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"Science Without Bounds" - Kinds of Existence
This is 10KINDS.TXT, chapter 10 of
Science Without Bounds
A Synthesis of Science, Religion and Mysticism
The author invites comments and criticism,
and may be reached at email@example.com.
"Science Without Bounds" is copyrighted by Arthur J. D'Adamo and may
be freely redistributed.
- Kinds of Existence -
The previous three chapters discussed the relationship of the
Real to the universe, to ourselves, and to the supernatural,
particularly to Gods who are Persons. We investigated the
Eternal's relationship to three domains: the exterior natural
universe, the interior natural universe, and the "supernatural."
Although they differ, the three domains all exist in the world
of appearance, above the level of the Ultimate Ground of
Existence. Therefore, the entire realm of existence is united.
The three domains - the external world of rocks and other people,
the internal world of emotions, thoughts, and consciousness, and
(if it exists) the "supernatural" world of angels, demons, and
God who are Persons - are actually sub-domains of a single realm
of existence, which is a manifestation of a single Ultimate
Ground of Existence.
This chapter explores concepts which apply in general to the
world of appearances, and so to perhaps more than one sub-domain.
It presents a somewhat theoretical and abstract discussion of the
general relationship between relative entities and the Absolute.
And it introduces a few new ideas which apply to entities in
general. Ideas such as compound entity, component entity,
relative existence, and action are discussed. These concepts are
from the philosophical field of ontology, a field which discusses
theories of existence or being.
Ontology discusses various types of being (existence), such as
real being, logical being, ideal being, necessary being,
contingent being, etc. One might suppose, therefore, an
"ontological argument" is a discussion in the field of ontology.
This term, however, has historically been used to refer to a
particular argument (,399-401) for the existence of God
advanced by Anselm, a Christian saint. Aquinas and Kant
considered Anselm's "ontological argument" faulty. The
ontological arguments of this chapter are, I trust, sounder.
Component Entities and Relative Existence
The world contains many entities, some apparently simple and
having no parts, others obviously compounded of two or more
parts. Water for example seems to be a simple entity, an entity
which contains no parts. Houses and cars, on the other hand, are
entities compounded of smaller parts which are entities in their
own right. A house has windows, a distinct sub-entity; a car has
a steering wheel.
We'll label any entity which has separate parts a "compound
entity" since it's not simply one thing but compounded of
different parts. "Component" is a synonym for "part." So a
compound entity is also a component entity. I'll use the terms
"component entity" and "compound entity" interchangeably.
Let's investigate a particular component entity, a table. A
table is a component entity because it's a combination of
components or parts. Its components are its top and four legs.
"Relative existence" is another new term. Not only is a table a
component entity, it has relative existence. Why? Because more
than a top and four legs are needed to make a table. What's
needed in addition is for the table's components to have the
proper relation relative to each other. Each corner of the top
must have a leg, and all legs must be pointing in the same
direction. If some legs are fastened pointing down, and others
are fastened pointing up, then we don't have a table. Instead, we
have a bunch of parts which could make a table if they assumed
the correct relation relative to each other.
A car is another example of a component entity with relative
existence. Imagine a car has been completely disassembled. The
individual components, the nuts and bolts, the engine and
transmission parts, the fenders and hood, are all piled in one
large heap. The pistons that should be in the engine are lying on
top of the windshield, the steering wheel sits on top of the
spare tire. The heap is not a car. All the pieces, all the
components, of the car exist, but they don't have the proper
relation relative to each other for a car to exist.
So tables and cars are component entities which possess
relative existence. For them to exist, their components must
exist and must have the proper relation relative to each other.
Indeed, for any material object to exist, it's relative
components, the various atoms, must exist and maintain the proper
relation. Change the relation and a different object comes into
Just as, for instance, the letters a, e, and r make up
the words are, era, ear, area, and rear, so the
elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen appear in a pad of
paper, a rubber eraser, a blob of glue, a paste of
laundry starch, a lump of sugar and a dry Martini.
Of course, atoms themselves are component objects. Their
components are various subatomic particles.
Words themselves are an excellent illustration of component
entities and relative existence. The word "are" has components:
the letters "a", "r", and "e". But more than the components are
needed for "are" to exist. What's needed is a proper relation
between its components, its letters. Confuse the relation and the
word "are" vanishes; in its place an entirely different word -
"era" or "ear" - appears.
