Poiesis I: The Genealogy of Truth
Dream I: Galileo
Something terrible happened that night, a hint of an event both sublime and monstrous in its daring. At last, humanity had amputated its soul.
It was a night in late 1609 in Northern Italy. Months earlier, a professor at the University of Padua had heard of a patent filed by a Dutch spectacle-maker that claimed the invention of special glass. This glass could make distant objects appear near and large. A few days after this news, the professor placed a convex lens at the end of a tube and a concave lens in the other end to construct his first telescope. Over the next few months, the magnification of his new contraption increased multifold, until that fateful day nearing the end of that fateful year when he first pointed it upwards to observe the heavenly bodies in the night sky.
I know that Padua isn’t where I find myself now. It’s midday. I’m in an upstairs room of a simple villa. There is a desk in front of me. On it, a quill and a messy pile of parchment paper. Discourses and Mathematical Demonstra.. is what I manage to read before I hear movement behind me.
There is a man sitting in a chair looking out of the window toward farmland. He looks like he is in his seventies.
“Ask me what you want,” he says.
I realize that this is the same man that looked out into the shining sky that night. Galileo Galilei has been waiting for me.
“Where am I?” I ask. “What year is it?”
“It’s been a voyage since the night you concern yourself with. It was a different time. It was a different place. I was a different man. We are near the city of Florence. The year is 1636,” he says, looking at me. “I lost the trial with the Church. They had the indignity to call me a heretic because they dare not accept the truth, and I must pay for their crime with my freedom.”
Of course. He is talking about his role in the Copernican revolution, I think to myself. After peering through the telescope that year, Galileo had spent his life arguing against the geocentric model of reality that claimed Earth to be still at the center of the universe. It was a model that had predominated at that point in history, reaching all the way back to Aristotle in Ancient Greece and Claudius Ptolemy in Roman Egypt. It was the model that the Church — the political authority in the Western world in Galileo’s time — supported with its might and its force.
“Tell me what you saw that night,” I say.
“It began in October. It unfolded over the course of many months,” he says. “This new instrument that God’s grace put into my hands gave me a truly novel, indeed spectacular, vision of the heavenly bodies. I discovered four wandering stars never before seen orbiting Jupiter. I saw fixed stars up near. I saw that the Milky Way was made up of clusters of these stars. I viewed the Moon as if it was a mere two radii in distance from Earth. Its spots announced to me that it was neither spherical nor free from inequalities on its surface. As Earth itself, it was spaced with deep valleys and lofty mountains. But perhaps, more than anything, I saw mystery. I began to wonder. Wonder what if this was the start. What if what we knew from our ancient heritage was wrong. What if other miracles lay ahead for us to discover out above?”
I try to imagine what it would have been like to look through a telescope at that time, a time when they literally thought that the lights in the night sky were of the heavens looking down on Earth.
“And that convinced you that the Earth was not at the center of the universe?” I ask.
“Indeed, but it was my later experiments with motion and material, with this new scientific methodology, that confirmed that Aristotle was wrong. Our senses fool us, you see. Why should we question that the Earth doesn’t move when we don’t see it move with our own eyes? Why should we think that it doesn’t orbit the Sun? But I say we should. My experiments tell me we should. The instrument of truth tells me we should. I collect patterns from empirical observations, and I create theories with reason, supporting them with numbers that don’t yield to delusion.”
I think of how far this respect for numbers has taken us. I think of Sir Isaac Newton, who will be born six years from this point in time, 1700 km north-west of this villa in a settlement in England. I think of James Clerk Maxwell, who will walk in Scotland almost 200 years after that, spending his short life unifying electricity, magnetism, and light. I think of Albert Einstein, sitting at a patent office imagining himself riding a beam of light, 70 years after that. And I can’t help but think of how it all began with the meeting of Galileo and the telescope. I say nothing.
A cocktail of pride, anger, and sadness becomes apparent on Galileo’s face as I look at him. He turns his head towards the window again before quietly saying, “That’s why I’m here. That’s why they have locked me here.”
I wait for him to continue.
“You see, I’m a man of faith. I have nothing against the Church. I love the Lord as they claim to love the Lord. Yet, they say my support of the Copernican system is heresy. They say it contradicts what the good Lord tells us in scripture. They put me on trial for daring to speak my truth, daring to speak the truth of this new science. They wanted to lock me up in jail, but some sense must have prevailed, and they settled for putting me under house arrest for the rest of my life. I’m aging. I’m losing sight. I can’t leave. I can’t teach. I can’t publish. The work you see scattered across my desk will be printed in another country for fear of their vengeance. Is that what I deserve?”
I look him square in the eyes as he faces me. “I’m sorry.”
He looks back with a tired strength. “I know.”
“You say that this new truth you have discovered doesn’t contradict your faith or the word of God. How can that be?” I ask after a moment’s pause.
“The scripture tells us the truth, but it is on us to interpret that truth. We cannot take the word literally. We must understand the parable. If science contradicts the word of scripture through the empirical work of philosophers and astronomers, we must consider that it is not the science that is wrong, nor scripture, but rather we, ourselves, and our intuitions. It may well be that we may not yet have the capacity and the knowledge to fully understand what the meaning behind the words of scripture truly is, but that this new science — this new tool of enlightenment gifted to us by God — brings us closer. This you can find even in the words of the greatest of the saints, Augustine of Hippo. The authority of scripture is not thus harmed, but with science, our ignorance becomes better informed. They do not contradict. Faith shows us the way to heaven, but science shows us how the heavens themselves go,” he says.
