The physical ‘stuff’ of the universe is not what we take it to be. By Jnanavaca
‘A human being is part of a whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to the affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’ – Albert Einstein
Conventional Western science tends to assume that if we were removed from the universe, the sun would still shine, the earth would still go round the sun and the galaxy would continue revolving. The view is that we’ve entered the universe like we might enter a room. We’re perceiving what’s going on around us, but we’re not essentially changing it. It was going on in the room without us before we walked through the door. This is an assumption classical physics makes about the nature of reality: that there is something ‘out there’ that can be discovered and talked about and understood – an objective universe. It says that not only can we assume there’s an objective reality independent of us, but that there are laws that govern that objective universe too – gravity, thermodynamics and so on. For some reason there seems to be something out there and there seems to be order.
But all that started to all unravel in the 20th century, with Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and the birth of quantum physics. The former overturned common-sense notions of space and time, while the latter explored the fundamental building blocks of matter. It led to a questioning of the very notion of an objective universe. Before looking at this more closely, it’s worth trying to imagine how small these building blocks are. For instance, if you laid atoms in a line a millimetre long, you would have as many of them as the number of sheets of paper you would have to stack up to reach the height of the Empire State Building. What’s more, most of the atom is empty space: almost all of the mass is contained within a tiny nucleus around which electrons orbit. If the atom were blown up to the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would be the size of a small marble in the centre of it. Just in case this gives the impression that quantum physics is irrelevant at an everyday level, it’s important to know that without it, we wouldn’t have developed semiconductors, which make up computer chips; we wouldn’t even have got as far as the transistor radio. We wouldn’t have a theory of how electricity flows through metals, or be able to explain why the sun shines. Quantum physics is the most accurate and powerful theory of matter ever conceived. It is a sort of triumph of human thought.
Until quantum physics was developed, physicists had been happy to explain all phenomena as either particles or waves (particles being indivisible lumps of matter that have a particular location and move through space like a rock or ball, while waves are a sort of undulating motion of energy usually within some sort of medium that spread out over space). All physical phenomena were seen as either one or the other. Electrons, for example, were thought to be particles, and light was thought to be a wave – although this had been an ongoing controversy. In 1803 a physicist called Thomas Young had shown that light was a wave by producing patterns of interference between light waves hitting a screen passing through two slits. This famous ‘Double-Slit Experiment’ of Young’s was held as proof of light being a wave because only waves would be able to interfere with each other and produce an effect of either cancelling each other out or intensifying one another other – producing an ‘interference pattern’ (figure 1).
But the really confusing thing was, when the same experiment with two slits was done with electrons, for example, the particles also landed in formations typical of a wave interference pattern; there seemed to be no real difference. This was counterintuitive, because it meant that some electrons had landed directly behind part of the screen, rather than in line with one of the slits, suggesting they hadn’t travelled in a straight line. At first it was thought that the particles might have collided with each other, so the particle generator was slowed down until it fired only one electron at a time. That ought to mean it had nothing else to interact with, to interfere with. But left over a number of hours, sure enough it produced the same interference pattern, just like a wave would (figure 2). How could single particles be behaving like that? It was as though the electron were mysteriously splitting itself in two and landing on the screen in a way that would only be possible if it had gone through both slits and interfered with itself. So they decided to see which of the two slits it was going through, or whether it was going through both, which you can do by putting detectors in the way.
The extraordinary thing is that as soon as you’ve got the detector in the way you lose the interference pattern and the electrons appear as well-behaved, normal particles. So they would either go through slit A or slit B, behaving just as rocks or marbles would – and as particles should. But if you don’t look, you get the interference pattern. As soon as you have knowledge of which slit the particle goes through, it behaves as a particle and only goes through one of them. If you don’t have knowledge of which slit it passed through, it behaves as a wave, goes through both slits and interferes with itself just as a wave would, then resumes its particle identity when it hits the screen; but because it has behaved as a wave in the meantime, it lands in places that only a wave could land. So it has this tell-tale sign of a wave and yet behaves as a particle.
