Latest Scientific Knowledge & Sarvastivadins

In (edit: Speci Relativity) Physics, nowadays it’s held true that non-causal observation of time is a possibility, meaning someone can observe your future and then your past.

Does this mean, Sarvastivadins were correct? What are the implications of this?

@Jayarava once mentioned the problem of kamma at a distance:

Jayarava's Raves: Why Did Buddhists Abandon Buddhavana?
I think Buddhists noticed certain problems in early Buddhist doctrine and responded. In particular I noted that there was a problem I called “action at a temporal distance”. Let’s say that I make a great donation to a Buddhist monastery and earn a vast amount of merit (puṇya, aka “good karma”) in the process. Some Buddhist texts say “I am the heir of my actions”, i.e. the person who experiences the consequences is the same as the one who acts. And this can stretch across lifetimes. This is the main theme of the Jātaka and Avadāna literature and one of the main ways that Buddhists talk about morality.

At the same time, however, most readings of the doctrine of dependent arising say that I am not the same person from moment to moment, let alone from lifetime to lifetime. So the one who experiences the consequences is not the same as the one who acts, but only arises in dependence on their actions.

If the action of giving is a discrete event which lasts for a few seconds (maybe) and then ceases, how can that be the condition for some effect in the future given dependent arising? The standard formula is

This being, that becomes. When this arises, that arises.
This not being, that does not become. When that ceases, this ceases.

I argued that this means that the condition has to be present for the effect to arise, and if it is absent the effect ceases or never arises in the first place. The Theravādins in academia disagreed with this extremely enough to reject my article outright, but it is undoubtedly how proponents of sarvāstivāda understood it.

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I think you got the wrong conclusion from the video. See the video again.

  1. Changing of spacetime diagram is special relativity. Not quantum.

  2. There’s no way to observe spacelike distances, light does not travel at infinite speed. What’s reckoned as simultaneous is just reconstruction based on spacetime diagrams, meaning it is concepts, thinking. Not actually reality. So there’s no issues with observers with different velocities mapping different events in spacelike separation to be simultaneous with their present moment. Ok, I think I missed out divine eye, so I am not sure how physics would change if divine eye can actually see physical things in spacelike distance. It would violate information cannot travel faster than light “rule” in physics.

We should stick to the here and now is real. Anything else is the mind’s projection, and concepts.

Conventionally speaking.

Ultimately speaking no person.

One think I think I heard from theravada is that unripen kamma still exist until it is ripened or become defunct.

Also another point of view is that the kammic seed maybe in bhavaṅga, which Peter della santina (tree of enlightenment) map to the 8th consciousness in Mahayana, which is the storehouse for kamma.

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Eh? “Now” depends upon your coordinate system and all coordinate systems are considered equally valid in special relativity. See video. So which “here and now” is real? The great insight of Einstein in special relativity is that there is no universal now which usually comes as a great surprise to most who encounter the theory and grok it. :joy:

If you insist that all the “here and now”'s are real for each observer this is essentially the picture of the block universe where the past/present/future are all real. I don’t know if this is what the Sarvastivadins had in mind, but I imagine they would greet the block universe idea with great enthusiasm.

Another possibility is to say that no here and now is ultimately real, but rather what now is depends upon viewpoint; aka now is a convention and does not exist in an absolute and independent manner. I do not believe this is what the Sarvastivadins had in mind and imagine they would object quite strenuously to the idea. :joy:


The one we have access to.

Who is we? Are you saying that the now of a particular coordinate system is “real” to the observer who inhabits it? There is a problem with this though: if the observer is not point-like and is space-like separated - with moving parts inside this space-like separation - that have relative velocities between them, then again ‘now’ is not universal. You could say the ‘now’ is subject to tidal forces over that space-like separated observer :slight_smile:

Either way if you say the “here and now” is real for each individual observer this is again the picture of the block universe where because there is no universal now there is no universal past/future and thus in a sense you’re agreeing with the Sarvastivadins.


