Conflicting Models of Reality

The Dalai Lama’s introduction to the third chapter entitled “Emptiness, Relativity, and Quantum Physics” begins:

One of the most inspiring things about science is the change our understanding of the world undergoes in the light of new findings. The discipline of physics is still struggling with the implications of the paradigm shift it underwent as a result of the rise of relativity and quantum mechanics at the turn of the twentieth century. Scientists as well as philosophers have to live constantly with conflicting models of reality-the Newtonian model, assuming a mechanical and predictable universe, and relativity and quantum mechanics, assuming a more chaotic cosmos. The implications of the second model for our understanding of the world are still not entirely clear.

If the reader is willing to seriously consider what the Dalai Lama has to say, his understanding of the world may well change, too. At the very least, he will be reminded that how he sees the world is largely a construct determined by his environment and his culture,not an absolute reality.

In an extended metaphor, the Dalai Lama compares the common conception of self and the Buddhist “theory of emptiness” to classical physics and Quantum physics. He begins by describing the commonly accepted conception of self,

… if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.

and then explains why, from a Buddhist perspective, that concept is wrong: “The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.” Though I’d never heard this concept referred to as the philosophy of emptiness, I had encountered the concept in earlier Buddhist readings.

The Dalai Lama does a good job of explaining the theory of emptiness:

According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect-turn a key in a starter, spark plugs ignite, the engine turns over, and gasoline and oil are burned. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events would never occur. I would not be able to write on paper, and you would not be able to read the words on this page. So since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are not independent-although we may feel or intuit that we are.

Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed. Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are “empty” in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute “being” that affords independence. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is described in the Buddhist writings as emptiness,” or shunyata in Sanskrit.


In our naïve or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess an enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another. We believe that intrinsically real seeds produce intrinsically real crops at an intrinsically real time in an intrinsically real place. Each member in this causal nexus-the seed, time, place, and effect-we take to have solid ontological status. This view of the world as made of solid objects and inherent properties is reinforced further by our language of subjects and predicates, which is structured with substantive nouns and adjectives on the one hand and active verbs on the other.

But everything is constituted by parts-a person is body and mind both. Furthermore, the very identity of things is contingent upon many factors, such as the names we give them, their functions, and the concepts we have about them.

I’m not entirely convinced by the Dalai Lama’s explanation, but it has opened my mind to the possibility of seeing the world this way. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d never heard the term ecosystem and tended to think of environmental problems as a particular problem instead of a series of interconnected problems. This concept, though more fundamental to our thinking, doesn’t seem too dissimilar.

I was struck that some of the Tibetan debates the Dalai Lama described reminded me of the debate between Aristotle and Plato:

This issue has long been a focus of discussion in Buddhist thought. On one extreme are the Buddhist “realists,” who believe that the material world is composed of indivisible particles which have an objective reality independent of the mind. On the other extreme are the “idealists,” the so-called Mind-only school, who reject any degree of objective reality in the external world. They perceive the external material world to be, in the final analysis, an extension of the observing mind. There is, however, a third standpoint, which is the position of the Prasangika school, a perspective held in the highest esteem by the Tibetan tradition. In this view, although the reality of the external world is not denied, it is understood to be relative. It is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts. The notion of a pre-given, observer-independent reality is untenable. As in the new physics, matter cannot be objectively perceived or described apart from the observer — matter and mind are co-dependent.

Aristotle seems closest to the “realists” while Plato was roughly the equivalent of the “idealists.” When I first encountered the two in a college philosophy class, I was certain that I agreed with Aristotle, who’s concepts come closest to modern science. Over the years, though, I often found myself agreeing with literary critics and psychologists who seem tied to various forms of Platonism. I began to wonder if Plato’s “ideals” actually come from some place inside the human brain, if genes may determine how we see the world. If there are archetypes, could they be the result of the way the human brain perceives outside stimuli?

The Dalai Lama makes it clear that the Buddhist understanding of the world is different than the Western view:

This recognition of the fundamentally dependent nature of reality-called “dependent origination” in Buddhism- lies at the very heart of the Buddhist understanding of the world and the nature of our human existence. In brief, the principle of dependent origination can be understood in the following three ways. First, all conditioned things and events in the world come into being only as a result of the interaction of causes and conditions. They don’t just arise from nowhere, fully formed. Second, there is mutual dependence between parts and the whole; without parts there can be no whole, without a whole it makes no sense to speak of parts. This interdependence of parts and the whole applies in both spatial and temporal terms. Third, anything that exists and has an identity does so only within the total network of everything that has a possible or potential relation to it. No phenomenon exists with an independent or intrinsic identity.

And the world is made up of a network of complex interrelations. We cannot speak of the reality of a discrete entity outside the context of its range of interrelations with its environment and other phenomena, including language, concepts, and other conventions. Thus, there are no subjects without the objects by which they are defined, there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them, there are no doers without things done. There is no chair without legs, a seat, a back, wood, nails, the floor on which it rests, the walls that

The more I run this concept through my head, the more plausible it seems, though I wonder if it’s ever really possible to totally understand a major concept from another culture. A quick check on the internet reveals that, at best, I only have a superficial understanding of this concept.

The Dalai Lama points out that the difficulty Westerners have reconciling classic physics with Quantum physics is similar to the problem Buddhists have reconciling a commonsense view of the world with the philosophy of emptiness.

Somewhat parallel problems arose in Buddhist philosophy in relation to the disparity between our commonsense view of the world and the perspective suggested by Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness. Nagarjuna invoked the notion of two truths, the “conventional” and the “ultimate,” relating respectively to the everyday world of experience and to things and events in their ultimate mode of being, that is, on the level of emptiness. On the conventional level, we can speak of a pluralistic world of things and events with distinct identities and causation. This is the realm where we can also expect the laws of cause and effect, and the laws of logic-such as the principles of identity, contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle-to operate without violation. This world of empirical experience is not an illusion, nor is it unreal. It is real in that we experience it. A grain of barley does produce a barley sprout, which can eventually yield a barley crop. Taking a poison can cause one’s death and, similarly, taking a medication can cure an illness. However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, things and events do not possess discrete, independent realities. Their ultimate ontological status is “empty” in that nothing possesses any kind of essence or intrinsic being.

It’s tempting to dismiss theories that don’t conform to our everyday reality, but we can only do so at a cost. It’s impossible, though, to deny the benefits gained from those who can see the world through the lens of Quantum Physics rather than through the “laws” of Classical Physics.

I’m not sure if I will ever be able to change the essential way I see the world, so it’s comforting when the Dalai Lama says:

The paradoxical nature of reality revealed in both the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness and modern physics represents a profound challenge to the limits of human knowledge. The essence of the problem is epistemological: How do we conceptualize and understand reality coherently? Not only have Buddhist philosophers of emptiness developed an entire understanding of the world based on the rejection of the deeply ingrained temptation to treat reality as if were composed of intrinsic real objective entities but they have also striven to live these insights in their day-to-day lives. The Buddhist solution to this seeming epistemological contradiction involves understanding reality in terms of the theory of two truths.

Though I doubt I could ever learn to see the world either through the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness or the concepts of Quantum Physics, it’s fascinating to see how others see the world quite differently than I, we, do. Keeping an “open mind” might well be the most important thing you accomplish from getting outside your comfort zone.

What do you think?