Physics, labeling, emptiness and essence

@yeshe.tenley this topic I have you in mind when I create it. You have learnt General relativity before right?

In general relativity, a simple solution of black hole equation, initially confused physicists for having 2 singularities. One at the centre of the black hole, another at the event horizon. It turns out that the event horizon one is an artifact of using a specific coordinate labelling to describe black holes. Using another coordinate system, the event horizon singularity disappeared and only the centre singularity remains.

Thus this illustrates how certain things we think actually exist are just an artifact of how we label the world. For example, labeling a company as Meta, or X, or SpaceX. To get to know the underlying reality which doesn’t change due to re-labeling, one just tries another set of labeling (another coordinate system), and then see what remains the same and what doesn’t.

Note here, the underlying reality can and do still change when the conditions changes. It’s just that labelling conditions our perception of things, and that perception also affects how we interact with the things we label with.

Eg. I can label a wooden thing with 4 legs as a table. And I then use it to put computers on it, and books. Or I can choose to label it as a chair. Then I sit on it. Or a bed, then I sleep on it. The underlying object is still the same, despite the relabeling. Just that the function changes due to perception change by relabeling.

By not seeing these collections of buildings, staff, CEO, business model, financial flow as a company, the fictional story of a company breaks down and these individual components cannot function together anymore after some time.

By not seeing Bitcoin as money, it is worthless, but by seeing it as money, it drives people to use energy more efficiently, and try to find energy sources where it’s not economical to build a power plant, but economical to use it to mine bitcoin locally.

So too for these 5 aggregates, by not seeing it as a self, the new kamma cannot be created and they just run on old fuel until it dies.

I wonder how much of this would be considered as empty and how much as essential? Because in normal speech, one might consider the essential point of a black hole (as far as current GR goes) is the event horizon and central singularity which is unobservable, but still there in every coordinate system we use to describe it (I haven’t tried every coordinate system, just a guess). Ok technically, a rotating black hole would have a ring singularity, a wormhole wouldn’t have one, etc. But we label them differently.

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“If a theory predicts singularities the theory is wrong,” says someone or some other. Is there really a “mountain” and a “valley”? Does the mountain have essence? Does the valley have thusness? We now know some things can escape a black hole (radiation or particles or whatnot). Are these parts of the black hole? Do they come from somewhere else? Is matter coming back from still-time into perceptual time?

Marcus Gabriel in his book Fields of Sense says both of these views are wrong: correlationism - we know facts as they appear to us, we can only access the world through our conditions of accessing it, and the absolute conception of reality - the facts that would have been the case had no one been around. He says reality is neither of these, which so far rings true-ish in the intellectual sense. He goes on to say that even if we know that we see what we are conditioned to see, that does not entail that the world was only made for observation, but it does not entail either that the world is “just a gunk of pure processes some of which suffer from the delusional notion of there being stable individuals.” Ouch.

Quirky questions of the thinking person. Also, sorry for butting in :slight_smile:

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Yes, Venerable, much like this. This is deconstruction of various concepts/things trying to reduce them down to whatever is fundamental, independent, essential, core. I’d call this penetrative analysis or reductive analysis.

The result of this analysis - when taken to its zenith - should correspond to what remains as essential. In the case of the thing with four legs, you’ve found that it can be labeled as many different things depending upon the perspective of the perceiver. One might even say the “kamma” of the perceiver :wink:

However, it is important to note that you haven’t taken - in this particular case - the analysis to its zenith. More can be reduced. The “legs” can be reduced and penetrated/deconstructed. What remains after reducing the four legs can be reduced penetrated/deconstructed into ever finer concepts/details/parts/dependencies etc. And this is true not just of material things, but all things can be subjects of such analysis. I suspect if you take this analysis to its zenith nothing would hold up.

That is if you take the thing with four legs apart to its zenith you would be unable to find anything at all that is universal, essential, core, and fundamental to all perceivers at all times. Yet we have a very deeply ingrained feeling/belief that we should be able to find something in the end of such analysis. That something we suspect we’ll find we’d call the “fundamental reality” of the thing. The essence of what makes it it. Some common locus that defines what it is, in and of itself, and then all the differences that different perceivers view upon it would have more to do with the perceivers than it would the fundamental nature of it.