Here we’re getting towards the heart of the conundrum: quantum physics has shown us that we don’t know what an electron is; we don’t now know whether it’s a wave or a particle, or both, or neither, because it seems to behave as either depending on what we choose to measure. If we want to measure a particle, it will behave as a particle; if we want to measure a wave, it will behave as a wave. And remember, waves and particles are very different things. Waves can interfere with each other, whereas particles just bounce off each other. And an electron seems to be capable of either.
And it turns out that not only does an electron behave like this – all particles have this dual nature, depending on what you look for. Even worse, physicists discovered that this also applied to light (remember light was said to be a wave). The wave and particle models ought to be mutually exclusive, but these experiements don’t bear that out. So what you’ve got is this mysterious world where now we can’t picture any fundamental particle, and its nature and behaviour seem to depend on whether or not we’re looking.
One of the main models for understanding this paradox is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, after the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr embraced the ambiguity proved by experiments such as the Double-Slit Experiment. Bohr said that when you’re not looking at the electron it’s meaningless to say anything about it; it’s meaningless to say, ‘Is it really a wave or is it really a particle when you’re not looking?’ When you’re not looking all that ‘exists’ is a ghostly world of probabilities, one of which becomes an actuality upon observation. It only makes sense to talk of an electron in the context of you looking.
Bohr was a contemporary of Einstein’s, and the pair had a long-running dispute about quantum physics. Einstein was never reconciled to quantum physics, he could never accept this weirdness, this ambiguity in the nature of reality. Bohr maintained that when you’re not looking it’s impossible to say whether or not an electron is there, or, assuming it is there, what exactly it is. So it’s as if you’re part of the whole apparatus, and neither you nor the object of the experiment can be separated out from it. Einstein said, ‘Rubbish!’ He said that’s tantamount to asking whether or not the moon exists when you’re not looking at it – it challenges the whole notion of an objective reality. And Bohr said, ‘Well, yes it does.’ He shrugged, as it were, and left it at that. The Copenhagen Interpretation doesn’t tell you what’s out there, or even that there is something out there – in fact it only says that what you see depends in certain ways on how you measure it, and that we’ll never know what’s out there when we aren’t looking.
This led some physicists to ask, What is it about the act of observation that changes reality? Traditionally we have assumed that the observer is passive, i.e. doesn’t affect reality, but actually what this experiment starts to show is that the observer, far from being a neutral, passive recorder of reality is more like an active participant in forming it. So quantum physics, at least in some interpretations says, that it’s not obvious that there is a real ‘object’ out there independent of a ‘subject’ observing it. It’s reaching some sort of border where it can’t now ignore consciousness and the inner nature of things.
One of the reasons I’m discussing this is that in our culture there’s a strong undercurrent of scientific materialism. This view says that matter is all there is, that we are just our bodies. Consciousness is then just a by-product of brain function, and biology, life, the mind itself, can all be reduced to the movements of atoms – which means that when the body dies, that’s it, the lights go out. One of the implications of that nihilist worldview can be a feeling that you might as well just have as much pleasure as you can while you’ve got your life – and that then supports our excessive consumerism, our lack of concern for the environment, for the well-being of the planet and for each other. We become more self-centred, more present-tense orientated: we just go for instant gratification, whatever gives us more pleasure now. That chain of reasoning may not always follow, but it’s prevalent in our culture to a degree that is dangerous. I think that if we’re going to be materialists, we ought at least to know what quantum physics says about matter: physicists have been saying for a hundred years that we don’t really know what’s going on – that matter is much more mysterious than common sense implies – and Relativity has overturned the notions of objectively existing space and time. And the sense of wonder that that can encourage in us is a positive thing in itself.