“You are saying that we have to make the truth itself authority and seek to probe deeper into it with instruments, experimentation, and mathematical tools? That they are better than the institution of the Church telling us what may be true or not based on their limited interpretation?” I reply.
“That is what I have been trying to tell them, you see, and for that, they have cursed me. Even so, their fidelity to the ancient doctrine has nothing to do with scripture. It is an Aristotelian creation that I have charged against, not the theological teaching of God. They are so blind that they cannot tell the difference, and that will be their downfall,” he says.
“It will,” I say quietly.
He looks out toward the farmland again. “It is time for you to go, is it not?” He says after a minute has passed, glancing his gaze toward the door.
I understand. It is. We look at each other for a moment. I nod as a gesture of respect before I make my way toward the stairs. As I am about to leave, I turn back and say, “I want you to know that this isn’t for nothing.”
“I know,” he says.
I walk out of the door, down the stairs, and make my way to the courtyard of the villa. I need to process this.
Galileo was right. The power of the Church did wane, in part due to the revolution that he helped usher into the world. At some point, we no longer needed to rely on tradition. We could measure things. We could even predict them. We built better instruments. Things changed. First, slowly. Then, all at once. The Church no longer monopolized the truth. Not only that, but with the birth of science, it was also no longer monopolized by God or any eternal law.
For in the sciences the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man. Those were his words. Reason. Measurement. Galileo may have been a man of faith, and he may have seen these tools as a means towards an end that led to God — the same Biblical truth the Church claimed he undermined — but he overlooked something else: Reason and measurement would not only become our means in the future, but they would slowly morph themselves into ends that would erode the invisible soul that held the old world together.
Staring into the workings of the heavenly bodies would liberate us from the past to forge our way toward a mysterious future, but the price of that mystery would be alienation. From things we can’t measure.
Sure, reason has been with us since the days of Socrates in Ancient Greece but never has reason been abstracted and quantified in the way that this new science of instruments allowed. It seduced our imagination with previously unimaginable potential. The rational process was no longer a matter of dialogue and negotiation, but an instrument of power at a grand scale — power to design, power over nature.
That night: When Galileo first looked through the lens of that telescope, he made a decision for the entire human species, for a history of men and women who would come after him. It was the night that humanity realized it no longer needed God to tell us the truth because we, ourselves, were in the process of becoming Gods.
I take a moment to look around the courtyard. It is still light out. There are two small birds that seem to be pecking away at something on the ground a few feet away from me. As I take a step closer to look, they fly away. There is nothing there. A breath later, there is nothing anywhere.
Day I: Green in the Garden
The body wakes up from the sound of construction outside. It feels a blanket weigh itself on its skin just as it weighs itself on a mattress below. The taste in the mouth is bitter. There is a delicate smell, of something near, of someone near. As the eyes raise themselves, a darkness begins to blur before it crystallizes into the clarity of sight.
There is a subtle movement within the body as it gets out of bed. Hunger? Pain? Fragments of thought wizz through a space seemingly disconnected from the sensations around it, but these fragments are also chained to those sensations. Words arise to create familiar, lossy images that create a different formation of words. As the body reaches the stairs, to get itself out of the door, to pull itself into the path of the silent breeze swirling in the garden, a sense of balance begins to stabilize the inside with the outside. The body is me now. It is an I.
I am sitting in a lawn chair outside, and I am thinking. The sun is blazing. The sound of the construction has died down. I am thinking about the dream I had. I am thinking about Galileo’s quest. I am thinking about the truth.
Something is. Before that thought has had time to build out, my senses show that something else is. Until I try to hold that thought still in the space seemingly disconnected from the reality of sensation, what is, is change. Something becomes. Sensation becomes. The experience of change is more granular than thought. It is faster. It is more dynamic. Becoming escapes capture.
I look down at the grass in the garden. Green. A concept. A representation of what is, and as a matter of fact, what is not. Contrast. If it is green, it is not something else. Green. Not-green. But sensation too makes a distinction between what is and what is not. The changing shade of the color itself is also never still. If this mysterious something is becoming, if something is changing, it is moving from something to something else - one green to another green to another color entirely. But I can’t grasp it in thought. It seems that thought is always one step behind the change of sensations. It gets closer by probing deeper, but it can never catch up.
But that makes you wonder: What about science? What about Galileo’s quest? Isn’t that an attempt to use concepts to make sense of the truth beyond just what the senses can yield? Wasn’t the telescope an embodied extension of our ability to think, a creation born from a thought, an idea, crystallized into a solid form — a way for us to see that something else existed beyond the sensations of the body?
What existed before my body and its sensations? My parents. Their parents. History. Before that, an Earth not populated by humans. Before that, the celestial bodies that Galileo realized might instead be a hint of a larger world of space, time, matter, energy, and the forces that govern them. A material universe. Before that?
I go inside to shower, to brush my teeth. I change into fresh clothes.
She is waiting for me inside the kitchen. There is a plate with four dates, two rice crackers; both covered in heated peanut butter. I like how the heat rises out of them. There is also a bowl — fresh yogurt, crispy granola, and slices of golden kiwi. She asks how I am. I say I’m fine. A kiss. I thank her.
She has different thoughts than I do. Even when we look at the same thing, we think of different things. We might be sitting on the same sofa going through the same motions, but she is experiencing it from a different angle than I, so her sensations are different — at that moment, in every moment. Her emotions are different as well. None of this matters now, but the differences add up. She has a different life history. She makes different connections. I look over at her eating her breakfast. She is curled up with a bowl in her hand. Her movement is different. The pace she enjoys her food is different. How can someone so foreign feel so familiar?
After I finish my food, I go back outside to the garden. I mull that over in my head as I sit back on the lawn chair. How can someone so foreign feel so familiar?
We share moments, I think. Each of our personal experiences of becoming intersects to create shared moments. Where thought and sensation meet, there is emotion. Emotion is closer to the reality of sensation than thought. It signals what I should attend to: What I should focus on — what is important at this moment relative to who I am and where I am. When these moments focus both of our attention on the same thing, we merge emotions. The space between us then gets filled with a particular value that represents the power of these shared emotions. We live in this space, and it allows us to cohere despite our differences in becoming.
Isn’t that just a culture? That over time, the foreign becomes familiar as moments create shared values, and values create culture. Culture reminds us of who we are, what we care about, and where we are going because it directs what we pay attention to based on what is valued. Culture is an abstraction of our shared attention. Attention means focusing on something at the expense of something else. Something is at the expense of something else. Something else is then forgotten. Like concepts, culture conditions becoming in a particular direction.
Something is. Something is not. It all comes down to this something. What can be said about it beyond change and becoming? It has a quality, and it has a quantity. The quality is inherent. It is the changing greenness of the green that I look at in the garden. The quantity is what breaks that quality — that sense of becoming — into different pieces as a way to understand it. It highlights some things but not others. It determines where attention is directed.
Sensations create quality. Quality is an awareness of becoming. Emotions break it down into quantities. Thoughts break it down into quantities. By extension, numbers and reason break it down into quantities. They all direct attention to create contrast, highlighting one thing but not another. We exchange these quantities of attention when we communicate, both verbally and non-verbally. When these quantities of attention become values, they shape future perception. In shaping perception, they make us forget that they highlight one thing and not another.
Our sensations are limited to the functionality of our bodies. Our emotions and thoughts are clouded by prior perception tunnels we can’t see beyond. This means that emotions and thoughts are inherently cut off from the full picture as it relates to the immediate moment. Similarly, sensations are cut off from everything that doesn’t fit into their special range of operation in terms of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Both inputs and outputs have limitations.
I look over toward the wooden shed to my right. It’s four by six meters, with a curved roof and a single door in the middle. It has a certain form. That form gives it functionality. It is good for some things, like storing gardening equipment. It is not good for others, like hosting a large gathering.
I listen to the buzzing sound of cicadas. They are also good for some things, not others. By virtue of their bodily form, they can hear certain things that I can’t. They can feel things that I can’t. They can do things that I can’t. Their sense organs are different. They pick up on different aspects of the world than I do. The fact that I can’t pick up on these things doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in the environment, just that my body isn’t attuned to them. There is an invisible causal field surrounding us, and each of us is tapped into only a tiny portion — thinking, feeling, and sensing that what is otherwise small is everything. But what does this say about science and about questions of truth? It brings us back to Galileo’s quest, doesn’t it?
Science is about a particular kind of quantification. Using the logic of numbers and abstractions, it allows us to approximate our experience of quality into a coherent system of inquiry. That’s what Galileo did. He empirically studied the quality of his experience, he formulated a hypothesis based on what he learned, and then he tested this hypothesis empirically once again to see if it held up. If it did, he had a theory. If not, he tried again until he got there.
Not only that, but the beauty of science is that, with instruments like the telescope, it allows us to expand the reach of our sensations. It allows us to tap into a larger part of that invisible causal field. To Galileo and his predecessors, Earth stood still and it was the heavenly bodies that moved when the world was viewed with the naked eye. But with the reach of the telescope — a tool that allows us to extend the range of sensations experienced by our body — we could look deeper into the fabric of reality to experience the limitations of those base sensations to find a deeper reality.
For the first time, we could reach toward realities that our body wasn’t built to experience. We might not be able to know exactly what it is like to be a cicada, but we have instruments that can simulate the experience well, and that allows us to learn something that was previously invisible to us.
Still, simulating the experience isn’t the experience itself. There is something lost in the process. A quality. These simulations are still only just redirecting attention rather than creating an experience of awareness. The degree to which we can tap into the invisible causal field might be increasing, and the more precise quantification of quality might be giving us an unprecedented ability to predict certain aspects of the world, but quantifying the greenness of green will never be as rich as perceiving it.
Something is a quality that gets broken down into quantities that try to represent that quality. That’s the problem of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. A system cannot be both complete and consistent at the same time. If the quantities of the quality are complete, they will have to be inconsistent, which science doesn’t accept. If the quantities of the quality are consistent, they will have to be incomplete, which science does accept. It is a reach toward truth, approximating one step at a time. That’s where Karl Popper’s falsifiability comes in, doesn’t it? We can never be right, he argued, but only less wrong by criticizing and disproving our old theories.
That sounds right as an abstraction, but what about Thomas Kuhn’s argument that our knowledge updates in paradigm shifts? That, in practice, science doesn’t evolve in an orderly way of disproving old theories. Science works within the purview of a culture and its value system, which inherently conditions our attention in one direction at the expense of the other. The evolution of theories isn’t gradual, but it occurs in big shifts when the biased humans creating the theories and their institutions die off to pave the way for the new guard operating under a new culture and value system.
If the quality of something is the changing whole, there is also a problem of where to start quantifying. Quantifying allows us to predict, but as science shows, we don’t have to be exactly right about something for the prediction to work or to be useful. Logic and reason begin somewhere and different starting points will lead to a different chain of events. Chaos theory. The butterfly effect. A small difference in the initial conditions of a system creates a large difference at a later stage. If our knowledge is a symbolic system, then this may be true for that, too. If science doesn’t have to be absolutely true in the sense of being complete to be useful and predict well, then that leaves the door open toward the existence of many different truths, each of them able to reinforce their power on us as The Truth if they are lived in.
I feel a vibration in the right pocket of my pants. I pull out my phone to see what it is. An email. Non-urgent. I look at the phone for another moment. What a strange device. What a powerful device. I try to think of the chain of events that led to the creation of this device. Its truth is embodied in its form. There are other phones that are different from this phone, but they are all roughly alike. They are all bound in their properties by the laws of physics. That is a constraint on what they can become. Not everything is possible, so not everything can be true. But that’s only true of right now. Maybe impossibility unveils itself on the path toward the future. Maybe something will be true then but isn’t now. Maybe what is true now won’t be true then. Maybe the laws of physics themselves are only momentarily true.
Something. A quality that changes and becomes. Irreducible. It doesn’t need to be explained, or reasoned, or justified, or represented. It is there before we can quantify it, and it is there left in the gaps after we are done with it. Galileo paved the way for us to create a systemic method of inquiry so that we could expand and deepen our experience of this quality. But there was an unintended side-effect.
The Church in Galileo’s time may have been wrong to think that his version of science couldn’t be reconciled with scripture, but their defense was protecting something more subtle: It was protecting their power. The strength of science as a tool is that it is able to formulate explanations that allow us to better understand and predict the world. It is an incomplete reach toward a truth that allows us to create and destroy on a scale that had previously only been possible in the all-powerful hands of God.
Power is a quantified representation of the truth, but it is not the truth itself. In fact, power can get so detached from the quality it represents that it ceases to be true in its expression of what is and what is not. Even so, being detached from the quality doesn’t mean it loses its influence to convince us that it is indeed an accurate representation of the truth, whether that be power as represented through the idea of science, or God, or some other cultural value system that predominates the lives of people.
The problem with science and its expression of power is that it tries to represent the truth so precisely and literally that it fools us into thinking that there is no other truth beyond it. It digs so deep into the quality of something that it ends up masking the fact that there are gaps left open that it can’t account for. This is the reason that a strong fidelity to the methodology of science negates the experience of meaningfulness relative to the eternal promise of God and the soul: It expects to understand everything relative to quantification, and when it doesn’t, it negates its existence.
My phone goes off again. I hold it in my hands. There is a chain of history that went into bringing this phone into existence. According to the laws of physics, space-time began its march 13.799 billion years ago. Humans have only existed for a fraction of that time. Culture has existed for even less. The knowledge about what happened before we existed has always been within the bounds of culture, which means that it has always been chained to an origin point of some value system that distorts our attention. By distorting our attention, the value system itself becomes powerful. It becomes truth as we experience it in a particular period of time.
Science’s strength is that it is self-critical. It has the power to reinvent its value system in a way that no prior major system of humanity ever has. That enables unparalleled progress and discovery. But so far, it has failed to learn that quantification is about power, not truth. It is one part of truth, not all of it. And when you make power the whole truth, sooner or later, it tends to destroy itself in the process. We may have unearthed the power of the Gods, but we still lack the wisdom of the Gods.
I lock my gaze at the grass in the garden once more. That greenness that I can’t seem to define. Is that where it is? In that quality?
Dream II: Nagarjuna
The weight of the sun falls on my body. I’m walking on a road paved by habit. In front of me is what looks like the end of a village. It is sparsely spread, built by stone. Foreign to me, but it reminds me of something that might have been.
I walk toward a stone column to the left before the rest of the village begins. It is about 12 meters tall, with a sculpture of a roaring lion at the top. Beside it is what looks like a monastery. As I get near, I realize that I am walking toward one of the pillars of Ashoka — built by the great Buddhist Emperor of the same name in the 2nd century BCE. I must be in India. It’s been a few centuries since Ashoka’s time.
As I cross the entrance of the monastery, I feel a strange sensation run through my entire body. A light ripple. I then see a man covered in a plain robe, that runs across his chest, sitting cross-legged at the end of the room on a platform elevated by three steps of stairs. A stronger sensation.
