GUEST ESSAY: Radical skepticism, revived

By Aditya Prasad

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)


Radical skepticism gets a bad rap. Sure, it's possible to question everything about your reality, but what's the point? Countless freshman philosophy majors and enterprising potheads have done just that, and look where it got them. Better to face up to the cold, hard facts!

But maybe they simply didn't know how to wield the tool properly. Let's take a trip down the rabbit hole and see if we can't do better...

Ompha, Lompha

Young Earth creationists believe that the earth was created in the past ten thousand years. According to their so-called Omphalos Hypothesis, dinosaur bones and other seemingly-old artifacts were planted there by God as a test of our faith.

As ludicrous as this may strike you, it contains no logical contradiction. In fact, there is no way to disprove that the universe sprang into existence, fully formed, last Thursday. Mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell takes it one step further (as mathematicians and philosophers are wont to do):
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past.
But why stop there? For all we know, this may all have appeared freshly in this very moment. But while such a claim is not logically impossible, it is certainly very improbable. Right?

To help answer that, let's look at a technique called Bayesian inference.

Bayesian inference

Suppose I am hiding a coin from you. I tell you it is either a (US) penny or nickel, and you have to guess which. What kind of evidence would help you decide?

If I tell you that there is a US president on one side of the coin, that is no help at all, because it applies equally well to both coins. Whatever you thought the relative odds were before, they should remain unchanged after.

On the other hand, suppose I tell you that I flipped it and it landed on its edge. Both coins can theoretically do this, but because the nickel is thicker, it is probably more likely to land that way. Depending on how much more likely, this evidence should nudge your bias toward the nickel to a corresponding degree.

So we see that evidence is one crucial component in determining your beliefs. The second, equally important piece, is something that we hinted at earlier: your pre-existing bias, technically known as your prior.

If you're like most people, you probably started with the assumption that both the penny and nickel were equally likely. And why not? In lieu of any information, this seems like a reasonable starting point. But you don't have to start at 50-50. You might look up some stats on the number of pennies and nickels in circulation, and use that ratio as your prior. Or perhaps you know that I secretly love pennies, and use that to inform your initial bias. It's totally up to you.

Whatever your prior, you must combine it with evidence, to get an updated bias (called the posterior). You can either stop there or use this posterior as a new prior, to be combined with further evidence (generating yet another posterior), and so on. Over time, as the evidence accumulates, any mistakes in your initial prior will get ironed out.

In this way, Bayesian inference is a formal framework for doing something that's already very natural to us. We may start off uncertain about something, but we allow the weight of evidence to bring our beliefs into closer alignment with reality.

Let's apply this to our question about the past.

Evaluating the past

First let's try to pick a good prior.

Basic physics tells us that fully-formed worlds are very unlikely to just pop into existence. Therefore we should a priori be very biased against this possibility, right? Unfortunately not: we could only have learned about physics in the past, which we cannot trust without resorting to circular reasoning.

Okay, what about Occam's Razor? It tells us that we should prefer simpler theories to needlessly complicated ones. But this is a statement about preference, not likelihood. Moreover, it runs into the same problem as before: when, exactly, did we collect evidence that justifies the Razor?

Try as we may, we cannot logically justify any particular prior. So let's throw up our hands and start at 50-50. The evidence should settle it, right?

Well, this picture I took yesterday seems like pretty good evidence at first. But remember that our hypothetical sudden-world is designed to provide such fabricated evidence. So this supposed "picture from yesterday" fits both models equally well, and it is therefore of no use. By design, neither is anything else. Drat!

A final attempt might be to say fine, let's accept that maybe the world sprang into being five minutes ago (or whenever you began this exercise). But since then, you've been collecting evidence that justifies your trust in physics, Occam's Razor, and the rest. This ought to restore your faith, right?

But notice that you can repeat the thought experiment right now. How do you know that this is not the first moment? When you try to work out the answer, you will find that your supposed "evidence from the past five minutes" goes out the window just like our supposed "picture from yesterday." So this approach fails, too. There's nowhere to get a grip!

Strange as it may seem, we are not rationally justified in saying that a real past is "more likely" than a fake one. It certainly feels like the real past is more rational, but this is an illusion. For now, simply notice how powerful this illusion is. We will return to it later.

Choosing our beliefs

We do not necessarily need to rely on reasoning to choose our beliefs. Discussing a different skeptical hypothesis, physicist Sean Carroll points out:
There is no way to distinguish between the scenarios by collecting new data.