The Buddhist worldview is that there is no objective world independent of an experiencing subject, and nor is there a subject existing independently of experience. That’s a very difficult thing to grasp, even for Buddhists. The fundamental teaching of the Buddha – that things arise in dependence on conditions and cease when those conditions fall away – is usually called conditioned co-production. But it’s also talked about as the middle way between existence and non-existence. The truth is that there’s something more mysterious going on, which is this constant arising and ceasing in the moment, in every moment. And that constant arising and ceasing, from a Buddhist perspective, isn’t just happening ‘out there’, it’s happening inside us as well. Consciousness is also constantly arising and ceasing in every moment. And the distinction between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ is false too. So this notion that somehow we’re apart from the objective world, passive observers of it, isn’t the Buddhist position.
The Buddhist view of the nature of reality is also characterised by the notion of all things being insubstantial – they have no essential substance to them, no ‘true nature’ behind them. Nevertheless, there is experience, and even order: it’s not that there is nothing at all going on. It is interesting to reflect, then, that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity led him to the notion of the equivalence of matter and energy. Particles are not solid entities; they are better seen as temporary condensations of energy. They can arise, be created, out of energy, and they can disintegrate back into energy. This was borne out in the awful example of the atomic bomb, which Einstein regretted having inadvertently contributed to for the rest of his life. He apparently said, ‘If only I had known, I should have been a watchmaker.’ So solidity is an illusion. Not only are atoms mostly made up of empty space, their constituent particles are insubstantial as well – and as we’ve seen, perhaps they do not even exist in and of themselves at all.
So particles can materialise seemingly out of nothing. Quantum theory says that that’s happening all the time. Some particles are materialising and then dematerialising so quickly that you can’t see them, but they do leave an effect, and mathematical models of the atom rely on these ‘virtual particles’. A vacuum is not empty in the way that we think it is – it is actually a ‘sea’ of energy which particles can bubble up out of, and then return to, all the time. So it may be that all the matter in the universe is somehow just a surface manifestation of this vast potential.
At this point, we have gone beyond all delusions and all self-clinging. The notions of subject, object, space and time no longer apply.
Modern physics has overturned common sense and is producing many insights, that are in line with Buddhist thought. There is an overarching model for understanding conditioned reality, which Sangharakshita has brought out from the Buddhist tradition, that can incorporate the deepest insights of physics and go further. This is the teaching of the five niyamas. A niyama is a category of natural laws that govern conditioned existence. The laws of phsyics primarily address the nature and behaviour of inorganic matter; they would be classed as the utu niyama. Then there are natural laws governing the properties of what we call life – laws that are perhaps better described by the sciences of biology and botany (bija niyama). With the development of animal consciousness, further laws of conditionality come into play – those governing instinctive behaviour such as ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, reproduction and so on, known as the mano niyama. With the emergence of human self-consciousness, a further category of natural law, one that is crucial for leading the Dharma life, comes into play. This is the law of karma, the karma niyama, which governs willed action and its consequences. Actions motivated by love, generosity and awareness lead to beneficial consequences for the person performing those acts and for others; the converse is true for actions based in greed, hatred and delusion. By using the karma niyama, we can develop a consciousness that is more positive, more creative, more expansive and more integrated.
On the basis of this sort of mind, reflections on the nature of reality can lead to Insight – a direct seeing of the way things truly are. At this point, a final category of natural law becomes dominant: the Dharma niyama, sometimes called the law of self-transcendence. Under its momentum, we are led to ever more fulfilling states, eventually culminating in Enlightenment. At this point, we have gone beyond all delusions and all self-clinging. The notions of subject, object, space and time no longer apply. Appearances continue to arise, but they are no longer taken literally, no longer mistaken for real objects experienced by real subjects on a canvas of objectively existing space and time. This is the liberation from all suffering. Furthemore it is a state of boundless love and compassion. It is the pinnacle of evolving consciousness as described by the niyamas, although that is not to suggest that it is an end point. It is more like the furthest point on a horizon beyond which we cannot presently see, where none of our concepts or categories apply. We need concepts to root out delusion, but they are not ends in themselves. Scientific progress has been remarkable in helping alleviate some material suffering, and quantum physics has even blown open our most instinctive notions of subject and object. But complete transcendence in actual experience – not just theory – is the goal of Buddhism, and, I believe, the purpose of our human existence. ■