I suspect this deeply ingrained belief in the fundamental essence we expect to find is what the Teacher found a way to uproot. With meditative stabilization he was able to penetrate into the true nature of things and what he found was emptiness. Directly perceiving that emptiness the truth was revealed. The illusion of fundamental essence was unmasked and he woke up from the dream of fundamental essence to see the world as it was. :pray:

Care to try this here to see what it is like to keep on reducing it?

My attempt would be that legs are just the concepts. Use whatever material it is, it can be legs, as long as it’s solid, and long, able to bear weights.

Or the other way on the wooden material, maybe I can detach it from the table and use it as a bat, or a broomstick, or cut it down to be used as a toothpick.

You can help me by deconstructing more. Which one you want to go? The concepts one or the material one? Deconstruct solid etc for the concept one.

Also, how can you deconstruct a black hole? It’s defined by the equations of the black hole, involving event horizon and singularity. Anyway throw away all the concepts, we still have the actual spacetime extreme out there in the centre of most if not all galaxies. How can that be deconstructed?

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Indeed. To even understand “legs” requires a familiarity with legs or having them to some extent, right? Dolphins or other creatures without them would have quite a hard time agreeing to this convention I’d think :wink:

Toothpicks are solid and able to bear weight :wink:

Or maybe the creature using it is so big that they don’t need to cut it down to use it as a toothpick? Whales have teeth right? And why wood?

Equations are things we find on a blackboard. Are black holes found on a blackboard? How can that which is defined by what is on a blackboard not live on a blackboard? This singularity? Who has directly perceived it and confirmed its existence? This event horizon who has directly perceived it and confirmed its existence?

Is a blackhole a physical thing or a concept? It is both? Have we found a concept that is also physical?

We can breakdown spacetime in any number of ways, but probably the most concrete way is to observe that it is in conflict with the description of the world according to quantum mechanics. We still don’t understand quantum gravity.

BTW, I have an intuition (so what, right?) :wink: that the extended Church Turing thesis is false. That is to say that there is some aspect to how the universe works that is not able to be simulated (even in principle) on any Turing device. I also suspect that this is something that can be proved or observed in the future. Some non-computable aspect of nature. Call it a physical version of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.


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There’s a blurry picture of it. As well as gravitational wave detectors of black holes merging.

Indeed, we can make small tables with toothpicks as legs.

Just a random material thing. from here:

You’re not deconstructing.

Let me try again. Wood is ultimately made of cells, which are just atomic and molecules arranged in some way to behave in a certain manner to be labelled wood. Break all the way down to the standard model particles.

Let’s look at electrons. At this point, nothing solid can be said of it. It’s a point particle as far as we know, and not a ball, but more of a thing we can say we can point an electron gun at a florense screen and it glows.

Electrons have fixed charge, fixed mass, etc. Couldn’t we say that the essence of electrons is whatever is defined as spin 1/2, mass of 9.109 ×10^−31, charge of −1.602176634×10^−19 C etc, all the details as found here: Electron - Wikipedia

What’s wrong with such wording of essence of electrons?

Yes, I’ve seen. Where is the singularity? Where is the event horizon? The gravitational wave detectors picked up massive gravitational events which are theorized to be from black holes colliding, but as far as I’m aware they too have not seen a singularity or an event horizon. These are theoretical concepts that have not been directly experienced, but only conjectured to exist. They are inferred to exist by extrapolation from theories that seem to be very successful at describing other observations. However, we know those theories are approximations, right?

Yes, but will it function as a table? For who? Who will it not function as a table for? Is there any universal construction that will function as a table for all perceivers?

Yep, just trying to point out that wood is not an essential element of “table” nor of “chair” nor of “bed.” When trying to find the essential it is good to rule out that which is not it, right?


It isn’t a point particle or at least it does not behave that way at all times. We can’t for instance determine both the precise position and momentum of it beyond a certain threshold.

That isn’t an essence so much as a definition that relies upon a bunch of other concepts/things like “spin” and “mass” and “charge” and all the other details. We can use such a definition and often it is quite useful to do so. But when looking for essence we have to find all of these parts that “electron” is labeled upon.

Over time, caveats have cropped up. Under an intense magnetic field, for example, electrons can lose their individual identities and form “quasiparticles”: collective entities, like the shape formed by a school of fish. But even these collective states have been well cataloged.

