The ‘Extended Everett Interpretation’ of Quantum Physics and the Buddhist Worldview by A.Terentyev

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It is very interesting to observe the affinity of some ancient Oriental philosophical doctrines, to corresponding modern scientific theories, especially in the field of theoretical physics. This trend was already recognized by the famous Russian Buddhologist Theodor Stcherbatsky, who first introduced into the translation of Buddhist text the notion of ‘relativity’ borrowed from just freshly developed Einstein’s theory. This term he used for the Sanskrit SHUNYATA, which is usually translated etimologically as ‘emptiness’. Shunyata, as understood by Nagarjuna, means dependent arising, so, Stcherbatsky’s rendering is quite accurate, at least for the sutrik level of Buddhism – and gives much more meaning to the term compared to ‘emptiness’ so often misunderstood by modern interpreters for ‘nothingness’, ‘vacuum’ and what not.

Another example we find in Jainism, where the fundamental methodological doctrine ‘anekanta-vada’ was developed, comprising a number of insights into the nature of reality[1], and, specifically, its component part named Syādvada – the fullscale and ripe doctrine of complimentarity, elaborated much deeper and wider than the wellknown ‘principle of complimentarity’ formulated in the XX century by physicist Niels Bohr[2]. Also in Jainism one can find many other doctrines surprisingly reminding us of contemporary science[3].

But today we are discussing the Buddhist Philosophy, and it is related to a number of contemporary scientific disciplines, such as psychology, neurophysiology, and, again, physics. In 1991, with the initiative of HH the Dalai Lama, there was created an international network of scholars, interested to discuss the scientific problems of their research with respect to Buddhist traditional wisdom – it was the birth of the ‘Mind and Life Institute’. Within 20 years this institute was organizing scientific investigations and meetings of researchers in different fields (this year there was even a Conference on Economics!) with the interested Tibetan Buddhist scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself. Some of these ‘Mind and Life’ conferences, usually taking place in Dharamsala, the Indian headquarters of HH the Dalai Lama, were devoted to the field of contemporary physics – and a number of books were published as the outcome of these meetings[4]. Even wider array of the Buddhist approaches to problems of Physics could be found in the books by the permanent Tibetan/English translator of all the ‘Mind and Life’ conferences Alan Wallace[5], so there is not much need to talk about it now.

Today I want to concentrate on what I perceive as the most revolutionary theory developed by the Russian physicist Prof. Mikhail Borisovich Mensky, where I find striking parallels to the Buddhist worldview.

To understand Mensky’ theory we must first to dive shortly into some contemporary problems of quantum mechanics.

Two most difficult features of quantum mechanics are:

1) Micro-objects exist only as probabilities: it was proved experimentally that even if we knew ALL data of their initial position and energy – we can predict their next position only probabilistically, NOT EXACTLY

2) The problem of measurement (that is what happens when the micro-particle hits the sensor-target): at the moment of measurement we accept that the 'probabilistic' being of a particle is finished and we determined the position of a particle EXACTLY (though we cannot simultaneously measure its position and energy).

These 2 statements present a paradox: how and why can we accept that the particle which exists as a probability, once suddenly becomes a non-probabilistic reality? What we call 'The measurement' is actually only a moment when one particle hits the other – and this happened to particles all the time without changing their 'probabilistic' nature. This problem is extremely important, because these particles finally determine the 'real' world in which we live.

This can be clearly seen in a number of paradoxes which appear in this respect. Let us consider one of them, presented by M. Mensky:

“The paradox of Schrödinger's cat is rather well known. The cat is in a closed box and beside it in the same box is an atom of a radioactive isotope, a counter of decay products, and a device that breaks an ampoule with a poison upon actuation of the counter. For as long as the atom persists, the cat is safe and sound, but when the atom decays and the counter is actuated, the cat dies of poison. Next there comes into effect the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics: it is unknown when the atom is to decay: at every given time instant, there is only a certain decay probability. To be more precise, at every time instant, the atom is in a superposition (linear combination) of two states: the state in which it has not yet decayed and the decayed state.

