Saturday Ramble: Rutherford, Quantum physics and Buddhist emptiness
It is the centenary of Ernest Rutherford’s development of the “planetary” model of the atom in an experiment with gold foil, now known as the Rutherford scattering. Six years later he was involved in splitting the atom, bequeathing to us all the vagaries of Quantum physics.
Since those distant days, similar experiments have continued using bigger and better equipment. The latest is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which propels “particles” around a 17-mile tube in opposite directions until they crash and destroy each other. The explosive trace on a graph is said to reveal newer, unknown particles which advance our knowledge of the universe.
Demonstration: put a bottle on a wall and shoot it with a gun. The bottle shatters producing a cloud of shards. Examine the shards. They are all bits of glass with randomly differing shapes.
Question: would you assign each shard an exclusive name, claiming to have discovered a “new” building block of the universe? Your answer will reveal a lot about you, and your place on the spectrum of Asperger’s Syndrome.
However, one interesting aspect of Quantum physics is its discovery of the “emptiness” at the heart of matter. A solid-looking wall is nothing but empty space held together by a string of energies.
What, then, is to stop us walking through the wall as ghosts are said to do? The answer is probably quite simple: we are not meant to.
Who or what decides this? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.
Around 2500 years ago, a wandering mendicant, known to history as Gotama (or Gautama) Buddha, sitting under a tree, underwent an “enlightenment” experience in which the world dissolved into gossamer insubstantiality revealing everything to be of one substance. That substance was much closer to mind than to matter, for crucially it exhibited intelligence. It is sometimes known as spirit or, in modern times, consciousness.
Now, what is the difference between the Buddha’s famous “emptiness” and the “empty space” of Quantum physics? I humbly suggest there is none. Both the mystic and the boffin are looking at the same phenomenon but from different baselines and with divergent interpretations.
While the scientist uses a vast panoply of expensive equipment, the mystic relies only on the mind. More pertinently, science has yet to discover the “intelligence” in the void. Its instruments are not sensitive enough to pick up the living nature of apparent nothingness. Only the human soul can detect it. Modern humanity’s “nausea” and despair at mortality arises from the very real nihilism of science.
Various authorities, including early Christians, also shied away from Buddhist emptiness as if it were a plague. They proclaimed it nihilistic, the rejection of life, a world-hating reductionism. They thought that Gotama had flinched from a whole-hearted acceptance of his existence and the beautiful Earth he was born into.
None of that is true. The Buddha, or “awakened one,” was simply expressing what he had experienced during his enlightenment. It was no different from the fruits of Christian mysticism as described by Dionysus the Areopagite, John of the Cross, and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas: “See what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.” Plato’s famous story of prisoners shackled in a cave facing a wall, is of similar genre.
When scientists “split” matter and claim to have found new particles, they begin with a mathematical model of what they are looking for. At the LHC it’s Higgs boson — the “God Particle” — which “gives mass to matter”. Doesn’t it strike you as peculiar that after a century of work, they still don’t know what gives mass to matter and have to invent a blob to explain it?
I suspect the Buddha would say: matter is an illusion of the egoic mind. All matter is spirit, or, if you’d prefer, consciousness.
After the £10 billion plus spent on the LHC, it really is time for scientists to pay attention to the insights of mystics. Some do, of course, but they tend to be drowned out in the stampede for ever larger grants from governments and corporations to fund extravagant fantasies and support very adequate lifestyles.
The difference between genuine mysticism and its physical equivalent: science, can be measured by the wall of money that separates them. But walls are just empty space.
See that, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.
John Evans is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
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