Chapter Summary: This chapter examines some philosophical concepts—component entity, relative existence, action, voidness and emptiness—that apply to the universe, personal identity, and Gods who are Persons. The ideas of absolute existence and identity are also explored. The chapter concludes by summarizing Part II and introducing Part III.
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 ([C08],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.
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 existence.
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. ([L02],29).
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, its 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 decay. ([C04],158),
. . . [I]t remains a fact and the fixed and necessary constitution of being that all conformations are transitory. ([C04],80).
Indeed, his last words were:
Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence! ([B16],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 present buildings existed in 1640. Then what has existed since 1640? That is, exactly what constitutes Harvard University?
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 relation 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. ([C03],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 . . . ([C03],192-4).
Modern physics has . . . revealed that every sub-atomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance . . . ([C03],224).
Thus, material objects may be thought of as processes, dances of energy, actions.
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 Eternal.
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. (II,4,[A10],6).
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. ([W02],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. . . ([A12],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.” ([J02],48-9).
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 one’s self.
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 wrote:
It is as if God played a game
immersed in contemplation;
and from this game
all worlds arose
in endless variation. ([B05],55).
All worlds—the natural and the “supernatural”—are actions, plays of Eternal Energy.
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 built which might pop out of existence at any time, would anyone buy it?
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 Nicholson writes:
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. ([N11],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. ([B13],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 a 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 exist.
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. ([Y02],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. ([B13],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” . . . ([E05],681A,308).
The meaning might be clearer if “No thing” had be used instead of “Nothing.” “Void” or “Empty” would have also served. Erigena continues:
[B]ut when it begins to appear in its theophanies it is said to proceed, as it were, out of nothing into something ([E05],681A,308).
A theophany is
[a] manifestation or appearance of a deity or of the gods to man. ([F08],1389).
. . . every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. ([E05],681A,308).
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. ([D04],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. ([R06],36).
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 lineage, 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” mean?
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 absolute existence.
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. ([S01],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 discrimination.
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. ([R01],379).
However, an wider meaning appears next.
2. to note or observe a difference; distinguish accurately. ([R01],379).
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 ([P13],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 discrimination is
. . . 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. ([G03],327).
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. Its 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? ([E01],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 . . . ([E01],256).
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 environment. ([S06],17).
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. ([S06],17).
Might the word “event” be replaced by “action”? Schrodinger continued:
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 . . . ([S06],17).
If individual atoms fail to have an identity, how can anything composed of them—an elephant, for instance—possess an identity?
Buddha recognized compound entities lack an identity:
All compound things lack a self . . . ([C04],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. ([C04],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.” ([E06],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.” ([E06],26).
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 Part II, so we’ll take some time to stop and see where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Part I 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 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 dogma.
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 contains.
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 sailing it.
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 goals.
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 goal.
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 value 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 othersas 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 values.
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.