This brings up the paradox. When approaching the closed box, according to quantum-mechanical laws, we must believe that the system ( is in a superposition of two states: (undecayed atom.alive cat) and (decayed atom.dead cat). However, on opening the box we, of course, never observe any superposition whatsoever but see either a live cat (and the undecayed atom) or a dead cat (and the already decayed atom). The description of the system depends on whether we have already opened the box. In more general terms, the after-measurement system description depends on whether the observer has apprehended the result of the measurement (in the case of the Schrödinger cat, the entire procedure outlined above can be treated as the measurement and that which the observer sees on opening the box as the measurement result).”[6]

But ‘normally’ we think: the cat is either alive or dead – and our consciousness only acknowledges this ‘fact of reality’ (while in Madhyamaka we know that there is no such thing as ‘independent reality’). We do not perceive any ‘superposition’ of different states of particles – of different ‘realities’, like of the dead and alive cats.

Still, from the scientific point of view, we must check if the opportunity of our lack of knowledge may solve the paradox. Thus Mensky continues:

“It is extremely significant that the features of quantum measurements are impossible to explain (to resolve the paradoxes) by any logically simple way. For instance, one might endeavor to attribute the probabilistic nature of predictions of measurement results to the absence of complete information about the initial state. In other words, one might assume that in the measurement of a quantum system, everything proceeds just as it does in the measurement of a classical system, with the difference that we do not know the initial state of the system exactly and cannot therefore predict the measurement results precisely. However, this assumption proves to be incorrect. The fallacy in this assumption is clearly demonstrated by Bell's theorem and experiments like Aspect's experiment, which rule out `local realism'.”[7]

We shall not follow here Mensky’s presentation of these theorem and experiments and just refer to the crucial conclusion, that our ‘lack of information’ does not change anything: particles exist only probabilistically.

One physicist named H. Everett suggested in 1957, that because we have no grounds to take 'the measurement' as an act that changes the nature of a particle, we must accept that particle's probabilistic nature remains intact – and it means that all positions of this particle, having the probabilities higher than 0 do coexist simultaneously. (For lay people like us it is important to note here that Everett's concept is merely a different interpretation of quantum mechanics and not a different quantum mechanics.) It means that all possible 'real' or 'classical' worlds a kind of coexist simultaneously in the 'superimposed' state. As Mensky tells us,

“None of the components of this superposition may be discarded... If these superposition terms are not discarded, they all are to be interpreted. This is precisely what Everett did. In Everett's concept… different terms of the superposition are assumed to correspond to different classical realities, or classical worlds. These realities, or worlds, are assumed to be exactly equivalent, i.e., none of them is more real than the others.”[8]

Still one observer can perceive only one world. How can it be explained?

In BuddhaDharma we know that our perception and circumstances are arising dependently as explained in the basic doctrine of dependent arising. The type of our world-perception depends on the hidden habits inside our mind caused by our previous actions, what is called ‘karma’. It can be clearly illustrated by the sutra story when Ven. Ananda asked the Buddha why the world is imperfect. Instead of answering Bhagavan temporary removed the karmic obscurations from Ananda’s mind and Ananda sow that the ground is covered by golden dust, not by mud, the dirty bushes were transformed into the beautiful trees, etc. Thus the Buddha showed that our word perception depends on our state of mind. If we ask which of the worlds – the Ananda’s world, or Buddha’s world is more ‘real’, it becomes clear that the question is improper: each world is real to the consciousness which perceives it.[9]

This seems to be exactly the same compared to what M. Mensky thinks about understanding the Everett’s interpretation: by doing 'measurement' we are 'separating' ('isolating') the components of this 'superposed' state from each other, so that each of the probabilistic worlds is perceived as the only one existing, i.e. seeming 'real' for us. Similar to Buddhists, he argues that this step 'separating the possible realities' is in fact done by consciousness only[10], and, this ability to divide the entmingled ‘superimposition’ into separate ‘realities’ IS the main function of the consciousness of the observer. So, it means many things, the first of which is that the understanding (equivalent to Buddhist understanding) macroworld in which we live is in a way created (chosen) by our consciousness. Thus it is up to us, or rather to our consciousness (which we can only partly control), – to accept that cat is alive or dead[11].

M.B. Mensky calls his interpretation 'the extended Everett Concept' – and this interpretation seems to be able to finally resolve the paradox of measurement in quantum mechanics, thus making the quantum theory linear and free from internal contradiction.

More than that – if we accept the main thesis of Mensky – that essentially the consciousness is the ability to ‘divide’ the superimposed worlds, or ‘to chose’ from the superimposition the one corresponding to our state of mind – we come to entirely new ground for understanding the old (main! – as Marx called it) question of philosophy – the question of coorelation between material and spiritual spheres. Surely, there are many more consequences from this idea, and Mensky was trying to show the possible insights following from his idea in many spheres including better understanding of essence of life itself[12].

