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The Nature of Existence

Some time ago, Greg Brown, who frequently comments astutely on my blogs as you may have noticed, sent me a few interesting quotes to ponder on. Let me share one with you. This particular one is from Steve Biller, Tutorial Fellow in experimental particle physics, Mansfield College, University of Oxford, England.

“Particles, in fact, don’t exist. Consider a particle we all know and love, the electron. They’re all the same. You know if you produced an electron on the other side of the universe, and you brought it here and compared it with an electron, they’re the same. Not in the same way you pick up two red billiard balls and say, “These are pretty similar”. We say they are identical. This is because the electron as a separate, distinct entity …. doesn’t really exist, They are merely bumps in something called ‘field’ which is a property of space and time. And if it’s true of fundamental particles, it’s true of everything they make up, including us. And so at some level we don’t exist.”

This is indeed a marvellous conclusion. The universe, which seems so real and physically imposing, has no more substance than, perhaps a thought or a dream. The Hindus, in fact believe that the Universe is merely a dream of Brahma. Astrophysicist, Sir James Jeans, wrote in the 1930’s:

“The stream of human knowledge is impartially heading towards a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of this realm.”

But then he, of course, added this cautionary note:

“The human race, whose intelligence dates back only a single tick of the astronomical clock, could hardly hope to understand so soon what it all means.”

The famous physicist, Niels Bohr in his book Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge wrote tellingly:

“For a parallel to the lessons of atomic theory we must turn to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonise our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.”

Our dilemma in trying to get a handle on reality is thwarted by the fact that we never confront reality directly. And then, because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality. The semanticist Alfred Korzybski pointed this out with insightful slogan “The map is not the territory.”

This problem has been identified by some of the world’s wisdom traditions. In the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu wrote, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.”

The knowledge that comes to us directly, without an intermediary, the Buddhists call ‘absolute knowledge’. Frtitjof Kapra in his 1975 classic, The Tao of Physics, in describing ‘absolute knowledge’, wrote;

“It is we are told by Buddhists the direct experience of undifferentiated, undivided, indeterminate ‘suchness’. Complete apprehension of this ‘suchness’ is not only the core of Eastern mysticism, but is the central characteristic of all mystical experience.”

Is this then not just an unleashing of consciousness? It has always seemed to me that the universe is but a manifestation of consciousness.

Bernard Haisch, astrophysicist and author of The God Theory writes:

“I am proposing, in The God Theory, that ultimately it is consciousness that is the origin of matter, energy, and the laws of nature in this universe and all others that may exist.”

Right at the basis of quantum theory we learned that at the level of fundamental particles we could not depend on any quantifiable outcomes until there was an observer. All quantum functions are prescribed by probability. They are smeared all over the place within determined probabilistic distributions. It is only when there is an observer that the quantum function collapses into something definite. It seems to me that there could never be a physical world with deterministic outcomes unless there was an observer. But there has always been an observer. The observer has in fact been the creator of all these phenomena. It is the Universal Consciousness that has unleashed a material manifestation. And we all are ensconced in it and share a little of its tremendous creativeness.

Sir James Jeans seemed to have hit the nail on the head for me. The universe is a great thought. And we are all privileged to be part of that thinking.

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  1. 18 Comment(s)

  2.   By a savage on Jun 30, 2010 | Reply

    …so is it the case that the search to find scientific proof of a universal creator seeks to observe the same thing as the quantum physicist seeks in attempting to prove the existence of only one possibility, which disproves perceived existence and makes the observation itself an impossibility?

    Maybe it’s a simple case of end-all to be-all rather than pursuing the be-all end-all answer.

    One thing is certain: knowing that I don’t exist makes it much easier to cope with the fact that my underwear is losing its elastic and my socks have holes in them.

  3.   By Father Robin on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    Anne

    Science has the answer!

    Gravity and Entropy.

  4.   By Bruno Bertolo on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    Non sequitur!

    Particles are not unique therefore they don’t exist?
    If particles don’t exist, therefore nothing exists?

    Come on Ted, you can do better than that!

    BTW: ionising particles may not exist but they’ll still give you the impression that you’re dead.

  5.   By a savage on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    Father Robin – hello! I have missed your blog entries. I hope you’re well (well…as well as can be expected in this conundrum of non-existant existance).

  6.   By Greg Brown on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t see an object (a particle) as non existent just because it is identical to other objects.

    Consider this though, if you are looking at an electron (impossible but who cares) and you blink, how can you know the electron you see when you open your eyes is the same one. All electrons are identical so if some one swapped it when you blinked it would be impossible for you to know.

    Delve a bit deeper and how do you really know there is an object there in the first place. Well you measure its attributes (colour, volume, mass, texture, location, etc). Trouble is when you start talking about fundamental particles that is not an easy thing to do.

    If you shine light at an electron the energy of the photon that strikes the electron is absorbed by the electron. The light either does not come back which makes the electron black or the electron becomes unstable and releases a new photon of a new energy level (colour). Basically electrons can be any colour depending on circumstances which means colour is useless to measure them.

