Monday, August 4, 2014

Universal Characteristics and Physics

Impermanence, non-self and dissatisfaction are what Buddhism deems to be the universal characteristics of all conditioned phenomena, that is everything except for the unconditioned. We shall attempt to see if the current Physics understanding of the world does or doesn't agree with the claims of Buddhism.

Impermanence means that all things are subject to change, nothing last forever, not even nothing. This seems like a simple observation but we don't really realise it all the time. Although we all die someday, we tend to live as if we will live forever. For physicists in particular, we think that somehow if we can make the greatest contribution to the world, then the books of the future will immortalize us like Newton and Einstein. Even if we just make a contribution like having our name on the equation we discovered, it's a great honour. No doubt it is, yet we tend to forget that languages changes, our knowledge of the world changes, humanity may remember Einstein until the end of the Universe, but the Universe will end nontheless.

How can we be sure that the universe will end? Ever since the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics we are sure. The second law states that entropy of a closed system tends to increase with time. That is things will tend towards disorder. If we regard the universe as a closed system then it will go towards a heat death, whereby all things will have the same temperature and then largely nothing happens. Even then, that state is bounded by impermanence as given infinite time, a large fluctuation can create another big bang. Just like shaking a box of white and black balls, once in a long time, you get order from disorder. Other than the heat death, other possible end of the universe are the Big Crunch, whereby gravity pulls everything back to a singularity, possibly followed by the Big Bounce and Big Rip, whereby the repulsive force of dark energy rips everything apart to quarks and then the quarks themselves create more quarks out of the energy and so on.

Even so, there is a subtler notion of impermanence in Buddhism, that is that all things that arises would cease and in particular, form (physical things) rises and ceases so fast that we don't notice it, unless we meditate to calm the mind to a very deep level and then observe the world. This seems to parallel the concept of quantum foam in Physics. Quantum foam is the fluctuations in the smallest of spacetime patch of every field due to uncertainty principle. So in a very short amount of time, any matter-antimatter pair can be created and destroyed with energy borrowed and returned to the vacuum. Casimir effect, experimentally well established is well explained by the quantum foam. Wait a second, quantum foams are virtual particles, they do not interact with real particles do they? Well, they do. We model them by using Feymann's diagram. Now this is speculative but it's possible that real particles seems to last so long because they are constantly being replaced by virtual particles that pop up just beside it and it gets destroyed by its antiparticle. After all, if virtual particle turning real happens at event horizons of black holes (an effect called Hawking radiation), why not to every single particle we think of as real?

So far, we had seen that impermanence is indeed a common property of everything (at least all physical thing) according to both Buddhism and Physics, how about non-self?

In Buddhism, non-self carries the meaning of emptiness too. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. It means empty of an independent essence. Everything that depends on conditions are empty because when the conditions changes, the thing changes as well. In Physics, conditions of a thing is typically represented by a variable. Equations in physics is merely a description of how different things changes depending on different conditions. Think of all the equations in Physics now, from classical mechanics, to thermodynamics; from electromagnetism to modern Physics, are they all describing the inherent emptiness of all phenomena that they describe?

A good example in Buddhism that exemplifies emptiness is taking an example of a table. A table is empty. Why? Because it's actually wood made into that shape, it depends on wood, having a carpenter, the concept of a table among other things. The table is empty of inherent "tableness". Even the concept of the table depends on the shape of humans, a good mind to think, and so on. Wood itself is empty of "woodness". It depends on having a tree, loggers, etc. A tree is empty of "treeness", it depends on a seed, soil, sunlight, water. Sunlight is empty too, it depends crucially that the Big Bang happened which produced majority hydrogen and the laws of gravity for the hydrogen to gather together and form stars. I doubt if Carl Sagan learned emptiness before, but he is right when he said, "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." In Buddhism we have the saying that you can see a whole universe in a flower.
Usually people would stop at this point and let the concept of emptiness sink in. Done? Ok then, let's go further shall we? The Big Bang depended on initial conditions and the right quantum gravity laws nearer the singularity. Now, we have arrived at what physicists with reductionist tendency tend to end up with. The Newtonian paradigm of initial conditions and laws of the universe as the ultimate essence of the universe and everything in it. The ultimate aim of a theory of everything is to see if we can find a deeper law that is necessary and inevitable, hence unique. There is some philosophy that hope that it can even explain the initial conditions (that determine the values of mass of elementary particles and constants) away. Thus we would have arrived at the essence of truth.

In essence, the truth we seek should have these qualities: Space and time independence (in general relativity this can be generalized to reference frame independence and many other symmetry), applies to all, and inevitable. These are what Master Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan taught to be criterion of truths as well. 

Dwelling further into the issue, we can ask are the initial conditions empty? What do they depend upon? Answer: the previous conditions and laws of physics. Then are the laws of Physics empty? Newtonian gravity depends on the condition of low energy and speed. General Relativity requires low energy. Quantum Physics depends on the quantum coherence of the system described. Maybe we can find a quantum gravity that does not depend on any conditions, or maybe the search is endless. Even if the quantum gravity that is universal is found, can it really be said to be not empty? It would change into General Relativity at low energy, into quantum Physics at small distances.

 The Buddha did not give a whole lecture of how to find the theory of everything in Physics, but He straightaway go to the point of impermanence, non-self and dissatisfaction. He was interested only in teaching dissatisfaction and the way out, thus anything else, including physics, that does not help would not be in his interest to share.

Dissatisfaction is not really within the realm of Physics right? Yet, Physicists as humans can identify with this statement: There is dissatisfaction in life. Yes, there is the obvious suffering of physical pain, and the mental pain of getting papers rejected, the stress of research, the depression of graduate school and so on. There is also the happiness of getting paper published, solving great difficult problems and getting tenure. Yet, even those happiness does not last forever. Impermanence ensures that the happy feeling dies down. It may last a day, a week or even years, but one is simply not happy forever. Even neutral feeling is dissatisfactory as it would change too. Thus dissatisfaction permeates everything that is impermanent.

Now we had seen that as human physicists, we can intellectually verify that indeed there are these three universal characteristics of everything. Enlightened people are those who realizes, not just intellectually understand, this truth with a deep calm mind that sees the world with the light of wisdom and let go of craving and clinging to the world, the cause of dissatisfaction, thus ending dissatisfaction. That's the essence of the Buddhist training.

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