Cosmology and Buddhist Thought: Interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson – Consciousness


So yeah, well that was the first thing we talked about was survival.  And the interesting thing about the cyanobacteria, the question I have about them is were they conscious of that?  Was there any consciousness there? I’m not going to judge whether our definition of consciousness which of course is still generating huge literature on people trying to figure it out.  Which is the evidence is that we have no clue what it is.  And usually when something remains that intractable, it tells you that it doesn’t really exist as we have been attempting to define it at all.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson | Photo Cutty McGill w/ permission

And maybe it’s simply the wrong question it’s like asking what flavor of cheese is the moon made out of. And the moon is not made out of cheese at all.

But you invest in energy trying to decided what kind of cheese they want.  If we are trying to find consciousness and often it’s done in ways that are tries to distinguish us from other animals.

It may be at the end of the day there’s no such thing as what we call consciousness.  It’s something else.  And we haven’t been asking the right questions.

It’s like I remain open to that fact given that was a retractable question of consciousness has been.

But anyone who’s owned a pet knows they’re completely conscious of what’s going on and they don’t like try to trick you.  And cats and dogs and horses and those domestic animals where we give them some kind of freedom, only cows, I don’t know if cows are kind of cannive behind your back.

So I can probably pose an argument to say that this cyanobacteria were not conscious. It requires a map of neurons to lead to complex thoughts such as what we have in our brain.

Of course we don’t have the largest brain.  By far not the largest brain.  And it’s not even the largest brain relative to our body weight.  That was put forth early on on yet another attempt to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

And then we found that there are, I’m sorry we do have the heaviest brain relative to the body weight but if you made a line, if that was your measure of things, and you put all animals on the scale, then the some goldfish are higher on that scale than dogs are.

There is some stuff that you would not want to be true if this in fact were some deep other understanding of intellect and consciousness.  So probably it wasn’t conscious.  It’s just it’s waste product.  That’s all it is.  It’s waste products killed off all anaerobic life forms.

The fact that the oxygen is in the air, has allowed mammals to develop. That’s correct.  Entirely.  Like all creatures that thrive on oxygen which is quite potent.  And it is a potent source of chemical energy that you can oxidize.  Oxidizing you can reduce chemicals.  There is a lot of energy contained in that.  So change transformed their world.  Interesting.

And we’re transformed back to carbon dioxide! We need some cyanobacteria to help us out. There you go.

So I look at the universe as a whole.  Hard not to as an astrophysicist.

And I see the, like I said the connectivity in the way that I used the word and I’m sorry if it was misleading where I use it.  It’s not my intent.

But for me that shared genetic, that shared atomic, that shared molecular heritage allows me to feel a part of the universe in a way that might not have otherwise empowered me to do so, short of reading someone’s philosophies that are not based on the empirical discovery. And I intend to be more empirically driven in how I think about the physical world.

We provide anchors to support ideas and arguments that don’t otherwise exist.  And anchors that can transform a metaphysical conversation to a physical one.  And then the actionable statements.

So that’s how I come at it.  But if you want everything to decay, you got the proton.  Once sextillion time the age of the current universe, the current theories say that it will decay and then you’ve got everything.  Chock it up as Buddhistic if you like!


See what I’m trying to do is… Let me say it in another way.

Here’s something you might use.

Let’s not distract ourselves as you open your conversation with the absence of quantitative value to these comments or to these teachings.

Let’s not even go there.  Let’s just recognize that there are statements about the physical world that are made that are less conflicting with what science has revealed about the natural world than other philosophies that you believe are religious philosophies – less conflicting.

You will explore this further and decide whether or not it is resonates.  The most of you view it as less conflicting to say the universe is 100 billion years old and to say it’s 6,000.

The idea is that it’s really, really old. It got there.  It landed there.  Or whatever was the number.  But it’s way more than the current age of the universe.

So to factor all of this together, one might ask an interesting question.  You might write another article on this;  you should, I think.

If it’s less conflicting that the actual nature of the universe and religious teachings of Protestants and the Catholics and Quranic scholars and if that conflicts then throughout history you would have perhaps found more Buddhists represented among the greatest scientists there ever was then people from other deeply held philosophy.