What we’re left with is our choice of prior credences. We’re allowed to pick priors however we want—and every possibility should get some nonzero number. But it’s okay to set our prior credence in radically skeptical scenarios at very low values, and attach higher prior credence to the straightforwardly realistic possibilities.

Radical skepticism is less useful to us; it gives us no way to go through life. All of our purported knowledge [...] might very well be tricks being played on us. But what then? We cannot actually act on such a belief [...]. Whereas, if we take the world roughly at face value, we have a way of moving forward. There are things we want to do, questions we want to answer, and strategies for making them happen. We have every right to give high credence to views of the world that are productive and fruitful, in preference to those that would leave us paralyzed with ennui.
Russell also recognized this:
Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it.
In other words, given that evidence cannot help us, we might as well pick whichever belief is most helpful. And our commonsense notion of time is the most helpful of all.

But is this really true? Have you ever been genuinely free of the belief in a real past, in order to make a fair comparison? Is such a state even possible or desirable? Wouldn't you be like a proverbial goldfish, totally unable to function?

As it turns out, that is not what it is like to be free of conviction about the past. It is entirely possible—though not easy—to drop your belief in a literal past while retaining the ability to function as though it were real. You can (and should) try to enter that state right now, but unless you've cultivated exceptional facility with your most subtle mental processes, you will attain at best a vague facsimile of it. Something deep inside you is unwilling to genuinely and completely let go. It protects itself by telling you "well, our belief is the best one anyway!"

The authentic state of not-knowing belongs to the purview of mystics and contemplatives. It is unfair to expect mathematicians, physicists, or even philosophers to find the time to explore it properly.

The future

Let's visit another oddity. 18th-century philosopher David Hume popularized something called the Problem of Induction. Roughly, it goes as follows.

It seems painfully obvious that the past provides good evidence for the future, right? But why do we believe this? Well, it has certainly been true in the past. Okay, but so what? We'd like to say "... and therefore it will be true in the future," but then we are assuming what we set out to prove. There's that nasty circularity again! So we cannot justify our belief that the past will continue to provide evidence for the future.

Thus, the fact that the laws of physics have faithfully operated for billions of years gives us no reason at all to believe that they will continue to operate even one second from now [1]. As before, notice how ridiculous and illogical this feels, despite being impeccably rational. This is a powerful clue, if used properly!

Unfortunately Hume, too, loses his nerve before fully taking on board the implications:
Should it be asked me whether I sincerely assent to this argument which I have been to such pains to inculcate, whether I be really one of those skeptics who hold that everything is uncertain, I should reply that neither I nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. I dine, I play backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends and when after three or four hours of amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strange and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe, though he asserts he cannot defend his reason by reason.

The nature of reality

It does not stop with time. Consider the hypothesis that this world is a simulation—and further, that its creators are clever enough to hide all evidence of this fact from us. Then, by assumption, there is no way to test the hypothesis, and we are again free to discard it on the basis of practicality, even if not on pure rationality. In fact, there are an infinite number of strange and seemingly-pointless possibilities that we can cut away with one fell swoop in this way. This can make us feel supremely confident in our default worldview. But there is at least one strange possibility that comes away unscathed.

Consider the hypothesis that the world is a dream of sorts. This possibility may seem inconsequential, as with the previous examples: if the dream behaves exactly as a physical world would, then there's no point in pursuing the belief further. On the other hand, if it actually is a dream—and moreover, your dream, in a sense—then your participation might be pivotal in gathering evidence of the fact. How might this work?

In a nighttime dream, naively questioning your surroundings is often insufficient to expose the dream's unreality. In most cases, the dream will fabricate an explanation that—despite being nonsensical from a more awakened perspective—will nonetheless suffice to quell your suspicion. Nothing to see here, move right along! To expose the sham, you must question the dream in just the right way, at which point you might become lucid.

So how does the analogy extend to this reality? How would one question it in "just the right way?"

The mind doth protest too much

You might begin by noticing how illogical it is to feel so dead certain about the past despite having no rational basis for the belief. Next, watch as your mind tries to wriggle out of this accusation: "well, such a belief is evolutionarily adaptive, so it's probably embedded deep in our ancient limbic system, beyond the reach of higher cognition..." Bam! In a finger snap, circular reasoning again magically restores your faith: I believe in the past because the past made me do it, duh. Whew! Nothing to see here!

