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What in the World!

Are we the dreams of Gods, or Gods the dream of men?

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Some say atoms and fundamental particles make the universe, others that strings of vibrating energy are the building blocks, and a few suggest the material world is a grant illusion. The list of building blocks grows forever, yet none of these answers are complete. Where should we look? Is the entire universe nothing more than God’s dream, as some idealists like to believe, or is it an absolute entity independent of our practices and beliefs?

How small can we go? The fifth-century BC Greek philosopher and scholar Democritus conjectured that the universe consists of empty space and an (almost) infinite number of invisible particles that differ from each other in form, position, and arrangement. He postulated that all matter is made of indivisible particles called atoms (Atom in Greek means indivisible): “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion. The worlds are unlimited. They come into being and perish. Nothing can come into being from that which is not, nor pass away into that which is not. Further, the atoms are unlimited in size and number, and they are borne along in the whole universe in a vortex, and thereby generate all composite things — fire, water, air, earth.”

Though modern science adopted the name atom as conceived originally by Democritus, it is not indivisible any more. Scientists identified protons, electrons and neutrons as the constituents of the atom in the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, protons and neutrons are found to be composite particles of quarks and gluons that bind them together.

Whereas Europeans later revived the atomism conceived by Greek philosophers, ancient India envisaged the same idea. R. A. Horne in Atomism in Ancient Greece and India writes:

“The atomistic system of the Indian philosopher Kanada (dates very uncertain) was designedly empirical; its expressed purpose was to give an account of the image of the external world which we receive through our senses.”

In Sanskrit paramanu has been translated as the smallest entity that cannot be divided further, while anu is considered to be atoms. Mysteriously, the Vedas and their interpretations do not offer many details about this atomic view, and for that reason atomism was not projected as a prominent thought in the Hindu school of philosophy. It has been generally agreed that the Indian and Greek versions of atomism developed independently in 5th or 6th century B.C.

The idea of atomism, however, flourished in Buddhist philosophy through logical presuppositions.The early Buddhist thoughts about the world  had its foundations on the Hindu elements of air, earth, fire, water and ether. Ether is often referred to as void. It plays an important role in Buddhist thought. The Hridaya sutra, which belongs to the Mahayana text, repeatedly says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” When one looks closely at the structure of the atoms, it is easy to comprehend how an atom springs from predominantly empty space that separates the nucleus and electron cloud that surrounds it.

The internal structure of the atom, as revealed by the scientific pursuit, is strange enough to pose many profound questions, such as the nature of reality. One might think of an atom as a solid ball with neutrons and protons in the nucleus and further small electrons zipping around them. Based on scientific analysis, this is not even close to the truth. Atoms are mostly empty, to be precise 99.999999% empty. The emptiness, the space between the nucleus and electrons, is what makes up the lion share and that makes an atom an atom.

However, the meaning of emptiness described in Buddhism is markedly different from nothingness. People usually relate nihilism with Buddhism. But the idea of emptiness in Buddhism does not reject ultimate reality, as it proclaims emptiness as a form and form is emptiness. Emptiness, in Buddhism, is neither non-existence, nor does it promote non-reality as in nihilism.

Later on, mostly in the 20th century, physicists exploring the fundamental world have identified 12 building blocks that are the essential to the makeup of matter. Scientists also categorized four elementary types of forces acting among these particles — strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational force. The now famous Standard Model of particles suggest that our everyday world, including our own body, is made up of these elementary particles and the forces that interact among these particles.

In recent times, the much celebrated string theory promised an elegant picture of the universe with vibrating strings of energy as the underlying entity that makes up everything, including these fundamental particles. This radical idea, however, still remains in the realm of philosophy as it has failed to provide any experimental or observational evidence thus far. But, the unparalleled similar views that guided ancient wisdom and modern science as they sought the answers to the most fundamental entity, are worth exploring.

The apparent solidity and form — the qualities attributed to all objects — are, in fact, an illusion on a microscopic scale. The atoms that make up objects are inherently empty, although these very same atoms make up elements and they in turn create organic and non-organic compounds. Even 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of just six elements — oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus — and their constituents are atoms.

At the most fundamental level the particles and forces may converge, and most probably, we haven’t yet mastered the laws of nature that dictate this interplay. Until then, the illusion of form and shape instill in us the realities we claim to be true.

According to quantum physicists, even particles are not what they seem. They are merely the tendencies to exist rather than material objects. They are not the tiny spherical balls that could bounce off each other, as one might assume. The emptiness or vacuum that we portray as the absence of any material is not empty in that sense. Virtual particles always pop up and out of existence in the vacuum. Particles and forces all are interconnected and interdependent and it is the cause of everything that is manifested and unmanifested.

Perhaps, everything that originated and existed is dependent on a single underlying entity that has neither yet been found by science or revealed to us by ancient wisdom, at least in our own language. Even consciousness is part of that scheme, in addition to the normal senses of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste.

The philosophy of emptiness reflects a big paradox about the true nature of the world. We know that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same property and can be interchanged. The ancient Vedas, in its own language, describes the unmanifested. With the curiosity of a school child, one could ask what makes up both the existent and the non-existent? At this point, science, which explores mainly the world of the manifested, cannot provide a final answer. The principle of dependent origination denies the existence of anything with an independent or intrinsic identity. In that sense emptiness is equally expressive as material objects. The plurality and inclusiveness, the key elements of eastern philosophy, have a broader appeal to philosophers and scientists alike.

It has been estimated that our observable universe contains about 1080 atoms. But it is also estimated that the universe we describe materially is just about 5% of the known universe!

Our philosophers and scientists must look at reality without any prejudice of views, ideas and perceptions. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

Until then, we don’t know whether men are the dreams of Gods or Gods the dream of men.

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Life | Technology | Magazine | June 2011

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