It’s not surprising that quantum mechanics, the branch of physics that studies the smallest level of reality, has many conflicting interpretations to what’s really happening and what actually exists. A book I read recently, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, discusses many areas of science that relate to the anthropic principle, some of the most interesting of which are the interpretations of quantum mechanics (QM), in particular, the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI). This is what we’ll look at today:

From The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1988):
“The question of why does this universe rather than that universe exist is answered by saying that all logically possible universes do exist. What else could there possibly be? The MWI cosmology enlarges the ontology in order to economize on physical laws.”

By the way, I have a lot of “stars” in the text below, which correspond to notes at the bottom that give a bit of physics details for those who are interested (it’s not necessary to read though).

One of the many problems in QM we still need to solve is how to make sense of observers. Namely, us, the ones who perform experiments. We seem to have a peculiar influence over what happens to particles at the subatomic level just by observing them. Indeed, before a measurement of a particle is taken (usually something like its position or speed. I’ll just talk about position though), the usual interpretation, called the Copenhagen Interpretation, says that the particle exists in a “superposition” of states: not at any particular location. It is spread out over a certain area and is described by a wavefunction (usually denoted by ψ). Although the particles is more likely to be found in a particular area, it can still be found outside this region.*1

The interpretation favoured by the Copenhagenists is that when an observation is made, the wavefunction “collapses” to a particular value. When we weren’t looking, it was spread out over a large area, existing, in a sense, in many places at once, but now, it is nicely settled at a single point in space. In the picture below, the graph on the left shows the probability of observing a particle in a particular location (in x and y coordinates, so two dimensionally). This is represented by the particle's wavefunction (ψ) on the vertical axis.*The particle isn’t “in” any one spot, but spread out over an area, though it is most likely to be found at the peak.

However, when an observation or measurement is made, the wavefunction collapses so that the particle is now in a particular spot (the spike on the graph to the right). So, as the physicist Niels Bohr said, “an independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor the agencies of observations.” Observation, in a sense, brings the properties of particles into being—they never really “existed” beforehand.

This interpretation seems ludicrous, and there are some serious issues with it as well.*3 This might just be how nature works, but fortunately, there are also other options available to us. First, the uncertainty in our description of QM (for example, of locating a particle) is probably just that: it is only an uncertainty in our description, which is tailor-made for human experience. It describes our uncertain knowledge of the world, not an uncertainty in the world itself. There is an inherent limitation to what we can know (from our limited senses and the fact that we have to interact with the world when we observe it) but that doesn’t mean that the world is actually “uncertain” and existing in many states before it’s observed. It’s naïve to assume that we can know everything through our senses and the mathematics we have created; it’s more reasonable to assume that as creatures living in three spatial dimensions, able to travel one direction in time and being mostly limited to our five senses, if we dig deep enough, there may be some things we can only understand probabilistically—but that’s not to say that this is the way they are, just the way they are to our perceptions. There must be a physical reality independent of our observations even if we can’t observe it, because otherwise, what would our probabilistic descriptions be describing? Thus, it’s important to distinguish between the mathematics we use to describe the world, and the world itself, which need not be constrained by our theories and human limitations.*4

This ties in with a different interpretation of QM called the Many Worlds Interpretation.*5 In this theory, each quantum mechanical possibility occurs in a different world. Introduced by Hugh Everett and endorsed by many physicists today (for example, Max Tegmark, said, “Accepting quantum mechanics to be universally true means that you should also believe in parallel universes.”), in the MW interpretation, every quantum mechanical possibility happens, but each occurs in a different world.*6 So everything happens, and there are nearly infinite possibilities! So think about every possible universe, those that are only slightly different to ours (e.g., one in which your favourite colour is red instead of purple) and ones that have entirely different planets, solar systems, and galaxies. In this scenario, the observer has no magical ability to make wavefunctions collapse, but rather, when they make a measurement, they only measure the particle’s position in their particular universe. Everett said that “it is not so much the system which is affected by an observation as the observer,” so the MW approach is a realist view of QM (meaning, in this context, that each world exists whether we observe it or not).
So when a measurement is made on a system, all the possibilities that could happen will “split” into different worlds. If one views the universe as a whole, however, (though here, it might be better to say multiverse) there is no real splitting and no change in the particle’s wavefunction: the general wavefunction represents all the different particles that exist in every universe, even though in our particular universe, it only follows one option. The real difference is in the measuring device (or ourselves, since we perceive the particle to be in one state or another), because we measure different values depending which universe we’re in. Indeed, it’s more apt to say that the measuring device splits rather than the particle and the universe around it, because it’s the measuring device that is registering different values depending upon the state of the particle. Barrow and Tipler say that, “There is only one Universe, but small parts of it—measuring apparata—split into several pieces…upon the act of measurement.”