The concept of relative existence is obviously closely related
to the concept of component entity. Are the two equivalent? There
is a logical principle which says if everything which is A is
also B and everything which is B is also A, then A and B are
equivalent. For example, if every group of 12 similar items is a
dozen, and every dozen has 12 similar items, then the ideas of
"dozen" and "twelve" are equivalent. Let's apply this principle.
Anything with relative existence is also a component entity
(everything A is B), since if parts have the right relation
relative to each other then parts certainly exist. Conversely,
considering a component entity as one thing implies a relation
(everything B is A), however weak, between the components in
question. For example, if a dozen donuts are thought of as a
single component entity, then each individual donut is related to
the others by being one of the same dozen. It could be questioned
whether the relationship between the donuts is a real
relationship, but we'll have no need to split hairs that fine;
for our purposes, all component entities have relative existence,
and anything with relative existence is a component entity. So
component entity and relative existence are equivalent concepts,
just like twelve and dozen.
In contrast to the Self-Existent which has independent and
permanent existence, component entities have an dependent and
transitory type of existence. It's easy to see why. A component
entity depends for its existence on the continued existence and
right relation of its components. As soon as one of its parts
ceases to exist or loses its proper relation to the others, the
component entity itself ceases to exist. As soon as one letter
ceases to exist, "are" ceases to exist.
The same applies to solid material objects. I'll use a somewhat
bogus disappearing trick to illustrate.
Find a willing friend and claim you're going to make something
disappear before their eyes. Curl your fingers into your palm and
fold your thumb over them. Show this to your friend and ask what
it is. After they admit it's a fist, slowly open your hand. The
fist disappears. Of course, your friend is unimpressed. After
all, all you've done is open your hand.
A fist is a component entity (its components are the different
parts of a human hand, the palm and fingers) with relative
existence (for a fist to exist, the hand's components must have
the proper relation to each other, fingers curled into palm,
thumb over fingers.) A fist has an unstable, transitory, and
dependent type of existence since, as soon as the fingers and
palm lose their proper relation to each other (you open your
hand), the fist ceases to exist. The fist comes into existence
and then goes out of existence - although the underlying
substance of the fist, it's ground of existence, that is, the
hand, exists all the while.
Realizing the transitory nature of component entities,
realizing "all things must pass," is basic to Buddhism, by the
way. Buddha taught:
All compound things are transitory: they grow and they
. . . [I]t remains a fact and the fixed and necessary
constitution of being that all conformations are
Indeed, his last words were:
Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out
your salvation with diligence! (,118).
Component entities with relative existence can be thought of in a
more dynamic way: as actions. The action of holding the fingers
in a certain way constitutes a fist.
As another example consider Harvard University, which was
founded in 1640. A little arithmetic will tell us how long
Harvard has existed. Things aren't so easy, however, when we try
to decide exactly what has existed since 1640. Certainly, none of
Harvard's present students or professors were alive in 1640.
Harvard today may or may not occupy a building dating back to
1640. Suppose (I don't know if this is true or not) not one of
Harvard's presents buildings existed in 1640. Then what has
existed since 1640? That is, exactly what constitutes Harvard
Harvard University is an action, a process, a flow of students,
professors, teaching, research, buildings, money, and academic
degrees. Like the flowing water which constitutes a fountain or
whirlpool, the fountain and whirlpool we call Harvard has been
turning since 1640. If the flow stopped - if the students,
faculty, and administration one day decided to stop the
educational process and enter the real estate business - then
Harvard University would cease to exist on that day. The people
and buildings would still exist yet, like the fist and the
whirlpool, Harvard University would vanish.
If we generalize "act" to include static states, cars and
tables may also be thought of as actions. Just as the dynamic act
of folding the fingers together creates the fist, the static
"act" of maintaining the fingers together allows the fist to
continue existing. Similarly, the dynamic act of assembling the
components creates the car or table. The static act of the
components maintaining a continuing right relations allows the
car or table to continue existing.
Cars and tables are also actions on a deeper level since their
sub-atomic components are actions. In the past, matter was
thought of as something solid and static. A glass breaks into
smaller glass particles, a rock may be ground into gravel. In
each case, the "stuff" remains, solid, stable, and unmoving. It
seemed matter was the antithesis of action. But the
. . . discovery that mass is nothing but a form of
energy has forced us to modify our concept of a
particle in an essential way. In modern physics, mass
is no longer associated with a material substance, and
hence particles are not seen as consisting of any basic
'stuff', but as bundles of energy. Since energy,
however, is associated with activity, with processes,
the implication is that the nature of subatomic
particles is intrinsically dynamic. (,202-3).
