Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Analysis of Four Elements and the current view of what materials are from Physics

Avatar the Last Airbender, has as its main theme the four elements of olden times. Captain Planet also employs the concepts of Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and adding the mind component: Heart.

Traditionally the believe that every physical object are made up of these four elements. I'm going to analyze these elements, the Buddhist interpretation of these, and the Physics knowledge of these.

No. 1: Four elements as states of matter. 

One might see the analogy of Earth-solid state, Water-liquid state, Air-gaseous state, and Fire-plasma state. In Physics, they seem to differ only in the temperature/pressure gradient. However, now we know more than these, in the extreme cold end, there is the Bose-Einstein Condensation, in the extreme hot end, there is the conditions near the Big Bang, including quark-gluon soup and in the extreme high pressure end, anything classical can be squeezed to become a Black Hole.

No. 2: Literally.

So, let's take them literally, that all other physical thing are made up of combination of earth, fire, water, air. It doesn't make sense now because we know that these are not the fundamental components of what makes our world. It's the atoms and molecules, crystal structures and condensed matter, gases, plasma etc...

No. 3 Historically, 

It is possible that this thinking exist due to the spread of Buddhist teachings into Greek and it has remained unquestioned for almost two thousand years. So according to history, we should go back to the main source to investigate what did the Buddha meant when he taught these.

No. 4 Buddhist interpretation Link

The commentary to the sutta had taught these four elements along with the characteristics of them.

Earth is the solidity element, it contains hardness, roughness, heaviness, softness, smoothness, lightness. Water is the cohesion element, containing flowing, cohesion. Fire is the heat element that has heat, coldness. And finally air, the motion element that has supporting, pushing.

So let's stop here for a while and bring in the physics mind to analyze what we have so far. According to ideas in Physics, it makes no sense to talk about coldness, there is only heat that transfers from higher temperature to lower, not cold that transfer from lower to higher temperature. There are experimental evidence for that in the form of radiation emitting from hotter stuffs and even colder stuffs. Since the radiation is of the same electromagnetic nature, it does not need two different names. In fact, it makes more sense to call it heat because when a material absorbs the radiation, it gets hotter.

So the commentaries couldn't have been talking about the ultimate heat as it is, or else they are wrong. Indeed, going back to commentaries, the context for teaching the four elements is for the meditator to be able to discern for themselves what does all those 12 characteristics, one at a time. It is how we can directly see physical reality for ourselves, not really on what physical laws does it works with.

No. 5 The Suttas Links: MN28, MN 140

I'll just copy and paste them here:
"And what is the earth property? The earth property can be either internal or external. What is the internal earth property? Anything internal, within oneself, that's hard, solid, & sustained [by craving]: head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, or anything else internal, within oneself, that's hard, solid, and sustained: This is called the internal earth property. Now both the internal earth property & the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the earth property fade from the mind.

"And what is the liquid property? The liquid property may be either internal or external. What is the internal liquid property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that's liquid, watery, & sustained: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, oil, saliva, mucus, oil-of-the-joints, urine, or anything else internal, within oneself, that's liquid, watery, & sustained: This is called the internal liquid property. Now both the internal liquid property & the external liquid property are simply liquid property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the liquid property and makes the liquid property fade from the mind.

"And what is the fire property? The fire property may be either internal or external. What is the internal fire property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that's fire, fiery, & sustained: that by which [the body] is warmed, aged, & consumed with fever; and that by which what is eaten, drunk, consumed & tasted gets properly digested; or anything else internal, within oneself, that's fire, fiery, & sustained: This is called the internal fire property. Now both the internal fire property & the external fire property are simply fire property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the fire property and makes the fire property fade from the mind.

"And what is the wind property? The wind property may be either internal or external. What is the internal wind property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that's wind, windy, & sustained: up-going winds, down-going winds, winds in the stomach, winds in the intestines, winds that course through the body, in-and-out breathing, or anything else internal, within oneself, that's wind, windy, & sustained: This is called the internal wind property. Now both the internal wind property & the external wind property are simply wind property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the wind property and makes the wind property fade from the mind.
And interesting enough, there is a fifth one,

"And what is the space property? The space property may be either internal or external. What is the internal space property? Anything internal, belonging to oneself, that's space, spatial, & sustained: the holes of the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, the [passage] whereby what is eaten, drunk, consumed, & tasted gets swallowed, and where it collects, and whereby it is excreted from below, or anything else internal, within oneself, that's space, spatial, & sustained: This is called the internal space property. Now both the internal space property & the external space property are simply space property. And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: 'This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.' When one sees it thus as it actually is present with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the space property and makes the space property fade from the mind.
From these it is clear that the Buddha meant this as another way of thinking about our bodies and the world outside of us in a simplistic way with the main goal of us seeing things as they are, not mine. So that disenchantment would arise.

The Buddha was not interested in advancing Physics when he taught this.

No. 6 Four Elements as characteristics of each fundamental particle
In the commentaries http://eview.anu.edu.au/cross-sections/vol7/pdf/ch01.pdf

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