I find this hard to imagine physically, since, if anything in the universe splits into multiple states, where do these copies exist? They have to be somehow distinct from each other or else it wouldn’t make sense to talk about a “split” in the first place. And it isn’t as though there is “the” universe, and then off in some other plane of existence, there are various measuring devices with different readings existing in and of themselves. I can’t explain why there wouldn’t be as many universes as there are splits, even if, at the moment of the split, they all start out the identically except for the reading on the measuring device and the particle’s state. So the view of having many worlds seems to make sense only if there are many fully-fledged universes distinct from ours.*Yet later on, they mention multiple “worlds,” each with different states for the particle that is measured, which makes more sense. They say that “each measurement splits the apparatus (or equivalently, the universe).” There is only one “Universe” (capital “U” to denote all the worlds together), but this Universe represents a collection of “universes” (each with the different possible outcomes). It is the measuring device that causes the world to split, but it is not the only thing that exists in these other worlds.

To return to the quote at the start: “enlarging the ontology” simply means that there are many universes rather than one, which might seem to be superfluous. The ontology is just our description of the universe at large, and to have all possibilities happen rather than just one is certainly enlarging it. To “economize on physical laws” means that we need not evoke a strange quantum collapse that deviates from the equations of physics to describe how a particle’s wavefunction evolve: you have a wavefunction to describe the Universe, and it never splits. And if every possible universe exists, there is no need for us to specify why the universe exists the way it does: we happen to live in this universe because it is habitable to life. Of course, we wouldn’t expect to find ourselves in a universe so vastly different to ours, or else it wouldn’t harbour life.*8

This ties in with a similar explanation of the MWI described by Max Tegmark in various papers (using Everett’s original ideas). There is no “collapse” of the wavefunction: it proceeds according to physical equations.*9 It isn’t that the wavefunction “splits” into many worlds, but that all possibilities exist, even though we only perceive one of them in a given scenario (so it looks like a split). There is “apparent randomness from the inside viewpoint…[but] strict causality from the outside viewpoint,” which means that although we can’t know which state of a particle will be in when we measure it in a given experiment, we know with 100% certainty that all outcomes will happen. From an “outside” point of view, we would be able to see all the possibilities occurring, which is where the many worlds come in, since each happens in a different “world.” This is called decoherence, when you go from a quantum (small-scale, one world) description to a classical (large-scale) description within one of the worlds. So it “is essentially indistinguishable from the effect of a postulated Copenhagen wavefunction collapse from an observational (inside) point of view.”

Thus, there is no real randomness to the universe: it only appears so to us because we cannot predict which outcome we will end up with in our universe. Tegmark says “whenever a quantum event appears to have a random outcome, all outcomes in fact occur, one in each branch [universe].” There is nothing random or uncertain about the wavefunction itself: it follows certain physical laws just like the objects in the macroscopic world, but “observers subjectively experience this splitting merely as a slight randomness.”

The MW theory thus has two descriptions: the inside view, and the outside view. Tegmark describes this as the bird’s point of view looking down on the world below (or in this case, worlds), and the point of view of a frog within one of the worlds. From the bird’s point of view, there is only universe described by a single wavefunction, and it does not split into many worlds. All these “worlds” and possibilities occur simultaneously, splitting and merging according to fixed physical laws. It is only on a smaller scale, with the frog, that ideas about randomness and probability make sense. The frog experiences a small portion of the full reality, perceiving only a single world within the entire multiverse.*10 At every instant, when there are multiple outcomes that can arise in a given situation, the bird can see each of them playing out, all in different worlds, whereas the frog only experiences the different worlds “as a slight randomness.” There is no real randomness, but since the frog doesn’t have access to any other worlds, it can only understand the world in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. This is why mathematics is so powerful: it allows us to temporarily rise out of the frog-level of existence and understand what’s really going.*11

This is the basic idea of how you can explain QM mechanics with the MW theory. It does, however, introduce many philosophical puzzling questions, such as:
  • If there are many copies of “you” in different worlds, each slightly different, which is the “real” you? Are they all you, are they all different people, or is it meaningless to talk about a unified self at all?
  • If the soul exists (and we have good reason to believe that it does), then is it spread out over the different copies of you, or are all copies but one “soulless”? This, however, depends on the answer to the first bullet point.
  • Is there a theory of everything to describe the many worlds as a whole, or, even from the bird’s eye view, is probability the best we could ever get?

In a future post, I’ll talk about how this can be understood within the framework of Neoplatonic philosophy, but for now, that’s another story 

*This can be seen clearly in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: ΔxΔp ³ ħ/2, where Δx is the uncertainty in the particle’s position, and Δp the uncertainty in its momentum. So the more accurately you know the position, the less accurately you know its momentum/speed, and vice versa, so you can never localize a particle precisely.

*To be more accurate, it’s actually the particle’s probability density, |ψ|2

*For instance, how can our knowledge, something that exists in our minds and is, in a sense, nonphysical, affect particles outside our bodies? If there are no observers, will the world exist? Does, say, a fruit fly count as an observer? What about an unconscious measuring device operating without any human influence? And, as in Schrodinger’s cat scenario, how can a cat be both dead and alive until we observe it?

*Some physicists don’t like this idea, saying that the unknowable properties of particles are “hidden variables” and that the underlying reality of the world involves statistics rather than certainties. But philosophically, this makes little sense. For a related topic, check out my previous blog post Platonic Realism in Physics.

*Another interpretation that could also be philosophically sound is having an “Ultimate Observer,” but I won’t get into that.

*A simple example is a system with a particle that could be spin up or spin down. Although we describe the particle as being in a superposition of the two spin states, we only measure one of these two possibilities when the spin of the particle is measured: one in which the particle is spin up, and the other spin down, each corresponding to two different universe.

*It may make sense to mathematically describe only the apparatus splitting, but when you think about what physically happens, you can see that the rest of the universe will be “copied” in the other world.

*This is the weak anthropic principle: “weak” not because it is lacking in some sense, but because it doesn’t make any grand statement about the universe. In fact, it really just states the obvious, since everything we perceive in the universe is restricted by the fact that we exist and are able to observe it, so it must be conductive to life, otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to observe anything.

*The system evolves according to the Schrodinger equation at all times. If there was a collapse, the Schrodinger equation would be violated.

*10 Decoherence “prevents them from seeing…parallel copies of themselves.” (Tegmark)

*11 I don’t mean that we can get out of probabilistic interpretations, because that is embedded in our mathematics as well, but rather, we can conceptually understand the general structure of reality and what this means for the existence of other worlds, probability, and determinism.

It might seem that Plato, one of the history’s greatest philosophers, has little or no relation to today’s science, but Plato’s ideas actually underpin the foundations of science and our understanding of the world. In particular, Plato’s forms are present in mathematics and physics, and without these eternal forms, science wouldn’t be possible. So without further to do, let’s look at a quote from a book I’ve recently finished reading:

From The Eternal Law by John H. Spencer (2015):
“Platonism is implied by physics, but, more significantly, I am arguing that Platonism is presupposed by physics and that physics is only possible because Platonic realism is true.”

Many pioneering scientists in the early 20th century, notably Planck, Pauli, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, and Schrodinger, were also aware of the importance of metaphysics and realism in fundamental science. For example, Schrodinger said that, “a real elimination of metaphysics means taking the soul out of both art and science, turning them into skeletons incapable of any further development.” So this isn’t anything new, but it’s worthwhile to look at in detail because many physicists overlook the philosophy behind their theories.

If I were to summarize Spencer’s book in one argument, it would go something like this:
1)      The universe is not chaotic, but rather, follows certain laws.
2)      If the laws underlying the universe are real, they must be nonphysical.
Conclusion 1: Materialism, the idea that everything is just matter (and energy), is false.
3)      The universe must exist objectively if these laws exist.
Conclusion 2: If the universe has an objective existence, realism is true.
4)      Realism is a form of Platonism.
Conclusion 3: Therefore, Platonism is true.

Let’s look at this in more depth. First of all, I think it’s clear that there is at least some order in the universe. From the universe at large with galaxies shaped by gravity, to life on Earth with its complicated structures and processes, to the particles out of which everything is formed, there is order and structure. If everything was indeed chaotic, ungoverned by laws, we would be unable to predict anything. All the order we perceive would then be a great coincidence, indeed, a 13.8 billion year old coincidence (the age of the universe). We can’t prove that the universe isn’t chaotic, but it’s much more reasonable to suppose that it is instead governed by certain laws. That’s not to say that we know what the ultimate laws are, but it’s enough to say that they are “real.”

This isn’t to say that “chaos theory” is wrong: chaos theory doesn’t saying that certain processes are actually random, but that some systems are so sensitive to initial conditions (such as the initial speed or height of an object before it’s released) that it’s impossible (or nearly impossible) for us to predict the outcome. In order to do so, we would have to know the initial conditions to a high degree of precision that is currently impossible. But that’s not to say that it’s behaving chaotically: it’s just that at our level of understanding, we can’t predict it, so it appears “random.”

This means that there must be things which are nonphysical. Why? Well, if physical laws and mathematics are real, then they must be nonphysical simply because you can’t go out and find the number “2” or “E = mc2” floating about in the physical world. We see instances of the number 2 (2 dogs, 2 books, etc.) and instances of E = mc2 (the energy of a certain mass can be found by this equation, and vice versa), but never the number or equation itself. And if something isn’t physical, it is therefore nonphysical (obviously). Spencer also says that “realism entails that materialism is false, because we have to admit that something can be real and yet not be physical.”

Another way to see this is that since the equations of physics are used to describe certain physical things, they can’t be physical things themselves or else they would be subject to change. Everything physical changes, and these changes are described by certain complicated laws. But the laws themselves don’t change, or else they could not accurately predict anything, and to be unchanging, something must be nonphysical. But this is just an additional way to see it: I think the idea we can never perceive a number “2” out there, or even in a certain bit of energy that somehow represents that number, is clear enough.

Next, the idea that the world must exist objectively (independent of us and our conceptions of it) naturally follows from this because if the laws are real, then they can’t just exist in our mind. If they did, they would be subjective and so dependent on our minds and perceptions, which is not at all what we observe (by the way, I’m using “universe” and “world” interchangeably). Of course, we have some subjective influence on the world, but that’s not to say that we can change anything. But the idea is that even if the world itself is not entirely objective, the laws of physics and mathematics must be, because, having just argued that they are real, they have to exist independently of what they describe. And, since they are not dependent on us (we are also what they describe), they must be objective.
There is, however, a lot of subjectivity in our perceptions of the world. There’s obviously the fact that our biases and personal opinions affect our perceptions, but additionally, we have a limited perception of the world due to our senses. We have five senses that operate in a narrow range (for example, we can only see visible light, which is a small portion of the whole electromagnetic spectrum), and if we had other senses, the world would appear to be a very different place. But none of this is to say that there is no “thing in itself” behind the world we perceive. We only know a small portion of it, but we are sensing “something” out there, namely, our perceptions of the objective world. We can certainly affect it, either physically or with our minds, but even our minds operate according to certain laws. So even if you believe that your mind shapes reality, that’s not to say that it does so completely randomly. What your mind is shaping is your perceptions of reality and how you interact with it, not the thing in itself. However, there are some things that can be said to be “more real” than others, but this is where Platonism comes in, which we’ll come to later.

Now let’s look at what realism is. Although the ordinary use of the word is often used to refer to the physical world around us, in philosophy, realism states that there is objective truth (which is why Conclusion 1 follows from points 1) and 2) right away). We can discover this truth, and it does not depend on us. Moreover, even if we never discover some particular thing, it is still “out there,” which is called a verification-transcendent truth. One such truth is that there is a mind-independent reality that we can discover, and although we can change it since we too exist within the world, it would still exist whether we do or not. This means that we cannot simply invent laws of physics and have them work. They are only truthful insofar as they correspond to reality; they must be restrained by what is “out there” or else we would only be describing a fiction, and it would be impossible to verify whether anything is true or not. Indeed, the whole notion of “truth” would collapse, leaving us in an anti-realist position.

Anti-realists claim that we invent truth, that the laws of physics are fictions we create to describe the world and don’t exist in any fundamental sense. But unless the world is chaotic and not governable by laws (though how these laws came to be is another matter entirely) then they must exist independently from us. And if this is the case, we are lead to realism at once, because if the world is governable by certain laws, even if we can’t discover what they are with the knowledge we have (now or even ever), they still can be known in principle.  Now, this isn’t to say that the laws of physics that we currently use are the right ones: the laws we have most likely approximate the actual laws, but the fact that they are not perfect is due to our own limitations, not because they don’t actually exist.

Now, we can go one step further by looking at Plato’s philosophy. Plato’s analogy of the cave quite nicely sums it up (see my previous blog post), but generally, in Plato’s philosophy about the universe, there is a hierarchy of reality with the Good, the eternal, nonphysical principle from which all things arose, at the highest level beyond being and existence. The Good can also be called God, the Tao, Emptiness, etc. Plato’s forms are just below the Good in the hierarchy of existence, and they are unchanging principles that eventually gives rise to the physical world. So in the hierarchy of reality, we go from simple and eternal to complex and changing. The higher forms are principles such as Beauty, Truth, Number, and Symmetry, and those lower down, which partake in various higher forms, are things such as equations, morality, and even objects such as the form of a tree, or of a person, etc. All trees, people, and so on “partake” in the forms, as if they were partial reflections of them.

A useful analogy that I’ve included in previous posts is that of white light dispersing in a prism: the white light of the Good splits into various colours (lower forms) upon entering the prism, so that there is more variety in the forms lower down in the hierarchy. However, the Good is undiminished, for like the white light from which the colours arose, it remains pure and simple, even though its dispersed beam appears to be multiple. This process continues down to much more complicated levels of existence until the physical world comes into being.
Things in the physical world can never be perfect renditions of the forms above because they are always changing, and so never last eternally. If something was perfect, and remained perfect, it could never change, because if it did, it would no longer be perfect. This is why things that exist nonphysically can be said to be “perfect” since they never change, but things in the physical world can never be perfect even in principle.

Now, to say that some discipline is a kind of Platonism, whether it is ethics, theology, mathematics, or psychology, means that there is a hierarchy of laws or of reality. The principles we use in, say, ethics, would then be derivable from more fundamental principles that are simpler and apply to a wider range of phenomena. Likewise with mathematics and physics: physics must be Platonic because otherwise, the laws of physics are just fictions that do not correspond to reality. Though even if physics and mathematics only make sense in a Platonist framework, it is not necessarily true of other areas (politics, etc.).

So the laws of physics can all essentially be derived from more fundamental laws, and if you trace this back up the chain, you arrive at the primary law, what is called the Eternal Law in the book. So “All the laws of physics are partial reflections of the one eternal mathematical law, which is a kind of super-law, the foundation of all the mathematical laws in the universe.” This is the simplest law, existing in the nonphysical world of forms, though it is not the most fundamental form (symmetry, number, and of course, the Good, are above it). This law dictates how things work in the physical world, all the matter and energy within it, and although we probably wouldn’t be able to comprehend it in itself, the more specific laws we to describe the world are derived from it.