Surely, the ideas of Mensky are ‘crazy enough’ to be true, and deserve much thinking and further analysis. Here I just want to point out that besides general affinity of Mensky supposition to general Buddhist worldview[13], and, specifically theory of karma (by the way the karma theory we can, particularly, explain why we all experience the same macroworld), - there are some Buddhist concepts which also closely resemble the physical notion of ‘superposition’, which is very essential in Mensky presentation:

“There is good reason to recall from time to time (and to necessarily do so whenever difficulties or hesitation show) that in reality, no `many classical worlds' exist at all. (This is why in Buddhism we say that this world is LIKE an illusion – A.T.). There is only one world, and this is a quantum world, and it is in the superposition state. It is simply that every component of the superposition taken separately corresponds to what our consciousness perceives as the picture of the classical world, and to different superposition terms there correspond different pictures. Each classical world is just one `classical projection' of the quantum world. These different projections are produced by the observer's consciousness, while the quantum world itself exists independently of whatever observer.

When we say `different superposition components' in lieu of `different classical worlds', many misunderstandings that occur in the popular literature and in discussions on this issue disappear. For instance, the many-worlds picture creates the illusion that one classical world transforms into several (or even an infinite number) of worlds at the instant of measurement. In this case, they sometimes even speak about a monstrous nonconservation of energy under this `multi-plication of worlds'. In reality, there is nothing of the kind in Everett's interpretation.”[14]

I believe that some aspects of this ‘quantum world’, or the 'superimposed state of infinite worlds' may correspond to some interpretations of such Buddhist terms relating to the ‘whole’ like ‘tathāta’, ‘tathāgatagarbha’[15] 'dharmadhatu'[16], or ‘ālayavijñana’[17].

Then, there is one more possibly common point in Mensky’ and Buddhist approaches to consciousness. Because it is clear, that the consciousness is at least not only ‘the separation of alternatives’, and Mensky understands it quite well:

Everett's concept deals with two aspects of consciousness (see Section 7). The consciousness as a whole splits between alternatives, and a `component' of consciousness lives within one classical alternative. In psychology, only that which is subjectively perceived is termed the consciousness, i.e., only the `classical component' of the consciousness, according to our terminology. (And this seems to relate also to classical Buddhism of the Sutras – A.T.) Therefore, to identify the notion of `consciousness' with some notion from the quantum theory of measurement, we must broadly interpret the consciousness as something capable of embracing the entire quantum world rather than exclusively as its classical projection. Therefore, we arrive at the following identification hypothesis:

The ability of a human (and of any living creature) referred to as consciousness is the same phenomenon as that which is termed the reduction of state or alternative selection in the quantum theory of measurement and which appears in Everett's concept as the separation of the single quantum world into classical alternatives…

…We make this statement somewhat more precise. The common part of quantum physics and psychology, which may, in the context of quantum physics, be termed the separation of alternatives, is to be identified only with the deepest (or the most primitive) stratum of the consciousness. It is as if this consciousness stratum lies `at the boundary of consciousness' and is intimately related to the effect of perception, i.e., to the transition from the state when something is not realized to the state when it has been realized…Only sometimes, whenever necessary, we recall that we are dealing not with the entire diversity of phenomena commonly embraced by the term `consciousness', but with the intangible that distinguishes the state in which a subject is aware of what is taking place from the state in which she is not.”[18]

When in Mahayana Buddhism we go from the teachings of Sutra to the realm of higher Tantra, we also come across with the central concept of the ‘deepest level of consciousness’ – in Tibetan gnyugs sems (pronounced as ‘nyugsem’). This is a kind of essence of consciousness which is beyond perceptions and forms a kind of base for the ordinary 6 sensory consciousness (mental consciousness included) of the Sutra teachings. Possibly, what Mensky says about “consciousness stratum lies `at the boundary of consciousness' and is intimately related to the effect of perception, i.e., to the transition from the state when something is not realized to the state when it has been realized” is his anticipation of the nyugsem.

Besides drowing the distinction between ‘real’ – ‘superimposed’ – interdependent (= shunyatā) ‘quantum world’ and ‘classical’, ‘relative’, selected by consciousness, illusory world which we perceive – fits exactly into the Buddhist theory of ‘two truths’.

