Manifestly, an Imagined Conversation

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.

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4 Responses to Manifestly, an Imagined Conversation

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dave
    Couple of thoughts on Carlo Rovelli and your ideas about non-duality.

    Tom Murphy, at Do the Math, says today:
    ” The main cognitive revolution happened about 70,000 years ago when humans started to believe in things that do not exist (like spirits or potential future gains) that allowed large-scale coordination and shared identity to outcompete evolution’s more biophysical tricks of sharp teeth/claws, speed, strength, camouflage, poison, or overwhelming numbers. “

    The question I pose is whether Carlo would describe spirits as “not existing”. The belief in spirits can certainly interact with a human body and move it in one direction or the other. As I understand him, Carlo would describe spirits as “existing” because the definition of “existing” is “ability to interact with another system”….and the belief in spirits can evidently move human behavior. If we wanted to quibble, we might argue that it is only the belief that is real, while the spirits are not real…because there is no spirit to interact with the system we call “ourself” other than the one invented by my own imagination.

    We frequently say that “measurement” is required for quantum level existence. But I take that term to simply mean that we can interact with the other system and get some information from it. If it is a piece of metal that has been in a fire, we sense that it is hot. As we get more scientific, we develop precision measuring devices as prosthetics to our natural senses. If we can imagine a pice of a previously unknown metal floating in empty space, interacting with nothing at all, then we can’t say anything about it. If we limit “what exists” to “what we can sense about something…with or without prosthetic devices, then the piece of metal does not exist. If the metal falls to earth and we can perceive it, then it starts to exist. The definition of “exist” is, therefore, “something that we can perceive, with or without prosthetics”.

    I can assure you that the constellation of systems which periodically publishes perceptive articles which enter my eyes and my brain and trigger my own imagination certainly does exist. The name we have arbitrarily bestowed on that constellation of systems is “Dave”.

    Don Stewart

  2. Hilary Neilson says:

    For now, although you present an interesting scenario, I will stay firmly with Carlo himself. Although I will be the very person to be open to a transcendent experience, especially as I get older, I will also look back to my reading of Mark Solms, rather than Thomas Nagel. The ‘hard problem’ of consciousness been answered to my satisfaction.

    Sometimes the little boy’s question ‘why?’ (from Cliss’s website) will have a clear answer. Most often, it seems to me that this is not the best question. Maybe ‘why?’ has passed out of my repertoire as I accept my inability to follow the mathematics to the end, as Rovelli may do. But my observation is that my physical and mental individuality, materials and energies gathered together and maintaining themselves against entropy by virtue of being alive for a short timespan, ‘feels like’ some figure against the ground of being. I just am, for now, just doing the best I can, and not worrying too much about it. Afterwards, nothing, though I can see why any idea of a Great Something is a comfort, and why I try to have compassion for the very religious members of my family even if I don’t see them much.

    The dichotomy you explore is harder for me to address because of the young and female partners in dialogue. I want them to reach a position of accommodation, which they will, without coming to blows as they tend their garden (maybe there is an old woman picking beans listening to them). There would be no comparable difficulty challenging the ‘overculture’ whose conflicts have undone us.

  3. Mary says:

    The problem I have with radical non-duality is that I think you’d have to have had a very fortunate life to accept it – because you are effectively saying to survivors (AND perpetrators!!!) of rape or domestic violence or horrific burns, etc, etc, or people starving to death or in terrible pain from cancer or serious injury that none of it is real – from the perspective of a survivor, it feels like a form of gaslighting, having our lived and very much physically felt experience virtually denied, told that none of it was actually real, just a “manifestation”.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: Tom’s thesis reminds me of Julian Jaynes’ argument about the integration of the bicameral brain, except he dates it to less than 5,000 years ago. If Carlo responds to this blog post, I will ask him your question. As for your reassurance about Dave, I’m afraid I am not reassured by it. That may come down to what we mean by ‘exist’.

    (I replied off-line to Hilary)

    Hi Mary: The point you raise is constantly top-of-mind for me. I live with a woman who suffers from three chronic pain conditions, which leave her in pain 24/7 and often debilitated. She’s a psychologist, skilled at helping women dealing with chronic illness, trauma, addiction and homelessness. She is quite interested in my preoccupation with radical non-duality, and, while we both agree that its arguments could be used (probably annoyingly and ineffectively) to try to gaslight survivors of horrific experiences and chronic illnesses, she doesn’t see the message as being fundamentally dismissive of human suffering.

    Tim has repeatedly said that, without the sense of self and separation, everything, including pain, is if anything felt more acutely, since there is no longer an ‘intermediary’ trying to cope with it, rationalizing it, and telling stories about it. ‘Freedom’ from the sense of self and separation is not constant bliss or nirvana, the messengers of radical non-duality emphasize. It is just seeing through an illusion. The only thing that changes is how ‘everything’ is related to, perceived as. Thoughts and feelings (including excruciating ones) continue to arise.

    Whatever word is used to describe what is neither real nor unreal — ‘appearance’, ‘manifestation’, something ‘obvious’ or ‘evident’ — is not to deny the intensity or impact of it. I suffered on and off for almost 40 years from severe depression, which was often so incapacitating, exhausting and miserable that I actively researched effective ways to commit suicide. My depression was ‘all in my head’, and I have now been free of it (for reasons I do not know) for nearly 15 years. But the Noonday Demon left its mark. I have also, on one occasion, been in such acute physical pain that, had I been able to easily end my life during that time, I would have done so in an instant. So I have enormous respect and compassion for those who have survived much worse, and would never belittle their ordeal or suffering. But I don’t believe they are incompatible with the message of radical non-duality.

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