To be ultimately real is to be: independent, self-grounding, self-sustaining and self-motivated. Yet careful attention to the manifold totality of sense-experience reveals any given thing to be marked by impermanence, incompleteness and indeterminacy.
Nothing in experience, whether classed as a mental or physical factor, escapes definition by these three marks or traits. Things exist, in that they stand out (existere) momentarily when we draw provisional boundaries to distinguish and separate distinct elements from the matrix of experience. But things which do exist, also do not exist, both exist and do not exist, and neither exist nor do not exist, simultaneously. All of these values (positive, negative, both, neither) equally apply because any given thing is composed of a duration of experience, which lasts for a certain amount of instances of time. Within this duration of successive instances of time, the same thing would have gone through a number of changes in state, satisfying any of the aforementioned logical positions, which can be restated in these following terms:
Being in dependence on causes and conditions outside of itself, a thing’s existence is always contingent on the existence of other factors, factors which also exhibit the traits of impermanence, incompleteness and indeterminacy. Thus, things do exist but can only exist in a contradictory manner, in which a thing’s existential being simultaneously implies its non-being, its becoming, and its dissolution. Because of this contradictory character, no existing thing which appears to awareness as either an aspect of cognition, an object of reflection, or sense-impression, or any combinatoric configuration of these, can satisfy the criteria for what it means for something to be truly and ultimately real.
No thing is real, everything is unreal. But this itself does not imply the unreality of reality—only that no thing in experience can be posited as ultimately real. In spite of the truth of the unreality of conditioned existence, it is undeniable that we are constantly seeking reality. Our desire for reality, for the true and the unmediated, is a driving force which animates our life. It is a leading principle which guides our developmental becoming and search for fulfillment. In the face of a world which only presents impermanent, incomplete and indeterminate things to a perpetually unsatisfied wanting, the thirst for reality often becomes the greatest thirst of all.
A problem arises when we seek to establish and found reality for ourselves with the things of conditioned existence serving as its foundation. For a foundation which is composed of impermanent, incomplete and indeterminate elements will necessarily fall apart with time, for its apparent being mutually implies its actual non-being, its potential becoming and necessary dissolution. The establishment and founding of reality upon or as an unconditioned element may be a solution to the problem of founding reality in a world that is in a perpetual state of flux, since such an unconditioned element would, hypothetically, not suffer the same kind of contradictory changes in state as a conditioned one.
An unconditioned element would be that which is not only free of all conditions, but would serve as a transcendental condition for all other conditions. It itself would not be a thing, but the basis of all things. And if our language can only describe experience in terms of conditioned things, then it would not be possible for language, and hence thought, to establish the basis for knowledge of this unconditioned element. Hence, the best we have in our discursive tool set is the use of literary devices or figurative speech in the forms of allusion, analogy, metaphor, and simile.
If conditioned elements are things, then the unconditioned element would be like a way of apprehending the things, not being a thing in itself. To realize the unconditioned element in the face of the unreality of conditioned existence, one would have to change the way in which they apprehend the contents of experience. It would be a kind of apprehension which does not take things to be as they appear, but engages with them in concern. It would be a process by which one moves away from being in a monologue about reality, to being in dialogue with reality. It would seem then, that the only way to become genuinely real, through the realization of the unconditioned element, is to be involved in dialogue with others. Only by respecting the interdependent and mutual conditioning of all things and the reciprocal relations that constitute their process of being and becoming, and through deep involvement in this boundless matrix of communication, can one become genuinely real, autonomous, grounded, sustained and motivated.
2 Replies to “Becoming Real in the Face of Flux”
Another brilliant exposition of Madhyamaka, and better than Nagarjuna (if that is indeed what you are attempting to do). I like the way you add ‘incompleteness’ and ‘indeterminacy’ to ‘impermanence.’ I’m guessing that you’re referring to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem of mathematical systems and similarly, the indeterminacy theory of quantum physics: ‘Quantum indeterminacy is the apparent necessary incompleteness in the description of a physical system, that has become one of the characteristics of the standard description of quantum physics.’ [Wikipedia]. Adding these other dimensions of reality expands the interpretation of ‘impermanence.’
My interpretation of what precedes conditioned things is this: the possibility of things coming into existence. The greatest philosophical question is, ‘why does anything exist at all?’ The answer is ‘shunyata’ often translated as ‘space’ or what I call: the possibility for things to come into existence and the process by which that happens. I can’t exactly describe what that possibility consists of or what that process is, but it would seem to be a necessary pre-condition for anything to exist at all. And not a ‘first cause’ per se, but a ‘first condition.’