The Metaphysics of E=mc^2

E=mc² is probably the most well-known equation in the world. But do people really know what it means. And are they aware of the “spiritual” implications of this simple yet profound expression?

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Let’s start with the science. This equation expresses the concept known as the mass-energy equivalence. Simply, it means is that any amount of mass has an energy equivalent. E in the equation means the energy of a physical system, be it a single atom or a collection of atoms; m is the mass of that physical system; and c is the speed of light in a vacuum (which approximates to 671 miles/hour or 186,000 miles/second – the fastest speed there is).

In words, e=mc² means that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. In practical terms, the equation means that if one were to take any mass and speed it up to the speed of light times itself, the result would be a release of energy. This is what happens in a nuclear explosion (although in this explosive example, the energy released comes from breaking atomic bonds) – a small amount of uranium is converted to energy. For example, the bomb (codename: “Little Boy”) that was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, had 140 lbs (64 kg) of Uranium-235 and produced a blast yield of 15 kilotons of TNT (only about 2 lbs of it actually contributed to the blast/energy yield!). The deaths that resulted from the blast are estimated between 90,000 and 146,000 people, half of which occurred immediately, the rest over the following months and years. This should be an indication of the amount of energy contained within a small amount of matter.

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Now, let’s approach this equation from another angle. First, mass is a property of matter (M). Matter is nothing more than the substance(s) of which any object is composed (excluding some other energy phenomenon like light or sound). While there are some exceptions (but that is unlikely to change the thrust of this essay), everything that exists (observable, physical objects) in this Universe is composed of Matter. So, mass is effectively synonymous with matter. In this way, e =mc² becomes e = Mc².

This slight change starts to bring into focus the spiritual aspects of this equation. Basically, the equation states that all Energy in the Universe is super (ridiculously, almost incomprehensively) fast moving matter. But let’s rewrite the equation to make things even clearer: M= e/c². Matter – all the atoms that make up this Universe: the stars, the planets, the oceans, land, air, plants, animals, and even human beings – equals concentrated energy in super-slow motion! We – everything that is this Universe – are all energy in myriad forms.

But there’s more. The First Law of Thermodynamics – a version of the law of conservation of energy – demonstrates that energy can neither be created nor destroy, only transformed from one form to another.

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From these two laws we can deduce three important conclusions. First, as the various Buddhist schools teach: we are all one. As Sosan, the Korean Zen Grand Master, put it: “Here from the very beginning, there is the One thing, constantly lucid and mysterious, it has never been born and it has never died.” Similarly, Hui Hai, the Chinese Zen Master states: “Mind, Buddha, and living things do not differ from one another.” The idea that all things, living and otherwise, are one and the same becomes more than some spiritual perspective given the science laid out previously. We are all made of the same material and this collection of matter/atoms is, in reality, one whole entity, of which we are merely a part. It is similar to the various cells in our individual bodies that collectively give rise to our individual bodies and, consequently, our conscious selves. Like those individual cells, we individual beings are part of something much larger -and about as aware of It as the cells of our bodies are of the organism they comprise.

In this way, individualism is an illusion. Experimental cognitive psychologist, Bruce Hood, describes this illusion as:

… experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.

What Hood is stating is that our individual identities do not exist without the brains to which they are necessarily attached. These identities constitute the phenomena we come to understand as reality but, as Hood points out, are not so given the larger Reality in which we exist and that exists independently of ourselves. But Hood’s exposition is limited to the psychological-perceptual. The Universal Reality described by the science in the introduction is much the same. We are all one colossal energy system, and the physical individual entities that arise from it may be differentiated in form but not in substance. So, in this way, these distinctions are not as singular as they may appear.

Second, the law of conservation of energy confirms the idea of reincarnation. That said, it is only the physical. i.e. that part which consists of atoms, that is eternally reincarnated and transformed. For example, the atoms that existed in stars billions of years ago are those that make up our planet and all the living things on it, including ourselves. Similarly, when our bodies die and decay, the nutrients and atoms that make up those corpses are reincorporated into the ecosystem, nourishing life further: the atoms and molecules making up those bodies break down and are absorbed by soil, consumed by bacteria, worms, fungi; plants then consume those nutrients, which, then fuel and make up the animals that eat them, and then the organisms that eat those, and on ad infinitum – the circle of life and death.

However, this reincarnation does not apply to the self – that epiphenomenon of a functioning, holistic information processor we call the brain. Our selves have no physical basis on their own – this is the crux of the illusion, Hood argues – but rely upon the brain for its existence. When the “higher” brain ceases to function, so does the self. The cessation of function is commonly referred to as death. The beginning of that function is called birth. It should be noted that for human selves there are two deaths and two births: one of the physical organism and one of the conscious self.

