- Finding Light
Parts of the natural sciences have been deepened to the point where evidence can be brought to bear in a controlled way on problems classified as metaphysical.Abner Shimony1
According to Elizabeth Napper, śūnyatā inheres in “the utter unfindability of objects” owing to their intrinsic emptiness: “If things existed in the palpable, independent way we imagine them to, they would have to be such that they could be found when sought—but they cannot.” She further notes that when objects are subjected to meditative analysis “they disappear altogether,” and “one is left with the absence of what was sought, with a mere vacuity that is emptiness.”2
This definition of śūnyatā originates with Nāgārjuna, who insisted that causes, parts, and an apprehensible nature (a nature that is amenable to apprehension—at least seemingly so) mark an object as empty.3 Because these characteristics constitute objects as we know them, objects cannot be said to exist in their own right. Hence the intrinsic emptiness and consequent unfindability of a pencil, say. We cannot find it apart from its parts, causes, and apprehensible nature.4
In the present article, I argue that physical light—the light that science investigates and the agency by which we see the world—is an exception to Nāgārjuna’s declaration. That is, I wish to show that light exists without parts, causes, and an apprehensible nature. Put differently, though we may attribute these characteristics to light, that attribution attenuates with further consideration until light is seen as “its own thing.” In developing this argument, however, I ultimately embrace rather than reject Nāgārjuna’s pronouncement. Light, I believe, is a deeper expression of emptiness than that revealed in the unfindability of material objects. To study light is to approach the moment at which the bottom falls out of the bucket.5
The article consists of three parts. In the first, I propose that light cannot be found in any straightforward sense because it exists and moves in ways that break the frame of our everyday understandings of reality. Not only that, but light is beyond the reach of vision and visualization: it lacks an apprehensible nature. In the second part, I build on the previous analysis by suggesting that light also lacks parts and causes; that is, it is difficult to compare light to material bodies, which most certainly do arise by virtue of parts and causes, at least in a conventional, non-ultimate sense. Finally, in the third part, I offer an analysis that demonstrates that parts of light (photons) intrinsically lack the resources to produce a world that corresponds to the conventional view that reality consists of separate part-like things. That is, even if light comes [End Page 1194] in part-like pieces, it would not be able to give us a part-filled world—a world of independently existing objects.
This demonstration, I argue, is interesting in two ways: (1) it affirms the Buddhist point that material reality cannot be reduced to separately real, part-like things, and (2) it parallels the scientific realization of quantum entanglement wherein particles in a twin state (particles originating from a common event) remain timelessly interactive regardless of spatial separation. Along the way—that is, throughout the article—we catch glimpses of light’s śūnyatā-like nature and its consequent capacity to engender emptiness or unfindability from its own unfindability.
Ultimate Reality: Three Tests
En route to a more detailed analysis of light with respect to Nāgārjuna’s claim regarding the unfindability of things, I begin with two definitions. (1) To say that light is empty of parts and causes is to propose that it stands by itself as a thing in the world: it possesses its own metric and thereby bears no relation to other things in the world. (2) To say that it has a non-apprehensible nature amounts to saying that it is intrinsically invisible and conceptually elusive.
In speaking of “luminous emptiness,” Francesca Fremantle writes, “As an elemental force in the universe, fire is equivalent to light, and we actually experience it more in the form of light than of...