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On the Ineffable


This 18th century depiction of Yamantaka, a violent expression of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, defeats Yama, god of death, and demolishes the cycle of samsara on the path to enlightenment. This painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased in 1969 courtesy of a bequest by Florence Waterbury. Its Accession Number is 69.71. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain work of art. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years.

This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.

“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.

The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.

Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.

Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.)

I marvel that anything can move at all, as any distance can incorporate an infinitude simply by holding your fingers a centimeter apart.

Your fingertips are not necessary, of course. You can imagine an infinite digression between any two points. You can even imagine the digression without the points, which is where things get interesting for me.

Not surprisingly, this reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in the academic tradition of droll footnotes, citing “the last magician,” Isaac Newton, saying that “Each particle of space is eternal, each indivisible moment of duration is everywhere.” Principia, III, 42. (Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia, New York: Daniel Adee, 1846. Borges wrote his 1946 revision of “A New Refutation of Time” in Sur, 1944. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999.)

How anything can leap across the infinitudes separating all things from everything else mystifies me, and how we can imagine infinity without beginning or without end leaves me without words.

Miraculously, everything in this multiverse can leap infinities, and so we have progression, which is synonymous with time. Even using a term like “infinity” forces a compromise upon us, it is a convention, and these are the paradoxes that compel some physicists to suspect that time emerges from decoherence.

Mr. Stockton’s article explains that the most prominent theory addressing decoherence is the 1960’s-era Wheeler-DeWitt equation, by Dr. Bryce DeWitt and Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler claimed that this equation “erases the seams between quantum and classical mechanics.”

Then Mr. Stockton acknowledges the weirdness underlying decoherence and “so-called quantum gravity.” I love the fact that physicists use a term like “weird” and nobody thinks that it is strange. Because these matters are supremely weird.

The second law of thermodynamics ordains that the amount of disorder, or entropy, in our multiverse will always increase. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) infamously observed: “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This is the source of the directionality of time: disorder always increases, so time can only move in one direction.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation notoriously does not include a variable for time. Time, it says, is something that cannot be measured in terms of itself: in physics it is measured as correlations between an object’s location.

In this article, however, the writers (Dr. Robert Lanza and Dr. Yasunori Nomura) insist that gravity is too slow to account for a universal arrow of time.

Worse, because the Wheeler-DeWitt equations do not explain why time moves from the past through the present to the future–in other words, the directionality of time is not explained by the Wheeler-DeWitt equations–all that remains to be examined is us, meaning we, the observers.

One of the writers, Dr. Robert Lanza, founded biocentrism, a theory that space and time are constructs of biological sensory limitations.

Dr. Lanza speculates that time moves as it does because humans, and other sentient beings, for that matter, are biologically, neurologically and philosophically hardwired to experience time in that way.

In fact, Dr. Lanza says, “In his papers on relativity, Einstein showed that time was relative to the observer.”

I do not see how it could be otherwise. While you can claim that mathematics exists independently of human perception, because equations do not depend upon witnesses to observe them, we obviously only know about mathematics because we perceive such equations.

I will go one step further and say that equations, all the equations in an infinitude of mathematics, already exist, and merely await a conjunction of time and sentience to be discovered. But they are already there. We are just not yet smart enough to discern them.

Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, features a category of knowledge of this kind, calling it terma. It refers to objects or ideas which are surfaced to human knowledge when we as a species are ready for them. Some believe that we knew this information in earlier incarnations, and we forgot it, as we submerged into ignorance and amnesia. Now we are gradually, slowly, reawakening.

Dr. Lanza, this article says, goes even further, saying that we the observers create time and its directionality. This is actually a very old idea, and I discuss it in an article that I published on this site almost a year ago, Smoke Signals: Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah.

Is it possible to say that there is an independent time, a time that exists without anyone or anything to perceive it? I suppose so. Is there also a time that exists because we perceive it? I think that this is inescapable.

Borges says:

” … Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.

Our destiny (as contrasted with the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad.

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

(Jorge Luis BorgesSelected Non-Fictions, 1999, p. 290.)