These parallels could be developed at greater length, but at the same time we should not forget the warning of the late great Estonian Buddhologist Linnart Mäll, who published it in 1969 in his important article “Об одном возможном подходе к пониманию śūnyavāda”[19]:

“0. Дошедший до синтеза диалог между Западом и Востоком выставляет на первый план требование понимать то, что Восток имеет нам сказать, чтобы мы могли принимать восточные достижения как важные компоненты нашей культуры.

0.1. Исследователи восточных культур исходили до сих пор главным образом из двух разных концепций (здесь я опускаю те случаи, где восточные достижения признаются непонятными или неполноценными):

0.1.1. И западная и восточная культуры развились и развиваются параллельно (оказывая или не оказывая влияние друг на друга) в строгом соответствии. Все основные явления культуры имели место при одной и той же исторической эпохе (что бы под этим не подразумевалось) в ареалах обоих культур. Приверженцы этой аксиомы могут привести параллели Будда – Христос, аристотелевская логика – логика ньяи (nyāyā), Лао-цзы – Сократ и др.

0.1.2. По другой концепции и та и другая культуры доходили до одних и тех же результатов не обязательно одновременно. По такому допущению представляются вполне правомерными сравнения: Кант - Шанкара, шуньявада - релятивизм XX века, буддизм – диалектический материализм. На мой взгляд, вторая концепция имеет явные преимущества перед первой: уже признание неодновременности в развитии культур допускает активную роль Востока в синтезе этих двух культур. Но сразу же бросается в глаза основной недостаток второй концепции: все достижения Востока рассматривались сторонниками этой точки зрения как уже реализованные и на Западе, притом всегда при жизни данного автора. То новое, что было открыто при исследовании восточных культур, относится главным образом к деталям, причем все основные моменты были оценены как восточные аналоги к западным явлениям.

0.2. Думается, что сказанное относится в такой же мере и к первой предпосылке, а именно в том смысле, что восточные феномены рассматривались как удобное поле для совершения выработанных на Западе научных действий. В качестве примера приведем буддизм, который разными учеными был провозглашен то религией, то атеизмом, то нигилизмом, то материализмом или идеализмом, то рационализмом, то диалектикой. Каждое определение в этом списке показывает тенденцию к отрицанию других. Думается, что такой подход уже исчерпал себя. Пользование такими терминами как «парадоксальное», часто встречающимся в последних трудах5, доказывает, что уже созрел новый подход к Востоку6.

0.3. Этот подход основывается на понимании относительной самостоятельности Восточного мира. Восточные феномены рассматриваются как не подлежащие редукции по западным схемам. Этим, конечно, не отрицается возможность существования параллелей, но поскольку их нельзя конструировать насильственно, то параллели сами появляются неожиданно на новых уровнях. Поэтому представляется само собой разумеющимся, что Восток имеет во многих областях культуры совершенно уникальные результаты7.”

Thus – drowing parallels should not mislead us to substituting the essence of Buddhism for Physics and vice-versa. The parallels can only help us to deepen our understanding of both.


  1. See for example: A. Terentyev. Logical and Methodological Schemes of Indian Religious Philosophy and their interpretation / History of Indian Philosophy. A Russian Viewpoint. Ed. by M. Stepanyants. Indian Council of Philosophical Research. New Delhi, 1993, pp.16-32.
  2. For more details see, for example: А. Терентьев. К интерпретации логико-методологических доктрин «дополнительности» в индийской религиозной философии. Новосибирск: Наука, 1984, с.59-72.
  3. More details see in: A. Гриб, А. Терентьев. Космос древних джайнов. (The Cosmos of the Ancient Jainas.) / Арьяварта Aryavarta Journal (Inaugural Issue) СПб, 1996. с. 224-234.
  5. See his ‘Choosing Reality’, ‘Hidden Dimentions’ and other books.
  6. M. B. Mensky. Concept of consciousness in the context of quantum mechanics / Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk, 48 (4) (Russian Academy of Sciences, 2005). P.391-392.
  7. Ibid., p.394.
  8. Ibid., p. 399.
  9. Here I’d mention one story, related to this subject. When in 1979 I stayed at Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery in Buryatia at the house of Did-Khambo Lama Zhimba-Zhamtso Erdyneev, once I asked my host how shall we understand the Lamrim fables of Buddhist ‘hells’ – may we take it not literally, but, just indications to some painful states of consciousness? The old Lama easily agreed: “Yes, of course”. And, having noticed my happy smile, calmly added: “But don’t forget that the world you perceive now is also just a state of consciousness…”
  10. “If objectively (i.e., in accordance with quantum-mechanical laws) no selection of alternatives occurs and nevertheless the observer always becomes aware of a single alternative, this means that the alternative selection takes place in the observer's consciousness.” – Mensky, op. cit., p. 401.