This should trigger a great deal more suspicion in you than it probably does.

If you were to sit and grapple with this conundrum very sincerely—not just thinking harder about it, but experientially penetrating the very heart of the discrepancy—you might have a mind- and reality-shattering "aha!" moment, not unlike what Zen Buddhists call kensho or sudden awakening. It might reveal that you've been taking life utterly for granted [2], subtly (but erroneously) assuming that you have the slightest inkling of what it is and how it works. Side effects may include an overwhelming flood of gratitude, awe, wonder, love, joy, and humility, beyond what you believed possible. There may even be insights about the nature, purpose, and evolution of this dream, though they may be hard to prove or even communicate via the standard channels.

Why is it impossible to prove that the past really happened, or that it's even likely? Sure, maybe this is all just sophistry and there's a perfectly reasonable explanation. Or maybe something much more curious is going on, right under your nose but hidden by a cleverly self-protective veil.

If this all sounds like too much for you, well, then, luckily you have the option to continue to blindly trust your default beliefs. And why not? After all, some Very Smart Scientists have assured you that being too skeptical would be "ridiculous," "frivolous," and "paralyzing." And who are you to question that? Nothing to see here, move right along...

Copyright © 2019 by Aditya Prasad. Published with permission.

Notes

[1] http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2012/10/problem-of-induction-explained-simply.html
It’s a good test of whether someone has actually understood Hume’s argument that they acknowledge its conclusion is fantastic (many students new to philosophy misinterpret Hume: they think his conclusion is merely that we cannot be certain what will happen tomorrow.) ... [But] if Hume is right, the belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is as unjustified as the belief that a million mile wide bowl of tulips will appear over the horizon instead. We suppose the second belief is insane. But if Hume is correct, the first belief is actually no more rational. ...

[T]he onus is on these defenders of “common sense” to show precisely what is wrong with Hume's argument. No one has yet succeeded in doing this (or at least no one has succeeded in convincing a majority of philosophers that they have done so).
[2] Notice that to take something "for granted" can mean either to be unappreciative of it, or to logically presuppose it. Here it takes on both meanings: we are quite confident that we've been experiencing life for a long time, which is why this moment feels so mundane. And now notice that "mundane" means both "pertaining to physical reality" and "tedious, repetitive, dull." Again, this is not a coincidence.
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18 comments:

  1. I do appreciate the call to wrestle with one's own ignorance about reality, rather than allow some other part of the mind to shut down those self observations. But, in the end, we still appear to live in meat bodies that are capable of suffering greatly, no matter how much we avoid blind acceptance of our default beliefs, as such avoidance does not reduce e.g. physical suffering in consistently appreciable ways. As such, I think we are morally forced to accept the practical way forward, in order to learn more about how we can reduce human suffering in the long term.

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    1. It's fascinating how clever the mind is! Like yours, mine also says "okay, feel free to doubt me for a little while, but don't try _too_ hard -- I can already tell you that nothing much will come from it!" I'm not sure I trust that voice.

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    2. At this late stage of my life cycle, I sense that the point of our existence is not to figure it out (which, I fear, we cannot) but rather to deepen our experience by the kind of ethical commitment Anonymous suggests (echoing, among others, Albert Schweitzer): reverence for life, whatever it is, and working accordingly to ease the suffering and enhance the flourishing of all living things. One can act ethically even in a dream. This is not to say that the attempt to figure out the mystery of existence is neither fascinating nor rewarding. That endeavor can both sharpen the intellect and foster the virtues of humility and open-mindedness. Perhaps it is itself another form of reverence.

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  2. Hard to read. Many paragraphs simply end with let the reader fill in the blanks . E.g. "Basic physics tells us that fully-formed worlds are very unlikely to just pop into existence. Therefore we should a priori be very biased against this possibility, right? Unfortunately not: we could only have learned about physics in the past, which we cannot trust without resorting to circular reasoning." The 'unfortunately not' section is not reasoned out, at all. Looks like too much shorthand is being used to explain difficult concepts. What circular reasoning?

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    1. Thanks for the feedback. While writing I flip-flopped between the feeling that I was over-explaining and that I was under-explaining bits.

      Regarding the section you quoted: if we're trying to determine whether the past is real, it would be circular to assume that the past (in which we learned physics) is real.

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  3. This essay is a bit misguided. To get beyond mind requires a silent mind and not a fabricated argument about the nature of the past. Read Peter Ralston's book "The Book of Not Knowing: Exploring the True Nature of Self, Mind, and Consciousness". It is loaded with exercises that are mind bending :) Have fun exploring the realm of Not Knowing.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I would say that there is more than one approach to go beyond mind. Some traditions (such as Soto Zen, using shikantaza) approach it by emphasizing silence. Others (such as Rinzai Zen, using koans) use questions to help go beyond mind. Madhyamaka uses arguments about the nature of time to bring the mind to its knees. See, for example, the Diamond slivers from Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. The approach there (which I didn't describe in this essay, for several reasons) is to take the reasoning into deep meditation, where the mind can more easily see its mistake.

      Thanks for the book rec, I'll check it out!

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  4. Yeah, I agree with BuckyBadger here: in trying to determine that the past is real, one is already assuming the reality of the concept of time in making a distinction between now, the present, and then - whether past or future. When the Buddhists talk about conquering the three times, they have something specific in mind - deconstructing the self-construct. We "rest in a spacious modality, neither yearning for the past nor anticipating the future nor clinging to the present." We rest in a spacious modality without prior, without pre-conceived notion, without self; the spacious modality is characterized by the four immeasurables: infinite compassion; infinite loving kindness; infinite empathetic joy; infinite equanimity. These are related here via conceptualization but in actuality, they are spontaneously present and have never been born. This is wisdom.

    Here's an email I sent to Lee Smolin recently, after reading his older book, "The Life of the Cosmos;" he has a new one out, "Einstein's Unfinished Revolution," with a public lecture available online: https://youtu.be/r-L690pQhuo

    "[...]Perhaps I can clarify a certain philosophical issue you seem to be struggling with!?! On page 196, "[...] there is an affinity between the ambition of theoretical physics and the ambition of metaphysics. Both have often presumed that there is some absolute truth to be discovered about the world, which they conceive variously as the final, fundamental law, or the true essential - the true Being." Yes, very presumptuous, very presumptuous! And on page 197, "Human beings cannot by pure thought alone arrive at the truth about Being - about what, if anything, is behind the appearances." The obvious realization here, to anyone who practices yoga and meditation, is that it is, precisely, the very act of thought which obscures the truth about Being! This is the heart essence of the Buddhist Theory of Two Truths!

    Herein lies the error in Western philosophical thought. In your book, "Time Reborn," you state that transcendental is synonymous with timeless - something is transcendental if it somehow transcends time (this was rather eye-opening to me, by the way). In Buddhist philosophy, transcendental is synonymous with non-conceptual - something is transcendent if it transcends our ability to conceptualize. Given that time is a concept, the difference here is subtle but very dramatic and it's informed by meditative experience.

    What do we do when we think? As you say yourself, following G. Spencer Brown, we make a distinction - we conceptualize. In Buddhism, truths about our inter-subjective conceptualizations are called conventional truths and given that our conceptual constructs are quite malleable - at least ideally, conventional truth is also quite malleable. Any truth, even those seemingly timeless truths of mathematics, if they have a date of birth, then they are by convention - mathematical truths are relative to some conceptual context, if mathematical logic teaches us anything. Most importantly, this includes the truth about the self construct, the ego, and, whether implicitly or explicitly, this is the very first distinction made in the process of thought - thought involves a thinker.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. As I responded to BuckyBadger, even the Buddhist tradition has numerous methods for helping discover the emptiness of time (and emptiness in general). In Dzogchen (which is also my primary tradition), for example, sometimes this is done through a pointing out instruction regarding the "fourth time." Meanwhile, in Madhyamaka, they do indeed make use of reasoning about the nature of time.

      In my own understanding of Dzogchen, rigpa (knowledge of one's natural state) cannot be equated with "being." Instead, the recognition transcends both being and non-being. But the comments section of this article is probably not an ideal place for a full discussion of Buddhist philosophy :)

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    2. To my understanding, on a conventional level there is no conceptual difference - significant anyway, between what Western philosophy calls Being - notice the capital "B," and Rigpa. My comment above was short due to character limits, hence, why I finished below. And, as used here, there is no difference between Dharmakaya and Rigpa either, or, for that matter, between Dharmakaya, Rigpa, and The Great Unborn Expanse - perhaps the better of all signifiers! The mind is liberated in The Great Unborn Expanse; what is it liberated from? It is liberated from conceptual constraints, things like self, time, and such - these and their Bayesian priors! Notice, if you will, my statement below, "In general Buddhism, this is referred to, but not defined, as the Ultimate truth; in Madhyamaka Buddhism it is called Dharmakaya or Truth-body; in Dzogchen it's called Rigpa or Primordial Awareness.;" I distinctly state, "referred to, but not defined." And in every single tradition, Buddhist or otherwise, it is the self-construct which suffers; it is the self-construct which must be eliminated; it is the self-construct which imprisons! It is not the mind which is conquered, rather, it is the self-construct; deconstruct the self-construct and what one finds is the phenomenon referred to as Dharmakaya or Rigpa or The Great Unborn Expanse or Being. The nature of suffering, samsara, does not change; samsara does not become nirvana; it the self-nature which is changed: the caterpillar dwells in samsara, the butterfly in nirvana. The difference between East and West is, in the East there have emerged scientific technologies which are very useful for deconstructing the self-construct, whereas in the West, these have traditionally been frowned upon - and, in general, they still are.

      But I also agree with Smolin in that time is real; in our dominant conceptual framework we call it "proper time" and its ontological referent is relative duration. Our conceptual framework requires proper time due to the constancy of the speed of light in every reference frame; this constancy defines the present - a Universal present. Anything in our Universe which has positive mass - by convention, actually dwells in the past; anything in our Universe which has no mass, dwells in the ever present; anything which has negative mass - again, by convention, actually dwells in the future. Therefore, to answer the question, "Is the past real?," is simply to answer the question,"Are you real?" And this is where the Theory of Two Truths becomes paramount. The Theory of Two Truths and what physics calls symmetry or invariance under transformation.

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    3. I'm not convinced that all traditions agree, actually. Vedanta, for example, posits a self-existent ground of being, with the properties of (and even called) a Self. These notions are problematic from a Buddhist POV, as several contemplatives from both sides have taken pains to point out. I also understand that people may choose to disagree on this point, so I'll leave it.

      When time is seen through, the self construct falls apart. As you rightly point out, it is not possible to see through time by simply reasoning oneself out of it. But such reasoning can make the mind suspicious enough about its own behavior that it enters into much more sincere introspection. That is all I hope to accomplish with this essay.

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    4. Okay, I'm a Buddhist first, Radical Constructivist second, and Libertarian third, so, engaging my Radical Constructivist, you seem to me a bit careless in your reading of what I am writing! But then, of course, I didn't really interpret your essay as you wished people to either. First, I did not say every tradition agrees on the "ground of Being," I simply say:

      1) On a conventional level, these signifiers, Being, Rigpa, Dharmakaya, Great Unborn Expanse, all have the same nonconceptual referent; what this nonconceptual referent actually is cannot be discussed, it can only be directly experienced. As Buddha Shakyamuni stated, "This cannot be taught." What can be taught is the scientific technologies, the proven methods, for attaining this experience, and these involve signifiers which point to but do not capture that which they refer to!

      2) And in every single tradition, Buddhist or otherwise, it is the self-construct which suffers; it is the self-construct which must be eliminated; it is the self-construct which imprisons! It is not the mind which is conquered, rather, it is the self-construct; deconstruct the self-construct and what one finds is the phenomenon referred to as Dharmakaya or Rigpa or The Great Unborn Expanse or Being.

      That #2 is a direct quote and I cannot make it any clearer other than to reproduce the link which I link to above, but which, perhaps, you did not bother to read: Is the Serpent Seed Doctrine scriptural and if so, who or what are the other trees in the garden along with the tree of life?

      This is a question I answered on Quora, that's all, but it is relevant and, I believe, informative.

      Second, I don't find Hume's argument the least bit invigorating; I'm sorry, I just don't. Frederich Nietzsche stated without proof, "God is dead;" Kurt Goedel, some time later, proved it! Now THAT I find interesting, on a mathematical/logical level, but still not that invigorating on the level of result! So induction has no firm justification, but, on a conventional level, it's really all we have! What are you going to replace it with!?! And if all you are really interested in is making mind question its constructs, then I think Goedel's approach is certainly better than that of Hume! Goedel's work has inspired a great deal of creativity in this direction; hell, his work really inspired constructivism - as opposed to intuitionism.

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    5. From Eigenform, a paper by Louis Kauffman:

      This essay has its beginnings in a conversation with Ranulph Glanville. Ranulph asked “Does every recursion have a fixed point?”, hoping for a mathematician’s answer. And I said first, “Well no, clearly not, after all it is common for processes to go into oscillation and so never come to rest”. And then I said, “On the other hand, here is the theorem:

      Theorem. Every recursion has a fixed point.

      Proof. Let the recursion be given by an equation of the form

      X' = F(X)

      where X' denotes the next value of X and F encapsulates the function or rule that brings the recursion to its next step. Here F and X can be any descriptors of actor and actant that are relevant to the recursion being studied. Now form

      J = F(F(F(F(...))));

      the infinite concatenation of F upon itself.
      Then, we see that

      F(J) = F(F(F(F(F(...))))) = J.

      Hence, J is a fixed point for the recursion and we have proved that every recursion has a fixed point. QED
      [end quote]

      I mean, we've come along way since Hume - both epistemologically and philosophically/metaphysically; most importantly, we've come along way with regards to mind - neuroscience, social neuroscience, cognitive science, etc.

      I mean, Hume didn't have the Hubble Deep Field Zoom, which sees billions of years back in time:

      https://youtu.be/le3ASDvZy_s;

      see also, Deep Sky Mosaic.

      For more on Fixed Points: On Fixed-Points, Diagonalization, and Self-Reference.





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  5. Now, consider your "Being" behind the appearances. The key thing to realize here is that your yourself ARE an appearance, hence, to comprehend your own "Being" is to comprehend "Being" in general. Why? Because it is this very "Being" which lies beyond the ability to conceptualize! In general Buddhism, this is referred to, but not defined, as the Ultimate truth; in Madhyamaka Buddhism it is called Dharmakaya or Truth-body; in Dzogchen it's called Rigpa or Primordial Awareness. The Dharmakaya cannot be constrained by concept because this requires that a distinction be made; a distinction is none other than a perspective - a context; a perspective is necessarily limited to partial information. The Dharmakaya cannot be so limited, it can only be directly experienced without thought, without that initial distinction between "I" and "other."

    This is the source of the dualism which seems to be a philosophical irritant for you - based on your writings. On the one hand, we have logos - conventional truth, and on the other hand, we have mythos - Ultimate truth; to PROPERLY understand existence requires mythos alone, while to FULLY comprehend existence requires both mythos and logos. Mythology has a logic behind it.

    The historical Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, began with the realization that suffering exists; this led to the question, "Can this suffering be alleviated?"; this led to the question, "Who is the one who suffers?"; before you worry about whether or not the past is real, you should figure out who it is who experiences the present!

    In the Dzogchen tradition I follow, there is a famous text by Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, Introduction to Awareness: Natural Liberation Through Naked Perception, which I recite every evening. A verse towards the end seems relevant here: "The unprovability of existence or non-existence, that too is mind."

    Transitive Inference in Polistes Paper Wasps

    Researchers Have Mapped Out How Plants Sense Our World; be certain to watch the short (4 min) video!

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  6. "As it turns out, that is not what it is like to be free of conviction about the past. It is entirely possible—though not easy—to drop your belief in a literal past while retaining the ability to function as though it were real. You can (and should) try to enter that state right now..."

    Thank you for offering the above suggestion. I tried the recommended exercise and found it to be very worthwhile. At first, I felt as if I were falling down a set of stairs. Every time I attempted to drop my beliefs my mind kept inserting them right back under my feet. However, I eventually experienced a moment where I felt as if I were floating, imbued with a sense of joy and ease. As I reflect, it seems that I encountered two different aspects of letting go: an initial and strident reluctance to give up the stability of the known, followed by the freedom of being untethered to anything at all.

    I don't know if this is what you had in mind, or if I'm entirely off the mark. Mostly, I just wanted to let you know that you inspired me to try on a new point of view.

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    1. I love your description with the stairs! I had considered describing it like this: you're hanging onto a cliff, trying to let go. But every time you do, you discover that another hand has slipped in to grab a hold.

      You might like this quote from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: "The bad news is you're falling without a parachute. The good news is there's no ground." Indeed there is much joy and ease to be found in relaxing our overly serious and ill-founded grip on reality.

      Thanks for sharing!

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    2. Great quote from Rinpoche. Thanks for sharing it and it reminds me of a book's title (but not the book) written by Milan Kundera: The unbearable lightness of being.

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