2018-10-01 concepts

Emptiness, impermanence

Hey all -

+ what I learned or rediscovered recently

* Emptiness

In the last newsletter about Eastern philosophy, I wrote about the limits of logic. Namely, when you get really precise in defining something, it ceases to be that thing.

For example, we can plainly observe when someone is “alive” or not. But when we really zoom in, we find there is no magical switch for dead or alive. Instead, we must ask clarifying questions like: Can they breathe? Does their heart still beat? Is there brain activity? And what if these functions are machine-assisted? If we zoom in far enough, the line separating one thing from another begins to blur.

There’s also another way in which things as we know them can disappear. It’s by acknowledging the part: as we know them.

Consider your computer. Is it really, universally, objectively a “computer”? If so, what would an ant see, or a blind person? What would George Washington see, or Genghis Khan? Of course they would not see a “computer,” but rather only what is salient or useful to them.

The point of this is to demonstrate that it is only a computer to you. The way it looks, the way it feels, the way it functions - it’s not like that for everyone. All of that is perspective-dependent.

In other words, there is no true computer there, only a “computer”. In Eastern philosophy, this comes up as emptiness or voidness. That thing is empty of any true, universal existence or meaning. Meaning simply manifests in relation to whoever is observing.

Why is this informative? Because it helps us fight the completely natural temptation to be “right” all the time. You can be right, and I can be right, and so can the ant. We each have our own way of seeing things. By acknowledging this fundamental subjectivity, we become more open to and tolerant of other points of view[1].

* Impermanence

We humans demand stability, predictability and order. We build things to last: our buildings, our relationships, our rules, our knowledge. We crave permanence.

But upon closer inspection, which of these things are actually permanent? Did your family always exist, or your friendships, or the buildings around you? And will they continue to exist?

These things may look solid - today - but over time they are anything but. The idea of permanence is a conveniently human illusion, a wrinkle in reality’s fabric. On a long enough timescale, everything comes and goes.

In other words, reality fundamentally operates on change[2]. It is not static, but rather in a constant state of evolution, dissolution, transformation and recreation.

This is not to say that we should not strive for permanence. If permanence is a conveniently human illusion, so be it!

But a fundamental impermanence teaches us to be okay with change. After all, it’s the natural order of things. Whether good or bad, “this too shall pass.”[3]

Thanks for reading,


[1] This philosophical position of “truth relativism” has its critics. Namely, if everyone is right in their own way - that is, truth is relative to them - then there is no way of discouraging behavior which appears objectively worse than other behavior, such as murder. Without diving too deeply into it, I would argue that “murder” is worse according to modern society - but not necessarily for societies of the past, or for aliens.

[2] In fact, time - from a physics perspective - is literally defined by a change in space (entropy). If there is no change, there is no time.

[3] A great quote by Abraham Lincoln: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”