Today, according to quantum theory,
. . . particles are also waves . . . [P]articles are
represented . . . by wave packets. . . . [M]atter is .
. . never quiescent, but always in a state of motion. .
. . Modern physics . . . pictures matter not at all as
passive and inert, but as being in a continuous dancing
and vibrating motion . . . (,192-4).
Modern physics has . . . revealed that every sub-atomic
particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is
an energy dance . . . (,224).
Thus, material objects may be thought of as processes, dances of
The Universe as an Action
It's a small step from seeing matter as a dance of Energy to
seeing the entire universe as such. Mystics have often taken this
step. For instance, in India creation is described as the dance
of the god Shiva, a symbol of the Absolute. And the Ashtavakra
Gita pictures the universe's objects as waves and bubbles of the
As waves, foam and bubbles are not different from
water, so in the light of true knowledge, the Universe,
born of the Self, is not different from the Self.
The contemporary philosopher and theologian Alan Watts expressed
this idea in the form of a children's story.
God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there
is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to
play with. But he gets over this difficulty by
pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of
hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I
and the people in the world, all the animals, all the
plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. (,14).
The universe as a wave on the ocean of God. God playing hide
and seek. The images express the universe as an action, a dance,
a wave, or a play of the God who is not a Person. Just as waves
are a motion of the water, this universe is a motion of the God
who is not a Person.
There's another analogy which expresses the relationship
between the Eternal and the universe. In a movie, one and only
one thing visually exists - light projected on the screen.
Although men, women, children, animals, houses, trees, and a
thousand other things appear to exist, in reality only light
exists. This fact is so obvious we habitually forget it.
Mystics have tried to express a similarly forgotten truth about
the universe and the God which is not a Person. Any man, woman,
child, animal, house, tree, or other object, like figures on a
movie screen, are images of an identical Source and Root. As
Attar, a 12th century Sufi poet, wrote:
Although you seem to see many beings, in reality there
is only one. . . (,115).
The God which is not a Person "dances" this world into
creation. When the mind of the dreamer is quiet there is no
dream. Similarly, when the projector has no film, the screen is
lit but bare of images. The light is still. When the mind begins
to "dance", however, it creates images and a dream results.
Similarly, when the film is loaded and running, the light dances
and the movie begins.
So, God dreams the world, dances it into creation. And just as
light is the ground of the images on the screen, just as the mind
of the dreamer is the ground of the dream images, the God which
is not a Person is the ground of existence of this universe.
Action, dance, wave, and play suggest the energies of God. We
previously saw the Hesychastic distinction between God's essence
and His energies, and the analogy of fire's heat, light, and
sound to fire itself. Rufus Jones drew a similar distinction in
speaking of the thought of Clement of Alexandria.
God, in His essential being, is transcendent, but
dynamically He is immanent and near. The doctrine of an
immanent God - God as Logos or Spirit, moving through
all life and in immediate relation with the souls of
men, is fundamental to Clement's thought . . . [H]e was
. . . influenced . . . by the teaching of St. John and
St. Paul. "In the beginning was the Logos; all things
were made by Him." "In God we live and move and are."
So God the Father is like fire, the thing-in-itself. And the
Father's Son, the Logos, Christ, is like the fire's energies; the
Logos is the dynamic energies of God which creates all things.
The Spirit is those same dynamic energies experienced inside
So our exterior and interior worlds are plays of the Uncreated
Light, as is the "supernatural" world. The God who is not a
Person assumes forms such as rocks, thoughts, and perhaps angels
and Gods who are Persons. All such entities are actions brought
into existence by an act, a play of the Eternal. They are all
waves on an eternal ocean of Uncreated Light. As Angelus Silesius
It is as if God played a game
immersed in contemplation;
and from this game
all worlds arose
in endless variation. (,55).
All worlds - the natural and the "supernatural" - are actions,
plays of Eternal Energy.
