Real illusion: Incredible rightness of non-being

His haunting absence pervades the crowded, noisy café and renders it meaningless except as the place where Pierre is not.

Published: 25th February 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th February 2017 01:57 PM   |  A+A-

T he being of nothingness has long been an accepted convention in modern molecular physics, which sees matter not as inert substance but as a dynamic interplay of energy fields. Some 50 years ago, Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir had postulated that even the emptiness of a vacuum contained sub-atomic ‘events’ called virtual photons, which appeared and disappeared in and out of existence in a ceaseless dance between being and non-being.

Though virtual photons were not accessible to direct observation. Casimir suggested that their interweaving patterns of presence and absence could be established by an experiment in which two narrowly-separated metal plates in a vacuum would be pushed together by the action of these mass-less and measure-less hypothetical particles.


Whether or not they really ‘existed’ in any sense of the term understandable by us, virtual photons helped to tidy up a lot of equations in physics and no one bothered to put them to experimental test.

Till a researcher working at the University of Washington in Seattle tried out Casimir’s experiment, more as a lark for his students than anything else, and discovered that it actually worked. It seems that hypothetical particles in a vacuum do exist, and not just as mathematical conveniences but in the real, demonstrable world.


The Seattle experiment could have a far-reaching fallout, both in molecular physics and the increasingly congruent realm of metaphysical speculation.  Ever since Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters became popular bestsellers, many linkages have been sought—often by those unfamiliar with either discipline—between the tantalisingly elusive world of sub-atomic particles and the visionary cosmos of the philosopher and the mystic.

Pop physics has spawned a sub-culture coterminous with that of the Sunday spiritualist. But now the ‘Casimir effect’ could provide a grain of empirical evidence to sustain a comparison so far largely supported by the beguiling chaff of metaphor.


The point of departure from classical physics for both relativity theory and quantum dynamics, the two complementary strands of the new physics, was the shift in perspective from the scientist viewing the world as an objective observer, to being a participant who changes the nature of reality by the process of attempting to understand it. In that, it suggests that we are responsible for changing the nature of truth by seeking to know it, scientific exploration becomes a moral act and a legitimate adjunct to philosophy; it is no longer value-free.


It is in this participatory, judgmental role that science most needs the help of philosophy, particularly when addressing the fundamental question of existence and its apparent opposite. Eastern modes of perception have long resolved the seeming duality of being and non-being, and recognised the inextricable interpenetration with which each invests the other.

The Vedanta speaks of the Plenum Void, the over-flowing emptiness. Taoism makes negation an affirmation, and vice versa: The Tao that can be named is not the Tao; thus what we call the nameless Tao is also not the Tao. Zen poses the riddle: Where does the hole, which held the water, go when the pitcher is broken?


Western philosophy learnt much later to accommodate the active presence of absence, which slipped in through the back door of existentialism—a loosely applied term that was coined not by any proponent of this controversial credo, but by a French journalist. In his monumental and largely opaque Being and Nothingness, Sartre vividly exemplifies the overwhelming thereness of that which is not there: I go to the café to meet my friend Pierre. But he does not come.

His haunting absence pervades the crowded, noisy café and renders it meaningless except as the place where Pierre is not. Pierre becomes an allegory for the ‘for-itself’, the nothingness that lies at the heart of human existence and condemns it to ceaseless pursuit of its own, forever elusive essence.

 Man, Sartre glumly concludes, is a futile passion.
In Christian doctrine, lack has purely negative connotations; evil does not exist of itself, but is only a retraction of the good.

Though the Bible prophesies that the meek shall inherit the earth and virtually bars the rich man from entering heaven, the dice of value judgment in western common sense are loaded in favour of plenitude rather than scarcity, more rather than less, possession rather than dispossession, being rather than non-being.

Uncritical acceptance of such assumptions has played no small part in causing the environmental degradation that today afflicts our endangered planet. The uncommon sense of the East suggests that having and not having, existence and non-existence, and the distinction between them, are equally illusory, as evanescent and timeless as the opalescent shimmer of the hummingbird’s wing in flight. Or the firefly arabesques of photons dancing in the void in a Seattle laboratory.jugsuraiya@gmail.com

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