I was first exposed to the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, or cause and effect (which finds its closest Western relatives that I am aware of in the writings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer), about six years ago. I have spent these last years trying to understand this idea and its implications. The idea seems so simple on its surface as to not be worth contemplating, but one would miss out on the gift of a lifetime to investigate no further. This idea can take everything from you, and if it were to do so, you would lose nothing.
Dependent origination, which I use interchangeably with the term cause and effect, is a human language approximation of the nature of that which gives rise to all existence and thus non-existence. I reason that this process of cause and effect must be eternal. Why? Well, at the risk of sounding a bit religious, I ground my contention of dependent origination’s eternality in the cosmological argument.
- This version of the argument was popularized by William Lane Craig
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The Universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
Now the assumption is that this first cause is not invalidated by the argument because it is itself uncaused. Yet if there is no first cause (which I don’t believe there is) one can still imagine something existing before the Big Bang. And that thing is not a thing or form at all, but a procedure, a process. Let me first briefly state that it is possible that I am severely ill-informed but I am not aware of anything in Western science which dictates that our multiverse, assuming it exists, necessarily has an original cause. Let us not forget that we have merely assumed that nothing existed before the Big Bang, but there is no real reason to assume so if one ponders the matter genuinely. After all it is true that something cannot originate from nothing. This leads to the notion that every thing has a cause, which is actually the only assumption one need make to better comprehend what I’m getting at with the idea of the procedural universe.
One can deduce rationally that things do not happen without cause because if it were possible for truly random events to occur then we should experience things for which there is no cause (also note the decreasing acceptance of non-deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics within the scientific community). Imagine gravity or the nuclear forces changing their attributes arbitrarily throughout time and space or people simply blipping out of existence. In a non-deterministic universe there is no reason to assume that these would be mathematically low probability events, because once you open the door for randomness the simple procedures of arithmetic may breakdown at any moment, for no reason. Thus I feel confident in thinking that our existence is, in essence, deterministic and therefore eternal, infinite. I ended that last sentence with the word infinite and I think that warrants further explanation. More precisely I mean infinite in all ways; eternal and without spatial limits. I chose the word specifically to lead into my next observation about dependent origination: all things or forms have no essence but for their being causal in nature.
As has become common knowledge, we are wired to detect patterns in our environment. As a matter of fact were quite exceptional at it, though this can get out of hand (conspiracy theories, superstition in general). So what is pattern detection? Well at a minimum I think it must involve an entity capable of sensing its environment through some means, some amount of memory so that causal sequences can be strung together and some sort of “software” on board that observes the “input” from the senses and attempts to demarcate boundaries, thereby producing “output” which is conscious behavior (though not necessarily consciousness). It is through this notion of pattern detection that I came to believe that all things, all forms, depend on that which is not themselves for their form. It is our boundaries, which exist only in relation to other forms, which defines us.
Allow me a metaphor if you will. Where does the river end and where does the riverbed begin? One might conjecture that the river ends where ever the riverbed changes its shape and thus disturbs the water’s natural progression. But what if one were to zoom into the point where the water contacts the ground? One would notice that the river water seems to seep through the riverbed to the soil below and that some of the riverbed is being swept away by the current. Zoom in even further and one can observe the molecules of the riverbed and the river water seamlessly and smoothly exchanging electrons at quantum speeds. The point I am trying to make here is that the river and the riverbed are defined in terms of each other because their boundaries are ultimately a matter of perspective and thus illusory; temporary and in constant flux. The boundary between the river and the riverbed is a necessary distinction for our human minds to create because of evolutionary necessities (survival that is), but the two only possess a certain type of existence. The nature of their existence is such that they depend on each other for their respective forms at any given moment in their existence. They don’t possess existence in the way we typically conceive of it; independent and in of itself. Instead they possess a type of existence that is fleeting and the two will exist co-dependently only so long as they are caused to do so. I contend that all forms, including ourselves, are of this same fleeting and causal nature.
If all forms depend on their boundaries for existence and their boundaries simultaneously depend on other boundaries for definition one could say that there is no form which is infinite. To be infinite, truly infinite in all senses, would require that a form had no boundaries, spatial or temporal. Yet without boundaries a form cannot exist. Thus I am lead to conclude that there is no form, no thing, which is infinite because it’s impossible to have boundaries and be infinite at the same time. Therefore formness (matter) cannot be the origin of existence because it could not exist without something to be defined in relation to, even if that “something” is nothing. Thus one can deduce that the nature of nature is procedural or processual.
To conclude this opening post on my concept of a procedural universe let me say that I openly admit that I may well be completely and embarrassingly wrong. Yet I truly think that scientific materialism may be on the wrong track with regard to explaining “everything”. One can observe the “shape” of a magnetic field by observing the movements and positioning of metallic shards in its field of effect. Yet one would not mistake the outline of the magnetic field created by the metallic shards for the magnetic field itself. I have a sneaking suspicion that scientists, specifically physicists, are mistaking the forms created by the procedural essence of reality (the outline created by the metallic shards) for the essence of reality itself (the magnetic field). In my next post on this subject I will explain why I think something and nothing are two sides of the same coin.