Voidness and Emptiness
Fists, tables, cars, fountains, whirlpools and Harvard University
are actions. They are component entities with an impermanent,
unstable type of existence. They come into existence from nowhere
and then vanish without a trace. And when they vanish, they don't
"go" anywhere, they simply cease to be. When someone stops
singing, the singing doesn't go anywhere, it simply ceases to be.
When water is running down a drain, a whirlpool exists. When the
water has run out, the whirlpool ceases to exist. When the water
is turned off, a fountain of water ceases to exist.
There is something unsettling about things like fists,
fountains and whirlpools which pop into and out of existence so
easily. Such chimerical entities seem to have a kind of existence
which borders on illusion. It's easy to feel whirlpools aren't,
in some sense, fully real. Realness, we feel, implies solidity
and stability, and realness is what we often prefer. Who, for
instance, would advance money to a business that just popped into
existence yesterday and might pop out of existence tomorrow,
rather than to an established firm? If a home could be build
which might pop out of existence at any time, would anyone buy
Actions and component entities have a type of existence which
is less than fully real. As we look deeply into component
entities, down below the level where their components exist, we
see that, in the ultimate, ontological sense, they don't really
exist at all. They are void and empty of real existence. As
Phenomena, as such, are not-being and only derive a
contingent existence from the qualities of Absolute
Being by which they are irradiated. The sensible world
resembles the fiery circle made by a single spark
whirling round rapidly. (,82).
An example from the writings of Buddhadasa, a contemporary
Buddhist monk, will illustrate how something which seems quite
real is an appearance like the fiery circle. It might seem there
are different kinds of water, such as rain water, well water,
stream water, and river water. However, if we analyze each kind
of water, we'll eventually find that there is really only one
kind. If we disregard extraneous trace elements we find that each
kind of water is identical.
If you proceed further with your analysis of pure
water, you will conclude that there is no water - only
two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen. Hydrogen
and oxygen are not water. . . . [W]ater has
disappeared. It is void, empty . . . For one who has
penetrated to the truth at this level there is no such
thing as water. (,88-9).
So water, which seems to possess no parts, has parts - one part
oxygen and two parts hydrogen. Moreover, (if I correctly remember
my college chemistry) these parts must be in proper relative
relation to each other - the two hydrogen atoms each attached to
the oxygen atom with an 105 degree angle between them - for water
to exist. If a molecule composed of one oxygen atom attached to a
hydrogen atom attached to another hydrogen atom could exist
chemically, it wouldn't be water. Thus, water is a component
entity. Or water may be called an action, for just as the fingers
and thumb must remain in a certain position relative to each
other for a fist to exist, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms must
remain in a certain position relative to each other for water to
Voidness and emptiness are the lot of all entities with only
relative existence. So, in a sense the entire physical universe
lacks a real existence. In a sense it's false and unreal.
. . . [T]he physical world operates under one
fundamental law of maya, the principle of relativity
and duality. God, the Sole Life, is Absolute Unity; to
appear as the separate and diverse manifestations of a
creation He wears a false or unreal veil. That illusory
dualistic veil is maya. (,310).
A word about a potentially confusing point: the Eternal is
sometimes called empty or void but with an entirely different
meaning. As Buddhadasa writes:
The ultimately real is empty, not in the sense that it
is vacuous, but in that it transcends any attempt to
dichotomize or conceptualize it. (,18).
Johannes Scotus Erigena, a 9th Century Christian philosopher, had
a similar idea.
Therefore so long as it is understood to be
incomprehensible by reason of its transcendence it is
not unreasonably called "Nothing" . . .
The meaning might be clearer if "No thing" had be used instead of
"Nothing." "Void" or "Empty" would have also served. Erigena
[B]ut when it begins to appear in its theophanies it is
said to proceed, as it were, out of nothing into
A theophany is
[a] manifestation or appearance of a deity or of the
gods to man. (,1389).
. . . every visible and invisible creature can be
called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition.
Therefore, every rock, thought, angel, and God who is a Person is
a manifestation of Uncreated Light.
Even water, though apparently a pure and simple substance, is
actually an action, a component entity with relative existence.
Is everything an action? Does everything have only relative
existence? Is everything void and empty of real existence? Or is
there something which isn't a component entity, which possesses
full and real existence?
If something exists but has no parts, then it can't be a
component entity and it can't have relative existence - there are
simply no parts to be related. Such an entity could have full and
real existence. Is there anything which isn't a component entity.
