Physics, labeling, emptiness and essence

Oh! I’ll have to go back and look then because I apparently don’t understand what you were saying.

True! That’d be highly anachronistic to suggest otherwise. Rather, I think what he’s suggesting is that QM might be talking about (in some sense) what Nagarjuna was talking about. :joy: :pray:

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My hypothesis is all three. That is to say:

  • It is possible that things universally lack essence
  • It is necessarily true that things universally lack essence
  • It is actually true that - in this world - things universally lack essence

My knowledge is that when I’ve employed conceptual analysis to find something that has essence I’ve come up empty or at least I haven’t come up with what to my mind would fit the bill.


This is also why I mentioned even earlier ‘emptiness in the gaps’ argument. This is related to an idea in philosophy called ‘God in the gaps.’ Basically the argument that phenomena unexplained by science must be explainable by God, and as science grows we just have to re-adjust where God is. So God is wherever science has not disproven him, starting from “everywhere” more or less.

‘Emptiness in the gaps’ is just hoping scientists don’t disprove emptiness, and wherever they don’t disprove it, that’s where emptiness is. So if there’s an interpretation that disproves emptiness, proponents of ‘emptiness in the gaps’ will expect or hope that such an interpretation is rejected, lest they despair or deny science. Of course, this rests on the idea that modern physics can disprove emptiness, by assuming emptiness is the same category as what physics investigates.

If ‘emptiness in the gaps’ were the Buddha’s method for claiming knowledge of emptiness, it would be pretty problematic IMO. There’s a reason Iron-Age and Medieval Metaphysics manuals are the first to go when Buddhism meets Science.

Okay, interesting! Let’s just make sure that we are on the same page. You believe that it is necessarily true that things lack essence? That is, in a universe with completely different physics than ours, it would still be true that things lack essence?

(If something is necessarily true then it is also possibly true and it is also actually true).

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Still a logical contradiction happens for this. The statement itself is a form of essence to things, which is that all things lack essence, so it should be applied to itself, which thus then means something must have essence, namely that the statement itself, thus making the statement false, and we have consistency.

It’s not an infinite paradox loop like this:

I see that Abhidhamma is more like seeing balls fall down near earth’s surface. Directly seen, experienced. It’s not like quantum where the experiments are quite abstract, compared to QFT. It’s very direct, this is mind, one can see the mind elements directly in the mind and list them down. No need for further analysis of data. Abhidhamma is more of a phenomenology thing.

Change seems universal, only nibbāna is not subject to change.

Emptiness is also empty and lacking essence. This is not contradictory to my mind and I do not know how you are arriving at the opposite conclusion. I suspect if you draw out into formal terms you’re going to find you’re relying upon the Law of the Excluded Middle. :pray:

Emptiness applies to the phenomenal world. My understanding is that the teaching of emptiness always includes time. It is not an analysis of physical things and its components, for there are no things and there are no components. It is an analysis of “events” and the perceptual illusion of these events as “things”. Ship of Theseus kind of model. I don’t exist because by the time I think of myself as “I”, time has passed and events have transpired. There is no “stopping” time to see a thing in itself. It’s all a flux.

Do spell our explicitly how LEM solves this dilemma. To me emptiness of emptiness means that the statement itself is empty for it depends on conditioned things to refer to. Thus cannot stand alone. But it doesn’t contradict universalism.

Your notion of emptiness means no universal characteristic, but applying emptiness to itself as above, doesn’t deny that all things including emptiness itself is also empty, thus all things are universally empty. Thus your notion of emptiness means no universal characteristics is wrong. There is such a universal characteristics, which is emptiness itself.

Hello @Vaddha,

Yeah, I’m still confused. God in the gaps sounds like apologia when science says something that seems to contradict the former notion of faith. I’m explicitly disclaiming this and admitting that emptiness could be falsified. If an essence to things could be found - through whatever method science, philosophy, logic, maths, emperically - then my hypothesis would fail. I think @NgXinZhao is attempting this right now by attempting to show contradiction through logic with the notion that things lack essence. :pray:

Hi Yeshe,

I assume you meant by the like on my post that you agreed that we are on the same page. So now I have the next question: what is your definition, or what do you mean by “essence?”

Emptiness is dependent. It relies upon a thing to exist in order to posit the lack of essence of the thing. To know this lack of emptiness requires a perceiver. It is a non-affirming negation. It isn’t a positive characteristic.

If I understand your purported contradiction it is:

  1. lack of essence is itself an essence
  2. all things either have an essence or lack an essence
  3. any thing that lacks an essence therefore has the essence of essencelessness
  4. that which lacks an essence but also has the essence of essencelessness is contradictory

Does that capture it? :pray:


Ever the question. So much so that I despair of being able to answer in a satisfactory way. I tried to answer in this thread already, but apparently it wasn’t availing.

Do you find the Phena sutta to have a decent enough exposition such that you can understand “void, hollow, completely insubstantial” in context?

