contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Carlo Rovelli

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

EXPLORING ‘EMPTINESS’: CARLO ROVELLI AND NAGARJUNA

A modern western humanist learns from an ancient Buddhist philosopher. Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland (1) is mostly about the development of quantum mechanics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the scientists who developed it. The title references ‘Werner Heisenberg’s sojourn on the remote island of Helgoland working on the maths. But one chapter concerns the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and how his work has helped Rovelli to frame a philosophical understanding of quantum phenomena.

“When speaking about quanta and their relational nature I had frequently met people who asked: Have you read Nagarjuna? … Though not widely read in the West, the work in question is hardly an obscure or minor one: it is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. … The central thesis of Nagarjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.

“The resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate. Obviously Nagarjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of re-thinking the world, and we can employ them if they turn out to be useful. The perspective offered by Nagarjuna make perhaps make it a little easier to think about the quantum world (2).

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else. The technical term used by Nagarjuna the absence of independent existence is ‘emptiness’ (sunyata): things are ‘empty’ in the sense of having no autonomous existence. They exist thanks to, as a function of, with respect to, in the perspective of, something else.

“If I look at a cloudy sky – to take a simplistic example – I can see a castle and a dragon. Does a castle and does a dragon really exist, up there in the sky? Obviously not: the dragon and the castle emerge from the encounter between the shape of the clouds and the sensations and thoughts in my head; in themselves they are empty entities, they do not exist. So far, so easy. But Nagarjuna also suggests that the clouds, the sky, sensations, thoughts and my own head are equally things that arise from the encounter with other things: they are empty entities.

“And myself, looking at the star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one says Nagarjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I normally call my ‘self’. ‘What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist.’ There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.

“Like much philosophy and much science, Nagarjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, its absence, is vacuity. It does not exist.

“If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nagarjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure … does not exist.

….

“The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognize this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude. For Nagarjuna, samsara and nirvana are the same thing: both empty of their own existence. Non-existent.

“So is emptiness the only reality? Is this, after all, the ultimate reality? No, writes Nagarjuna, in the most vertiginous chapter of the book: every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality – and this is the case for his own perspective as well. Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.

“Nagarjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation, In fact interdependence – and this is the key argument made by Nagarjuna, requires us to forget all about autonomous essences.

“The long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has passed through matter, molecules, atoms, fields, elementary particles … and has been shipwrecked in the relational complexity of quantum field theory and general relativity. Is is possible that a philosopher from ancient India can provide us with a conceptual tool with which to extricate ourselves?”

“The fascination of Nagarjuna’s thought goes beyond questions raised by contemporary physics. His perspective has something dizzying about it. It resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. … He speaks about reality, about its complexity and comprehensibility, but he defends us from the conceptual trap of wanting to find it an ultimate foundation.

“His is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety. It recognizes the fact that to inquire about the ultimate foundation of everything is to ask a question that perhaps simply does not make sense.

“This does not shut down investigation. On the contrary, it liberates it. Nagarjuna is not a nihilist negating the reality of the world, and neither is he a sceptic denying that we can know anything about that reality. The world of phenomena is one that we can investigate, gradually improving our understanding of it. We may find general characteristics. But it is a world of interdependence and contingencies, not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute.

“I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking – thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change. There is no cardinal or final fixed point, philosophical or methodological, with which to anchor the adventure of knowledge.

“I am not a philosopher; I am a physicist: a simple mechanic. And this simple mechanic, who deals with quanta, is taught by Nagarjuna that it is possible to think of the manifestation of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself, independent from its manifestations.

“But Nagarjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.

“For me as a human being, Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: The University Press, 1995. Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century CE, is the most important, influential and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. At the time of publication Jay L. Garfield was Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hampshire in India Program, an exchange program with the Tibetan Universities in exile, at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His translation is from a Tibetan, rather than Sanskrit, text.

CARLO ROVELLI ON TIME

“We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come.”

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist working on the physics of space and time, currently directing the quantum gravity research group of the Centre de physique theoretique in Marseille, France.   In his The Order of Time (1), he is writing for a lay readership, offering a naturalist view of time and what it means to us. His reflections draw both on his professional work and his easy familiarity with art, literature, philosophy and music.