Is there anything which has no parts? If we use "pure" in the
sense of "unmixed," and "simple" in the sense of "composed of
only one substance or element," then the question may be
rephrased, is there anything that's pure and simple?
On the material level science has found only one entity that's
pure and simple. What of thoughts and emotions, might not they be
pure and simple? An obvious view is since thoughts apparently
come into and go out of existence, they're actions. Therefore
they possess only relative existence. There is, however, another
view going back to Plato which sees thoughts and ideas,
especially mathematical concepts, as pre-existing.
According to Platonism, mathematical objects are real.
Their existence is an objective fact, quite independent
of our knowledge of them. . . . They exist outside the
space and time of physical existence. They are
immutable - they were not created, and they will not
change or disappear. . . . [A] mathematician is an
empirical scientist like a geologist; he cannot invent
anything, because it is all there already. All he can
do is discover. (,318)
In Infinity and the Mind, mathematician Rudy Rucker proposes a
similar concept, a "mindscape" where all thoughts already exist.
In this view, when we think a thought our mind's eye sees that
already-existing thought in the mindscape, just as we see an
already existing rock as we walk across some landscape.
Just as a rock is already in the Universe, whether or
not someone is handling it, an idea is already in the
Mindscape, whether or not someone is thinking it.
When our mind's eye turns away or moves from a thought, we cease
to think it. Just as when we walk far enough past the rock, we
cease to see it. Yet both rock and thought continue to exist in
the landscape and mindscape respectively. A similar idea, of
course, could be proposed for emotions.
So thoughts and emotions may actually be pre-existing,
unchanging entities, rather than actions that pop into and out of
existence. Of course, they wouldn't be pure and simple if they
were component entities. Are they?
Some thoughts do seem compound. The thought "I am hungry," for
example, involves at least two components, the thought "I" and
the thought "hungry." But what about the simple thought "hungry"?
What about emotions such as love or fear? Are they simple
entities? Are some thoughts and emotions pure and simple
entities?. I don't know, although my inclination is to consider
only the Real as Pure and Simple.
If we suppose some emotions and thoughts are pure, simple,
self-existent entities, then we seem to approach Plato's idea of
eternal Ideas or Forms. Even though this idea has a respectable
intellectual linage, it doesn't appear in many of the systems of
belief upon which the perennial philosophy is based. So we won't
use it in this book.
So we'll assume thought and emotions have relative existence.
Therefore, there's only one entity which isn't a component
entity, the Ultimate Ground of Existence which is pure, simple,
and one. Since the Source is one, It has no parts, and thus is
not a component entity. If the Root doesn't have relative
existence, what kind of existence does it have? What other kinds
of existence are there? Absolute is frequently taken as an
opposite of relative. What might the term "absolute existence"
We've seen how relative existence implies parts in a certain
relation, which implies a precarious type of existence since the
parts may lose their special relation, causing the component
entity to cease existing. Absolute existence, therefore, should
imply something which has no parts, is pure and simple, and
furthermore doesn't have an existence dependent on anything. In
other words, absolute existence is existence pure and simple,
self-contained existence with no dependencies on anything else,
such as components and their relation. As we've seen, the Self-Existent
has these characteristics, and so is in possession of
We've also seen component entities don't really exist below the
level of their components. On the subatomic scale, water does not
- cannot - exist. This is why compound entities' existence is
called void and empty. There's no level, however, below the level
of the Root and Ultimate Ground of Existence. Therefore, the
existence of the Source isn't void or empty. The Self-Existent
fully and really exists. Thus It deserves the names the "Real,"
"Ultimate Reality," "Eternal Reality," and "Absolute Reality".
The Brahman, the one substance which alone is eternally
pure, eternally awakened, unlimited by time, space, and
causation, is absolutely real. (,254).
Our chain of reasoning has shown the inner and outer worlds we
know are unreal, in a sense. Only the Eternal is fully real. In
Hindu religious literature, such reasoning is called
Today the word "discrimination" usually suggests bigotry and
hatred. In contemporary society, the phrase "practicing
discrimination" is an accusation rather than a compliment since
it refers to the social evils of racial, sexual, or ethnic
discrimination. For example, the first definition of
"discriminate" in a dictionary is
1. to make a distinction in favor of or against a
person or thing on a categorical basis rather than
according to actual merit. (,379).