AFAIK, most philosophers and philosophically informed physicists are “B theorists”—they believe that all moments of time are of the same ontological nature. The reason for this is that it seems easier to reconcile such a view with GR/SR.

However, this view seems to me to be consistent with a doctrine of impermanence or momentariness, as it doesn’t entail that anything actually persists through time at all. Moments don’t persist through time. They aren’t things that are located in time. They are locations in time. Saying that the past “still” exists would be a category mistake equivalent to saying that the point (x, y, z) in a Cartesian coordinate space is spatially extended.

Edit: the Sarvastivadin view is not really equivalent to a B-theory of time, IIRC they thought that moments of time did all have some existence, but had an ontologically different character depending on where the “present” happened to be. Such a view would have the same difficulties with GR/SR as presentism would.

You’ll have to imagine super big giants for that, the speed of light is so big relative to us. Also, we are not the body. Just bare experiences is good enough, the 6 sense bases, the all.

we normally don’t have access to other people, so just stick to here and now.

We can never escape the here and now until parinibbāna. Ok, can escape the here with formless realm.

For sure it is relative to us, but the point is it is still relative and not absolute and in this sense there can be no “universal now” for a space-like separated “observer” whose moving parts travel at relative velocities to eachother.

We are not the body. We are not the mind either! And we cannot be posited to exist as something else outside the body+mind. So whatever we are it is clear that we cannot be posited without relying upon a space-like separated physical body with moving parts and thus we do not have a universal “here and now” that we could consider as real. At least not according to special relativity. :joy:

It does sound like you’re agreeing with the block universe picture if you admit other people and would probably delight the Sarvastivadins. If you don’t this is solipsism. Either way, if we includes a space-like separated “observer” with moving parts, then there is no common “now” for such a thing.


Since this thread is devoted to special relativity I have to point out:

  • They are locations in space-time.
  • You are assuming moments are point-like in space time - they have no space-like separation.

If you don’t assume the latter, then again you run into that there is no “universal now” even within any “moment”. :pray:

Inviting @Soren to this thread who I believe is also a working physicist and a practicing Buddhist? I imagine he might have something beneficial to say. :joy:

FWIW, I’ve long thought that conducting just such a reductive analysis on the “here and now” for space-like separated bodies with moving parts is a great way to understand the ephemeral, illusory, gossamer like nature of those things and of the “here and now”. It is a great tool for understanding how things exist and how they do not to my limited mind. When even the “here and now” can’t be said to exist in a universal non-dependent fashion, how can other things? Of course, to conduct the analysis properly does require a prerequisite knowledge and appreciation of special relativity. :joy:


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I’m a luke-warm fan of Dr Sabine Hossenfelder. I’ve watched most of her videos over the years and I enjoy some of her acerbic comments on academic science and her take-downs of false memes promoted by journalists. She’s a clear thinker, but often seems to have an agenda (it recently emerged that she had a very rough time in academia and is quite bitter about it).

But let’s be honest, Dogen-san. If you asked Dr Hossenfelder what she thinks of Buddhist dharma theory or, say, karma and rebirth… I doubt you’d be posting her opinion on these ideas here. Right? Because in Dr Hossenfelder’s worldview the Buddhist religion is no more accurate in describing the world than any other religion.

If you agree with Dr Hossenfelder (and me) that scientific theories provide us with a useful description and helpful explanation of the world, then you must also agree that karma and rebirth are not possible scenarios in our universe. Last time this came up, we saw that most SC users do not agree and furthermore preferred to adopt a form of 17th century Cartesian Dualism as a way to deny the accuracy/applicability of scientific theories. I always laugh when I see someone using the internet—the quintessential product of science—to promote science-denial.

Actually the Sarvāstivādins were correct on their own terms.

