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There is room for both science and religion in seeking to understand the universe, Trinh says

Trinh Xuan Thuan
Rebecca Arrington
Trinh Xuan Thuan

By Fariss Samarrai

One thing is clear. The universe would have no meaning if there was no one here to appreciate its beauty and harmony,” said U.Va. astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan.

As the author of popular books on science for general readers, Trinh, raised as a Buddhist in Vietnam, is used to taking a broader, more philosophical view of nature. He sees beauty in the cosmos, in particles such as the quantum, in flowers such as the lotus. Trinh was drawn to physics and astronomy because those disciplines often sought answers to the same questions asked by Buddhists.

During his academic career, he has continued to pursue the spiritual angle of inquiry as well as the scientific in considering fundamental questions, such as “How did the universe begin? Where does it end? Why is there life? Consciousness? People to ask these questions?”

Several years ago when he met Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who was trained as a molecular biologist, the two began a dialogue that they have turned into a new book, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet.

Many astronomers accept that the universe was created as the result of a big bang, the explosion of energy that set in motion the creation of particles, atoms, molecules, elements, stars and galaxies and planets. Amazingly, on one of these planets, Earth, life has emerged, and, most amazingly, intelligent, thinking human life. But religion, the idea of creation by design, is often discounted or simply ignored by the scientific community. Trinh believes this is a narrow view, or simply a limited one.

“I think a spiritual view is necessary for a more complete understanding of reality,” he said. “Science is a tool, but it has no moral value. The fact that we exist, and are here to question the universe, suggests that there is far more than meets the eye.

“The universe seems to have been fine-tuned to allow conscious life to develop. Philosophers ask if the universe exists by chance, or is it necessity. Many religions teach that the universe exists because of a creator. Through the ages and cultures, people have been asking questions, trying to understand the universe. This is my interest as well.”

Trinh points out that “there is no telescope or computer program that can show us God. We can only see 15 billion light years distant. We know that visible matter constitutes only about 2 percent of the universe’s total material content. There is so much more to learn and discover.”

Trinh and Ricard approach questions of the universe, and of meaning, from the perspectives of a scientist with a Buddhist background, and a Buddhist with a scientific background. In parts of the book Trinh questions Ricard’s beliefs based on what science knows about the laws of nature. Ricard’s responses, and his own questions for Trinh, are based on a metaphysical and transcendental view of things, but with a great respect for the science that seeks hard facts.

“It was a mutually enriching conversation,” Trinh said. “I developed a greater appreciation for Buddhism. Likewise, I believe Matthieu’s perspective was enriched as he looked more closely at our physical understanding of the universe. We found that Buddhism and science often confirm and complement one another.”

Trinh, who prefers to write in French, and then they are translated to English, and Ricard first met in the summer of 1997 during a conference on science and religion in Andorra. During long walks in the Pyrenees Mountains they developed a friendship as they discussed essential questions. They continued their dialogue by e-mail when they returned to home. Along the way, they realized they had a book.

“I grew up with the philosophic view that man does not exist in isolation, which is the Buddhist view, that all things are part of everything,” Trinh said. “I have viewed science too in this way, that measuring the universe is only one understanding, but a more holistic view would include spirituality. I don’t think religion is irrelevant.”


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