More radical non-duality nonsense. Skip it if this isn’t to your taste. The conversation included in this post is a work of fiction.
Carlo Rovelli (photo from wikipedia); Tim Cliss (photo from his web site)
I have been reading theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland, a summary of the latest thinking in quantum science, which also ponders the nature of reality and, through a side trip into neuroscience, the nature of the self.
Since I’m now somewhat obsessed with the message of radical non-duality, I’ve been reading Carlo’s book through that particular lens. It’s fascinating to see the growing overlap between radical non-duality’s simple message and some of the new, astonishing discoveries of science.
But the message of radical non-duality and the latest scientific theories about the nature of reality are not congruent, and it’s likely they never will be.
Acceptance of radical non-duality would amount to scientists throwing up their hands and admitting that the nature of reality cannot be known, and it’s hard to conceive of any scientist being prepared to make such a career-limiting move.
And since radical non-duality is not a theory or philosophy, but just a statement of what is seen as obvious without the veil of the illusory self, its message cannot embrace science, since science is seen as just another story, an inevitably doomed attempt to enable everything to make sense to a separate self that does not exist.
Still, there’s a tantalizing temptation to try to reconcile the two. I’m doubting that anyone could arrange a conversation between Carlo and one of the messengers of radical non-duality. There was a meeting between Jim Newman and neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris recently, and it was an absolute debacle, with Sam wasting everyone’s time trying in vain to fit Jim’s message into his determinist/compatibilist spectrum and finally giving up. (When Sam asked Jim whether he believed in free will, and Jim replied that there is no one to have or not have free will, it was basically game over.)
So, rather than risk a similar disaster, I thought I would instead use my literary licence to imagine a conversation between two fictional characters: Carlo Rovelli’s granddaughter, who I’ve named Carla, and Tim Cliss’ granddaughter, who I’ve named Thea. In the story, both characters have followed the work of their grandfathers, and they find themselves working together on a communal farm in post-civ-collapse northern Sweden. After introductions, this is, I imagine, their conversation:
Photo “Under Cover” by MTSOFan on flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Thea: I’ve read your grandfather’s book Helgoland, and I was struck by how much it did, and yet did not, resonate with my grandfather’s book This Deafening Silence. It would have been fascinating, had they met, to have heard them talk together.
Carla: Yes, I’m familiar with the radical non-duality message, though I admit I don’t really ‘get’ it.
Thea: I don’t think it’s possible to ‘get’ it, at least, as long as the self is around, interpreting everything through its personal lens. I don’t presume to ‘get’ it. I think your grandfather’s theories come as close as any separate self’s arguments can come to articulating it in scientific terms. “Reality, including our selves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which . . . there is nothing.” Your grandfather, the most respected theoretical physicist of his time, wrote that! I can almost picture the eyes of his colleagues rolling back in their heads!
Carla: Yes, my grandfather was quite taken with the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna.
Thea: Of course, there are lots of different interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s work, lost in the translation of his mostly-poetic writing style. Your grandfather seemed to believe his core argument was, like your grandfather’s, that everything exists only in relationship to other things. That’s presumably based on Nāgārjuna’s “dependent arising” (pratitya-samutpada) idea. Yet Nāgārjuna and his contemporaries also speak about the emptiness — śūnyatā — of everything, which seems closer to what my grandfather was describing in relating the radical non-duality message, which asserts there are no relationships, only appearances without causality, purpose or meaning.
Carla: I was struck by that as well. My grandfather seemed more than willing to accept that time was just a mental construct, that it didn’t really exist — he wrote a whole book about that. It is hard to understand how anything can have relationship to anything else — indeed, that anything can really exist to have relationship with anything else — without ‘real’ time or space in which that relationship can arise.
Thea: Exactly. That’s why I was so puzzled when your grandfather hit upon a different word than ‘relationship’ to describe the essential nature of reality, and then quickly seemed to abandon it. That word was manifestation. He used the word a lot, but only in the ‘transitive’ sense of ‘manifested in relation to’. He even said: “It is possible to think of the manifestations of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself.” My grandfather used the word appearance to describe everything that is seemingly (but not really) happening — he might just as easily have used manifestation, but in the ‘intransitive’ sense. So it seems that they might have actually been very close to agreeing on the nature of reality.
Carla: The thing about quantum science is that it’s proved to be immensely useful in all kinds of practical areas. I wonder if my grandfather would have been unwilling to go all the way to radical non-duality because it kind of renders everything moot — it’s a pretty much useless message. It leaves a lot of the critical questions and problems of science not only unanswered, but declares them unanswerable.
Thea: I suppose. Though I suspect if your grandfather had suddenly lost his sense of any kind of self or separation, the way mine apparently did, willingness to accept something useless wouldn’t have been an issue — it would simply be obvious, and there would be no ‘un-seeing’ it. Though that would probably be pretty ghastly for an established scientist to come to grips with.
Carla: That’s the part of radical non-duality that is hardest for me to fathom, although the message does resonate intuitively and it has a certain intellectual appeal. Isn’t it possible that, instead of suddenly being ‘liberated’ from the illusory veil of self, your grandfather simply had a psychic break, and glommed onto the message of radical non-duality as a means of coping with the sheer terror of facing the meaninglessness and emptiness of life? I mean, people, especially under great stress, come to believe all kinds of absurd things, like reincarnation and alien conspiracies and gods in the skies with long beards.
