes culture, and culture changes Buddhism. The metaphors and philosophical traditions in Buddhism offer another way to talk about these questions of physics. The West is pretty limited in its philosophy of experience. I’m not an expert in this, so people can come and beat me over the head about it, but my understanding is the first place you really see it articulated is in the work of the phenomenologists Heidegger and Husserl, in the early 1900s. But other than that, there is not a rich language for experience. And part of the reason is because we never developed a meditative tradition. There is not a strong contemplative tradition in the West the way there is in the East. Obviously we had monasteries, but meditation just didn’t get codified, it didn’t get studied, it didn’t get unpacked the way it did in the East.

So rather than thinking that Buddhism and physics—or Buddhism and science—go together because of quantum mechanics, from my perspective it’s more that Buddhism and the tradition of philosophical inquiry, as well as the role of contemplative practice, offer a whole new language to begin to address some of these problems. Will it be fruitful? We’ll see. But it’s a new language and a new set of conceptual tools to use to ask these questions about the blind spot.

ZB: Are people other than you, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson working on this?
AF: I feel like we’re kind of out there. It’s just beginning, what we’re trying to do, and we’re trying to collect other people who are thinking along these lines. There are some people who have been thinking about an interpretation of quantum mechanics called quantum Bayesianism, and there is Michel Bitbul [a French philosopher of physics], but we’re starting from the ground up.

ZB: That’s interesting, because definitely my understanding of the intersection of physics and Buddhism rests in that billiard ball analogy.
AF: Right, right. Rather than the whole weirdness of quantum mechanics—and quantum mechanics is very weird, you know—but rather than that, we should really focus on the unveiling of the present, the constant unveiling of the present through one’s own perspective.

Physicists are in love with the idea of objective reality. I like to say that we physicists have a mania for ontology. We want to know what the furniture of the world is, independent of us. And I think that idea really needs to be re-examined, because when you think about objective reality, what are you doing? You’re just imagining yourself looking at the world without actually being there, because it’s impossible to actually imagine a perspectiveless perspective. So all you’ve done is you’ve just substituted God’s perspective, as if you were floating over some planet, disembodied, looking down on it. And, so, what is that? This thing we’re calling objective reality is kind of a meaningless concept because the only way we encounter the world is through our perspective. Having perspectives, having experience: that’s really where we should begin.

It all comes down to not seeing the wide variety of what philosophy brings to science. Physicists are doing philosophy anyway, and they’re often doing it so badly that it seeps into the physics that they’re doing and leads us astray. There are a number of different issues in physics where a nuanced discussion with philosophers could really help. What I’ve been really pushing on is the fact that when we talk about philosophy, most people mean Western philosophy. It’s the line of thinkers who came from the Greeks, and from the Catholic tradition. Those ideas got wedded and merged with Aristotle, and it’s a very particular and powerful, but limited, perspective. That’s what is important to remind people.

Years ago when we did the “Buddhism, Mind, and Matter” conference [the RZC’s 2008 symposium], Alan Wallace said something that has stayed with me. He was talking about materialism and how Western civilization has a limited view because of the reductionist material perspective. And then he stopped, in his characteristic way, and said, “Luckily there have been other civilizations.”

I think we always forget that there have been a number of civilizations. If we’re going to bring philosophical thinking to physics to help us deal with issues about the fundamental nature of time, identity, and things like that, then we can’t just characterize philosophy as being what the white guys did. God bless the white guys, they were great, but there’s also Vasubandu and Nagarjuna, for instance.

In Zen we’ve been doing this for a thousand years. That’s the brilliance of the koans: hey, here are these wackadoodle questions which will actually help you drill down, to see experience. The early Christian mystics didn’t have that. So the classical Indian and Asian philosophical systems with contemplative practice have a lot to offer us because it’s always about stabilizing attention.

In Western philosophy, there’s an entire field of study of the philosophy of mind. The people writing books—most of them haven’t done ten minutes of meditation. That’s the thing you learn in meditation, to stabilize your attention. It’s so hard, you sit for hours, and even if you’re an experienced meditator, you’ll still go through periods where you’re wandering around, you’re doing your taxes, you’re worrying about that guy who cut you off. But if you can’t stabilize attention, how can you do philosophy of mind? Again, that’s the blind spot. So much “philosophy of mind” is sitting at this upper level, it’s like the top three inches of the ocean, talking about it as if that’s the mind. And with just a little bit of contemplative practice you realize: oh no, this goes down a lot deeper. But people are blind to it because we don’t have a contemplative tradition. Whereas the people who were writing the classic works of Indian and Asian philosophy, they were all meditators. They had already stabilized their minds, so they could talk about the mind in a much richer way.

ZB: Allow me to switch gears completely. I want to ask you about an op-ed you wrote about five years ago in the New York Times. I have never forgotten it and I’m going to completely misquote you, but the basic premise, if I recall, was that the minute you start rubbing two sticks together to make fire you’re going to destroy the planet. A civilization of any kind…
AF: Oh yeah, that’s what the last book was about, it was about aliens and climate change. I was trying to reel people in with the aliens. This has been my recent research, what I call the astrobiology of the Anthropocene [the idea that humans have triggered a new geological epoch].