The Sarvāstivādin idea of “always present dharmas” is a logical consequence of a literal reading imasmin sati idaṃ hoti. The grammar and syntax of the formula argue that the effect requires the presence of the condition. I discussed this recently with Eivind Kahrs (immediate past Secretary of the PTS and expert in Sanskrit grammatical traditions) and he agrees with my reading. The locative absolute with present participles and deictic pronouns quite straightforwardly implies presence, not just existence.

As I note, many Theravādins disagree with this but, from what I can tell, this is exactly how the sarva-asti doctrine interprets the formula.

Thus the sarva-asti doctrine needs no justification from science. It stands on its own merits as a Buddhist Doctrine deriving directly from the wording of the formula. Just work through the logic that follows from imasmin sati idaṃ hoti and there you are.

Sarvāstivāda was mainstream Buddhism in Nth India for something like 1000 years. It was one of many orthodoxies, but it was undoubtedly orthodox. I think it deserves to be taken more seriously.


Hello @Jayarava,

Like you I am also a fan of Dr Hossenfelder. To my knowledge she is not a Buddhist and in that sense I think you are right she would deem the doctrines of karma and rebirth not applicable to the way she thinks about the world and/or physics.

However, it is my understanding that Dr Hossenfelder is an instrumentalist and as such I disagree that should would, “also agree that karma and rebirth are not possible scenarios in our universe.”

I’m willing to hypothesize that she would not agree with your statement and would likely find the concepts of karma and rebirth irrelevant and ill-defined rather than “not possible scenarios in our universe.” Even more to the point - I think she would find the concepts of karma and rebirth so ill-defined that such a categorical statement saying they are not possible would also be ill-defined. She would treat karma and rebirth very similar to how she has already treated consciousness and free-will in her videos.

We should ask her. Maybe she would make a video :slight_smile:


You would be surprised. I do enjoy a more creative process in analysing ancient poetic texts rather than strictly literal explanations. Even so, I do enjoy when some of these insights correspond strongly with the reality as we objectively understand it (for example, Mjölnir being forged in the heart of a dying sun, when we now know that this is how heavy metals were formed. Not quite a “Hah! Explain THIS atheists!” moment, but still a source of inspiration and wonder).

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” doesn’t mean sun actually moves with our belle.

On one hand, I take up Buddha’s invitation that his teachings are “welcoming inspection” so I do enjoy brutally disseminating the teachings with a scientific perspective to analyse what works and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, I try not to let scientific rigeur get in the way of transcendental expression. “I’m suffering from acute depression in the absence of my girl friend” just doesn’t sound right.

Kamma is very easy to explain. Actions have consequences. You don’t plant an orange tree if you want to grow tomatoes. As a play on the Indic kamma rituals, turning the meaning its head and emphasising virtuous behaviour as the cornerstone of holy life, is good enough for me.

On the more general rebirth and how kamma would play into that, that would deserve a whole new topic of its own I think.

It’s always refreshing to view the early texts from the perspectives of other schools. They’re a recent obsession of mine (Sarvastivadins, that is).

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Perhaps a little introduction is better on exactly why presence means that they are right? In what way do their doctrine differs from Theravada etc.

Science can exist apart from physicalism. Physicalism is a philosophical viewpoint and it is that which is incompatible with rebirth and kamma across lifetimes.

I would rather not. We already know there’s nothing positive that she will say about this.

I just heard that in deep meditation (even before Jhāna) there’s no concept, so no time and space.

I still don’t find this credible. Whatever body parts they are, the speed of light is fast enough to connect it all. There’s no need to invoke space-like separation due to lag of so small a time between signal from the brain to the feet.

Block universe denies real change (different possible futures) and thus is deterministic in a way which is incompatible with Buddhism. I would like to just stick to we are always in the here and now thing, even when we travel there, we just bring the here to there, or there to here. So we are always here/now, no need to worry about other people. But considering the existence of divine eye, ear, mind reading etc in Buddhism, we would posit a mind which is able to travel faster than light to possible say read the mind of an alien on the other side of the galaxy and have video conference with them with divine eye and ear. So this really challenges special relativity. It’s ok in Newtonian worldview or if speed of light is infinite. But this is troubling.

