Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You Are A Wave

I recently had a very enlightening discussion with my (Buddhist) sister and brother in-law. After about 2 hours in the car, I think I finally came to the conclusion that death needn't be a concern because life is an illusion. More specifically, Life is merely the name we give to natural processes once they've reached a certain complexity. I'll try to explain what I mean, first in the context of Buddha and then we'll back it up with some scientific philosophy.

You (imaginary readers) must all think I've gone off the deep end... consorting with Buddhists and philosophizing. However, these are ideas I've held for a long time. My discussion with my family has merely given me a new context and a deeper understanding. The Buddha my brother in-law (Dave) presents was not a magical thinker, but more of an early scientist. Now this picture that he paints could, admittedly, be a minority interpretation of Buddha's words. For our purposes, though, it doesn't matter. In the event that Buddhism is all bullshit, we can just give Dave the credit for being wise.

Let's start with re-incarnation. I don't like using the word. To me, and to many others, it has a magical connotation. And for those of you who know me, you know how if feel about mystical thinking. But let's give Dave the benefit of the doubt, and suppose Buddha had a scientific reasoning. The idea is that, when we die, the stuff that makes us up doesn't just disappear. It decomposes in the ground, or is scattered into the ocean. It's not to hard to imagine the atoms that once made me up will become part of new life. Now this doesn't mean I get to be a cat in the future. The reason people jump to that, is because they think of themselves as a single entity.

Picture a wave. What makes a wave any different from the ocean? Nothing really. There is merely a natural event happening that we can see, and we've named it a wave. A striking parallel can be made to the life of a human being. For a short time, atoms from our environment come together in a natural process to form what we call a human. It continues along as nature has instructed until it dies. The atoms that made up that human become part of the environment again. Just like a wave merging back with the ocean. Another interesting parallel is that like waves, humans aren't even made of the same stuff at point B as they were at point A. And even though the stuff that makes us up changes all the time, we are still labeled as the same entity.

It may be difficult to understand, but it eventually brings you to the conclusion that we are all connected. The Earth and everything on it is just a cluster of atoms interacting and forming complex processes.

And if you truly want your mind blown, think of the universe as the ocean and the galaxy as the wave. The galaxy will have formed and died without much consequence to the rest of the universe. But it does matter. This galaxy is part of the universe and the natural processes it goes through makes an impact. For example, take this quote from Lawrence Kauss:

"The amazing thing is that every atom in your body, came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic think I know about physics. You are all stardust. You couldn't be here if stars hadn't exploded..."

What Kauss is saying is that the only thing we know that is capable of creating the heavier atoms that make us up are stars. The heat inside of stars can fuse lighter atoms together. And the
extreme conditions of supernova are capable of creating still heavier atoms. If stars hadn't created Carbon and Oxygen and then spread those atoms across the universe when they exploded, we wouldn't be here. A star is just one of the many waves that came before us.

I know the metaphor is woefully poetic, but it allows you to see the universe in a new perspective. Everything is just a cluster of particles and their natural interactions.

"We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."
- Carl Sagan

As always, I welcome your comments and challenges.


  1. Took the words right out of my mouth. I was trying to explain to my Dad the other night that I'm comfortable with there being no "afterlife" because the atoms that make me up will always be and have always been a part of the universe. Your wording is much more eloquent, though.

    I'm reading this book about science in general (The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier)and the author speaks about how sometimes she feels that atheist views of the world don't offer much comfort for young children. Then one morning when her daughter was leaving for school, she stopped at the door, pet the cat, and said "I hope some day some of my atoms end up in a cat." and I just thought that was the coolest thing for a little kid to comprehend.

  2. Phil, I mostly agree with you, however there is one thing I would like to elaborate on. The illusion is not in life itself. The true illusion in the idea that we as people live separate from all else. This gives us a false sense of independent identity. Use of the words like atoms and such of course are way later than Buddha's time. What is simply referred to in this sense is "mind" From a certain perspective that is what we are. we cannot operate without it. What is "mind" fortunately can be understood by modern science. For me one of the things I love about this '"religion" is that it will change its views and definitions based on science and its explanations. This can be done because the two fundamentally agree. Albert Einstein was particularly interested in the philosophy/religion of Buddhism here is what he said:

    "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. The religion which based on experience, which refuses dogmatic. If there's any religion that would cope the scientific needs it will be Buddhism...."

    Albert Einstein

    "Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity."

    Albert Einstein

    "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

    Albert Einstein

    "If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism."

    Albert Einstein

    Thanks, Dave

  3. Well they are really more Buddha's words than mine. Dave has almost got me converted ;) And then when I found out I could eventually earn the title "Zen Master", I was sold!

  4. Phil granted I have not seen you in about 10 years but so this throws me for a turn. Are u not the goody goody alter boy that did nothing wrong outside of logging a ungodly amount of time on your N64 including masses of Goldeneye This is the Phill I hoped I would see some day Miss ya brotha Ron