What I’m trying to get people to see is that we’re looking at climate change entirely wrong. Because we think it’s a political thing: it’s Democrats versus Republicans or it’s environmentalists versus business interests, and climate change shows us how horrible we are, we’re a terrible species. And all of that just completely ignores what we’ve learned about planets and their evolution. First, I’m trying to show how the evolution of our ideas about other civilizations, and the scientific search for other civilizations, was happening just as we were beginning to understand more about planets in general and as we were first becoming aware of climate change.

The first scientific search for aliens was in 1959. The first meeting on searching for aliens, for interstellar communications, the famous meeting where the Drake equation [a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way] was developed was in 1960. The first probe to another planet was 1962. In the same time frame, the first time a president talked about climate change was in 1965. In his speech to Congress, President Johnson addresses CO2 and its detrimental effect on the planet. These three things go hand in hand.

ZB: All these were U.S.–based?
AF: Yes. Which shows that we should be leading, and we’re not. What I’d like to say is that there’s a cultural tapestry that was beginning, or a jigsaw puzzle that was beginning to be assembled back then, that is now fully here, that we need to understand.

Astrobiology is the study of life in its planetary context. And astrobiology is a field that over the last 30 years or so has undergone major revolutions, including a profound reshaping of our understanding of the possibilities for life in the universe. The most important of these is the discovery of planets orbiting other stars. We didn’t even know whether there were any planets around any other stars than the sun for 2500 years. And now we know that every star in the sky has planets. There are planets everywhere, and there are planets in the right place for liquid water to be, which means those are the right places you could get life to form, and if you can get life to form, you might be able to have civilizations.

We also have the four-billion-year history of Earth and life that we have now unpacked in detail. And we see that Earth has been many different kinds of planets, and they’ve all been affected by life. In the air we’re breathing right now, the oxygen comes from life. There’d be no oxygen in the atmosphere if it weren’t for life. If life went away, the oxygen would react away with the rocks in a very short amount of time. So the planet is continuously being profoundly changed by life and its evolution.

We have been to Mars, Venus, and Jupiter with robots; we’ve been to all the planets in the solar system, and we really understand how planets and climate work. Any planet that has an atmosphere has a climate. When you put all that together, you get this very different understanding of what climate change is, human-driven climate change, and you recognize that we’re just a planet that has life, that has evolved one particular form of life. It’s a form of life which is an industrial civilization, that harvests energy for its own use, and from that perspective, we change the climate. Of course: what did you expect? We harvest now about a quarter of the entire biosphere’s productive capacity. The biosphere has utterly changed the planet, and we are now using 25% of its total energy for our own uses. How could there not have been an effect?

That fact just eliminates the endless question that you deal with in politics: “Did we change the climate, did we not change the climate?” Of course we changed the climate. We should have expected it. The other thing that it changes is this endless flagellating of ourselves: “Oh, human beings, we suck, we’re a plague on the planet, the planet just wants to get rid of us.” That’s BS. We are the biosphere, we’re what the biosphere is doing now. Even the mass extinction we’re going to drive, if we drive one, the planet’s just going to pick it up and use it for the next thing that it’s going to do. That doesn’t mean we should be driving it, but often the idea that, “Oh my God, we have to save the planet,” completely misunderstands what the planet is.

What I like to say is, we are what the biosphere is doing now. A technological civilization is just the latest experiment the biosphere is running in a long history of experiments. You know, grasslands were once new. Prairies were a new invention, and they reshaped the planet. Dinosaurs were a new invention, they reshaped the planet. Technological civilization, it’s a new invention the biosphere’s working with, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll still be here. We’re what the biosphere is doing now, and it’ll use whatever we’re doing to create new species and such, but there’s no guarantee that we will be around afterwards.

The idea that we’re going to destroy life on the planet is a joke. Our job is not to save the planet—our job is not to piss it off. Any technological civilization that rises out of its biosphere is going to trigger climate change. It’s just a natural consequence of harvesting enough energy. So then the only question is, are we smart enough to make it through our Anthropocene?

ZB: Do you have any confidence that we can do that?
AF: I like this question. People always ask me, “Are you optimistic?” and I always say, what is the alternative? I am, because, what’s the alternative? The Anthropocene is not a measure of our guilt, not a measure of our greed or our evil; the Anthropocene is a predictable transformation. It’s a transition, it is a dangerous transformation, much like adolescence. You can’t stop adolescence. When your kid’s turned 13 you can’t say, “Don’t do it,” you know? You have to hope, and you help them get through adolescence with maturity, wisdom, and compassion. But there’s no guarantee. Some kids don’t make it through adolescence, or they come through damaged. So let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re facing: it is a dangerous, dangerous transformation. But we can make it. I can’t tell you if we’re going to, but we can. / / /

Adam FrankADAM FRANK is a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun, and a member of the RZC. His research group at the University of Rochester has developed supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and die. A self-described “evangelist of science,” he is also committed to showing others the beauty and power of science, and exploring the proper context of science in culture.