Time and Self in search of Wise View

“If no one asks me what the time is, I know perfectly well what it is. But if someone asks me to explain it… I haven’t a clue.”

– St. Augustine

This weekend Eric had something a little different to share, beginning with a talk excerpt by physicist Carlo Rovelli, who speaks about time in ways that resemble how Dharma teachers talk about the self. Both time and self seem such fundamental elements of a straightforward world view; yet under scrutiny, they both dissolve into their backgrounds of causes and effects. The perplexity we are left with is not confusion, but rather a Wise View of central factors in our living.

Eric’s notes follow:

I’ve always thought that science and the dharma have a common underpinning: a radical skepticism about what our intuitions tell us to be true. I think this is what is meant by “wise view.” Here is something else common to both scientists and dharma practitioners: we often forget this. It is just as easy for a dharma practitioner to fall into belief about a certain lineage or teaching as it is for a scientist to take their favorite theory to be the true one.

Let’s begin with the philosophical view of the middle way as expressed by the buddha in this story from the Samyutta Nikaya (connected discourses)

The teacher was living at Sāvatthi. Then the good Kaccānagotta approached him, greeted
him, sat down to one side, and said: “You say, ‘complete vision,’ sir. In what respects is
vision complete?”

“By and large, Kaccāna, this world relies on the duality of ‘it is’ and ‘it is not.’ But
one who sees the arising of the world as it happens with complete understanding has no
sense of ‘it is not’ about the world. And one who sees the ceasing of the world as it
happens with complete understanding has no sense of ‘it is’ about the world.

“By and large, this world is bound to its prejudices and habits. But such a one does
not get caught up in the habits, fixations, prejudices or biases of the mind. He is not
fixated on ‘my self.’ He does not doubt that when something is occurring, it is occurring,
and when it has come to an end, it has come to an end. His knowledge is independent of
“In these respects his vision is complete.
“’Everything is’ is the first dead-end. ‘Everything is not’ is the second dead-end.
The tathāgata reveals the dharma from a centre that avoids both dead-ends.” [S. 12:15]

In the history of science, there has always been an argument about what is “fundamental.” This is the stuff that everything is made of and is ultimately real. Going back to the greeks, Aristotle thought that everything was made of cause which was bound up in the 4 elements while Democritus thought everything might be reducible to atoms in the void, which is the view held by most scientists today. However, everytime scientists have thought they discovered the ultimate foundation, we discover something new that forces a rethinking that leads to the conclusion there is something even more foundational. To use the language of the buddha : Even an atom both is and is-not.

There is a beautiful word being used a lot in science these days: emergence. Patterns and properties emerge at a higher level of observation which do not exist at a lower level. For example, an atom does not have a temperature or a pressure. It also would never be described as wet or dry, rough or smooth. A single atom can not be described as a solid, liquid, or gas. However, from a group of atoms we can observe these patterns and properties emerge… and these properties can become more and more complex, culminating in things tables, chairs, selves, nations. Some claim that the atom is real and everything else is not. But this falls into the exact trap the Buddha warned us about.

Here is a quote from Sean Carroll, a physicist – philosopher, which I think gets at the spirit of this skepticism: “we shouldn’t confuse what we human beings can hold in our heads with what nature actually does.” which reminds one of the classic zen teaching “don’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself”

There is a powerful mathematical tool we can use along with this idea of emergence: probability. Emergent properties are probabilistic. For example, the temperature of a gas is a statistical summary of the velocities of all the individual atoms in that gas. The faster the atoms are moving, the higher the temperature. So while we can’t know the exact velocities of all the atoms, if we know the temperature, we can make a pretty good guess about what the velocity of one atom would be. Not-knowing everything about every atom is not an impediment to me deciding whether or not to wear a jacket. This is what make emergence beautiful… we can throw out almost everything we know about a more “fundamental level” of reality and still make coherent sense out of the world. The price is that we can’t use the phrase “everything is” or “everything is not” Instead, we use probabilistic language.

Say you believe it is going to rain tomorrow. But as a good buddhist or scientist, you don’t believe this absolutely.. Say you believe it with 70% certainty. You then get some new evidence… for example you wake up the next morning and the sky is clear. There is a formula, known as Bayes’ rule, which tells you mathematically how to update your certitude based on the new evidence. You start with a prior level of belief, gather evidence and then calculate your new level of belief. This is tricky with things like rain and sky, but is quite rigorous when it comes to things like coin flips and rolls of the dice …. Probability theory got its start because people wanted to understand how to gamble more effectively. Here is the important point : This formula makes it impossible to update your belief if your current belief is 0% or 100%. If you believe with 100% certitude it is not going to rain tomorrow and you wake up and its raining, then you still believe it’s not going to rain and you leave without an umbrella. While this example sounds silly, I think it demonstrates the problem with ideological thinking. As Stephen Colbert once said of the steadfastness George Bush: “He believes on Wednesday what he believed on Monday regardless of what happened on Tuesday.”

This way of thinking has really helped me understand the buddhist concept of annatta. As Joseph Goldstein quips : The self is real, but it isn’t really real. Scientific theories are true, but they aren’t Truely true. Like the self, they are an emergent phenomena. Both are processes of constant Bayesian Updating of beliefs about its environment. If we can keep our beliefs from becoming fixed, the wheel of understanding can spin freely, but if we fix our beliefs at 0% or 100%, we find ourselves on the bad wheel… dukkha.

The recorded talk is available here: