The Limits of Knowledge (3)

being-here and emptiness (l)

The perdurance of existence in time is predicated on forging ever new relationships through combination, dissolution and re-combination — change and movement intended to satisfy what appears to be an inexplicable need for existence. What presence does is to tap its own potential for continued presence. Potential for existence can be said to be an emptiness of presence that seeks to be filled.

NOTE: “emptiness” ― I use the word as a metaphor for the conatus, or drive to survive. I characterize it as a “hunger” or a “thirst” for existence. It’s something we experience with varying degrees of intensity and “realization” throughout our lives. The term is central to the vision of Nagárjuna, a 2nd century (ce) Mahayana Buddhist for whom “emptiness” refers to the fact that we do not possess existence independently but are rather “empty” of existence because we are dependent on other causes for our being here. For the Thomist tradition, with its emphasis on the ontological dependency of all things on esse in se subsistens, the same meaning is broadened and deepened.

Hence its creativity. The thrust of its energies is always directed toward more secure ways of being-here. But, we have to ask, if existence is-here-now and is-here endlessly, how is it that the goal of its quest is still existence?

It is the very restless instability of being-here, it’s apparent radical inse­curity, its abhorrence for the entropy that is its destiny, that appears to be the source of the endless energy of its explorations. Existence is not reconciled to its fate. This characteristic of existence may have eluded identification when found in primitive, pre-life forms, but it reveals itself with indisputable clarity in living things. Life, as a manifestation of matter’s energy, proves that existence is a mad desire, disruptive, violent, implacable.[2] The creativity of being-here is not a serene contemplative appreciation or a leisured aesthetic browsing. It is a passionate craving, an existential fury that seems to have no end.

Matter’s energy is the locus of this insatiability. We say that because we see it functioning across the board. The frenzy of the oak tree to reach the sun, pathetic as it might appear, is not unfamiliar to us. We do the same in our own way as does every living thing that we know. The universality of the phenomenon of a generalized existential hunger that becomes growth, accumulation and self-aggrandizement, and I contend, evo­lu­tionary development, reveals to us the inherent qualities of matter’s energy of which we are all made. Understanding that the qualities of life are due to its sub-atomic constituents, explains why insatiability, and from there, dissatisfaction, desire, anguish, ob­ses­sion — suffering — is the lot of all organic life made from this universal, primordial clay. Humans are not exempt. Suffering, the sentient side of emptiness, cannot be ignored or assuaged. Any relief proves to be only temporary. It is endemic not only to life, but, we conclude, to matter’s energy itself. To be is to live; to live is to suffer the throes of surviving. To survive — to stay the same — is to change, evolve, develop, complexify. It is to create out of emptiness a world teeming with life.

Life reveals reality. Once given the extended range of possibilities offered by that particular re-arrangement of matter’s energy we call “life,” it appears that existence flies its true colors. Presence is passionately and ruthlessly self-involved. Our praise for nature’s exquisite balance cannot fail to recognize that this balance is achieved by an almost universal violent predation, as one species survives by heartlessly taking the life of another in order to incorporate its vital organic structures into its own. Predatory activity across the board is the basic tool of the natural system. In most cases it appears that evolutionary speciation — the very design of species — is a response to available prey, euphemistically called a “niche,” or a “food source.” Thus “nature” implants its blind lust for life, and seems impervious to the slaughter it engenders. On the one hand, this points up the unity and homogeneity of all material reality, for in fact one “entity” serves to support another. On the other, hunger, hardly a metaphor in this case, appears to direct the process. Naturally the metaphors we use are themselves human as is the apparatus and the model, which is ourselves. Emptiness, hunger, are words that refer to human feelings that correspond to need. I don’t apologize for this use of words. We can’t escape from the fact that we, too, are-here; we survive by violence and we understand ourselves intimately by an understanding that recognizes that what constitutes us is our implacable conatus.

We saw in chapter 3 that certain activities, like self-replication and aggregation, once considered the exclusive domain of living things have also been discovered in non-living entities. We go even further and say that the very physical dynamisms operating in inanimate energy’s relationships — gravitation, the strong and weak forces inside the atom, electromagnetism, chemical valences and molecular attraction — are actually constitutive elements of matter’s energy as it aggregates, forming bound relationships, the better to survive. Words like “life” and “survive” are metaphors for pre-life integration taken from a resemblance to living things and human experience. But I claim they represent something real in the most fundamental forms of matter. We have identified that energy as the conatus, the self-embrace of existence, a dynamism that uses similar strategies in response to an existential lack that characterizes all of matter’s energy.

Lack? I believe we have touched a raw nerve in the organism of universal reality, an existential scar of such proportion that we are justified in calling matter’s endless energy a function of emptiness. We understand the conatus as a wound of emptiness, because we understand ourselves.

east and west

While diverse cultures may agree on how to describe “emptiness,” they have interpreted it variously and responded to it in different ways. In the West, following the belief in the transcendent importance of the individual person, need is identified as an obstacle to a­chieve­ment, self-tran­scen­dence. “Need” becomes a challenge — something to be overcome. Emptiness, therefore, as an inherent and permanent defining factor integrates only as antagonist to “self-tran­scen­­­dence. ”

In the East, on the other hand, Buddhists have a different take. Emptiness, they say, is constitutive of reality. Denying it is fatal and can be considered symptomatic of the human problem. Denial implies succumbing to the illusion of the possible permanence of the experiencing “self” and thus intensifies suffering. Buddhists believe that the false understanding of what the “self” really is (ultimately based on a mis-interpreta­tion of what existence really is), encourages us to believe that we can somehow eliminate emptiness by engorging our “selves” with existence — meaning the accumulations that are falsely thought to protect us against ultimate loss. That naturally includes wealth and power, and in our times, life-protecting and life-extending technology. Religious practice as insurance for the after-life may be considered in this category. These accumulations promise to erase suffering, death, and ultimate­­ly permit us to live forever as our “selves” in another world.

The Buddhist view challenges these presuppositions. The hoarding, grasping selfishness created by the illusion that permanence can be achieved for the “self,” only intensifies suffering for ourselves and everyone around us. What the realization called “enligh­t­enment” does, they say, is to “awaken” us from the dream of permanence and to what is really real. From the point of view espoused in our reflections here, understanding reality to be matter’s energy permits us to recognize that the permanent self is an illusion, that the craving and desire for this permanence is an unavoidable natural deception born of the internal dynamism of matter’s energy, the emptiness which fuels the survival drive, that cannot be permanently satisfied. The implication is that we should understand emptiness as the ultimate definition of individuated reality. The appearance and increased complexification of the integrated function in the evolution of life is a direct product of the hun­gry emptiness that resides at the core of all reality, driving it to aggregate and integrate in order to avoid dissolution. Identity, then, which by reproduction creates species, is fundamentally an expression of existential need — emptiness.

The corollary to this Buddhist realization-awakening, one suspects, hovering in the background though officially unexpressed, is that what really exists and endures is the Whole of being-here taken as a Totality. It is the basis for the doctrine of anatman, the unreality of the “self.” What Buddhism claims to conquer is the aggravation of the cycle of suffering brought on by the mis-interpre­ta­­tion of what this “individual self” really is and therefore from the point of view of our reflections in this essay, what being-here, existence, with its endless conatus really is. We cannot escape suffering, they say, because we cannot escape from the emptiness and the consequent hunger for existence — the unreality ­— that resides at the core of things. Life ultimately cannot unseat death. Entropy wins.

Buddhism seems to suggest that to know reality is to understand the impermanence — the non-reality — of each and every feature and fact that emerges composed of matter’s energy taken individually and apart from the Whole. Each individual manifestation of presence suffers from the same vulnerability because, at root, it cannot escape the primordial emptiness of its existential building blocks. The conatus characterizes all the strategies of survival and development as we saw. We are all made of the same “clay,” and so, by ourselves, we all manifest the same characteristic impermanence that not only drives the communitarian strategy of matter’s energy but also explains the clinging, grasping self-involved insecurity that causes so much human suffering. The source of the energy at the base of the pyramid of reality is the emptiness inherent in any given separate manifestation of being-here. The conatus appears as if it were a reaction to an absence of existence. But how can this be?


[2] This approximates Schopenhauer’s proposal that being is “will.”

One comment on “The Limits of Knowledge (3)

  1. saluman73 says:

    These three last posts on the “Limits of Knowledge” deserve a three week post-grad course, but they are very rewarding for anyone who takes the time to study them. I put a note on my PC that sums up for me a good part of Tony’s message: “To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.” Tony calls it “the limits of knowledge”. I would say it is the beginning and the end of knowledge. It is also a kind of mystical enlightenment where suddenly one realizes that one has always known everything that one will ever know, and paradoxically, that one ultimately knows nothing but becomes everything.We know everything by existing, because we have become everything. Try reading these last three blog entries about ten times. Tony, thank you. Sal Umana

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