The time that you experience is not the same time that I experience. Neither of us experiences time as Borges did. Can “the concept of time be defined mathematically without including observers in the system?”

One stance says no, as there is no way to subtract observers from the equations, as equations by default, almost by definition, you could say, are performed by sentient intelligences.

Dr. Yasunori Nomura states that these equations also fail to consider that the entire multiverse as we perceive it exists in a medium that we call spacetime.

By definition, when you talk about spacetime, he says, “you are already talking about a decohered system.”

This article concludes, like most interpretations of spacetime, that everything is relative, everything is subjective.

We are in self-defined prisons of perception, but we imagine paradises where we share the same perceptions, the same spacetime, and we perceive the same physics. The sad thing is, this is maya, or illusion. Some of us know better, and we have been told.

We do not need these physics, not for awakening from the stupor of the mind to anatta, the emptiness of the self, the realization of the non-duality of the absolute and the relative.

Think on this for a moment. The absolute and the relative form a duality that is artificial, this is a construct that we create to help us understand what we perceive. It is, in a sense, a filter. We need no such filters.

Borges, in the quote above, in a denial of denial, refused to renounce temporal succession, rejected the renunciation of the self, repudiated the rejection of the astronomical universe, and dismissed the effort as an “apparent desperation,” slyly condemning it as a “secret consolation.”

It was long a secret, as Tibet was closed to mankind for centuries, but Borges understood what he was rejecting. Borges referred to “the hell of Tibetan mythology” for precisely this reason, and that is why I illustrated this article with a painting depicting Yamantaka, just one aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, vanquishing Yama, the god of death. Borges was telling those of us with eyes to see that he was an idealist, not a nihilist. Borges concluded that we manifest everything.

It is useful, I think, to consider Borges’ reference to fire by juxtapositioning it to this excerpt from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:

Bikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing this, bikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form … feeling … perception …. volitional formations … consciousness …Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated…”

Adittapariyaya Sutta, or the Aditta Sutta, aka The Fire Sermon

In Theravada Buddhism, anatta is considered the no-self or no-soul doctrine. In Mahayana Buddhism, true knowledge is comprehending emptiness.

It is not understood by laymen, much less by our physicists in this article, but Buddhism is inimical to the concept of a soul. Nirvana is the state attained when the practitioner realizes that he has no self, and he has no soul. Self-negation attains its ultimate realization as it vanishes.

In Sanskrit and Pali, nirvana means “blown out,” in the same sense that a candle flame is snuffed. I am certain that Borges knew. Borges knew everything, he read all books, and he made few mistakes.

These ideas contradict the Western philosophical tradition, our mathematics, our physics, our spacetime, even though Hinduism insists that there is an eternal atman, and an ultimate metaphysical reality. Contradictions and confusions abound.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1, the atman is expressed as “I am” at an eternal moment when nothing existed at the beginning of the multiverse. Because we built the Hubble telescope, we estimate that this eternal moment transformed into the Big Bang and this multiverse approximately 13.7 billion years ago.

Using Hubble, we can measure the speed and distances of galaxies, and hence how fast our multiverse is expanding. Comparing these measurements to the age of the oldest globular star clusters gives us a figure of 13 billion years, which compares favorably to the 14 billion years of our observable multiverse.

Due to the speed of light, Hubble cannot see further than 14 billion years away. When the James W. Webb telescope comes online, we expect to confirm that our observable multiverse represents a tenth of the theoretical galaxies on the near side of our cosmological horizon.

But when you consider that the Big Bang might have been just the latest in an infinite series of singularities, interspersed by an unknowable number of periods of quantum potential, the possibility that the multiverse is infinite, literally without end, looms.

So is consciousness 14 billion years old? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest, dated to approximately 700 BCE, but this is a compromise, as scholarly estimates range between 900 BCE to 600 BCE, preceding Buddhism.

Human consciousness is very young, even assuming that the priests of Neith who admonished Solon in the Timaeus were correct, the Timaeus is dated to 360 BCE, and I am mindful that when the Temple of Neith in Sais was excavated no records of ancient conflagrations or deluges were recovered. But how old is cosmic consciousness? It is absurd that we even imagine the question.

