23 October 2015

Reality. Again.

There's a lot of talk about reality in Buddhism. Buddhists will often claim that our meditations will give a person direct access to reality, or knowledge of reality. I've come to see that these claims are bunk. Part of the problem is that our Iron Age predecessors introduced a term yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana which is taken to mean "knowledge and vision of things as they are". Now these Iron Age predecessors were not seeking knowledge of reality by any definition of that word that might be relevant to a modern reader. They sought knowledge of the origins and ending of suffering, where suffering was primarily experienced through repeated rebirth into the world. They claimed to have knowledge of how the rebirth process works and the conditions which lead to suffering. At no point do they claim knowledge of reality as we understand that term.

One of the problems we have in the philosophy of science is that classical mechanics is a description of reality as we experience it, but quantum mechanics is not a description of any reality we could experience. Of course we can experience the classical consequences of quantum phenomena - the scattering pattern of the two-slit experiment, for example, is a classical consequence of the quantum phenomenon. But we do not experience the phenomenon inferred by quantum mechanics (a photon passing through both slits simultaneously and interfering with itself). All the clever people do is work out mathematically how to make the same result appear in their calculations. Sure the calculations are accurate, but they have an entirely uncertain relationship to reality. Given that we have an equation that is accurate at predicting the classical consequences of quantum phenomenon, it is tempting to think we have a map of some hidden territory. But nothing could be less certain than this conclusion. No one understands the reality that quantum mechanics describes, however, good they are at fiddling with the parameters to create classical consequences. Reality at that level is a black box and likely to remain so forever. 

We have much the same problem with General Relativity. These days we wonder how stupid people must have been to think that the sun goes around the earth. But just by looking at the sun it is very difficult indeed to  see this. The ending of the geocentric worldview was not brought about by insights into the sun, but into the planets. It was understanding that the planets were not in orbit around the earth, but around the sun that made us question the geocentric model. General Relativity tells us that there really is no force of gravity. The reality is that masses cause spacetime to curve in around them. We know from Newton that masses travel in a straight line unless some force acts upon them (from the First Law of Motion). So when we see an object moving in a curved path we naturally conclude that some force is acting on it. If we throw a ball it travels in a curve (a specific kind of curve known as a parabola) and falls to the earth. As one of my Buddhist teachers once said at a public meeting "Gravity is a larger mass attracting a smaller one". That's completely wrong of course and attracted gasps of horror from the Cambridge audience (there was more than one physics PhD in the room!). But that does describe the experience. Two tennis balls don't attract each other the way that the earth and a tennis ball do. The fact that the earth moves an infinitesimal amount towards the tennis ball is obscure because the effect is too small for us to measure, let alone see. Experience suggests that objects are attracted to the earth in a way that they are not attracted to each other. 

That's just how it seems. But it is not the case at all. A very cleverly designed experiment in Cambridge's Cavendish laboratory showed that small masses do appear to attract each other gravitationally, but that the apparent force is very tiny because the masses involved are so small. Even so all this is incidental because Einstein's theory tells a different story. General Relativity tells us that the reason the ball follows a curved path is that spacetime is strongly curved near the surface of the earth. The ball is doing it's best to obey Newton's First Law of Motion and travel in a straight-line. What it "discovers" is that there are no straight lines near the earth. So the ball follows the curvature of spacetime which happens to be in the shape of a parabola. 

Try as we might we cannot see spacetime. We know it must exist precisely because of things like light propagating through space, and the path of light being bent near masses (light is itself massless so there is no possibility of a gravitational interaction). There is an enormous body of evidence which makes us quite certain that we have understood spacetime under normal circumstances. However, the theory itself must be incomplete because it breaks down at the Big Bang. The maths says that at the Big Bang, the dimensions of spacetime were all zero; implying infinite density. My many physics teachers over the years always emphasised that when your calculation produces an infinity, then you have done something wrong and must go back and check your working. Reality does not contain infinities, or if it did then everything would be incomprehensible different than it is. Either way we do not understand the Big Bang because it involves infinity. 