“You are Nagarjuna,” I find myself saying as I get near.
“Sit,” he replies gently.
I place myself in front of the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. They say his name itself tells the story of his life. According to legend, the Buddha had taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras to his disciples during his time — a text reputed to contain the perfect wisdom, the final truth. But it was lost for centuries after his death. It is said that Nagarjuna used his meditative abilities to travel to the realm of the nāga king (a divine serpent figure in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology) to rescue the Prajnaparamita Sutras from his lair to bring it back to humanity. Naga. Arjuna was the name of the hero — an archer — in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, named so because Nagarjuna’s teachings were said to pierce like an arrow.
“Svabhāva — this is what you are here to inquire,” he says.
That is the name used in Eastern philosophy for what I call something. The inherent quality. Substance. Intrinsic existence. Becoming. There is no easy translation.
“It is. I’m trying to understand how it relates to truth,” I reply.
“It is nothing. There is no essence. No substance. Nothing that is separate of all else. It is empty. Śūnyatā,” he says.
That sounds like a trick. “I understand that nothing is fixed, that there is no essence. That quantities are representations of the quality, and never the thing in itself. I also understand the problem of motion in space and time if that is what you are getting at. In the Western tradition, it is what Zeno tried to show with his paradoxes. But how can you say that there is nothing? Śūnyatā means emptiness, doesn’t it? There is clearly something in my experience that hints at existence and meaning,” I say.
“Where does this something you speak of originate?” He says.
“Something else, but it is still something. I’m not trying to hold down a fixed point. I’m not saying I can use language, logical or otherwise, to pin it down. Change is the substance. Change is my experience. Change is my existence,” I say.
“I understand. You must see what that means then?” He says.
He is talking about causality. Our experience of change implies a conceptualization of cause and effect. If a cause produces an effect, then we have to assume that these are things in themselves rather than things we project through our ability to think, which negates change as the foundational substance — as the inherent quality of our existence. The same uncertainty is apparent even if we consider causes to contain their effects as potentials that get released under certain conditions that arise. Even if we were to start with cause and effect as being prior to experience, we never actually see something cause an effect. We always observe patterns of relation. It is still dependent on experience. No matter how it is framed, it’s not a problem we can get around. Change then just becomes another part of our cognitive conditioning.
“You are claiming that there is no such thing as cause and effect?” I ask.
“That is not so. I merely suggest we cannot understand it beyond conditioning, so that leaves us with Śūnyatā. Everything else is something you impose on the world and your experience, relative to something else,” he says.
“You are negating everything,” I say, frustrated. “Something is nothing. The world outside of me is nothing. The world I experience is nothing. There can be no meaning. There can be no truth. You are claiming that my whole existence is an illusion that I can’t see through because I’m deeply deluded. Is that why you sit here and meditate? To strip away everything? How does that not make you a nihilist?”
“I meditate to see the reality of Śūnyatā. It is not nothing. It is also not not-nothing. There is no opposite. Śūnyatā. Emptiness. Empty of Svabhāva. Empty of essence. Empty of substance. Empty of change. Empty of experience. Empty of permanence. Empty of inherent quality. Empty of all concepts of meaning, not-meaning, truth, not-truth. Empty of emptiness itself. It is not nihilism. It is the absence of conditioning,” he says.
“You are talking about a void beneath it all that isn’t a void?” I ask, confused.
“Once you go beyond all conditioning, all conceptualization, you find Śūnyatā. You may wish to think of it as voidness, but it is also not that,” he replies.
“That sounds like a version of God,” I say.
“It is not. God implies eternalism. Permanence. It is the opposite of nothing, of what you refer to as nihilism, but Śūnyatā cannot be understood and spoken of in that way. It can only be experienced once all Svabhāva — what you call quality — can be seen as empty. It is a way of being awake to the interdependence of all. It is what the Buddha called enlightenment. Conditioning means that your quality is dependent relative to something else. That is what life in a body creates as an experience. But when you see past the conditioning, the appearance of independent entities as being separate from one another, you see the Śūnyatā, the emptiness, that unites them underneath. That is why I meditate — you have to see for yourself to understand what is meant by it. Once you see it, that is when you will see the truth you are seeking,” he says.
“You are saying that there is a substrate at the base — this substrate is not actually a substrate, but it is what you call emptiness, which is beyond intellectualization — and everything else arises from it. But at its base, it’s all the same thing, and we are all so conditioned by life in a body that we can’t see that unless we uncondition ourselves?” I say. “I still don’t see how that is different from God or monism.”
“Yes. But it is not monism. Now that you see that all Svabhāva — all quality — is empty, the second truth is that it exists as you experience it. What you call quality has a form. What you experience in your body as a separate being is real — that is why what I speak of is not nihilistic, and it is also why it is not eternalistic, as held together by God or monism,” he says.
He must be applying tetralemma. It is the Eastern doctrine of logic that states that something can be true, it can be false, it can be both true and false, and it can be neither. I wait for him to continue.
“Your experience of Svabhāva is a form of Śūnyatā, but it is still real. Quality is empty of any particular existence, but it is still here as an appearance. That is why we speak of two truths: paramārtha satya and saṃvṛtisatya. You may understand it as absolute truth and relative truth. Emptiness is the absolute truth beyond conditioning. What you call quality may be thought of as form, a relative truth of appearances. Emptiness means that it is true that everything is interdependent. Form means that it is also true that the experience of independence is real, that there is a plurality. Emptiness without form is monism. Form without emptiness is pluralism. But they are not distinct. There is no duality between emptiness and form. They are non-dual. It is not eternalism, not nihilism. That is what we call the Middle Way in our tradition,” he says.
“What you are saying then is that there can be change, and there can be a causal field? That there is truth to quality? Becoming? Svabhāva?” I say.
“A relative truth, yes,” he replies.
“And the absolute truth is indecipherable?” I say.
“For the intellect, yes, but it can be experienced through meditation — through the process of deconditioning. That is the method the Buddha discovered. That is the perfect wisdom that was expressed in the Prajnaparamita Sutras he left us,” he says.
“How does meditation work?” I say.
“It removes ignorance,” he says.
“Ignorance?” I ask.
“Yes. When you are independent, separate in your experience of Svabhāva, in being whole with your plural quality — you are ignorant. You see one thing but not another. That is so based on your conditioning. Your perception is dependent on its contrast relative to something else. Meditation allows you to look deeper at your Svabhāva, your quality, not as attention but as awareness. You sit still, and you see everything arising and passing away, and you see the impermanence of all — your body, your concepts, your ideas, your attachments. The deeper you dig, the more you see the emptiness, the interdependence. There are many routes to Śūnyatā, but they all follow this path of ridding the body of ignorance. Like change, or essence, or substance, what you think of as the self is an illusionary concept. It is what creates the duality. Duality is ignorance. Ignorance of the other.”
“Monism overlooks our independence. Duality overlooks our dependence. Meditation allows us to probe at the non-duality of existence. Independence and dependence. Interdependence. That is what you call the truth?” I say.
“The marriage of absolute and relative, yes. But the rest of the truth you are seeking, you must work out yourself,” he says.
I’m piecing this together. How can one be different from not-two, monism from non-duality, emptiness from nothingness. Even if I accept that this isn’t the way my mind has learned to make sense of things, it defies how the world I know works.
I look at this man sitting in front of me. There is something about him. I felt it as soon as I walked into the room. I don’t know what it is. A glow. A deep, abiding sense of peace. It’s what they say about all mystics, isn’t it? Yet, nothing about our conversation has ventured into mysticism. Nagarjuna’s arguments against causality are as strong as any arguments made in the Western philosophical tradition in the 1800 years since his time. The philosopher David Hume touched on similar points almost 1500 years after him. Even so, he couldn’t do so with anywhere near as much force.
I bow my head toward him. “Can you show me how you meditate?” I ask.
He smiles gently. “Close your eyes.”
Day II: Lights in the Sky
The alarm rings. 6:20 PM. It’s the end of my 30-minute meditation session. If enlightenment exists, that wasn’t it. But I feel at ease.
I leave my cushion to make my way down the stairs and into the basement. It’s filled with shelves pushed up against the wall opposite to the door. The shelves hold up old boxes, but I’m looking for a particular box. Not red. Not black. The beige.
I take the box upstairs to the bedroom. In it, there is a reflector telescope. An old gift that’s been collecting dust. It has a short tripod attached to the tube that I place on the window sill. It’s not much. It’s made for looking further into space than the telescope Galileo used. But Jupiter and its moons should be visible in the next hour, and I want to see those wandering stars he thought he had captured.
I have been thinking about what Nagarjuna said, and I have been thinking about what that means for Galileo’s quest. I have been thinking about Śūnyatā. Emptiness. I have been thinking about Svabhāva. Quality. Absolute truth and relative truth.
I’m still trying to make sense of it all. If emptiness is an indecipherable and interdependent absolute truth, then quality — or form — is the partially decipherable relative truth through which we can understand emptiness. Quantity then is all of the experience and knowledge within the quality that is not emptiness.
While I was meditating, I momentarily got lost in a chain of thoughts about Argus Panoptes, the mythic creature in Ancient Greek literature that served the Goddess Hermes. Panoptes means something close to the all-seeing one. The creature was sometimes described as the hundred-eyed giant. Maybe the non-dual truth Nagarjuna was talking about is like the hundred-eyed giant. Panoptes. It is the all-seeing one, the absolute truth, but it has a hundred eyes - or a million eyes, or a billion eyes, or a trillion eyes - and each of these eyes is like an individual being that experiences one part of the whole and that one part is their relative truth.
The absolute truth is the sum of all of the relative truths that have existed. All relative truths are one part of the whole that is the absolute truth. All relative truths contain an inkling of absolute truth, and the absolute truth contains the sum of relative truths. Emptiness, absolute. Quality, relative. The Panoptes is everything that is.
Humans can study the quality apparent to us with tools of quantity. We can expand the reach of the Panoptes, almost like waking up new eyes. Sensations are the boundaries of the quality that we can experience, but these sensations can be augmented with new instruments and technologies. Emotions, including intuitions, are the nebulous interpretations that orient the body within these boundaries to give it a sense of what it should pay attention to — a fluid form of quantification. Thoughts, including language and numbers, are the strong divisions that orient the body and dictate its attention — a solid form of quantification.
But all of this has something to do with time - that’s what change implies, that’s what becoming implies. The most important aspect of relative truth must be a sense of time beyond quantification. Each of us has a quality of time. Every moment of that quality has a different relative truth, and that truth depends on the background context. But then we are forced to divide the whole world into contexts.
If what I see - as a single eye in the Panoptes - is one chain of experience representing a relative truth and what someone else sees - through another eye in the Panoptes - is another chain of experience representing another relative truth, then how can we ever hope to know what is more true when our relative experiences disagree? And if every moment, every context, every quality, has a different relative truth, doesn’t that completely negate the idea of truth? The Panoptes may be a transcendent, absolute truth that underlies its own hundred eyes, but if everybody has a piece of the truth, then how can we rank something as being more true than another?
I try to wrap my head around all of this as I look out of the window. Everything that I see is true, sure. If someone else was here with me, they would probably agree with me that looking out of this window, there is a road out there, and there are trees, and there are a few people walking around. That would be truer than claiming that there is no road, no trees, and no person. But people seem to see the same thing and disagree about it all the time. Unless there is broad agreement, one of them must be more right than the other even if they are both right about their own experience. There must be some difference between better and worse.
I think back to what Nagarjuna said to me in my dream. When talking about the truth, contradictions always come up in our understanding because no linguistic framework can capture it without succumbing to paradox. Right. Relying on contexts solves that. In one context, one thing is right. In another, something else is. But to retain the validity of truth, we have to accept that when different contexts come into contact with each other, they create a new context, and this new context can have a truth that prefers one over the other. Some truths fit better. That means that all relative truths are not equal. Different truths have a different reach.
Relative truths extend to create shared truths within culture, which is currently bound by the limitations of the physical body and the instruments of technology that we use to extend the functionality of the body. All of these are bound by the current laws of physics. These are hard constraints that guide what we can accept as relative truths in the cultural realm. The laws of physics are simply truer in more contexts than the truth of a person who dreams of being able to fly, even though that dream may be true to them at the moment. The laws have a broader reach. A relative truth is as true as its ability to accurately explain the highest number of relevant contexts.
Of course, science operates within the bounds of culture, and although it is a form of quantification that often detracts from quality, it can’t just be a collection of random truths that happen to predict well. The starting point of science is those physical laws, which are the laws that bind the body. As long as we have a body, we will have to accept that science provides the most accurate representation of reality at any particular point in time, as long as it stays within the domain of quantity. It creates explanations with a reach that go beyond most of our individual contexts.
As those thoughts float off, I see that the light is starting to fade outside. The streets are starting to quiet down after the rush hour. It looks like it’s going to be a mild night. Quiet. Peaceful. I look out toward the sky, scanning the horizons. It’s there, to my left, like a luminous bulb in the sky. I grab the tube and point in the direction of Jupiter as I place my eyes in the eyepiece.
At first, there is nothing there. Nothing but a hue of dark blue. I readjust. Still nothing. But the blue itself is dazzling. Even just to look out beyond and capture something so distant is to feel the dance with divinity. I move up. Further to the left. There. Right there. I turn the knob to adjust the focus. The lines around it get sharper, and it’s no longer a floating light. It’s a ball of yellow, denser than light, covered in two brown bands, each a third the distance away from the top and the bottom. Four dots swirl around it, seemingly dimming and lighting up again. I see how Galileo might have thought of these moons as moving stars.
As I step back, I think about history. I think about how Galileo might have felt seeing that same sight. I knew they were going to be there. He didn’t. He was looking right into the heavens. The wonder. The sublimity.
I then have a sudden flash of this flow of history - the sum of all the contexts we have ever experienced, individually and collectively. It clicks. The relative truth available to humans is this history, both past and future, both experience and conjecture. What we are trying to do is come up with a genealogy of history, of truth, of time as both a quality and a quantity. Our past qualities represent the sum total of the relative truth so far — not all yet found — but our quantities give us an indication of the potential available to us in the future. The dreams available to us in the future. The dreams that Galileo discovered when he looked into the sky that night in 1609.
They say that the universe is a battle between chaos and order. If chaos takes over, the universe destroys itself. It destroys the quality that contains inherent existence. That’s what we quantify in the laws of thermodynamics. Entropy. Evolution is the power that fights against this chaos. It is the foundational quantity of a universe that tries to preserve its quality, its very existence. On Earth, the human body is the highest expression of this power due to our ability to create quantified knowledge for ourselves the way that evolution does for the universe. The body is the truth that allows us to know other truths of quantity. But the body itself is only known through quality, so even that can’t be the whole of history.
I can hear the cicadas buzzing around outside. They get louder at night. I wonder what the nearest common ancestor between us and the cicadas is. Evolution tries so many experiments, each one best suited to its environment, its context. That’s why the relative truth can’t be anything but contextual — a kind of harmony between the quality of experience and the demands of an environment. And yet, to survive, to go beyond that context, there is a need for a power that reaches further, that reaches toward a higher truth, a better fit with a new environment.
