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The infinity problem in Buddhism

In the interview between B.Sujato, A. Brahmali and B.Bodhi, B.Sujato asked the infinity problem to B.Bodhi. B.Bodhi didn’t know how to answer it so he said “perhaps consciousness can emerge” contradicting what Buddha taught about existing since forever.

I was asked this problem by my gf too a couple of weeks ago: If we exist since forever, why did we not get enlightened already ? A monkey typing at a computer for infinity will one day type a book by Shakespeare. Actually, she will type that book for an infinity of times.

I didn’t really know what to answer so I started elucubrating nonsese. My nonsense was pretty smart and I managed to convince my gf for the moment but she later said it is unconvincing. I too realized my nonsense was unconvincing and said I’m gona fix this problem in the future. You can’t really have a gross logical contradiction like that in Buddhism. It’s quite a problem.

So what did I do ? Only now, weeks after the problem, I decided to google it. Turns out it’s a very simple problem:

link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem#Direct_proof
link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almost_surely

I even did statistics in collage and knew this stuff is complicated and it’s good to google it. No need to reinvent the wheel by myself, I am not a Da Vinci living on an island. This problem would have taken me what ? A lifetime to solve in a good case ?

Therefore, a complicated problem in buddhism that made B.Bodhi go into wrong view because of not understanding statistics has been solved through the use of google. Someone should send this to him.

The quote from B.Bodhi:

AB: Bhante, I had another speculative question, which I was going to leave out, but since we’ve now brought it up … Saṁsāra is considered to be without beginning, without discoverable beginning. So in theory there would have been an innumerable number of Buddhas in the past. If there have been an innumerable number of Buddhas, but there is only a finite number of beings, then why isn’t everybody enlightened already? How come we’re still here?

BB: Perhaps consciousnesses can emerge.


BB: In infinite time, if you sat a large numbers of monkeys at computers typing away, they are bound to type the Majjhima Nikāya. (laughs)

Link: Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi

There is no way to solve this problem by ourselves if we are not statistical geniuses. We can try to reinvent the wheel by ourselves but that might not work. This is why we should use google as often as possible when having a difficult question, especially in the complicated field of statistics.

I have to admit this gave me quite a headache. If this was wrong, then Buddhism would be wrong. There is no way to change the “we exist since forever” - that is the logical conclusion of conditionality. It’s no way to juggle yourself around that. The only possibility was for the “we should be enlightened already due to the monkey typing at a computer problem” to be statistically wrong. If this was not wrong, then Buddhism would be wrong. It was the first really difficult problem I was faced with in Buddhism cause there is no way to solve it without reading about what statistics have to say, unless you are a statistical genius and re-discover it by yourself.

Bottom line: We exist since forever and there is no statistical contradiction in this. The possibility of existing since forever and not getting enlightened exists and that’s what is happening.

Also, the possibility of never getting enlightened exists. This is why Buddha did not answer that question and did not agree with the idea that all beings will get enlightened eventually. It is a small probability but it exists, therefore it can happen.

Where did these Buddhas live?
Possibly a few on Earth (before written history) but not that many when we realise that human beings of our type roamed Earth not that long ago (~100 000 years) and in small numbers scattered around the globe. And then if you take into consideration the start of and the type of societies that could produce a Buddha then there is little probability for someone to re-discover the Dhamma and get awakened, as we can see in the history-recorded Earth in the past x000 years.

The other Buddhas are on other planets within our Milky Way or on other billions of planets of the billions of galaxies of this universe. The probability for getting awakened on these planets is the same as on planet Earth .

Even if all this brings you a big number of Buddhas there is a much bigger number of non-associated-with-Buddha people living and having lived in this Universe.

By the way this is one of the reason why, to me, the Bodhisattva vow is so silly.

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Once in a conversation with a very clever friend we ended up talking about how the possibility and reality of natural arising of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in the big picture of the darkness if ignorance-fueled perpetuation of streams of painful experience (i.e. samsara) could be visualised as a Mandelbrot fractal:

  • The natural perpetuation of the four noble truths and its e nobbling tasks and dependent origination of awakening events across time does not not mean the whole darkness of samsara will one day be fully ceased
  • But it does keep expanding within itself in a beautiful fractal like pattern - through years, across regions, cultures and peoples - with eventual apparently disconnected events of re-emergence of Buddhas.
  • These disconnected events are due to the way the ‘contagion’ of the Dhamma spreads through Aeons, from the last Samma Sambuddha to the next: in the big picture a Buddha at his awakening actually remembers the four noble truths as he heard from the previous one and so on… (SN46.3 may support that understanding)
  • The apparently isolated"Buddha bubbles" seen and zoomed in in the video below do fulfill beautifully that abstraction exercise!

In the end, the big picture remains the same. Darkness expands in itself and awakening waves are limited to specific but neverthelless infinitely zoomable Buddhabrot like dots…

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Does this mean that the theory of evolution is wrong? or at least not compatible with existing forever.

Where does the Buddha claim we have existed for an infinitely long time, or that our existence is without beginning? Questions about whether the world is eternal or not eternal were among the “unanswered questions.” (MN 63, MN 72)

Also, in SN 15, the Buddha says that samsara is without “discernible beginning”. But to state that samsara has no discernible beginning is not the same thing as stating that it has no beginning. Instead, it just means that if it does have a beginning, that beginning cannot be discerned. In the same way, if you look into a deep well and cannot see the bottom, then that well has no discernible bottom. It doesn’t follow that it has no bottom.