Thea: Well, I guess anything is possible. During the early collapse times people felt awfully hopeless and helpless and guilty and ashamed for what they thought they’d allowed to happen. But radical non-duality seems to me a pretty poor choice of security blanket — my grandfather seemed to live his life pretty full-on, pretty unsheltered by what he said he saw to be “everything just happening, without meaning or purpose”. But then born-again Christians and spirituality converts don’t seem to have chosen a terribly easy message, either, given public animosity to their ‘extremist’ beliefs. So maybe radical non-duality is a form of last-gasp ‘salvation’, though I’m skeptical.
Carla: There have been ‘glimpses’, I think they’re called, where it seemed clear that there was no Carla, no anyone, nothing real, just things apparently happening. They came with a sense of tremendous relief, of “Duh, this is so obvious, how could I not have seen it before?”. But if that’s the ‘natural reality’ then the illusory Carla would seem to be enormously obstinate about accepting it, because she seems to be still here, in spades.
Thea: Well, maybe not obstinate, but instead, just conditioned? If we have no free will — if there is no free will because there’s no one to have it — then the illusory Carla, despite her intrigue with the radical non-duality message, has absolutely no control over what she believes. Conditioned behaviour may be just an appearance, though it’s a pretty compelling one.
Carla: Except of course that if there’s no purpose or meaning to anything, conditioned behaviour could only be just a story, another pattern we only think is real, like faces in clouds or characters in dreams… You know there are other scientists from my grandfather’s time who said some very similar things. Neuroscientist Anil Seth, for example, argued that what we “experience” as being “the world” is merely our mental model of it. He said: “When we agree on our hallucinations, we call that reality. And the experience of being a self is also a controlled hallucination generated by the brain… We ‘predict’ our selves into existence.” And then there is physicist Sean Carroll saying that all explanations about the nature of space and time fail to pass scientific muster and that the most credible explanation left is that “the universe just is” and we cannot know how or why — that there is no time or space, just an “infinite field of possibilities”.
Thea: Yes, but Sean also argued for a “multiverse” explanation of reality, and my sense is that “the universe just is” was his fallback if that explanation didn’t pan out. There’s a big gap between “we don’t know what reality is” and “we can’t know what reality is, because there is no one to know anything”. I think it’s a bit like Stephen J Gould’s lifelong desire to convince the world that religion and science were “non-overlapping magisteria”, that they could both be “right” and valuable in their own domains. Everyone really wanted to believe it, but, unlike his other work, it never really held water.
Carla: So you’re saying that we can’t have it both ways? That if radical non-duality is true, then science is no more than a story with some apparently useful lessons, but no answers for the larger questions like the nature of reality or the self. In which case belief that science is in any way ‘true’ is just deluded groupthink…. And if science is on the right track, then radical non-duality is just a mental disorder, an unprovable, unrealistic fairy tale that sweeps all the hard questions and issues facing the world under the rug as being moot and “without meaning or purpose”.
Thea: I don’t like having to label either science or radical non-duality as some kind of mental illness, though I agree they’re incompatible, irreconcilable. They can’t both be right, unless we redefine what ‘right’ means in some equivocal way. But nevertheless, I have no problem seeing the ‘logic’ in both of them, and acting ‘as if’ either is true, depending on the circumstances of the moment. After all we’ve been through, if we can’t live with a little ambiguity, uncertainty, and cognitive dissonance, we’re not going to be able to cope.
Carla: I guess so. But even if science were to gain a little humility, and radical non-duality were to become a little more compassionate, I can’t see that there could ever be a bridge between the two. If our grandfathers had actually met, it’s possible that they wouldn’t have got along at all. Tim’s message, and Carlo’s theory, really had no common thread.
Thea: Yes, except that they both cared deeply about other people, and about the world. And they were both inveterate skeptics, constantly challenging everything, including their own assumptions and beliefs.
Carla: Maybe they could have been like David Bohm and J Krishnamurti, who worked so hard to appreciate each other’s ideas about the world and reality and human nature, even though they came to those ideas from utterly different perspectives. Perspectives arguably as irreconcilable as our grandfathers’. Maybe some kind of half-way ‘convergence’ is the best one can achieve.
Thea: Hmm. Makes me think of the lines from TS Eliot: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Carla: What an astonishing world this is, where more than 8 billion people can manage to convince each other that they have some kind of basic shared view of the truth about themselves and the world, when it’s entirely based on a mental model that is, at best, a very ragged representation of what is really true, and at worst, is a complete misconception.
Thea: Yeah. If only we could be more like the wild creatures around us, whose brain cycles are mostly focused on perceiving rather than conceiving, and which accept everything as it apparently is, instead of trying to attach meaning and make sense of everything.
Carla: My grandfather was intrigued by the famous article by Thomas Nagel asking “What is it like to be a bat?” I think he concluded that science could never answer that perfectly fair and important question. But my sense is that, if the bat, like everything else, is simply an appearance, a manifestation, then being a bat isn’t “like” anything. If there is no bat “self”, and there is no real time, then there is simply being, in the same perfect, inseparable, timeless, wondrous way that there is for very young children. There is no need for anything to have to be real, for anything to have a self, for there to be real time or space, or for anything to be ‘known’. Everything is enough.
Thea: Wow. Maybe that’s the bridge.
Carla: Hah! Well, it will have to wait for now. We have a soil reamendment workshop to attend. After you.