So it came as a shock last year when a new effect was seen in electrons. Researchers at the University of Washington reported in August 2023 that in a stack of two atomically thin crystalline sheets offset from each other at a slight angle, electrons behaved like quasiparticles with fractional amounts of charge, such as −23 and −35. A few months later, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported the same effect in another material. It was the first time that electrons had formed fractional quasiparticles without the enabling influence of a magnetic field.

Physicists Puzzle Over Emergence of Strange Electron Aggregates

Why did it come as a shock to these physicists? Probably because they believed the “charge” of an electron to be fundamental in a way they discovered it was not.

But don’t despair for those physicists because they have a HOT NEW universal fundamental to believe in:

The new discovery isn’t incidental, or specific to a material. Rather, it’s universal and fundamental — the result of the quantum nature of the electron, albeit a behavior that has until now stayed hidden.


Nothing in particular, but it isn’t what I’d call an “essence” as it depends upon “point particle” and “charge” and “mass” and a whole bunch of other details that are also void of it.

And it is also incomplete in that I doubt from the definition given on that wikipedia page - and only that wikipedia page - all the observations that we label implicating “the electron” can be deduced or understood. For instance, I highly doubt that from the wikipedia page we could understand the fractional charge exhibited in the article above. Being so woefully incomplete - how can it be rightfully said that we’ve captured its essence in that description?

I think J. J. Thomson would be quite surprised as to what “the electron” he discovered has become, don’t you? He probably thought he’d discovered something “fundamental” but imagined it far different from what it is considered today. If we could resurrect him and present him with the equations of QFT and the Standard Model I would think he’d have a hard time recognizing the “fundamental” thing he himself discovered :wink:


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I think technically a table holds itself up :wink: Sorry, I’ll get my coat …

Thanks for giving your definition of essence over here. We were definitely had different definitions of essence on the other thread. My assumption was that (at the very least) ‘things’ are not ‘things’ without someone to perceive them. Too much time spent as a solipsist I guess. My bad.

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Thanks @Stu, in that other thread I was tempted to say that the definition I have is in accord with the Phena sutta, but despaired that what I had in mind would be understood. Glad this thread helps to clarify what I might mean. :pray:

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This comment is not to say what is being discussed here is not valuable or relevant. I do not claim that and I rejoice in your discussing Dhamma and relating it to your lives and research! :slight_smile:

IMHO, I don’t think the Buddha relied on any kind of “emptiness in the gaps” argument anxiously expecting or wishfully predicting experimental physics of his or future times to concoct models of quantum mechanics, relativity, or anything of the sort, that align with what he claimed. I don’t think the Phena Sutta contemplation recommended in the suttas would look anything like discussing quantum mechanics or modern physics of the 20th-21st century. Or really scientific physics of any time, though I do grant that there are later philosophical texts like Abhidhamma treatises which build a metaphysics of irreducible momentary particles that do not endure very much in time.

I suspect that even if all physicists of every nation consistently for centuries found a convincing demonstration of a particle or wave or anything in their field that could not reduce to other physical components, that most Buddhists wouldn’t drop their emptiness argument. They would either try and expectantly predict another scientific model, reject the scientific consensus, or say it doesn’t disprove emptiness. I see clear problems here, given many Buddhists’ attitudes towards emptiness and physics when it says something that vaguely resembles their doctrine.

I’d love to see a citation from any early Buddhist text in any canonical language that claims or indicates that the contemplation in the Phena and related suttas looks anything like a conversation on interpretations of quantum mechanics. (Genuinely! If someone knows of such a passage that they interpret in this way, it would be interesting to discuss it and learn!)

And again, I say this not to dismiss! All the best to everyone here and may everyone be peaceful! :pray:

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I think this is the artifact of labelling, of laying concepts onto reality. Any concepts when investigated enough cannot hold up. Take games, there’s just a family resemblance as there are no universal characteristics of game which is present in every game.

This doesn’t mean the reality is not there, kicking a rock as a human, with bare toe, would produce pain, unless the person has faulty nervous system. This causation of pain is independent of whatever concepts we put onto rock, human, nervous system, kicking, bare toes, pain or even causation.

As long as all the conditions are there, it produces results, when there are no conditions there, there is no more result.

I don’t argue that the Teacher, any early Buddhist text, or even any Buddhist text before the last hundred years, engaged in any “physics” whatsoever that I know of.