In sense that they would have dig out of those of philosophies that were directly conflicting with what they were trying to discover about the universe and never hold them back, cage them, handcuff them, leave them struggling just to reconcile the two.  Whereas in Buddhism there’s not a challenge to reconcile it because it’s not really preventing them from having those thoughts.

That’s a real good point of view. The problem is that’s folded together with the discovery of science as an enterprise anyway, which is the western thing and not an eastern thing.

Oh that’s not necessarily so. Yes, science has practiced that it’s 100% so.

Oh it is, okay. There’s no …

There’s known empirical stuff. But that’s what science is.  That’s my point.  It’s not science if you can’t make a testable prediction.  It’s metaphysics.  So there are tremendous metaphysics traditions in the far east.  None of it leads to discovery.

Well one of the things that’s going on… My point is that since science was invented in the west.  Had it been invented in the east, had it been invented in both places at the same time, I bet you it would have risen faster in the east then it did in the west.  That’s kind of my hypothesis here.

But since it did not get invented there, and in the west they had to invent it and struggle with it and like burning people at the stake and Bruno saying maybe the stars have other worlds it and that’s punishable by death.  And Galileo, so there’s blood on the tracks.  So we’re inventing science in a culture and in a philosophy that does not understand what science is trying to do.  So it’s just an interesting thought experiment, I think!

That’s very fascinating.  There are a couple; I have a couple of… And I can’t stay much longer.  I got a meeting that I’m late for.

Oh I’m sorry. It doesn’t take; they’re waiting to come into this office.

Yeah like Einstein.  God does not play dice.  Was he relatively independent of Judaism? 100%.

Yeah that’s right. He’s viewed Judaism as a superstitious.  Judaism the religion is taken from Judaism as…

Culture. …culturally, like the sader [Passover dinner].  And people pick the quotes where he used God and they want to believe that he was religious but they’re religious and it matters to them that a smart person is religious.  But he wasn’t religious at all.

What about the Lameitre? Lameitre… well let me finish with Einstein.

So Einstein, he says God doesn’t play dice with the universe.  Well it turns out he does.  So holding that aside, it’s not the first time he invoked God.  To him God was just the universe and not an old white man in a white beard who listened to people’s prayers and you can have it if he so chooses.

I have other quotes where he is angered by people who takes his other statements as some kind of evidence for his belief in God.  And he said this is nonsense.  I can show you the quotes.

Yeah, that would be great. Okay…so Lemeitre – he was approached by powerful members of the Catholic church.  I don’t think it was the Pope.  It might have been Cardinal level.  After he lays out the tenants of the big bang and the expanding universe using the newly freshly minted general relativity.

And they then say ah-ha.  Science has proven that God has created the universe.  And what that tells me is that religions are really groping for evidence in support of their beliefs.  If it ever shows up they just snatch it quickly because they think they understand how tentative their grounds are upon which they stand that they have, that they require that you have to believe it because you’re told to believe it and either evidence conflicts with it.

This is very contrary to the urges to discover the natural world.  Lemeitre did the only sensible thing when he said no it doesn’t say that at all.  And he completely, he rejected the notion that somehow he discovered the hand of God as a creator.  Plus of course the evidence shows more it was not created in six days.  It took somewhat longer.

Yeah, but anyway, it was such an honor to meet you. Okay, well my hope this is useful to you at all.  But there’s a lot to think about and write about.

Personally I think the connections are over reached for where they say people try to connect quantum mechanics with … there are good books on this.

Yeah – The Tao of Physics – I met Fritjof Capra in the 70’s. I think they over reach.

I don’t… come back with a prediction.  Until then…

Oh I just wanted to mention, Dalai Lama is working with Tibetan masters on that finding areas of the brain light up in certain meditative states. Oh sure.  That’s a huge but interesting frontier.

Oh I love that.  anyway that’s a good place to stop.  I really appreciate you taking the time to see me. I’m glad it worked out. Good luck in your writing.

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