In the first section of this book, he deconstructs the time of common-sense. “Not only is there no single time for different places – there is not even a single time for any particular place. A duration can only be associated with the movement of something, with a given trajectory”. Rovelli’s Cosmos shows itself through change, events and processes – not through entities or things. We can know it only through what happens, interacts and evolves; through becoming rather than being. The notion that the present is ‘real’, while the past and future are not, only works if we define ‘present’ locally and in an approximate way.

From the standpoint of quantum mechanics, time is ‘granular’ and not continuous. (The Goddess is a pointillist). Grains, or quanta, of time last for a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. “In other words, a minimal interval of time exists. Below this, the notion of time does not exist, even in its most basic meaning”. Quanta of time, like other quanta, are ‘indeterminate’. “The substratum that determines the duration of time is not an independent entity different from the others that make up the world; it is an aspect of a dynamic field. It jumps, fluctuates, materializes only by interacting, and is not to be found beneath a minimum scale”. Yet the absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving. It is, rather, “a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”

Having arrived at this point in his narrative, Rovelli begins to play with different uses of temporal language in the same space and restores our sense of having ground to stand on. He tells the story of how, in 1967, physicists Bryce de Witt and John Wheeler developed an equation accounting for quantum gravity without any time variable. Rovelli first makes the appropriate science related point: “there is nothing mysterious about the absence of time in the fundamental equation of quantum gravity. It is only the consequence of the fact that, at the fundamental level, no special variable exists”. Then he starts talking personally – with a long passage of reminiscence about how he knew and valued de Witt and Wheeler as his “spiritual fathers” early in his career. He is signaling that the warmth of human subjectivity, kept alive in memory, and allowing for a sense of cultural ancestry, is not after all under threat. Professionally he inhabits a world of loop quantum gravity, where time and space “are approximations of a quantum dynamic that in itself knows neither space nor time”. Personally, he relishes human life and values his human sense of time.

Rovelli then asks: what is going on that allows us even to experience such a life and sense, if time isn’t, in fact, fundamental to it? He responds by talking about ‘emergence’. He reminds us that we see the sky turning around us every day, but we are the ones who are turning. “Is the daily spectacle of a revolving universe ‘illusory’?” he asks. “No, it is real, but it doesn’t involve the cosmos alone. It involves our relation with the sun. We understand it by asking ourselves how we move. Cosmic movement emerges from the relation between the cosmos and ourselves.”. In the case of time, we inhabit a cosmic niche that depends on low entropy, which in turn depends on a forward moving time. We earthlings have a source of low entropy – the sun, which sends us hot photons. The earth radiates heat towards the black sky, emitting colder photons, increasing the level of entropy. We hold that the entropy of the early universe was very low, eventually creating the conditions for our relationship with the sun to happen. But, as with the wheel of the day, this may not reflect the precise state of the universe: “The initial low entropy of the universe, and hence the arrow of time, may be more down to us than the universe itself”. For we observe the universe from within it, interacting with a minuscule proportion of the innumerable particles of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. In every experience, we are situated in the world: within a mind, a brain, a position in space, a moment in time”. Our lived experience shapes our understanding, including our experience of time.

In this sense, time as we know it is our invention, with our brain’s capacity for foresight and recollection the consequence of an evolutionary advantage within our inherited habitat. Rovelli is fine with that. It is truly the time of our experience, our hopes, our memories, our awareness of our own mortality, and much of our philosophy, poetry and music. Rovelli concludes the book with an elegant reflection:

“Song, as Augustine observed, is the awareness of time. It is time. It is the hymn of the Vedas that is itself the flowering of time. In the Benedictus of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the song of the violin is pure beauty, pure desperation, pure joy. We are suspended, holding our breath, feeling mysteriously that this must be the source of meaning, that this is time.

“Then the song fades and ceases. ‘The silver thread is broken, the golden lantern is shattered, the amphora at the fountain breaks, the bucket falls into the well, the earth returns to dust.’ And it is fine like this. We can close our eyes, rest. This all seems fair and beautiful to me. This is time.”

Carlo Rovelli The Order of Time Allen Lane, UK: 2018 Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. (Allen Lane is an imprint of Penguin Books)

 

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