However, an wider meaning appears next.
2. to note or observe a difference; distinguish
In the past the word "discrimination" was often used in the
second sense, as a compliment to a person's refinement and
discernment. The discriminating tastes of the gourmet, for
example, can distinguish a fine wine from an ordinary wine; a
sharp business person can tell the difference between a
legitimate deal and a scam; a critical reasoner can separate the
valid argument from sophistry; a competent engineer can
discriminate between solid ground able to support a heavy
building and sandy, unstable soil which can not. Looking for a
good used car, unmechanically inclined people push their
mechanical discriminative ability to the limit.
In the religious sense "discrimination" refers to spiritual
discernment. The ancient Christian monk, Evagrios, for instance,
in his Texts on Discrimination in respect of Passions and
Thoughts (,VI,38), warns against "demons" such as avarice,
gluttony, pride, anger, dejection, and unchastity. A religious
seeker should learn to discriminate helpful passions and thoughts
from unhelpful ones, but the highest type of religious
. . . the reasoning by which one knows that God alone
is real and all else is unreal. Real means eternal, and
unreal means impermanent. He who has acquired
discrimination knows that God is the only Substance and
all else is non-existent. . . . Through discrimination
between the Real and the unreal one seeks to know God.
Identity or Self
We've already discussed our own identity. Let's now investigate
the identity of actions and component entities.
Do actions have an identity? If I fold my hand again have I
made the same fist? It may seem I have since I'm using the same
hand, but with other actions the answer isn't so obvious.
Consider the whirlpool created when water runs down a drain.
The whirlpool is an action of the water just as fist is an action
of my hand. Now plug the drain, come back the next day and unplug
it. A whirlpool is created again. Is it the same whirlpool? It's
hard to imagine how a whirlpool could have an identity. The water
which composes it is always changing, always flowing. If you feel
it is the same whirlpool, then what about the following? After I
plug the drain, I move all the water to another sink or bathtub
and open the drain. Is it the same whirlpool now? What if I move
the water and mix in an equal amount of chlorine. Same whirlpool?
It can be difficult or impossible finding an identity in
actions such as fists or whirlpools. What about more substantial
actions. What, for example, about Harvard University? Does it
have an identity?
We've seen Harvard University has been in existence since 1640.
We've also seen the difficulty involved in trying to determine
what has been in existence since that year. Just like a fountain
or whirlpool, what we call "Harvard University" is a flow of
students, professors, buildings, money, etc. Has any one thing
persisted over those years that deserves to be called "Harvard
University?" In other words, does Harvard University have an
identity? If we try to find the enduring reality behind Harvard,
the thing or things that were Harvard in 1640 and still are
Harvard today, we fail. No one person or thing has been Harvard
University over the years. It's identity - such as it is -
consists in the educational action of a multitude of components -
students, professors, buildings, money, and degrees. It a strict
sense Harvard University has no identity.
So attaching the idea of identity to actions is impossible.
Actions lack a real identity, a real self. To be sure, for
conversational and practical purposes, we use the terms
whirlpool, fist, and Harvard University, and, in the practical
sense, they exist. However, it's difficult or impossible to
define their identity - to define exactly what exists - since
they don't really exist in an ultimate sense. Assigning them a
more than conversational, practical identity is impossible.
But what about simple, solid entities such as tables and cars?
Does any component entity have an identity? Certainly we feel
it's the same table, the same car, that existed when we last saw
them. And certainly they have a conversational and practical type
of identity. But it's a weak kind of identity since the very
existence of component entities itself is so weak. Since a
table's components (it's a component entity . . .) must maintain
the same relation to each other (. . . possessing relative
existence) for the table to keep existing, if we disassemble the
table it ceases to exist as a table. So any identity the table
had must cease too.
If the table is reassembled, is it the same table? If you
believe it is, then what if we put the legs on different corners?
Is it still the same table? Strictly, since the legs are now in
different positions, it's a different table. In a more common
sense view, however, the table with switched legs is the same
since the same "stuff," the same top and legs, exist. (Common
sense because if the legs of a table were rearranged, hardly
anyone would claim it was now a brand new, freshly manufactured
table - unless they were trying to dishonestly sell it for a
higher price!) However, if the table were ground into sawdust its
"stuff" would still exist (as sawdust), but the table would not.