When the atman awakes, the Hindu say, it is synonymous with Brahman, the basis of everything, indistinguishable in my mind from God, and this is the path to liberation, or so they say.

It is helpful to cite this Upanishad’s verse 1.4.1 in its entirety, as it redolently presages Genesis.

“In the beginning, this (universe) was but the self (Virāj) of a human form. He reflected and found nothing else but himself. He first uttered, ‘I am he.’ Therefore he was called Aham (I). Hence, to this day, when a person is addressed, he first says, ‘It is I,’ and then says the other name that he may have. Because he was first and before this whole (band of aspirants) burnt all evils, therefore he is called Puruṣa. He who knows thus indeed burns one who wants to be (Virāj) before him.”

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1.)

As perplexed as I am by yet another reference to fire, the Buddhist Suttas, or Sutras, as I prefer, insist that everything, especially nirvana, is non-self, total non-attachment. The Suttas in Pali refer exclusively to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the canonical works of Theravada Buddhism, which are said to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha himself admonished the Sangha not to deify his person, so I prefer the Sutras, the less exclusive, more encompassing genre of ancient Indian texts, which include the foundational works of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Buddha started the Wheel of Karma turning as he preached his first sermon at  the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, early in the 5th century BCE. It was in his second sermon that he expounded on the no-soul thesis, anatta-vada, which some Western academics criticize as “an extreme empiricist doctrine.” (Brian Morris, Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 51.)

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, with anicca, or impermanence, and dukkha, or suffering. The three comprise the samsara cycle of existence, addressed in canonical Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada.

The Four Noble Truths insist that there is a way out of samsara. I interpret spacetime as samsara, yet another filter created by subjective consciousness, to help us make sense of our multiverse.

In anatta, the mind returns to its original prelinguistic emptiness of non-attachment, non-discrimination, and non-duality, and the awakening, as it is described, entails the absorption of cessation: it is tantamount to the dissolution of the self.

This “pure consciousness event” is wakeful, without content, and completely non-intentional. It goes without saying that our spacetime and our cosmological horizon are irrelevant to it: It is ineffable. (Yaroslav Komarkovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience, (London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 28.)

As Borges said, we are indistinguishable from spacetime. We do not need eyes to see, so death, transformation, is dissolution into nothingness, which many religious traditions summarize as the godhead.

Ironically, it was William James who said:

“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982.)”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “On the Ineffable”

Bangkok, 17 October, 2016

Eco: The Babel of A Posteriori Languages


Giuseppe Peano (1858-1932), Italian mathematician, circa 1910. Photographer unknown. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Among the international artificial languages, the project that was presented in 1734 under the pseudonym of Carpophorophilus probably takes the prize for seniority; the next was Faiguet’s Langue Nouvelle; after this, in 1839, was the Communicationssprache of Schipfer. After these, there came a tide of IALs in the nineteenth century.

If one takes samples from a number of systems, a set of family resemblances soon appears. There is usually a prevalence of Latin roots plus a fair distribution of roots derived from other European languages.

In this way, the speakers of any one of the major European languages will always have the impression of being in, at least partially, familiar territory:

“Me senior, I sende evos un grammatik e un verb-bibel de un nuov glot nomed universal glot. (Universal sprache, 1868).

Ta pasilingua era una idioma per tos populos findita, una lingua qua autoris de to spirito divino, informando tos hominos zu parlir, er creita. (Pasilingua, 1885).

Mesiur, me recipi-tum tuo epistola hic mane gratissime. (Lingua, 1888).

Con grand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [ . . . ] Le possibilità de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil. (Mondolingue, 1888).

Me pen the liberté to ecriv to you in Anglo-Franca. Me have the honneur to soumett to yoùs inspection the prospectus of mès object manufactured. (Anglo-Franca, 1889).

Le nov latin non requirer pro la sui adoption aliq congress. (Nov Latin, 1890).

Scribasion in idiom neutral don profiti sekuant in komparision ko kelkun lingu nasional. (Idiom Neutral, 1902).”

