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THE CONCEPT OF EMPTINESS OF MATTER

IN MODERN SCIENCE

ANKUR BARUA, N. TESTERMAN, M.A. BASILIO

Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen

Hong Kong, 2009

Address of Corresponding Author:

Dr. ANKUR BARUA


BLOCK – EE, No. – 80, Flat No. – 2A,
SALT LAKE CITY, SECTOR -2,
KOLKATA – 700 091
WEST BENGAL, INDIA
Tel: +91-33-23215586
Mobile: +919434485543
Email: ankurbarua26@yahoo.com
THE CONCEPT OF EMPTINESS OF MATTER IN MODERN SCIENCE

Abstract

The Buddhist analysis of matter goes hand in hand with our modern scientific

understanding of matter. Quantum physics has recently proved that the major part of

matter actually consists of empty space. Whenever we analyze matter, most of the time

we come across emptiness, while the solid part of matter is hard to recognize. On one

side all the atoms are empty at micro level, on the other side at macro level; most part

of the space is also empty.

Albert Einstein, the pioneer for Quantum Mechanics, and many modern scientists were

very much influenced by the Buddhist doctrines related to the concepts of absence of

any Creator God, absence of any soul or self (anatta), Dependent Origination

(paticcasamuppada), impermanence (anicca) and the emphasis on practicing

compassion with moral-driven, volitional activities (kamma). The meaning of the

expression „Dependent Origination‟ is the same as „emptiness‟”, but it entails a further

emphasis on the lack of intrinsic nature of dhammas and states that all dhammas are

conceptual constructs.

Key words: Buddhist, Matter, Empty, Space, Quantum Analysis.

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THE CONCEPT OF EMPTINESS OF MATTER

IN MODERN SCIENCE

Introduction

Dependent Origination demonstrates the interconnectedness of all phenomenons, their

impermanence, their lack of an intrinsic self, and factors of conditioning. Likewise,

emptiness for Nāgārjuna is equivalent to Dependent Origination as stated by

Candrakīrti, “The meaning of the expression „Dependent Origination‟ is the same as

„emptiness‟”, but it entails a further emphasis on the lack of intrinsic nature of dhammas

and states that all dhammas are conceptual constructs.1

To the Abhidhamma, dhammas are the smallest analyzable unit of existence, but for

Nāgārjuna, even these dhammas are conceptual constructs, and understanding this is

having proper wisdom (prañja): the understanding of emptiness. Nāgārjuna‟s concept

of emptiness can also be applied to the analysis of matter and explains why our very

existence is based on emptiness.1

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The Emptiness of Atoms

The ancient Greeks believed that matter is composed of indivisible small elements with

certain characteristics, such as the characteristics of earth, water, air, and fire. They

called these elements atoms and they held that atoms were solid and fundamental.

However, Ernest Rutherford later demonstrated that atoms have an internal structure

though an experimental verification. 2,3

Rutherford had discovered that atoms have a nucleus containing most of its mass and

that electrons orbit the nucleus.2,3 Moreover, he established that the nucleus of an atom

is only about one ten-thousandth of the diameter of the atom itself, which means that

99.99% of the atom's volume consists of empty space. This is the first manifestation of

emptiness at the subtle level of matter.2,3

Soon after Rutherford's discovery, physicists found that the nucleus of an atom likewise

has an internal structure and that the protons and neutrons making up the nucleus are

composed of even smaller particles, which they named quarks after a poem of James

Joyce. Interestingly, quarks are hypothesized as geometrical points in space, which

implies that atoms are essentially empty. This is the second manifestation of emptiness

at the subtle level of matter.2,3

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Emptiness and the Quantum

The terms "quarks" and "points in space" still suggest something solid, since they can

be imagined as irreducible mass particles. Yet, quantum field theory does away even

with this finer concept of solidity by explaining particles in the terms of field properties.

Quantum electrodynamics (QED) has produced an amazingly successful theory of

matter by combining quantum theory, classical field theory and relativity. No

discrepancies between the predictions of QED and experimental observation have been

found till date. According to QED, subatomic particles are indistinguishable from fields,

whereas fields are basically properties of space. In this view, a particle is a temporary

local densification of a field, which is conditioned by the properties of the surrounding

space. This implies that matter is not different from space. This is the third

manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of matter.2,3,4

Emptiness and Interrelations of Quantum Physics

An important class of phenomena in the subatomic world is defined by the various

interactions between particles. Although interactions can be described clearly in

mathematical terms, there is no clear distinction between the notions of phenomena,

particles and interactions. For example, there are interactions between free electrons by

means of photons that result in an observed repelling force. There are also interactions

between the quarks of a nucleon by means of mesons, interactions between the

neighboring neutrons or protons, interactions between nucleus and electrons and


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interactions between the atoms of molecules. The phenomena themselves involving the

nucleon, the nucleus, the atom and the molecule are sufficiently described by these

interactions.2,3,4,5

Study of the respective equations suggests that interactions and these phenomena are

interchangeable terms. However, the interrelations of quantum physics do not describe

actual existence. Instead they predict the potential for existence. A manifest particle,

such as an electron, cannot be described in terms of classical mechanics. It exists as a

multitude of superposed "scenarios" in which one or another manifests only when it is

observed upon measurement. Therefore, matter does not inherently exist. It exists only

as interrelations of "empty" phenomena whose properties are determined by

observation. This is the fourth manifestation of emptiness at the subtle level of

matter.2,3,4,5

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Conclusion

Findings from the Buddhist analysis of matter goes hand in hand with our modern

scientific understanding of matter. Quantum physics has recently proved that the major

part of matter actually consists of empty space. Whenever we analyze matter, most of

the time we come across emptiness, while the solid part of matter is hard to recognize.

On one side all the atoms are empty at micro level, on the other side at macro level;

most part of the space is also empty.2,3

Albert Einstein, the pioneer for Quantum Mechanics, and many modern scientists were

very much influenced by the Buddhist doctrines related to the concepts of absence of

any Creator God, absence of any soul or self (anatta), Dependent Origination

(paticcasamuppada), impermanence (anicca) and the emphasis on practicing

compassion with moral-driven, volitional activities (kamma).4,5

Einstein had also predicted that the religion of the future will be a “cosmic religion” and

enthusiastically stated that “if there is any religion that would cope with modern

scientific needs, it would be Buddhism”.4 In his opinion, Buddhism has the

characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future. Buddhism

transcends a personal God and avoids dogma and theology. Buddhism covers both the

natural and spiritual domains of human existence. Buddhism is also based on a religious

sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful

unity.4
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References

1. Williams, P. 2009. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition.

UK: Routledge: 69-82.

2. Knierim, T. 2009. Emptiness is Form [serial online]. [Cited 2009 October 20]; [4

screens]. Available from: URL:

http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/emptiness.html

3. Finkelstein, D.R., Wallace, B.A. ed. 2001. Emptiness and Relativity. Berkeley, CA:

University of California Press.

4. Dukas, H., Hoffman B., ed. 1954. Albert Einstein: The Human Side. Princeton,

NJ: Princeton University Press.

5. Jammer, M. 1999. Einstein and religion: physics and theology. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press.

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