Would it be the same table if it were reduced to sawdust? No,
since it wouldn't be a table at all.
Yet, the feeling may be that the table does have some sort of
identity. "It" is really there, existing from one moment to the
next, the same. Physicist Arthur Eddington discussed this
question, not about tables but about elephants.
How do we know, he asks, if the elephant we saw a moment ago is
the same elephant we see now? We can, of course, measure the
elephant in all sorts of ways - weight, height, color, and
others. Each of these measurements yields a pointer reading on a
scale, a ruler, or some other measurement device. If it's the
same elephant, the measurements should be approximately equal
over a short time. However, might not an entirely different
elephant have the same weight, height, etc.?
Two readings may be equal, but it is meaningless to
inquire if they are identical; if then the elephant is
a bundle of pointer readings, how can we ask whether it
is continually the identical bundle? (,256).
. . . the test of identity is clearly outside the
present domain of physics. The only test lying purely
in the domain of physics is that of continuity . . .
On first sight this argument may seem unconvincing. After all,
couldn't the elephant be marked in some unique way so we'd be
sure the elephant we saw today was the same one we saw yesterday?
The issue, however, is much deeper. It rests on the assumption
the atoms which compose the elephant remain the same. This
assumption has often been held. For example, Schrodinger wrote
that all proponents of atomic theory from the Greeks to the
nineteenth century believed
. . . atoms are individuals, identifiable, small bodies
just like the coarse palpable objects in our
However, as scientists investigated the deeper nature of atoms,
they were forced to abandon the idea that an atom is
. . . an individual entity which in principle retains
its 'sameness' for ever. Quite the contrary, we are now
obliged to assert that the ultimate constituents of
matter have no 'sameness' at all. When you observe a
particle . . . now and here, this is to be regarded in
principle as an isolated event. (,17).
Might the word "event" be replaced by "action"? Schrodinger
Even if you do observe a similar particle a very short
time later at a spot very near to the first, and even
if you have every reason to assume a causal connection
between the first and the second observation, there is
no true, unambiguous meaning in the assertion that it
is the same particle . . . (,17).
If individual atoms fail to have an identity, how can anything
composed of them - an elephant, for instance - possess an
Buddha recognized compound entities lack an identity:
All compound things lack a self . . . (,158).
He did, however, grant a kind of conditional identity to compound
entities, comparing their identity to that of a candle flame.
. . . [T]he flame of to-day is in a certain sense the
same as the flame of yesterday, and in another sense it
is different at every moment. (,156).
In the sense of continuity, the flame now has descended from the
flame of a moment ago, the whirlpool now is the descendent of the
whirlpool of the past, "the child is father to the man" - but the
child is not the same as the man.
Previously, we saw the only absolute identity we possess is our
Consciousness which we equated with the Ultimate Ground of
Existence. Of course, if the Real didn't have an identity Itself,
then it certainly couldn't function as our identity. Does the
Absolute have an identity? First, the Root actually and truly
exists, as opposed to actions which have the temporary, unstable
type of existence. Second, the Source is simple, pure, and has no
components or parts. Thirdly, the Unconditioned is eternal and
unchanging, so what It is today, It was yesterday and will be
tomorrow. So It remains the same under different conditions. So
the Root and Source has an identity.
This idea has found expression in mystical literature. For
example, the Islamic Sufis Abu Sa'id al-Kharraz and Abu Nasr
al-Sarraj taught only God has the right to say "I." (,10). And,
the Sufi Bayazid wrote:
. . . the only real identity is God . . . God is the
only one who has the right to say "I am." (,26).
Looking Back, Looking Ahead - II
In this chapter we saw that component entities: have an
impermanent kind of existence dependent on the relationship of
their parts; can cease to exist; in fact, are void and empty of
real existence; and have no real identity. The Absolute, on the
other hand, has real, permanent, independent existence, and a
real identity. We've now completed the second part of this book,
so we'll take some time to stop and see where we've been and
where we're going.
The first part discussed the religious and scientific ways of
knowing, the Ultimate Ground of Existence, and people who've had
direct experience of It. It also discussed applying the
scientific way of knowing to mystics' statements.
In the second part, we built a world view on mystical visions.
We described the relationship of the outer, inner, and
"supernatural" worlds to the Primal, the One. Of course, entirely
different world views based on mystical visions could be
constructed, as well.