I actually never think of this until this post, so really I am a bit stuck for now. One possible way out is to posit that the world of devas, brahmas which are still form, material of 4 elements, but produced by consciousness and kamma is very different from the gross material realms produced from nutrition and temperature. So physics as we know it might just apply to the gross material realms (humans and animals).

We could just posit that there’s no way to see aliens on the other side of the galaxy with divine ear and eye.
Hmm… but then there’s a loop hole.

We could conceivably communicate with the gods of those alien worlds, and those gods can easily communicate with those aliens. Thus making information travel faster than light.

So maybe @Jayarava is right in a sense after all. Either the supernormal parts like divine eye or ear in Buddhism cannot be real (just imagination), or physics must abandon special relativity (or some future theory allows for information travelling faster than light), and we get all the time travel complications it implies.

Sorry, this might be the one most troublesome thing I have found in the field of Physics and Buddhism.


Again, the point is that the “here and now” is relative to a space-like separated body with moving parts. It simply is not the case that the “here and now” is an absolute with regard to a space-like separated body.

We agree that the speed of light is sufficiently large that the relativity in difference between different “here and now” in that space-like separated body is very small, but if the space-like separation is larger than the planck length, then it isn’t nothing (it is literally larger than the planck time and thus theoretically observable). Also, some of the “parts” in that space-like separated observer are moving at very high fractions of the speed of light; neural signaling and so on.

In this very well defined sense, the “here and now” is not universally real for a space-like separated observer with moving parts. That seems significant for someone who believes in universal reals :wink:



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I don’t think hard determinism is exclusive with Buddhism, but it might seem so. Allow me to elaborate.

Buddha never explains these things in hard truth but as views and their consequences. In this sense, we’re like automatons set to enlightenment. As long as these automatons have the self-view, it must be supplied with the view that “I can make a change through effort” to actually overcome the defilements.

If there’s a view “The universe is static and there’s nothing I can do” then the automaton doesn’t resolve to enlightenment.

Of course, even such states are hard conditioned and, going a little Mahayana here, every single process will eventually realise the way to ultimate peace.

I wish I had brought it to your attention earlier, but I thought you’d deduced the problem. FWIW, I don’t think it is at all problematic for my conceptions of karma and rebirth, but then I do acknowledge that my conceptions are probably idiosyncratic with regard to yours.

You should know that there are interpretations of Quantum Physics that take this relativity further; specifically Rovelli’s interpretation. In that case, every observable is observer dependent and if you take into account that the “here and now” is relative this leads to quite an illusory and ephemeral description of “things” :joy:

PS: Speaking of your views, superdeterminism might be a way out and it is interesting to note that Dr. Hossenfelder is a committed superdetermist. :slight_smile:


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…well here is a video of her saying that it is theoretically plausible to say that people who have deceased “do in some sense still exist”


This was one of the strangest and most entertaining dilemmas I’ve ever read in a while. :saluting_face::laughing:

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What is observable? We cannot control the body faster than light. There’s no need to consider the whole body as self and deny a here and now concept.

She’s popular, and negative press about the dhamma would turn people away from liberation.

The block universe hard determinism is more akin to superdeterminism for even quantum results would exist now already in the block universe. One future only. It’s my understanding of Buddhism, despite being all causation, that the future is still open, instead of every single detailed fixed in place. That would be the same as everything is due to past kamma, which is rejected by our right view of kamma that present kamma can shape the future.

Exactly what is not answered in this sutta. An10.95 Samsara without beginning or end? - #5 by NgXinZhao

As noted above, Buddhism is incompatible with superdeterminism.

The dilemma above breaks special relativity or at least information physics. I don’t see how a quantum interpretation can be of help.

But to be fair, there’s a lot of time travel models in physics and they allow information to travel faster than light and still I dunno if physicists are worried about special relativity in those scenarios.