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.