More to the point, the Buddha seems to have held that our progress through samsara is not a random process, but one determined by the moral or spiritual qualities of our intentions, so even if the samsaric universe is eternal, the infinite monkeys theorem does not apply to it. For example, suppose that each of your past lives was either the life of a dog or the life of a human being. In each of the human lives, the moral or spiritual quality of your life was sufficiently bad that you were reborn as a dog, and in each of your dog lives, the moral or spiritual quality of your life was sufficiently good that you were reborn as a human. There is no logical inconsistency in assuming that the oscillation from human to dog to human, etc. has occurred infinitely many times.

Nevertheless, there is presumably something you can do in this life to reborn in a higher realm, the deva realm for example. If, for some reason, you manage in this life to do those things, things that you never did in any previous life, then the picture looks like this:

… Human --> Dog–> Human --> Dog–> Human --> Dog–> Human --> Deva

Remember also that in the Sabbasava Sutta, worrying about where you’ve been and where you are going is described as unwise attention:

This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’

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If it goes back infinitely, then you would have achieved nibbana at some point in that infinite past. Or at least that is the argument.

But if the past is infinite, then why didn’t this already happen?

Yes, I know that’s the argument, but it is a fallacious argument. The fact that a process involving some entity has no beginning does not entail that every possible state of being for that entity has occurred during the infinite course of that process. To infer that some possible state would have occurred, or is very likely to have occurred, one needs to incorporate some additional assumptions about the dynamical laws governing the process. The infinite monkeys theorem, to which dxm_dxm referred, incorporates the assumption that the process is random. But since the process of samsara is not held by Buddhists to be a random process, that theorem does not apply to it.

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Eliminating randomness from the equation makes it even more likely that at some point in the infinite past you would have achieved nibbana, unless you assume some form of determinism.

The Buddha said that samsara ha no discernable beginning. I don’t think he said there were therefore infinite number of Buddhas -most likely not.

He has said that most beings ‘sink’ in samsara and even a human life is incredibly rare. It must be even rarer to listen to the dhamma and even rarer to not debate endlessly and actually practice it.

In short the odds are stacked against achieving stream entry which is the only guarantee of freedom.

with metta

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I’m sorry, but that is simply not true. Whether any outcome in a dynamical process, even an infinite process, is likely or not likely cannot be inferred from a description of the possible states of that process alone. One needs to incororate further quantitative assumptions about the dynamical laws governing the process.

That is why we need to read more suttas about the subject to know witch one of these 2 posibilities is correct. The one you just listed, or the one about the round of rebirth going back to infinity. Like, there was another life before this, and another, and another, to infinity.

To fully understand Buddha position, we need more than the “samsara is beginningless” information. We also need to read the subchapter “On without discoverable beginning” from SN. Otherwise, we are slandering the tathagata based on incomplete information about what he taught.

“Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. These are two who slander the Tathagata.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.025.than.html

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This is a good point. I recieved this as a response to this topic somewhere else:

I can’t believe that you guys have thought for a reasonable amount of time about this problem. It is very easy. You think it is a random process, this is where you go wrong. The outcome is under selection-pressure like with evolution. The pressure here is of course tanha.
An example:
If you leave an infinite amount of heroin users in an infinite big room with infinite heroin supply and you look into it after an infinite amount of years it would be very stupid to assume that all users are now clean.

But in my opinion, you can’t dismiss the problem using this selection pressure. You really need the statistical refutation to really do it. I had this to respond:

That’s a very good point. But even with that point, I would argue that the statistical proof this is possible is still needed cause we are dealing here with just one heroin addict not an infinite number of them. One can still argue that the more time that passes, the possibility of a particular heroin addict quitting increases statistically until it reaches almost zero. And in fact, he might argue that when you reach infinity, zero is implied by this infinity. And theoretically it actually is implied. But also theoretically, that does not remove the possibility of it not happening. Witch is why it is just “almost surely”. That zero is implied, but that zero does not imply impossibility of a certain situation happening.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think evolutionary theory has any connection with the Buddha’s own world view. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that he thought samsaric life was subject to evolutionary forces, as they are understood in contemporary evolutionary theory, or that he had any conception of “descent-with-modification”, speciation, mutation or the other central concepts in that theory. On the contrary, he seemed to imagine the wandering-on of samsara as notable for it’s tediously unchanging nature. When he described the lives of people and animals allegedly living in past kalpas, those lives seem no different from the lives of the creatures around him in pre-Mauryan India.

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A Buddha was a very rare being among many many other beings before he/she became the Buddha. If there is infinite number of Buddhas, then there was infinite number of those rare beings plus many many other beings. Therefore, there should be infinite number of beings in total. I do not understand why there is only a finite number of beings?

Indeed. I’m reminded of the claim one often hears from Tibetans to the effect that we must have all been each others’ mothers in some former life or other; as opposed to the Buddha’s more modest claim that it wouldn’t be easy to find someone who hadn’t been one’s mother.

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Karma and rebirth are not accepted by mainstream science. Even the theories (as opposed to knowledge) of Karma and rebirth are not part of the body of theories accepted and tested by mainstream science.

Yes, that is certainly true.

Kamma is based on the doctrine of the 5 aggregates. It is therefore impossible to understand it through the discipline of studying only one of the 5 aggregates, namely form (science). This is why science has been incapable of telling us what is going on with consciousness or what is going to happen after we die.

When it comes to evolution, what we know is that “the mental part” (consciousness, volition, feeling, perception) has the ability to modify and influence matter. Both materialism reductionism and buddhism agree on this. Therefore, we could make a theory about the evolutionary process being actually driven by craving. But this has some problems with the evolution of plants and trees witch do not posses consciousness or craving and are just like machines, according to both science and buddhism. The way plants develop is just like rivers develop, based on laws of physics.

If plants at one point somehow develop a nervous system, then that new creature becomes capable of sustaining consciousness and allowing the possibility of rebirth in that state of being.