An example of this hierarchy of different physical laws, with the ones closer to the Eternal Law subsuming the ones below it, can be seen with gravity. Newton’s laws of gravity apply on a smaller scale, to objects on Earth and in our solar system, and we can use them to predict motion quite accurately. However, in order to describe the universe at large, with galaxies and clusters, Newton’s laws are no longer applicable. For that, we need Einstein’s laws, which apply to the universe at large and how it is affected by gravity. Newton’s laws are not incorrect, but they have a narrower range of applicability. They can be derived from Einstein’s more general laws, and Einstein’s laws can also describe phenomena on Earth just like Newton’s laws can: they describe all of what Newton’s laws can and more (though we almost always use Newton’s laws for things on Earth because they’re so much simpler). Newton himself would surely agree with this structure of his laws, for he said, “truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” As well as Einstein: “nature is the realisation of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas,” namely, the forms which are close to the Eternal Law, as well as the Eternal Law itself and the principles of symmetry, beauty, and number from which it is derived. In the future, we will have to go further to find a more fundamental theory, because we know that Einstein’s laws aren’t compatible with quantum mechanics, so an even more general law will be quantum gravity (which string theory might very well accomplish).

We would do well to better appreciate Plato’s philosophy in physics, for, although Platonic ideas have been prevalent in science in the past, many physicists and philosophers today reject these ideas. However, some notable physicists recognize the necessity for realism and Platonism, for example, the author of the book I’ve been quoting from, who is a quantum physicist, and the physicist Sir Roger Penrose to name a few. Penrose said that, “The more deeply we probe Nature’s secrets, the more profoundly we are driven into Plato’s world of mathematical ideals as we seek our understanding.”

And so, as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,” and to this, we ought to add that, at least at the very fundamental level, “Plato is physics, and physics, Plato.”

Despite appearances, everything is the same. This is the major idea behind Hua-yen Buddhism, a form of Chinese Buddhism that focuses on metaphysics, namely, the nature of the universe and what exists within it. In the Hua-yen world-view, everything is part of an interrelated “jeweled net” (called Indra’s net) with each jewel in the net being identical. So too is everything said to be “empty,” which is what today’s quote focuses on:

From Francis Cook’s Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (1977):
“Things can only exist because they are empty…emptiness cannot exist apart from entities, since emptiness is a relationship between entities: they create each other, are thoroughly interfused, and in fact are one and the same things.”

Before we get into emptiness, let’s look at what Indra’s net is. A good description of Indra’s net comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, an important text to Hua-yen philosophy that describes the universe and the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas within it:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions…the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars…If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”

This is an analogy of the universe, with each jewel being an object in the universe, anything from an atom to a cat to a planet. Now, composite objects are made of many different jewels in the net, but the net can be seen as a fractal with each object as either a single jewel or a collection of jewels: the same results will apply. Each of these entities in the net is called a dharma (a Hindu term that has many meanings, but in Hua-yen it means a specific entity: a fancy way to say a “thing”), and so the universe is nothing but interrelated dharmas. One of the primary purposes of Hua-yen is to discover just what dharmas are and how they are related to each other, which is similar to the task of modern scientists who search for the ultimate constituents of reality in quantum mechanics and particle physics.

Indra’s net demonstrates the concept of emptiness: there is no source that creates the jewels, but all just reflect each other. Cook says, “Existence means that the object exists as a result of conditions; emptiness refers to the fact that what exists in dependence on conditions has no ultimate being in and of itself.” Nothing has a real essence: if it did, it would be unable to change. Existence, then, only derives from interdependence, those countless related dharmas forming Indra’s net, the “conditions” of its existence. This is called interdependent origination. It may sound like a contradiction, but as seen from the quote above, existence just is emptiness. Later on, Cook says, “What is called emptiness from one point of view is called existence from the other.” Indeed, the Buddhist concept of emptiness is not a “thing” or an absence of something, but is rather the interdependent relationship among entities. And since all things are defined by their relationships to all other things, they are necessarily empty.

An analogy used in Francis Cook’s book, which he quoted from Fa-tsang (Fa-tsang is one of Hua-yen’s primary founders from the seventh century), is that of a barn. Barns are made of rafters, shingles, nails, etc., and each part plays an important role in the formation of the whole. Yet outside its place in the barn, the concept of each part existing alone is meaningless: a rafter does not become a rafter unless it exists within the context of the barn: otherwise it is just a piece of wood. It becomes a rafter when it is seen in relation to all the other parts of the barn. Likewise with a shingle, a nail, and so on. Moreover, the barn will not exist if it were not for the parts that comprise it. The whole derives its existence from its parts, but so too do the parts derive their existence from the whole. Neither has an independent existence. If you were to change the parts, you may still make an object like a barn, but the point is that it will not be the same barn that you had before.

Thus, all parts of the barn derive their essence from the fact that they are parts of a whole, and the barn derives its existence from the relationships between its parts. If there were no tiles and shingles, the rafter wouldn’t be a rafter, because it wouldn’t be part of a barn, and likewise with every other part. Since a rafter is a condition for the building, if there is no rafter, there will be no building, but at the same time, if there was no building, it would not be a rafter. And the rafter totally causes the building, as Fa-tsang says: “If [the rafter] does not wholly create [the building], then when the one rafter is removed, the whole building should remain. However, since the total building is not formed then you should understand that the building is not formed by the partial power [of a condition such as the rafter] but by its total power.” So any individual dharma can be seen as possessing total power in creating the whole, a notion that certainly takes some thinking about, since it is quite far removed to how we normally think of parts and the whole that they create.

But Hua-yen goes further to say that each part is identical. The shingle and the rafter share the same power in creating the barn, and moreover, they each have total power in creating the barn: “the part exerts total power in the formation of a particular whole.” How could this be? Well, imagine that you intend to make that barn and have almost everything in place except for one plank of wood to function as a rafter. When you put that wood in, the barn is formed. Hence, the rafter can be seen as creating the barn, having complete power over its existence, as well as the existence of all other parts that form the barn (since if there was no barn, the shingles wouldn’t be shingles, etc.). Take away a rafter, and you no longer have the barn.

Now do the same thing with a nail: the last nail to form the barn has total power in creating it and the other parts of the barn. Take it away, and it is no longer the barn you began with. If you imagine performing this thought experiment with all other parts of the barn, you can see that they each have total power in creating the barn, and so without all these parts, you would not have the whole. This is the identical essence of every part: from the point of view of each being a cause, they each have total power. At the same time, they are different because they are each results of every other part when it is seen as a cause. It is just a shift in point of view: each dharma can be seen as being a case or an effect, and neither view is more correct than the other.

Of course, you could think that making small changes to the barn or replacing, for example, one rafter with another wouldn’t change the scheme of the barn. But it isn’t the same barn anymore. Yes, it is a barn, but not the one you had before. Though bear in mind that this makes more sense with respect to the universe as a whole and the dharmas that comprise it.

Indeed, the analogy of the barn can be applied to the entire universe of dharmas. The same relationships that hold between the parts of a barn also holds between, for example, the parts of a human being, the galaxy, or the universe as a whole. Each dharma has no independent existence and is empty. What we see as differences are only illusory differences of outer form, what Fa-tsang calls “quasi-existence,” because objects are actually identical and empty. All dharmas are identical because they are empty of independent existence. Each is also a cause of all the others, for, taking a single dharma, it can be seen as creating all other dharmas, and if you shift your point of view, the same is true for all other dharmas. If each dharma can create all of reality, then all dharmas must be identical.

Yet at the same time, they are also different because they have different functions in the grand scheme of things. Think of the rafter and the nail in the barn again: although each has no existence in and of itself, needing a host of supporting conditions to define it, they each play a particular role in the creation of the barn. As Cook says, “The whole which is included in the part is already a whole which includes the part, so that the interpenetration of dharma and dharma is repeated over and over, infinitely.” These are the infinitely reflecting jewels in Indra’s net that are both causes and effects: seen as causes, they are identical and contain the power to create all other dharmas, but seen as effects, they are different and interrelated with all the other causes that each have a different function in the creation of the whole.

This is all hard to grasp, and it’s no wonder there are so many books written about this. Another analogy that Cook uses might make the concept of interdependent origination clearer: the idea of a father and son. A father is only a father if he has his son, but a son is only a son if he has his father. These two terms come into existence simultaneously, and can be said to “create” each other. From one point of view, the father creates the son, and in doing so, becomes a father. But from another point of view, the son creates the father (not the human being who is his father, but the fact that he is a father), and in doing so, becomes a son.

Normally, we think of a cause in terms of time: an event x occurs at time 1, which causes an event y at time 2. But in the net of Indra, since each object can be seen as either a cause or effect, it doesn’t make sense to say that one comes before the other. Cause is rather an expression of the interdependent nature of the universe. There are thus two notions of time here: first is the regular “vertical” time that goes nice and orderly from past, to present, to future, and then there is a “horizontal” time that expresses the interrelationships between all dharmas that exist at any slice in vertical time. This is the idea that everything is both a cause and effect of everything else, something that only makes sense when looking at a single slice of vertical time: it’s as if you transcend the three-dimensional reality to four dimensions (with the fourth dimension being time) and are able to move in two directions of time rather than one, just as you can move back and forth in any of the three dimensions of space.

Although the true nature of things as interdependent and essencelessness seems devoid from the reality we live in, if are able to understand this, it helps us realize that the things we think of as ‘bad’ that cause us anxiety and fear such as death, sickness, and pain are just part of the whole and are really no different to what we think of as ‘good.’ Indeed, “It is this very picking and choosing which brings back upon ourselves anxiety, fear, and turmoil, for by dividing up the one unitary existence into two parts, the good and the bad, we distort the reality which is the one unitary existence…To see things in a totalistic perspective means to transcend a small, pathetic subjectivity and see all the pernicious, vexing contraries harmonized within the whole.” In essence, all dharmas are identical in being empty. The Buddhist and Taoist goal of enlightenment is to return to naturalness and transcend our perceptions of good and bad, existence and non-existence, real and unreal. Everything has its place within the net of Indra, and no matter how small any one dharma may appear, without it, the whole would be different. Think of what the Doctor said: In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

This view can help bring more tranquility and acceptance into our lives, and is remarkably similar to views held by Stoic philosophers. It’s not about giving yourself up to “Fate,” but about not getting trodden down by it, because although we find ourselves in this vast net of inter-causality, that doesn’t mean that we are only controlled by countless other things, but that we too can control them. It goes both ways, for everything is equally important. There isn’t a single destiny that everything is heading toward, but the vast collection of dharmas are evolving together, constantly shifting and recreating themselves.

And lastly, the Buddhist principle of acting compassionately toward all beings follows from the Hua-yen vision of the universe. If all things are interconnected and essentially the same, there is no real distinction between you and others: not just other people and living things, but everything that exists. To help others, then, is to benefit the whole, which includes yourself. The work of the bodhisattva is to help all beings who are all linked in this shared destiny. To act merely out of “self-interest” is to be ignorant of the fact that there are no distinct selves. And so, as Cook says, “To act compassionately is to act in accordance with reality,” a view that naturally arises out of studying the universe of Hua-yen Buddhism, the net of Indra of all the jewels of objects in creation.

The Story of the Stone (also called A Dream of Red Mansions) is a novel written by Cao Xueqin in 18th Century China. It is a fascinating story about the lives (and even things beyond the earthly lives) of the wealthy Jia family and those that serve them or interact with them in some form or other. Out of the great number of characters (who are fortunately included in a character list at the back of the book), the ones we follow mainly are the boy Bao-yu, who is the incarnation of a magical stone that was in his mouth when he was born, his cousins Dai-yu and Bao-chai, his older cousin Xi-feng, and his maids such as Aroma.

Just note that there are be a few spoilers in here, but nothing major.

First of all, the book was beautiful to read. The descriptions were lovely, and it all flowed so well that you could end up reading quite a lot in only a short amount of time. Except for a few insignificant instances, I couldn’t tell that it had been translated into English rather than written in English originally. One of the many beautiful descriptions is of the stone: “she saw a stone about the size of a sparrow’s egg, glowing with the suppressed, milky radiance of a sunlit cloud and veined with iridescent streaks of colour,” and another describing Xi-feng with a poem:
“She had, moreover,
eyes like a painted phoenix,
eyebrows like willow-leaves,
a slender form,
seductive grace;
the ever-smiling summer face
of hidden thunders showed no trace;
the ever-bubbling laughter started
almost before the lips were parted.”

There are many verses of poetry within the text, either that the characters made up or quoted from, or just descriptions from the author about the setting or characters themselves. Although I thought it was odd at first, I soon got used to it and found it really added to the atmosphere of the story.

The book is also excellent with its portrayal of the characters’ thoughts and desires, especially exploring conflicting ideas and emotions. So although the book is very detailed in its descriptions of the events and the setting, it doesn’t fall short of exploring the characters’ mentalities, as well intricacies of the plots they might have. For example, Bao-yu’s maid Aroma tricks Bao-yu at one point: “By employing only a minimum amount of deceit, she could use it as a means of ascertaining his real feelings towards her and of humbling his spirit a little, so that he might be in a suitably chastened frame of mind for the lecture which she was preparing to admonish him. She judged from his going off silently to bed that he was shaken and a little unsure of himself. Evidently she had succeeded in the first part of her plan.” Xi-feng is also particularly skilled at manipulating people.

There were many priceless moments of humor as well. For example, when Bao-yu and Qin Zhong go to school (though Bao-yu stops going soon after he begins), there is a fight with all the boys throwing things at each other and it just gets so out of hand: you’d have to read it to see, but it’s absolutely hilarious. Also Xi-feng can be very devious: she was definitely one of my favourite characters, probably the smartest, and not shy of taking charge when the situation calls for her, even though she is extremely busy with running the household. Not to mention when she sets up a plot to get sleazy Jia Rui caught the act of coming to visit her for an amorous meeting. This ends up getting him killed because he is trapped outside in the courtyard overnight and catches a chill, though the fact that he dies is really his own fault when he fails to follow the advice of a Taoist doctor. Xi-feng isn’t sorry one bit, and I have to agree with her.

As for the main character, Bao-yu, he is the most intriguing and seems to have a connection to things beyond the mortal world around him because he is the incarnation of the stone, even though he doesn’t realize what this entails. Although he has a glimpse of a higher order in the world, he is largely secluded in the Jia household and lives a life of luxury where his every whim is supplied by his maids. It would be nice if, in the next volumes, he is forced to fend for himself, because now, he has no real responsibilities and so he’s never really tested, which is necessary for the protagonist of a novel. He does, however, suffer his own hardships (besides being bored from not having anything to do) because of his melancholy and reflections about himself and the world and wanting to know where he belongs in it. He is never able to really figure it out though, for he is effectively trapped in the Jia household with his family and almost never gets out in the world. On the rare occasion that he does (Qin-shi’s funeral), he is curious about other people and feels a connection to them, especially a girl who works at a farm: “she was standing watching for him beside the road, a baby brother in her arms and two little girls at her side. Bao-yu could not repress a strong emotion on seeing her, but sitting there in the carriage there was not much he could do but gaze back at her soulfully.” This is what usually happens: he is able to watch life from the safety of his “carriage” of existence, but not able to do much of anything.