    It is interesting to note a funny coincidence: the Sanskrit word for ‘consciousness’ – vijñāna - consists of two parts. The particle ‘vi’ has ‘separation’ as one of its main meanings, while jñāna means knowledge (cf. Russian ‘знание’), thus may be rendered as ‘separation of knowledge’ – somewhat similar to Mensky interpretation. The same idea may be seen through the famous definition of consciousness by Carl Marx: “Bewußtsein ist immer bewußte Sein” – ‘the consciousness is always the being, made conscious’. “Bewußte Sein” – ‘cognised beeng’ is not the whole being, but a [chosen] part of it. Actually, besides being ideal or subjective, the quality of separating out a part of reality, making it a part of our internal world, ‘cognising’, or even ‘realizing’ it (etimologically this is exact reference to Mensky idea!) is the main characteristic of conscipousness.
  11. Some clever people in Russia realized the practical application of this idea years ago, and now you can find at every esoteric bookshop in Russia books on so-called “Transerfing Reality” – this is how they named the efforts and techniques to chose a better world for their desires. Alas! They do not realize that fulfilling samsaric desires does NOT bring to liberation from sufferings…
  12. See more in: М.Б. Менский. Человек и квантовый мир. Фрязино: Век2, 2007.
  13. See, for example, А.Терентьев. Буддизм // Энциклопедия религий. М.: "Академический проект", 2008. (с. 203-212).
  14. Mensky, op.cit., p. 400.
  15. The Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, 220: “Mahāmati, the Tathāgatagarbha holds within it the cause for both good and evil, and by it all forms of existence are produced. Like an actor it takes on a variety of forms and [in itself] is devoid of an ego-soul and what belongs to it.” – and “…the Tathāgatagarbha… is emptiness, reality-limit (bhūta-koṭi – A.T.), Nirvana… the reason why the Tathagatas … teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathāgatagarbha is to make ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness…” (78) Cited from Suzuki, D.T. The Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidas (reprint of original London edition of 1932), 1999, p. 190, 69.
  16. Dharmadhātu means ‘sphere of [all] phenomena’. Cf. Nagarjuna’s “Mahāprajñāparamitā śastra”: “Within the heart of everything there is the ultimate reality… it is [the real nature of] all things that is called dharmadhātu.” (cited from: Ramanan, K. Venkata. Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy, Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966, pp.262-263).
  17. “The world [as we see it] exists not
    Pluralities of things rise from the mind being seen [externally]
    Body, property, and abode are
    Manifested to us as of the ālayavijñana.” - Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, 54 (Cited from Suzuki, D.T., … p.49)
  18. Mensky, op.cit., p. 401.
  19. Reprinted in in 2002 in «Буддизм России», №35, pp. 80-84.

    5 См. особенно Г. Померанц, Европоцентристская модель религии и парадоксальные религии Востока (в сборнике «Труды по востоковедению» I, Тарту 1967).

    6 Академик Н. И. Конрад пишет: «Мы прилагаем к оценке философских идей Востока обозначения, сложившиеся в философской науке у нас, в Европе, такие, например, как материализм, идеализм, рационализм, интуитивизм, мистицизм, критицизм, монизм, плюрализм и т.п., даже не подумав всерьез о том, подходят ли вообще эти обзначения к тому, что мы хотим обозначить ими; не лучше ли обратиться к тем обозначениям и характеристикам, которые выработаны научной мыслью там же – на Востоке; не соответствуют ли именно эти обозначения природе и содержанию обозначаемых ими явлений. (Н. И. Конрад, Запад и Восток, Москва 1966, стр. 29-30).

    7 “The greatest obstacle, however, to mutual understanding is the provincialism of the Westerner himself. Beneath a popular façade of being the world’s classic example of an open society, Western people are tribally oriented in a grand but unconscious way.” (N. P. Jacobson, Buddhism. The Religion of Analysis, London 1966, p. 15.).

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