I wonder how long this genus of cicadas I’m listening to will last. Will they outlive humanity? We are armed with the capacity to create scientific knowledge, a quantified power to match the Gods themselves. That really is the biggest difference between us and them, isn’t it? We have the potential to reach a greater range of environments in the game of space and time. Maybe, at first, it was about survival. It was about using the force of quantity to preserve quality. At some point, though, we became the symbol of order in the universe fighting chaos, slowly detaching from quality. That point was the night that Galileo looked up toward the heavenly bodies.
I pause. I can’t but help think of the question: What for? Galileo may have helped us tear away the authority from the Church and its value system, but in the process, quantity itself became the authority, and it did so under the guise of reason serving as a satisfactory truth that does justice to the complexity of human experience, to the complexity of quality. But reason is just another extension of quantity. It’s one part of the truth, but it’s a truth that only serves itself against something else. Necessary, but like all values, it creates an absolute duality, of good and evil — a non-truth.
I hear the door open downstairs. I hear her take off her shoes and her coat. A moment later, I hear the sound of a familiar voice. “Hey, you.”
I go downstairs to greet her. “How was it?”
“It was good. We had dinner. I have some work to finish now, but I’m happy I took the time to see them,” she says. “How was playing with the telescope?”
I can tell by her grin that it’s a rhetorical question. “Fun,” I say, smiling.
“Look. I brought you something,” she says. She pulls open up a little brown bag with some snacks that I like. It’s not much. But it’s not nothing.
“You’re lovely,” I say.
As she sets up to work, I make my way back upstairs and seat myself against the window. I think of little surprises. I think of shared truths. I think of what Nagarjuna said about emptiness.
All of us create cultures between us. As long as there are two people, there will be a culture created based on their shared moments, shared contexts. This culture will explicitly or implicitly organize itself around a value, a quantity. A shared value is a shared contextual truth. It allows for the synchronization of two or more relative truths — different bodies with different qualities coming together to negotiate a greater truth. But are values themselves really why we live?
All explicit values are against something. They have to be. They focus attention on one thing at the expense of another. Over time, they get formulated into a system. With a systematic formulation, there will be a top-down right and wrong, good and evil. This quantification becomes embodied in the world. On the other hand, all implicit values are silent coordination mechanisms, bottom-up, emerging within contextual relations that evolve and deepen based on some understanding of connectedness.
What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil. Nietzsche. I think about those words a lot. And I wonder: Isn’t that really what it means to live out an understanding of emptiness? Would anyone live with values if they didn’t feel like they could truly relate to something else? Are values anything more than establishing a common source of interdependence at varying levels of intimacy, whether it be for a society or for an individual body and its experience of quality?
Slowly, I begin to see it. I see it as an image in my mind. I see that each of us is an eye in the Panoptes, and what this eye sees is the cumulative relative truth of an individual from its perspective. When the eye looks out with a quantity, it creates values from that personal perspective. All quantities become values. Some are shared, looking into other eyes so that we connect at those varying levels of intimacy. Some become knowledge and extend the relative truth to greater contexts. These are the two components of relative truth: it can harmonize within a context, or it can reach further as a power that can open up the equivalent of new eyes in itself.
But the Panoptes itself is everything that is, and at its deepest level, that’s all it can see. When an eye looks into its quality deeply enough, it can see emptiness. It can see itself as everything. Values are meditators that allow us to connect and to reach, but what actually connects and reaches is the interdependence itself - the beyond that Nietzsche looked for. Values, by the very nature of their split between good and evil, are merely tools of power even when they allow temporary harmonization.
That’s the problem with power, I think. Power — as a quantity, as reason, as evolution, as a value— in service of anything but the greater quality of interdependence will self-destruct by pitting itself up in some duality. A power that doesn’t reach closer to the absolute truth within the relative truth as it tries to meet its potential as a quantity will soon turn that relative truth into a lie that overextends its context.
To have the power of the Gods means to be able to look ahead at the future, at the potential made available by the knowledge and the quantities that have been created in history, and to dream — dream of the possibility of meeting that potential. To have the wisdom of the Gods means to do so only because it serves as a way to deepen the quality of experience into emptiness.
Quality is becoming. There is nothing that can hold it in place. Quantifying it extends what it can become, but done for its own sake, it eventually breaks itself down. Emptiness is the being of this quality , and to become something without the relative depth of being is to eventually cease to be at all.
It is dark outside now. I get up and look out of the window again. The telescope is still pointing up at the sky. I slowly place my head down to take one last look.
This time, there is nothing to find because it’s all right there in front of me. I see a million little stars, each with their own center of gravity, blinking their way through the heavens a moment at a time. Maybe they, like me, are individual eyes in the Panoptes. Maybe they, like me, see something that looks different from there than it does any other place in the universe.
I focus a little closer. These stars seem to be playing a symphony. It’s not a symphony of sound, but of sight. It is ever-so-subtle, delicately present with each blinking light. There is no one guiding it. There is no one it is for.
It all makes me wonder. I wonder if that’s the secret. I wonder if being for no one is what makes it for everyone. I want to know what it is that it is trying to whisper to me. I try to hear the sound in the sight. It’s not the sound of anything that wants or needs to be known. A sound of mystery. A mystery with a melody that sings through itself. A mystery with a being that becomes through itself.