Can you see how the Ship of Theseus lacks an essence? Can you see how a river lacks an essence? Can you see how The President of the United States lacks an essence?

If I tried to define it with synonyms I’d use words like “fundamental”, “real”, “inherent”, “ultimate”, “irreducible”, “adamantine”, “core”, “essential.”

If there were an essence to a cup of liquid I think it’d be impossible that the God would see it as ambrosia, the human as water and the hungry ghost as blood and pus.

If there were an essence to a snake I think it would be impossible for a rope to be mistaken for one on a moonlit night. Or for a snake to be mistaken for a rope.

It is easy to see that dreams, mirages, illusions, magic tricks, foam on water, and so on lack essence, but it is hard to see how other things like persons do.


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I will get back to this, but first let me say that I think something needs to be kept track of:

How something appears to an observer is, prima facie, different than the thing itself. There is also a difference between epistemology and phenomenology versus ontology. That is, something could be perfectly “essenceful,” but an observer might be incapable of knowing its essence (epistemology) or apprehending its essence (phenomenology).

To me this just shows that the phenomenological characteristics of a thing are dependent on a wide variety of things. Furthermore, because radical skepticis is impossible to refute, it is epistemologically impossible to ever “know” the true essence of something based on the phenomenological characteristics.

So now I will say two things:

  1. I can see how the Ship of Theseus lacks an essence, but to me this has more to do with how language works. We call some patterns “things.” We do this because patterns have correlations and causal structures, and so this lets us make “maps.” If somebody told me I was standing on the Jonathan’s Ship I would be able to use that phrase to predict other patterns that might appear to me phenomnologically. For example, I could predict the fact that if I jumped off the ship I might land in water, or that if Jonathan came around he might get mad that I was on his ship. Every map will necessarily strip a lot of information. But hopefully the maps we use can at least be homomorphic. (A term from algebra). I would also say that “X doesn’t have essence” does not mean that “X does not exist in a real sense,” because I don’t agree that that is what I mean when I use the word “exists.”
  2. It certainly seems logically possible that the cause of appearances is, at its core, something with essence. For example, although we don’t have the complete theory of QFT + GR, it seems plausible that we will someday find such a theory. Then, the wavefunction of the entire universe would be something I would say has essence. Epistemologically, can I ever know for certain that this is the case? No – again, there are all sorts of arguments that we could be brains in vats, etc. Phenomonologically will the appearance of reality ever be identical to this wavefunction? Definitely not, but insofar as that apperance is itself a part of the wavefunction of the entire universe, we could say that the appearance has essence.
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Why? You think that in no world is it possible for something to appear as the thing itself? :pray:

I think it is logically possible for a thing to appear as the thing itself. I don’t think this is a necessary truth though.

In the universe we live in, for example, the visual appearance of something depends on the type of light shone on it, the observer’s eyes, etc. The appearance of something is of course dependent on the thing too, but that is not the only thing that determines its appearance.

How about an object that is not known through sight? How about an object that is known through mental direct perception? Say knowing the truth of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems for instance in a non-conceptual way? :pray:

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It would be logically possible if there were “things” that have a “self” which is the gist of all this. There are not.


Fair. I would say it like this. For a thing to have essence it must mean that there must be some common essential at the core such that all observers would agree on it. The non-essential characteristics might be phenomenological, but there must be some essential that it is at least possible for everyone to agree upon; that would be its essence. If it was not possible - even in theory - for everyone to come to agreement on it, then how could it be deemed essential?

I also don’t believe that just because things lack essence that things don’t exist. However, I don’t think it is a question of how language works.

I understand you’re saying something like, “the map doesn’t equal the territory and that “lacking essence” is just saying that all we have is the map, but this doesn’t mean the territory doesn’t exist.” Have I got that right?

I’m going to go out on a limb and bite the bullet: it is my hypothesis that lacking essence is true in the same sense that Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems are true. Do you believe there is some world or possibility where Godel’s theorems aren’t true? Now, I’m not claiming that I know such a thing or that I can prove it or anything like that… just that this is my hypothesis. :pray:

PS: I’ve spoken about Rovelli’s relational interpretation before and it denies there is any such thing as a universal wave function :wink:

Hello, first of all, please see the above discussion. I am using the term logically possible in a specific way, but it seems like you assume I meant “possible in our actual world.” Second, if you are going to make the claim that:

It would be logically possible for a thing to appear as the thing itself if there were “things” that have a “self,” but there are no such things.

Then you are going to need to show that the necessity of something appearing as a thing itself relies on it having a self, and you are going to need to show that there are no such things. Otherwise you are just interjecting and stating your opinion as if it is fact.

I see what you are saying, and I would tentatively agree maybe, but there are some caveats. For example, imagine an observer named Irratio whose mind is fundamentally irrational and is always in perpetual disagreement and contradiction with itself and others one moment to the next. I don’t think this observer will ever come to agreement. Let’s also imagine some substance called Invisio which has certain properties but by definition is always hidden in every possible way from any possible observer. Invisio might have some other properties too. I don’t think observers could agree on what those other properties are, because by definition they could never know what they are.