No amount of mediation and insight is going to directly help us with these problems. One can imagine that meditation and insight might help a physicist or mathematician in their work, but, on the whole, the two projects are completely unrelated. The experience of rarefied mental states does not shed light on reality. So what does it shed light on? Experience. It ought to come as no surprise that what we gain insight into when we examine our experience, is experience itself. I'm more and more convinced that specific types of meditative experiences are what the Buddhists were aiming at. They come under the broad heading of emptiness. Of course, there are many kinds of experience that one can have in meditation. Some of incidental or spurious and others profound. But in terms of the liberating insights said to end rebirth or being (bhava) I am beginning to focus my attention on those states in which there is no content: so sense experience and no normal mental experience, and yet still some kind of experience. I first noticed this in 2008 in an essay called Communicating the Dharma:

Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.
It is in these states of emptiness that one has a kind of transformative experience that reorganises the psyche and the relationship with sensory experiences. From the same essay:
The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. 
And I think it is this kind of experience that is being described or discussed in the Perfection of Wisdom texts. Consider for example this abstruse discussion between Subhuti and Śāriputra from the first chapter of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā (Chp1, para 7, my translation.)
Then indeed, Elder Śāriputra said this to Elder Subhūti, “Still, Elder Subhūti, does that mind which is without mind, exist?” 
That said, Elder Subhūti said this to Elder Śāriputra, “With respect to a state of being without mind (acittatā) can existence (astitā) or non-existence (nāstitā) be found or obtained?”
Sāriputra said, “This is not [the case], Elder Subhūti!” 
Subhūti said, “If, Elder Śāriputra, existence or non-existence are not found or obtained there in the state of being without mind, is the question, 'Does that mind which is without mind, exist?' appropriate for you Elder Śāriputra?”
When that was said, Elder Śāriputra said this to Elder Subhūti, “So what is this state of being without mind, Elder Subhūti?” 
Subhūti said, “Śāriputra, the state of being without mind (acittatā) is immutable (avikāra), does not falsely distinguish (avikalpa)  [between real and unreal].
This is one of several passages in the Aṣṭa that are reminiscent of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) in denying the applicability of the ideas of existence & non-existent or real & unreal in discussions about Buddhism. These concepts do not apply to the world of experience.

Following D T Suzuki and Edward Conze, we usually take this kind of self-negating language in the Perfection of Wisdom texts to be an attempt to confuse the rational mind in accordance with Romantic anti-intellectualism. Romantics believe that ultimate truth comes rather from the inner spirit than from the intellect. The idea here is that by tying the rational mind up in riddles, the spirit can assert itself. Apart from the fact that Romantics interpretations are all dualistic and eternalistic, and thus grossly false by most Buddhist standards, this procedure is akin to banging one's head against a brick wall in pursuit of wisdom. Treating the entire Prajñāpāramitā literature as a gigantic koan is simply a mistake. Just because Suzuki and Conze were confused does not mean that confusion is the only possible response to these texts. 

On the other hand, if we assume that the context of the dialogue is two master meditators trying to articulate the experience of emptiness, in the sense of contentless meditative states, then we can stop banging our head against the wall. I don't claim to have unlocked the language of the text, but I am hopeful that abandoning Conze's awful translation and re-reading the text as though it makes sense will be fruitful. Compare this to my comments on Paul Harrison's work on the comprehensibility of the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā. Part of my optimism stems from several essays written about emptiness by my colleagues in the Triratna Order, one of which is available for public consumption (the others are embargoed as they are part of an in-house discussion in the Order, I am trying to encourage my colleagues to make their work more widely available). Satyadhana's essay The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): Translation and Commentary, in the Western Buddhist Review, gives us a flavour of the discussion. It seems to me that there are important continuities that have yet to be explored, but which promise to shed a great deal of light on the intentions of the Prajñāpāramitā authors.

Buddhists often assume that because Quantum Mechanics and Emptiness are both confusing and reputedly profound, that one must shed light on the other. I've done my best to debunk this fallacy in two previous essays (Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat and Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics). The reality that we struggle to understand through the abstruse mathematics is not the same as the reality that we seek to understand through religious exercises. The mistake seems to rest on a misunderstanding of what the word "reality" means. Scientists and meditators use the word in ways that are almost entirely unrelated.


This essay is partly inspired by a series of essays on the blog a filosofer's thots, starting here: Bohr’s reply to EPR (Part I) spotted in the Twitter feed of @seancarroll.
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