It's also worth observing that the world view we've seen isn't
fully scientific. It couldn't be because it's the world view of a
single individual while science is a group effort. Replication is
an essential part of science. Scientific claims must be tested by
others before they're accepted. So until our world view is tested
by others it can't claim to be scientific. Until it's tested,
it's only a tentative, first hypothesis, a starting point. And,
of course, if it's to remain scientific, it must always remain
open to question and criticism, subject to change and revision,
capable of adaptation and improvement. It can never stagnate into
In the third and final part, we'll discuss practical
consequences. The dominant questions will be: So what? Can these
thoughts have practical consequences in how I live? How can these
ideas and beliefs affect my life?
We'll go from world view to practical consequences in steps.
The first step will be describing the goals our world view
A world view is a kind of map, and a map shows not only what
is, but what is possible. If it shows mountains, then we may
think of climbing them. If it shows a sea, we may think of
Just like maps, world views differ. Some have wider scopes than
others. Some world views have a limited scope in that they only
discuss this world. They're silent about where we came from, what
happens after death, and even our ultimate purpose here. In other
world views, death is followed by heaven or hell; in others, by
reincarnation; in still others, by destruction, the self just
evaporates into nothingness.
Obviously, if someone's world view doesn't include an afterlife
then getting to heaven or obtaining a good reincarnation won't be
one of their goals. It can't be since it's not on their map. On
the other hand, if a person's world view includes heaven, then
they may value getting there. They may undertake some actions to
ensure their place in heaven. Reaching heaven may be one of their
Similarly, if a person's world view doesn't allow that gnosis -
direct experience of and even union with the Eternal - is
possible, then they aren't likely to value gnosis, or even know
of its existence. But, since the map which is our world view does
show gnosis, we can not only value gnosis but make it a goal, a
life aim. We'll discuss goals, with emphasis on gnosis.
The second step will be deriving subordinate goals, things
which aren't ends in themselves but means to gnosis. Someone
whose goal is becoming a professional athlete might adopt the
subordinate goal of exercising and practicing every day. The
subordinate goal isn't an end in itself. Rather it's a means for
developing the skill and strength required to achieve the main
Similarly, a seeker of gnosis might adopt subordinate goals,
certain attitudes and actions which help the journey to gnosis.
The seeker will value these attitudes and actions not for their
own sake, but as helps to direct experience of and union with the
Eternal Light. We'll discuss various beliefs and actions which
seekers of gnosis often value.
Identical world view and goals don't necessarily imply
identical values. For example, among those who believe in heaven,
some may be so eager for heaven now they pursue martyrdom or
death in a holy war, while others are content to let death come
in its own time. Similarly, our world view and the goal of gnosis
don't necessarily imply only one set of values. Just as mystical
declarations can support various world views, our world view and
the goal of gnosis can support various values. In particular,
we'll see two different values systems, the so-called negative
way and affirmative way.
The third step will be picking out the values which have
practical consequences. Some beliefs, actions, and attitudes
which seekers of gnosis value have obvious practical
consequences. For example, "Do unto others as you would have them
do unto you." Others do not. For example, the major doctrinal
difference between Western and Eastern Christianity is that the
West believes the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the
Son, while the East holds to the ancient belief that the
procession is from the Father alone. Values which have practical
consequences are called ethics. Thus, "Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you" is an ethic, while "the Holy Ghost
proceeds from the Father" or "the Father and Son" is not. Rather,
it's a dogma. We'll discuss certain ethics which derive from our
The last step will be deriving specific morals from our ethics.
The same ethic may lead to different morals. For example, two
people might share the ethic that human life is sacred and should
be protected. One, however, interprets this ethic as forbidding
abortion but allowing war. The other feels the fetus is not fully
human but believes in pacifism. Both are implementing the same
ethic in their own way. Someone who refrains from abortion but
fights in a war has different morals than the person who accepts
abortion but refuses to go to war. But both may have the same
ethic, a respect for human life. How they express this ethic in
action - that is, their morals - disagree. We'll discuss certain
morals which derive from our ethics, too.
So we'll be taking a "top-down approach." We'll begin at the
top with our map, our world view, our mental picture of what is
what. Based on our map, we'll describe potential goals. Based on
our goals, we derive values. We'll pick out the values and
principles which have practical consequences, the ethics. Morals
are how we put our ethics in practice.^L
Part III: Consequences
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