September 3, 2010

Food for Thought

Posted in Philosophers tagged , at 10:32 pm by tiffanyannbrown

From an article entitled “Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics,” by Victor Mansfield of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Colgate University in New York (click here for link to full article), here is some food for thought!

If phenomena don’t independently exist, then how do they exist? The Middle Way tells us that they dependently exist in three fundamental ways. First, phenomena exist dependent upon causes and condition. For example, carrots depend upon soil, sunlight, moisture, freedom from rodents, and so forth. Second, phenomena depend upon their parts and attributes. A carrot depends upon its greens, stem, root hairs, and so on. Third, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or designations. From the rich panoply of experience, I collect the sense qualities, personal associations, and psychological reactions to carrots together and name then or designate them as “carrot.” The mind’s proper function is to construct its world, the only world we can know. The error enters because along with naming comes the false attribution of inherent existence, that foundation for desire and aversion.

I found this article quite interesting because it provides a new way of thinking about what something or someone really is – dynamic and ever-changing as opposed to static and definable. And interdependent as opposed to independent. The author also illustrates the point that a single person or possession can mean many different things to many different people.  Who or what then is this person or that thing? Nothing more than the sum of its associations? How does what we think about or how we think in general affect our own realities? What can we do to change the way we think about things and people in order to live a more purposeful and constructive existence?

Though the point of the article was actually to draw comparisons between Buddhism and modern physics, I found it enjoyable on a variety of levels, but mostly because it points to the idea that everything on Earth is interconnected from the level of science. The author also touches on such concepts as the theory of relativity, its link to our concept of what time really is, as well as the theory of Boltzmann’s box which proved that atoms cannot exist separately even when isolated.  He writes:

In contrast, we could ask what happens when our philosophic view embraces the false notion of independent existence. The late David Bohm, known for both the depths of his physics and philosophy, said it very directly when he wrote:

‘It is proposed that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and “broken up” into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.’

According to Bohm, many of the evils of our modern world are traceable to a view where “Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent.” In other words, one in which things inherently exist. I tried to show above that, although we commonly assume for simplicity that a system, such as Boltzmann’s box, is independent from its surroundings, such a view misleads us. This is bad enough in physics, but when a race, nation, or person views themselves as fundamentally independent, then the stage is set for calamity—the stuff of our daily headlines.

Click here to learn more about Middle Way Buddhism.

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