However, the Phena sutta does advise that disciples should hold the aggregates up to analysis; saying that, “a bhikkhu inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it.” The Teacher also describes the outcome as, “void, hollow, insubstantial.” Further, via other sutta the Teacher says the six sense bases are also to be understood in the same way. The Teacher advised that we should contemplate like this as if our hair was on fire. Seems he thought it important :joy:

I believe not just the aggregates and the six sense bases, but all phenomena and things should be so inspected, pondered and carefully investigated to see if they too are “void, hollow, insubstantial.” Why? So as to discover the nature of things and thereby give up desire.

Physics is just another way of inspecting, pondering and carefully investigating. In this respect, I think it amounts to a different tool used to achieve similar outcomes. I do not intend to suggest that this tool is necessary for others to use. :pray:

I think we haven’t gone into this properly yet, so here’s some.

I wrote about many different quantum interpretations a while back, and my perspective is that the interpretations are like stories, labeling, concepts applied onto the bare quantum of the maths and experiments. No one concept is adequate as can be seen in the table here:

There are no universal characteristics which all interpretations of quantum would agree upon. But everyone can agree upon the experimental findings and although there are some variations on the maths (Strodinger’s wave, Heinseberg’s matrix and Feymann’s sum over histories), the predictions of the probability distribution is the same and matches with the experimental outcome.

So the underlying reality of quantum (experimental results) is independent of the stories we tell about quantum. But given that the maths describes the reality so well, it does seems to point to an essence of sorts of quantum as mathematical.

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Define reality. What is the essence of reality? Do we directly preceive this reality? If not, then what is it? Why is it important that reality is there?

I think you mean to state that just because we can’t find the essence of things like a river doesn’t mean we can’t drown in it? Just because we can’t find an essence to a thing does not mean that the thing doesn’t exist and I think you know I agree with this. Is that all you were trying to say by mention of “reality?” :pray:

Yes, that things work.

Indeed. The President of the United States is just a convention, but it functions and just because you “don’t believe” in the President of the United States doesn’t mean that you are immune to the consequences of the convention existing. :pray:

It isn’t necessary to believe in an “underlying reality” in order to do the work of science and reap the rewards or the insight gained. This is known as instrumentalism.

An instrumentalist - I’ve met them and the motto when discussing QM interpretations is to object that any interpretation is necessary or even that the “bare math” describes reality - says, “shut up and calculate” to the metaphysical questions and talk of underlying reality.


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FYI Bhante, the Ugly Duckling Theorem:

Agreed, except there is no set of features that objectively represent the ‘underlying object’ – I would argue we create the world out of bias :nerd_face:

Like, there is something inherently arbitrary about how we classify and categorize the world through our perception.

But, of course, perceiving in different ways has different consequences according to kamma (e.g. seeing others as potential friends vs. seeing them as the competition).

But there’s (probably not) any objectively existing set of features that underlie “friend” or “enemy” – it’s all just made up IMO :slight_smile:

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Thanks for sharing your perspectives @yeshe.tenley and @NgXinZhao !

I was originally going to ask if someone knew of any Indian Buddhist text of any time that did so. So your answer which would include that and other texts to your knowledge is helpful.

I also agree that Western science, including physics, and its approach to knowledge is rather foreign to Buddhist knowledge. I don’t say they’re completely separate, unrelated, incompatible, or that ancient texts don’t understand what models and experimentation are. Just that in terms of the Dhamma, they seem rather distinct.

Personally, I’m not sure I would agree that physics can be used as a different means for the same end. Especially considering the nature of knowledge in physics, compared to the knowledge that the Buddha seemed to advocate. But I agree that I think these types of contemplations can be relevant and related! Especially to people who naturally gravitate towards them because of familiarity, interest, etc.

Makes sense.

Forgive me - I won’t disturb the conversation here anymore!

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Have you found an essence? :slight_smile: Does “how we classify and categorize” have the core of “arbitrary?”

Often time I’ve found that people coming across or practicing the concept of emptiness and lack of essence in things often end up using words like “inherently”, “fundamentally”, “in reality,” “really”, “ultimate”, “ultimately” and so on more and more before it starts to fade. At least I know I’ve been guilty of this :joy: It is remarkable how deeply ingrained this habit seems to me. :pray: