The Beginner’s Mind of Scientist Sir Roger Penrose
Posted on January 16th, 2019

Rev. Tony Stultz on the brilliant mind who models a rich exchange between Buddhism and scientific thought — for the benefit of all beings.

An impossible Penrose Triangle dissected.

The famous Penrose Triangle is an impossible object devised by Sir Roger Penrose and his father Lionel Penrose in the 1950s. Roger described it as impossibility in its purest form.” Photo by Philippe Put.

If you don’t study physics or mathematics, you likely don’t know about Sir Roger Penrose. Penrose, a groundbreaking theorist on the nature of mind, is a model for how Buddhists can let go of their assumptions and use empirical inquiry to develop an understanding of the nature of mind and the universe.

He has collaborated with Stephen Hawking on black hole theory and the popular book The Nature of Space and Time, and he is the author of two important books on the nature of mind, The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind. Now in his eighties, Penrose remains a tenacious contrarian, and embodies a scientific version of what Zen Buddhists call not knowing,” fearlessly questioning beloved concepts and theories. His newest book, Fashion, Faith and Fantasy, challenges the meaning of several well-known theories. Penrose suggests that much of what is generally accepted in science, like string theory, is fashionable in part because it is near impossible to prove false. He argues that some physicists base their science on faith — like belief in multiple dimensions — and that some popular theories may be outright fantasy.

When I asked Penrose, after a recent lecture at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, what it is that continues to inspire him in his work, he smiled shyly and said that he likes to go back to the beginning, or prime, and work from there as a fresh way to see things.” I couldn’t help but think of Shunryu Suzuki’s classic teaching about not knowing, that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Penrose has employed his beginner’s mind methodology to controversially challenge the prevailing theories of mind and consciousness. In his orchestrated objective reduction” theory (a.k.a. Orch-OR), Penrose posits that consciousness derives from quantum vibrations in microtubules throughout neurons in the brain. In this view, individual consciousness is connected to a universal proto-consciousness. This theory may resonate with the classical Buddhist view, that consciousness is the ground” or primordial nature of the universe. Indeed, Integrated Information Theory, the most popular competing theory of consciousness, also suggests that consciousness is an intrinsic property of the universe and has been met favorably by the Dalai Lama.

Sir Roger Penrose.

Sir Roger Penrose. Photo courtesy of Festival della Scienza.

Penrose’s theory on the origin of the universe also finds common ground with Buddhism. Buddhist theory holds that our universe is ony of many in a cycle of cosmic death and rebirth, as the Buddha explained in the Aggañña Sutta. Based on evidence found in the background microwaves of the universe, Penrose has proposed a theory, known as Conformal Cyclical Cosmology, ”that the universe cycles through eons dominated by big bangs and black-hole collisions.Penrose’s theory casts aside the popular linear Inflationary Theory” origin of the universe, which posits that the universe began with the Big Bang and will continue to expand into the future, and eventually end.

Penrose’s work demonstrates how science and religion can find a confluence. Many believe that science and religion should be kept separate, some positing even that science threatens religion. But there is a middle way of cooperative engagement that can contribute toward expanding human understanding. The Buddhist tradition has an exciting role to play in such a dialogue. It shares with science a common modus operandi. First, it promotes the practice of not knowing, the power of honest inquiry matched with the humility of understanding conditioned perception. Second, it bears witness to an interdependent and continually emerging evolutionary process. Third, it values experimental, experiential action above all other testimony.

In this way, Dr. Penrose is a model for Buddhists and their practice of constant inquiry, reminding us that when we begin to take ideas for granted because they are fashionable, we can summon the great courage necessary to challenge the consensus. Only then can we open to a larger reality beyond our beloved or beleaguered boundaries, and perhaps move forward in this vital quest to develop true understanding.

For those who would like to learn more about the relationship between Buddhism and contemporary cosmology and physics I would recommend the following books:

  • The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet, by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan
  • Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, by B. Alan Wallace
  • The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by the Dalai Lama

3 Responses to “The Beginner’s Mind of Scientist Sir Roger Penrose”

  1. Charles Says:

    Moment Scientists try to explain some thing that had been said and understood from ancient times, it takes a different turn and it becomes much more complicated than it really is. Now they have taken up human consciousness and even goes as far as to explain that even computers have a consciousness.

    In Buddhism Buddha explains this phenomena conventionally and in ultimate terms-metaphysically. The ordinary Buddhists understand it in conventional terms in listening or reading the Sutta Pitaka of the Tripitaka. The Consciousness and the material form of all beings are a combination of the form and the consciousness- the mind. – mind and matter (Nama-Rupa). Though it to are inseparabley bound, it is often treated as to entities like two bundles of firewood kept one against the other. If one falls the other falls as well. It had been said that the mind is in the heart , and not in the brain. When the Buddha was asked where the mind is he had simply said where ever it is. But in Samannaphala Sutta it is said that the mind could be taken out like taking a sword out of its scabbard. That means that the consciousness or the mind is evry where. Each sense faculty -eye, ear,nose, tongue, body and the mind has its own consciousness. Hence the whole system of a being functions according to the consciousness which gives it “life”respiratory system, blood circulation, digestive system, nervous system all functions because the consciousness provides life to them. Of course in explaining one has to take into account the problem of the language in explaining these phenomena or these factors of dhamma.

    There was also a question being asked as to where the consciousness comes from. This is explained by the Buddha in Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada) It is the ignorance of the four noble truths of suffering , impermanence and absence of a self: A being in ignorance of these factors (avidya), presumes every thing is permanent, is pleasant and gives pleasure and there is a self to enjoy the pleasures coming in contact with the sense faculties. Thus he accumulates defilements(kilesa) which turn into wholesome and unwholesome kamma( sankhaara) it is these kamma that forms the last consciousness that escapes at the death, which enters a foetus with a similar kammic energy to form a being……..

  2. Charles Says:

    There is one more question I as just an ordinary Buddhist would like to state for the information of the learned scholars of the Lions Roar. That is about memory. It is said in Abhidahamma that no two thoughts arise at the same time . It is when one thought that has arisen falls away that the next arises. The thoughts arise in the consciousness (vinnana) when an exterior object comes in contact with a sense faculty. The whole of a beings existence (bhava) is rising and falling away thoughts. (The body is only a vehicle for the mind to exist. When the mind or consciousness departs from the body , the body become a dead body which rots and gets assimilated into the four elements in nature.)

    Each thought when arising after the falling away of the thought before takes over all the information of that thought ( memories , previous wholesome or unwholesome kamma etc.), and when that thought falls away all that information is taken over by the thought arising next. It goes on until the final thought of a dying man’s- departing citta (cuti citta)…….Then it continues by joining with a re-linking (patisandhi citta) of a foetus…so on through out Samsara.

  3. Charles Says:

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