Also, his interactions with others causes him much turmoil, especially with Dai-yu. Dai-yu was sweet at first, but once she comes to love Bao-yu, she becomes such a brat and gets annoyed at every little thing Bao-yu does. She’s very jealous of Bao-chai, and always takes it out on Bao-yu when he says or does something even slightly out of line. So although he also loves her, they stay at an impasse for the whole book. Though admittedly, Bao-yu isn’t very mature either, so it’s possible that his love for Dai-yu will pass, especially considering that he takes a fancy to many other people (mostly his cousins and maids. The fact that everyone is a cousin or related in some way does not stop any relationships from forming) at various times throughout the book. As is mentioned during a conversation with Yu-cun near the beginning of the book, Bao-yu has an unusual obsession with girls, not only that he likes girls, but that he has grown up with girls and likes to do the activities they do. We often see that he might even want to be a girl, because he sees them as nobler being compared to males. So he often experiences an unspoken frustration simply because he is a boy and so cannot really be like his cousins. And he is definitely in love with his friend Qin Zhong, though nothing comes of this because Qin Zhong eventually dies. But on the whole, Bao-yu is confused in his life, for he is largely estranged from not only the higher reality beyond the world, but even the world outside his very restricted social situation.
As for the stone Bao-yu is born with, although he is largely ignorant of its powers, he knows the inscription on it, which says:

Mislay me not, forget me not.
And hale old age shall be your lot.
On the reverse, it says,
  1. Dispels the harms of witchcraft.
  2. Cures melancholic distempers.
  3. Foretells good and evil fortune.
The stone indeed accomplishes all three of those powers throughout the book (the first is obvious, the second is to (sometimes) relieve Bao-yu from his melancholy, and the third is when Bao-yu is transported to the world with the fairy Disenchantment where he is able to read a part of a book that lays out the unfortunate fates of different girls in the form of poems (though it doesn’t specify which poem corresponds to which girl)).

This dream ties in to one of the major themes in the book, and indeed, the book is also called A Dream of Red Mansions. This “dream,” or transportation to another plane of existence, is when Bao-yu is instructed by Disenchantment to dispel his “lust of the mind” so he can focus on “the serious things in life” rather than illusions of daily life that will only trap him. So far, in the first volume, she hadn’t succeeded, but I believe there’s hope for Bao-yu yet.

This transport to Disenchantment’s land of fairies touches upon the supernatural order that ultimately forms the basis of the world. This is also hinted at with the characters of the Taoist and Buddhist monks who occasionally make an appearance. They are aware that Bao-yu is the stone, though as you would expect from a Buddhist and Taoist, they don’t get involved in the plot much. Other monks and religious persons only get involved in times of deaths and sicknesses, which also illustrates the fact that what really matters is not the incessant clamour of day-to-day routines and customs that occupy most of the characters’ time, but of the ultimate destiny of our soul when it leaves this illusory world. One particularly interesting part is when Qin Zhong is dying and bargains with the demons while he is unconscious so that he can speak to Bao-yu one last time.
The book’s many lavish descriptions of customs, clothing, and architecture, including an enormous garden that is built just so the family can receive their daughter (who has become a royal concubine) for a visit once a year, is very interesting in itself, but it can also be seen as a mask over the fundamental reality that is spoken of at the beginning of the book, and so the story is in one sense a parody. It is this higher world and the beings within it that ultimately determine the characters’ destinies, which they are largely unaware of, and indeed, we even see that some souls were purposely sent into the “great illusion of human life” for a particular purpose. We can’t decide either when we come into the world or when we leave it, but it is at these times that the characters are able to glimpse a higher scheme of things in which their day-to-day lives are insignificant. Bao-yu is sometimes able to sense when he meets a pure soul connected to a higher world, such as the maid Crimson and Dai-yu, who were sent here by the fairy Disenchantment. Ultimately, everything that happens is in accordance with the laws of karma, and the only ones who are really able to escape them are the Taoist and Buddhist monks, who travel between “the land of illusion” and the higher world.

On top of all this, we learn a lot about the time period (China in the 1700s), such as how people lived, what they wore, the different positions in society, medicine, literature, etc. And given that it was actually written in this time period, we can safely assume that it’s accurate.

I would certainly say that Cao Xueqin is the Alexandre Dumas of 18th century China: any fans of Dumas would do well to pick up a copy of this book and enjoy.

"A Soul Wanderer never knows. He wanders; he makes his own path through the
heights of the universe."

-Sio Larwick

Follow by Email

Mary-Jean's books

The Printer's Devil
The Crystal Cave
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Lost Prince
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Hobbit
Rise of the Darklings
The Fire King
Clockwork Angel
Jane Eyre
Wuthering Heights
The Lost World
Around the World in Eighty Days
The Sum of All Men
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Lair of Bones
Sons of the Oak
The Wyrmling Horde

Mary-Jean Harris's favorite books »

The Daily Puppy

Powered by Blogger.