“But you shall learn these too: how, for the mortals, the things-that-seem must ‘really exist’, being, for them, all there is.” – Parmenides, On Nature
The belief is both ancient and cutting-edge: nothing material actually exists. Everything we can experience is an illusion, because it is a combination of parts, not actually a thing in of itself. A table doesn’t exist because it is built out of smaller pieces: the legs and the flat top, both of which are made of wood. The wood doesn’t exist either, because it is made up of countless atoms. There is no wood, only atoms and space. There are no atoms, only protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons don’t exist, they are built up of quarks.
According to current physics beliefs, quarks, leptons, and fundamental or gauge bozons are the only things that can’t be further broken down (author’s note: The Leptons is already taken as a band name. The Fundamental Bozons, however, is not…). These smallest blocks are known to particle physicists as elementary- or point particles. These are the only things that actually exist, because everything else is made up of them. Electrons, being leptons, are the only part of the scientific atom that do exist. As we are unable to experience elementary particles, nothing we can experience is real.
The idea that everything is made up of smaller particles is not new. Buddhist thinkers have taught this as the true nature of reality for thousands of years. Often known as Buddhist atomism, or just atomism, this is a key aspect of Buddhist thought. Leucippus, the Greek philosopher, wrote about atomism 5th century BCE. The idea that nothing with parts is truly real is referred to as mereological nihilism, mereology being the study of the relations between parts and wholes.
The first stream of Buddhist atomism, and the true source of the discovery of scientific atoms, developed in approximately 4th century BCE. It taught that all we see and experience is made up of atoms, and that there are four basic atoms, each corresponding to one of the elements. These atoms, the physical embodiment of the original elements, are what many magickal traditions believe they are working with when doing their work.
Jeffrey Grupp, who studies atomism, mereological nihilism and Indian Buddhism, points out that the scientific use of the word ‘atom’ is different from the traditional use, in that the old use of the word meant the smallest possible building block, whereas the scientific use refers to a particle that can be broken down, which means, according to the mereological nihilist view, they do not exist.
Atomism and mereological nihilism do not necessarily have to go together. The basic idea behind mereological nihilism is that nothing that is built up of other things is real. It is only our very limited human senses that make us think we see, feel and touch things. We may come in contact with a highly compacted (to our senses) group of elementary particles, but the thing we think is a table is not, it is a collection of elementary particles. Also, the hip that bangs against the chair doesn’t exist, because it is made up of bones, blood, muscles and skin, and each of those is an illusion. The pain we feel when we bump the hip isn’t real, it is just messages warning the brain of danger or the possibility of damage to the body (which doesn’t exist).
Notre Dame philosophy professor Peter van Inwagen argues that even though the table may not exist, it is still ok for us to refer to tables, because we are using our language to more easily describe what is actually a group of elementary particles “arranged tablewise.” All the same, many would argue that whether or not the objects we experience truly exist has no relevance to our lives.
Following this idea brings the question of what it is that we actually are. We are not our bodies, because they all have parts. If we are the brain, which part of the brain are we? What exactly is it that is observing everything we think we see and touch? What is it that makes a certain group of elementary particles alive, while another group is a rock? As science and spirituality grow closer together, we may be working towards an answer to some of these questions.