Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at [email protected].


The Emptiness Within

Joe Corbett

The universe is even smaller than it is large, and therefore the emptiness within is even greater than the cosmic emptiness between the stars and galaxies.

Everything around you that you can see and touch, all the solid “stuff” that we call physical matter, including all the stars and galaxies we see through the Hubble telescope, is an illusion. The material world is an illusion not in the sense that it isn't real, but in the sense that it's not what we think it is. The material world is solid not because matter is solid but because the electromagnetic forces of repulsion between the electrons of atoms prevent your hand from going through the table, but your hand and the table itself are mostly empty space, even more empty than the vast emptiness between the stars and galaxies.

If the nucleus of a hydrogen atom was the size of a marble, then the outer ring of its electrons would be the size of a football stadium. All of that empty space within every atom of the universe (each atom being an empty football stadium!) is what makes-up most of the universe. And that's a lot of empty space. But following from the uncertainty principle and the Dirac equation, it turns out that all that emptiness within atoms is actually filled with a cauldron of seething energy called virtual particles that pop in and out of existence too fast to be detected. What's more, following from the famous Feynman diagrams of quantum electrodynamics (QED), these virtual particles mediate all the interactions of all the regular particles that we can detect, including all the particle interactions within your body right now. And we know for certain that such virtual particles in the quantum void (the vast empty stadium within and between the atoms of your body) exist and mediate the interactions of all regular matter particles because the theory has led to the most accurate and precise predictions ever made by science.

One conclusion we can draw from this is that all the particles of regular matter, including all the molecules involved in the biological processes of your body at this very moment, are but tiny ripples on a vast ocean of energy that is itself undetectable by direct means, and therefore the most important part of the material universe (including your body) is actually immaterial—which is the vast ocean of emptiness that fills inner and outer space. And the vastness of the emptiness within goes much further than we can even imagine. For instance, if a proton was the size of a basketball then the atom would be the size of a city, and the quarks that make up the proton would each be the size of a grain of sand. Hence on the human scale of an atom, there would be three grains of sand-matter within the volume of a basketball to an entire city of empty streets seething with virtual particles, and that's what we call “solid matter”.

The significance of the emptiness within for who we are and what the universe is cannot be underestimated when it is not ignored altogether as it usually is. For as we know from quantum physics, the void between particles is not inert but is active and central to how matter interacts with itself. And yet the vastness of the emptiness within goes much further than the scale of particles. If we were to take the atom up to the size of the universe, which would make the entire universe an empty ocean of virtual particles rather than of stars and galaxies, the size of the planck scale (the furthest reaches of inner emptiness) would be the size of a tree. Or make an atom the size of the earth, the planck scale would then be the size of a proton. Or make a hair width the size of the universe, the planck scale would then be the size of a hair width. Indeed, there are more planck volumes in a cubic meter than there are cubic meters in the entire universe, and virtually all of it is empty, that is to say, full of virtual particles.

In other words, the universe is even smaller than it is large, and therefore the emptiness within is even greater than the cosmic emptiness between the stars and galaxies, and it is filled with active yet immaterial ingredients, which to the best of our knowledge we call dark energy on cosmic scales and virtual particles on atomic scales. The question is, how far down does the activity of the void go? All the way to the planck scale, or only to the quantum scale of matter particles? One clue to this question is the fact that if a quark was 1 kilometer in diameter a neutrino would be the size of a grain of sand, and yet the planck scale is still 100 billion times smaller than the neutrino. So even among the smallest known quantum particles there are still vast scales of difference that make a difference to how those particles interact with other particles as mediated by virtual particles in the emptiness between them, and even at this scale the emptiness still goes much much deeper.

Could virtual particles go all the way down, billions of times smaller than even the neutrino, all the way to the planck scale of strings (as strings themselves are the vibrations that give rise to particles), or do the virtual particles come from a deeper layer than quantum phenomena, far down the planck scale but not quite all the way down? Certainly there is plenty of room for there to be many layers of unknown structure deep within the emptiness, perhaps containing dark matter, an informational storehouse for the cosmos, or perhaps the extradimensions of space that many physicists believe must exist, and which psychedelics most probably give us access to. What forms might arise from the depths of the formless emptiness of the universe?

Are the aliens of UFO's beings from other planets, and are the angels and demons of mythology only in our imaginations? Or are they clues to what forms of immaterial existence might actually inhabit us deep within the emptiness of inner space? Are these the dimensional spaces where we go after death and perhaps prepare for rebirth? There is undoubtedly enough room for an entire cosmos and more to exist within our own bodies and minds, and much much more within the considerably larger space where we exist here on Earth.

Perhaps we are visited by such creatures on a regular basis, and we ourselves travel to these spaces in death or in subtle-causal states of consciousness. But aliens are probably not from some far away distant star, and upon death we do not go to heaven above. Rather aliens and angels are phenomenally real, and are the most intimate of beings from deep inside ourselves and the inner spaces occupied by our planet. It would be surprising if they were not forms from the vast emptiness deep within.

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