‘All things are impermanent’: what about scientific laws?
Impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. It is even “Buddhism in One Word” (Sangharakshita). The locus classicus for this particular doctrine could be seen as being a verse of the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings ascribed to the Buddha, which are very likely to be very close to his original teachings), which runs:
277 sabbe sankhaaraa anichchaa ti yadaa paññaaya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyaa.
All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. (John Richards translation)
So what is being stated as being impermanent is all processes — the Pali word being sankhara (the transliteration doubles the a’s to show they are the long form), or Sanskrit samskara. It pointedly does not say, “all dharmas are impermanent”, but two verses later, it does say, “all dharmas are insubstantial (anatta)”. Dharmas here probably means anything that can be an object of cognition, whether it is what we see as a physical thing, or an idea, or an attribute etc. I think it would be best to see a physical law as a dharma, but not a samskara (though a philologist friend who read an earlier draft disputes this).
Verse 5 of the Dhammapada says:
Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law
So here a psychological law is being stated as not being impermanent. (Eternal law translates dhammo sanantano – ‘an eternal or age-old dharma’.) Why should the same not be the case with the physical laws of the universe? However, it is possible that they are contingent in some way: the cosmologist Lee Smolin speculates that new universes are constantly being spawned within black holes, each new universe having slightly different physical laws from its parent universe. (The Life of the Cosmos.)
But Buddhists might differ from many scientists, in particular those who think that there will eventually be a final theory of everything, in that they would count physical laws as dharmas, and so would assert that they are insubstantial. In other words, a law has no independent existence of its own. It is simply an ordered description of the way phenomena behave — how they influence each other, how they arise and pass away etc. and another type of intelligence might use a different set of laws to describe the same phenomena, though it would in principle be possible to cross-reference the two sets, and show how they are consistent with each other. It is an object of the conscious mind.
I wonder whether the regularity of scientific experimentation allows one to suspect that some physical laws would always be conceptually patterned in the same way, if different observers at perhaps very different times in very different parts of the universe set up their observations in the same way? In that sense, the law could be unchanging.
What is impermanent? In the Buddhist tradition, very little is left out of the rather loose term ‘samskara’. It is most importantly used for people’s mental states, habits, characters etc — in other words, it is encouraging you to feel that you are not stuck in any form of life, or any personal tendency.
This doctrine would assert that there can be no entity in the universe that was free from influence and thus change, similarly, no form of existence or realm, no physical object etc. ( I am taking it as read that such entities are mind objects, though in this context they are mind objects within scientific discourse, which is very careful to specify them in ways that ensures they can be investigated coherently by many people using a variety of well defined observation methods.) But how would this apply to certain subatomic particles which are regarded as being completely stable? Could one say that a proton(1) is a permanent entity?
It may be that it is illegitimate to apply Buddhist insights to the scientific sphere. I hope not, I suspect that the meeting of the two ways of looking at human life could be stimulating and fruitful. Scientific findings are very robust, and could clarify the worldview of Buddhists in many ways. Buddhists could also help scientists, for example by offering cogent alternatives to the view that it is primarily the human brain that gives rise to human awareness, and that there is an absolutely real, dead universe, lacking in awareness, which is ultimately separate from the processes of awareness. More importantly, it can suggest a non-religious ethical framework for scientists, some of whom have little in the way of ethics apart from the pressure of public opinion.
(1) I had originally written ‘neutron’, a bit of a howler as a free neutron has a half life of less than 15 minutes. Free protons have never been seen decaying so far, so may be very long lasting, perhaps ‘permanent’, though protons within nuclei can transform to neutrons by beta decay, and a proton would lose its identity if it fell into a black hole.