Cosmology and Buddhist Thought: Interview With Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson – Co-dependent Arising, Interbeing, and Impermanence

Co-dependent Arising, Interbeing, and Impermanence

So the Buddhist principle that I wanted to bring up first was this idea of co-dependent arising.  In other words, when causes and conditions are such then something will arise.  And when those conditions are no longer present, something will go away. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson | Photograph by Patrick Queen

So the formation of life on earth had that kind of environment where causes and the condition were such that life could evolve.  And we’re continuing to see that happen except in our generation what’s happening is we’re ignoring this concept. 

And that one leads to another concept that everything in the universe is interconnected. The thing about the butterfly in South America causing reverberations on the furthest galaxy. 

Interconnectedness and dependent co-arising of nature are two principle ideas in Buddhism that really mesh nicely with cosmology.

The third one is what you might call impermanence where everything changes.  Nothing stays the same. 

Planets evolve in some way or the other.  Stars are formed by gases coming together and converging and their reaction starting up.  And all kinds of events demonstrate this principle. 

And Buddha thought that that was a fundamental reality of life. 

Although it might seem quite obvious to anybody who’s thinking about it, it’s really an amazing concept because with this idea of interconnectedness, the guys in Washington DC who are only interested in their self aggrandizement and becoming leaders and having power, don’t take into account that whatever they’re doing has an effect on other people.  They just do it for themselves. 

And the idea of interdependence means that when I make a job for someone in India, I am supposedly elevating his quality of life.  And I don’t necessarily have to reduce my quality life but it would be helpful to do so. For the economics of it.

Yeah, for the economics of it.  And also for the relationship between countries is based on we are one.

But each country thinks of itself as an independent entity.  But what would happen if we decided we would cut off relationships with every country?  We’d be in a really bad place.  And we would recognize how interconnected we are with all the other countries of the world. 

And I think that this interdependence concept comes into play in cosmology because, for example, the web of the cosmic background radiation produce a web of galaxies and where dark matter and dark energy evolve… I’ll let you explain that part of it.

But I see that as interconnection, interconnected, interbeing as my teacher would say.  And I think that when one becomes knowledgeable about interbeing, one is able to be more compassionate, more understanding, more able to form relationships, more able to connect and more able to make a difference in the world. 

So what do you think about the concept of interdependence as I explained it? I would say in modern times, (I need to define modern as in the last century).  What you said recent times was 25 years.  In modern times, we have come to learn about ecology.  I’ll use a single word but more specifically the interdependence of life, animal life, plant life, water supply, atmosphere.

It’s a system; system’s engineering is all about inter-connectivity and parts that create one functioning whole.  These concepts emerged as 20th Century revelations about the world that we live in.

So you can say that Buddha, Buddhist teachings knew this from the beginning.  However, if you go before the 20th Century, in mid 19th Century, so go earlier than that.  What you did had very little consequence outside of your zone, outside of your…

Your quote, “system.” Outside of your [zone], people were far enough apart and were not so aggressive on the environment that their behavior would affect some place else.  So that in fact there was not this deep interconnectedness of it all.  Because there was a susceptible…

But was it there… Not in any meaningful way.

Right.  It was there imperceptibly. Okay but the butterfly effect was an overplayed media account of an attempt to bring the concept of chaos to the public.  So I’m just simply saying, that when you want to talk about interconnectedness today, the fact that we fly airplanes from continent to continent and move goods and services from continent to continent and insects, vermin, whatever, ride ships from one place to another.

And the fact that we change gases in the atmosphere here that then circulate around the globe, to say that we are interconnected today with the same fervor as that we were interconnected a thousand years ago, is just misusing the word.  It’s using the word in such a way so that Buddha was not wrong.

All I’m saying is, back then interconnectedness had no meaningful consequence to anything.  It required major travel and environmental disruption that came about in the era of technology, in the industrial revolution essentially.

And so sure, you can be say it’s all been connected the whole time but there’s no contest in these two cases.  And if you don’t want to distinguish those two cases, then it’s hard to have a conversation about what it means to be interconnected.

So for example, in my concluding words from The Universe series, when I say we’re connected, I’m using the word connected differently from how you meant it and how you just described it.

And the way I’m using it is the carbon that is in your body is the same carbon that is across the universe.  And it has similar points of origin – origin in the centers of stars.  So that shared identity, what I call the connectivity.

The way you use the word connectivity just now is that one has an influence over the other.  And that’s just simply not the case in the universe.  Your carbon atoms are not affecting the carbon atoms across the universe.  They are not connected in the way we speak of connectivity in the global ecology for example.  So we need another word.

Maybe I should have used a different word.  I could have said there is a shared heritage.  Otherwise I could have said it.  But what happens on earth and in our solar system.  There is in our galaxy, we feel the gravity of another galaxy.  We are going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy.  That’s scheduled to happen after the sun dies.

So you can say yeah we’re still all connected.  But it’s kind of irrelevant because we’ll be vaporized.  You know it’s kind of irrelevant insight into the universe to say we’re connected because we’re gravitationally bound with another galaxy who we’re about to collide.

There’s a horizon of the universe that’s expanding.  Beyond that horizon, we don’t even feel each others’ gravity.

It’s beyond any accessibility to us.  So everything is not connected in the same way that I destroy this air and it effects the ecosystem on the other side of the earth.

There’s a huge spectrum of connectivity, some of which is just simply irrelevant to anything that matters to anybody at any time, at any place.  You know the things that are really relevant that affect the quality of the air you breathe that will determine what kind of life you lead.  Whether it will be a healthy life or a sickly life.  Because we’re interfering with the water supply and air supply, your climate, whatever else.  So cosmologically speaking, the fact that we share the same ingredients doesn’t mean we’re causally connected in any fundamental way.

By the way, you see the light that comes from them because they were connected that way.  That emitted light, that’s how we know it’s a carbon.  Because carbon are emitted to absorb into the spectrum.  But it crossed the galaxy and entered our detectors.  So there’s cause and effect there.  Okay, do you want to say it’s all connected because of that one fact?

Well it’s not the only fact.  It’s not a single fact. Well I’m just saying there’s a spectrum.  And so the word is rapidly loses its utility.  If you were going to put all of this variation of cause and effect under the same word, then there’s no way to test the concept if anything works for it.  It’s the old saying, if it explains everything, then it explains nothing.

That was part of the problem with chaos.  If you can say everything comes from chaos, but in factyou can’t really test that.  You can’t test that everything comes from chaos.  Because whatever is the result, it’s good with you.  It’s some chaotic path led to that storm.  Well a different chaotic path led to some other storm but that ultimately wasn’t the storm we got.  We got this storm.  Well that other storm comes in, see that chaos.  You got this storm so you have chaos.  It’s not useful.

It becomes metaphysics at that level.  And metaphysics has never been accused of being useful.  But it provides great conversation with a beer at a pub.

I have one example of interconnectedness, of interbeing …  Hold on, I have something to say about the ending of what you say that everything is ephemeral – is that the word used?

Oh I used impermanent. Impermanent.  I have a quick comment about that.

Yeah please. Okay.

A long comment.

Cosmology and Buddhist Thought: A Conversation with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cosmology and Buddhist Thought: A Conversation with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

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