Yeah, I think you do.

No, Godel’s theorems are analytical (or necessary) truths.

Again, interesting! So you are being consistent and you think that lacking essence is a necessary truth. It looks like we are on the same page :slightly_smiling_face: ! My hunch is the opposite, but I also think this depends a lot on what you mean by “lacking essence.” This conversation also made me realize that there is another sense in which we use the word “possible”: epistemologically possible. For example, Goldbach’s conjecture is either necessarily true or necessarily false, we just don’t know which. So it is epistemologically-possibly logically-necessary :sweat_smile:

Yeah, and I think that is plausibly correct. My point wasn’t to say that there is a universal wave function, just that if there were one it might look like that is something which does have essence. In other words, it is possibly true that some things have essence.

Yes, I don’t mean to say that they are exactly the same. I certainly don’t think you or others are arguing for emptiness as a similar kind of thing to God. By “emptiness in the gaps” I am just comparing it to how an idea is dependent on science not disproving it. So there is a kind of direct relationship between the findings of physics on one hand and the validity of emptiness on the other. So long as physics leaves room for the possibility that things do not have an essence, then emptiness can be assumed there.

The difference between ‘emptiness in the gaps’ and ‘God in the gaps’ is that the movement is in the opposite direction. And I think this is why the comparison is popular. It’s a kind of Buddhist modernism. Christianity became unpopular because as science expanded, it seemed to remove more and more room where God could be hiding. Buddhism rises in popularity because as science expands, it seems to agree with many findings of Science. But the relationship between science and God/emptiness is the same, in that emptiness is confirmed or denied wherever proves or disproves it. When Science takes some of God’s territory, it’s Science +1 and God -1. But there’s the assumed God lurking where Science hasn’t caught up to him. With emptiness, every time Science agrees with emptiness its Emptiness +1. So God loses popularity and Emptiness gains it in this philosophical turf war with Science.

The ‘God in the gaps’ argument is a way of not disagreeing with science, but also not letting it disprove God, while also granting that Science can disprove God. Similarly, ‘Emptiness in the gaps’ is not to fight against Science. It leverages it to gain a better reputation for Buddhism. But it has to accept the cost of this fame: granting that emptiness is within the territory for Science to conquer. They already got God, now it’s a test if they will get Emptiness.

I have several problems, some of which I’ve already discussed. In brief, if the type of proof the Buddha needed to claim knowledge of emptiness was the same as scientific proof, then he couldn’t have claimed knowledge of emptiness. Because he simply did not know where quantum mechanics will lead us, and if it is at least possible it will lead us elsewhere, then it means he didn’t really know things were empty! So either the Buddha was (1) a really, really good scientist who somehow failed to mention his methodology, (2) a crappy scientist who drew conclusions too soon, or (3) he was doing something other than science.

Another problem, though, setting that aside, is very different in nature:
How is it possible for Buddhist texts to agree with the findings of Physics in the most subtle field, yet at the same time, Buddhist texts teach that we are on a flat earth with a huge mount Meru in the middle floating in space? To claim that the Buddha knew quantum mechanics, but did not know that the Earth is a sphere and that Mt. Meru isn’t a place, nor do the Sun and Moon orbit around it, is questionable.

Obviously one solution is to say that the Buddha didn’t think what every Buddhist tradition, including EBTs, say about the Earth and basic astronomy. There is clearly some reason to say so, because the statements about the world are not really common, major ideas in early Buddhist texts. Of course, they were accepted as factual for thousands of years by Buddhists. But in the early texts they are not common. Still, there are some occasional mentions of similar ideas or suggestions like mentioning Mt. Meru or that the earth floats on water, etc.

Another possibility of course is to say that emptiness is a core philosophical tenet of Buddhism whereas the Earth being a disc or floating on water is not; it doesn’t really make a difference for Buddhist philosophy whether the world is a globe or a disc. Obviously, for the ancient Buddhist traditions it does make a difference because this was believed and taught as true, or so it seems. But again, for early Buddhism this is a valid enough point. Here though, we would basically admit that it’s possible that the Buddha didn’t know this, and that he still somehow had to know what science would say about quantum mechanics thousands of years later, otherwise emptiness would be disproven?

It also seems strange that the Buddhist tradition would be depending on and waiting for science to see if it disproves emptiness? If the Buddhist tradition contained access to proofs of emptiness, then you would think the scientists would be learning QM from them! How could Buddhism claim to know anything about emptiness other than an educated guess if it depends on hoping science never finds some supposedly problematic thing?

A third option is to say that Buddhist emptiness simply does not depend on the findings of quantum mechanics, and that all the proofs needed for emptiness were provided in Ancient India by the Buddha alongside a practical guide. In fact, maybe emptiness would be sooner disproven by a meditator or philosopher than a Physicist due to the nature of the claim!

This is by far not a comprehensive discussion. But just some further thoughts. :pray:

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