Which leads to the third: birth and death, too, are themselves illusions of sorts. As established previously, energy can neither be created nor destroyed; as such, birth and death, for both physical and psychical phenomena, are really just transformation. Human consciousness, in all its categorizing glory, makes these distinctions of beginning and end, but these distinctions only work on a certain level, and do not exist outside the level on which those distinctions are made. In other words, it is useful for us to make these distinctions but in the grand scheme of things they become meaningless. To demonstrate: do any of us make these distinctions of individuality and meaning when it comes to colonies of ants, or the individuals that comprise that colony? Does – or can – the Universe, and the energy system it truly is, make these distinctions for human life in the vast 14-billion-year expanse of space-time?

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It is tempting to gravitate towards pessimism given this information but it is not meant to be so bleak. It is certainly humbling, but there is optimism in such an understanding. Because, ultimately, we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something (almost?) incomprehensible and yet tangible. Further, we will be part of it always: a life everlasting. And that our self, our awareness of our place in it, is nothing short of miraculous. For we exist (despite the staggering odds against such a likelihood)! We get to witness this awesome thing we call Reality/Universe, and we get to be a conscious and active part of it. We are the gospel of this magnificent yet elusive revelation, as brief and inconsequential as it ultimately may be.

Literally, Socialism, and the Need for a Dictionary in American Discourse


A recent article by the Economist magazine has exposed Bernie Sanders for what any of us familiar with the meanings of words is: NOT a socialist. Despite the obvious reasons why Sanders is not a socialist, there are many who – despite the clarification in the article – still insist that Sanders is, indeed, a socialist in the proper sense of the word. What follows is a delineation of terms (including “socialism”), a look at this phenomenon of semantic confusion, and a prescription for correcting it and, ultimately, improving not only linguistic precision but political discourse.

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A few years ago, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the word “literally,” defined as, “in the literal or strict sense,” has come to mean its exact opposite: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.” This means that the word “literally” now literally means “figuratively!” Why? No doubt it is because it has been largely and continuously misused over time as a filler word in the conversations of most people. If it is in the nature of language to change, why is a semantic shift (a reversal) like this so irksome – and dangerous?

The most obvious problem with a reversal like this the confusion it creates. What does a person mean when they use a word like “literally” in a conversation? While context and common sense can go a long way in determining which meaning is intended, there are other instances where this is not so. The most recent example is the use of the word “socialism” vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders’ political stance.

Socialism is defined as, “a theory or system of social organism that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” The key feature of economic -isms is who controls the means of production: in socialism, it is society as a whole; in capitalism, it is private individuals/corporations. While it is difficult to distill comprehensive and variable economic systems in a sentence, these are the essential features of those words and so anyone who claims to endorse the philosophies which those words represent must, at least, meet such basic criteria.

So, do the policies Sanders’ propose meet these basic criteria? The answer is a resounding “no,” even according to Sanders himself. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Sanders was asked to define what he meant by “socialism.” Sanders replied,

Well, I think it [socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.

What Sanders describes is not socialism, proper – where society controls the means of production – but a more fair and equitable form of democratic capitalism. In fact, he has said outright that, “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production.” So, Sanders is not a socialist according to the original meaning of the word; he is, in fact, a capitalist. The problem, though, is that he gives his own definition of the word, “socialism,” and if we accept and use it the way he does then, technically, Sanders is a “socialist,” but only according to this new definition.

Back to the confusion of contradictory definitions: is Sanders a socialist or not? According to traditional socialist philosophy in which society owns the means of production, “no, Sanders is not a socialist.” However, if we take his Jeffersonian-esque interpretation of democracy as a definition, then, “yes, he is.” But are the electorate making this significant distinction between socialism proper and Sanders’ version of it when “debating” his presidential bid and the policies he advocates? There are plenty of indications that the vast majority of Americans are not. But, ultimately, does this matter?

In short, yes. First, words have meaning, and when those meanings change so much that they no longer mean what they originally did, or worse: the exact opposite, then effective communication becomes all but impossible. Second, semantic shifts of the type that have occurred to “literally” and “socialism,” can be used in ways that can confuse, mislead, and deceive. A perfect example is the negative labelling of Sanders as a “socialist.” Such a label turns off many potential supporters because of the connotation the word has received due to the history of the Cold War. That said, the word “socialism” underscores the major political shift Sanders does endorse, so it does indicates a “revolution” in political goings-on that Sanders’ promises if elected. In this way, the obfuscation is strategic, even if somewhat disingenuous. In these ways, political discourse becomes double speak and there is a real danger that, if we’re not vigilant, it devolves into duckspeak.

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In conclusion: Sanders is not a socialist in any meaningful sense; he is a democrat and a capitalist, by his own admissions. Furthermore, words have meaning and we who use language have the responsibility to protect the integrity of those meanings. Though, we must allow for – and adapt to – the inevitable evolution of language when those changes do not degrade communication. The best way to do this is to know the meanings of words and to insist upon clarification and discipline when using language. And the best way to know these meanings is to read the dictionary, regularly. Look up words not known; refresh understanding of words that are known; and build vocabularies on a daily basis (David Foster Wallace went so far as to call the dictionary one of the, “great bathroom books of all times”). In this way, human communication, thought, and socio-political processes can improve in ways that will benefit us all.