    Let’s try volume. Archimedes suggested that you fill a container full with water and then place the object you want to measure the volume of into the water. The volume of the water that spills out is the volume of the object. Now if you drop in the electron nothing comes out. Water like all matter is largely empty space and an electron can easily fit into the gaps. Archimedes would perhaps conclude therefore that electrons have no volume (don’t exist). I know this is simplistic and I know that science now has an accepted diameter for an electron. But I’ll bet there is no physicist that would declare electrons are spheres. So how can you have a diameter of a non sphere (a diameter of a cube)?

    You can repeat this exercise when trying to measure the other attributes we normally associate with an object and run into similar problems. At the fundamental level the particles that make up the Universe all fit into this unmeasurable, identical category. This means we can not prove that the particles that make up the universe exist and it logically follows we can not prove the universe exists. This is why physicists at some stage in their career often tend to delve into the area of spirituality (not to be confused with religion). Their research and training logically leads them there.

    For the hardline sceptics this also must surely be a dilemma. Those who reject theories of consciousness and awareness on the grounds of lack of proof must surely therefore reject their own existence on the same grounds 🙂

  7.   By Father Robin on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    Anne

    Thanks.

    Greg

    If you haven’t already read it, I would suggest trying ‘Flatland’ by Edwin A. Abbott (published anonymously in 1884) which (without giving the plot away) suggests the following sequence of observability:

    Pointland
    Lineland
    Flatland
    Spaceland
    Thoughtland

    We live in Spaceland

  8.   By Father Robin on Jul 1, 2010 | Reply

    Or at least try to.

  9.   By tedscott on Jul 2, 2010 | Reply

    I’ve been away for a few days but happy to see my blog has created a little interest and controversy while I was gone!

    Great to hear from you Bruno. I should have warned my readers that we get occasional injections of erudition from some of my favourite NT’s Dr Phil, often from Greg and now again from Bruno. Good to have you aboard again Bruno. Bruno isn’t a particle just another abstract description of the world. Just as the Buddhists suggest we shouldn’t allow those things that mediate between us and reality be mistaken for reality. I enjoyed Greg’s response. Insightful as usual.

    Welcome back Father Robin. Good to know you’ve survived Iceland and Volcanoes! My blog sire hasn’t seemed the same in your absence!

    Have to admit Anne’s response however beat the others for whimsy. Thanks Anne.

  10.   By Bruno Bertolo on Jul 2, 2010 | Reply

    Greg wrote: “Those who reject theories of consciousness and awareness on the grounds of lack of proof must surely therefore reject their own existence on the same grounds”

    Once you make the leap (off faith) that reality doesn’t exist, then you can happily accept or reject any concept.

    For example: God created the earth in 7 days.

    It is in man’s nature to seek out definitive answers rather than live with ambiguity. Universal consciousness as a theory on the nature of existence is perfectly valid. But let’s not use science to support this concept, since it is the suggested limitation of science to answer all questions which gives the theory merit.

    I would rather continue to leave open all possibilities including that matter gives rise to consciousness rather than the other way around.
    To accept the theory of universal consciousness without maintaining some healthy scepticism is no different to accepting the tenants of any other religion. Blind faith is just that; blind.

  11.   By Bruno Bertolo on Jul 2, 2010 | Reply

    Sorry Ted,

    Fired off my last response before I read yours.

    Now that I’ve got some momentum, I might as well push on.

    Particles are abstract to the extent that we don’t yet have the instruments to measure them accurately. Most things in science start out as abstract until someone proves otherwise. Mechanical flight was impossible; the moon was 2 dimensional, the earth was flat etc etc.

    My major concern with this debate is that we rely on the limits of science to give it merit. Colin Powell is quoted as saying “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it”. The Vatican recanting their criticism of Galileo being a case in point.

  12.   By Father Robin on Jul 4, 2010 | Reply

    Bruno

    Your’s ‘off faith’ or ‘of faith’?

  13.   By Father Robin on Jul 4, 2010 | Reply

    BTW

    Some country seems to be excited today.

    Or am I still a day out.

  14.   By Father Robin on Jul 4, 2010 | Reply

    My personal obit.

    Life.
    Been there.
    Done that.

  15.   By Father Robin on Jul 5, 2010 | Reply

    Alternatively, trust your lawyer.

  16.   By Father Robin on Jul 5, 2010 | Reply

    Bruno isn’t a particle, just another abstract description of the world.

    Watch punctuation.

  17.   By Father Robin on Jul 5, 2010 | Reply

    And Bruno

    I seem to recollect that God created the world in six days.

    On the seventh He had a nap.

  18.   By Father Robin on Jul 5, 2010 | Reply

    And Ted

    I seem to recollect that if you can name It It doesn’t exist.

  19.   By Bruno Bertolo on Jul 5, 2010 | Reply

    One of my replies seems to have disappeared Father Robin.

    Re my sloppy drafting; “of faith”

    Particles are no more abstract then anything else in the universe. Over the last century we learned about atoms. Then we learned about protons and neutrons. Then we learned about electrons and other particles. Some particles are quite useful (X-Rays).

    However, that said, I seem to be preaching to the non-reality converted. That is to say, if the general belief among our dear readers is that everything is merely “another abstract description of the world” then no alternative view can be constructed with the tools within “this world”.

    God may well be a very small teapot orbiting the sun.

    I leave you and this topic with a quote from the Buddha:
    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

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