In 1893 there even appeared an Antivolapük which was really an anti-IAL: it consisted of nothing but a skeletal universal grammar which users were invited to complete by adding lexical items from their own language; for example:

French-international: IO NO savoir U ES TU cousin . . .

English-international: IO NO AVER lose TSCHE book KE IO AVER find IN LE street.

Italian-international: IO AVER vedere TSCHA ragazzo e TSCHA ragazza IN UN strada.

Russian-international: LI dom DE MI atijez E DE MI djadja ES A LE ugol DE TSCHE ulitza.

Of like perversity was Tutonisch (1902), an international language only comprehensible to German speakers (or, at most, to speakers of Germanic languages like English).

Thus the opening of the Lord’s Prayer sounds like this: “vio fadr hu be in hevn, holirn bi dauo nam.” The author was later merciful enough to provide Romance-language speakers with a version of their own, so that they too might pray in Tutonisch: “nuo opadr, ki in siel, sanktirn bi tuo nom.”

If our story seems to be taking a turn for the ridiculous, it is due less to the languages themselves (which taken one by one are frequently well done) than to an inescapable “Babel effect.”

Interesting on account of its elementary grammar, the Latino Sine Flexione of the great mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano (1903) was wittily designed. Peano had no intention of creating a new language; he only wanted to recommend his simplified Latin as a written lingua franca for international scientific communication, reminiscent of the “laconic” grammars of the Encyclopédie.

Peano stripped Latin of its declensions, with, in his own words, the result that: “Con reductione qui praecede, nomen et verbo fie inflexible; toto grammatica latino evanesce.”

Thus, no grammar (or almost no grammar) and a lexicon from a well-known language. Yet this result tended perhaps to encourage pidgin Latin. When an English contributor wished to write for one of the mathematical journals which, under the influence of Peano, accepted articles in Latino Sine Flexione, he naturally retained the modal future; thus he translated, “I will publish” as me vol publica.

The episode is not only amusing: it illustrates the possibility of an uncontrolled development. As with other international languages, Latino Sine Flexione depended less upon its structural merits than on establishing a consensus in its favor. Failing to achieve this, it became another historical curiosity.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 321-4.

Eco: The Mixed Systems


Johann Martin Schleyer (1831-1912), a drawing of the creator of Volapük by Theodor Mayerhofer (1855-1941) in Sigmund Spielmann, Volapük- Almanach für 1888, Leipzig. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Volapük was perhaps the first auxiliary language to become a matter of international concern. It was invented in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Catholic priest who envisioned it as an instrument to foster unity and brotherhood among peoples.

As soon as it was made public, the language spread, expanding throughout south Germany and France, where it was promoted by Auguste Kerkhoffs. From here it extended rapidly throughout the whole world.

By 1889 there were 283 Volapükist clubs, in Europe, America and Australia, which organized courses, gave diplomas and published journals. Such was the momentum that Schleyer soon began to lose control over his own project, so that, ironically, at the very moment in which he was being celebrated as the father of Volapük, he saw his language subjected to “heretical” modifications which further simplified, restructured and rearranged it.

Such seems to be the fate of artificial languages: the “word” remains pure only if it does not spread; if it spreads, it becomes the property of the community of its proselytes, and (since the best is the enemy of the good) the result is “Babelization.”

So it happened to Volapük: after a few short years of mushroom growth, the movement collapsed, continuing in an almost underground existence. From its seeds, however, a plethora of new projects were born, like the Idiom Neutral, the Langue Universelle of Menet (1886), De Max’s Bopal (1887), the Spelin of Bauer (1886), Fieweger’s Dil (1887), Dormoy’s Balta (1893), and the Veltparl of von Arnim (1896).

Volapük was an example of a “mixed system,” which, according to Couturat and Leau, followed the lines sketched out by Jacob von Grimm. It resembles an a posteriori language in the sense that it used as its model English, as the most widely spread of all languages spoken by civilized peoples (though, in fact, Schleyer filled his lexicon with terms more closely resembling his native German).

It possessed a 28 letter alphabet in which each letter had a unique sound, and the accent always fell on the final syllable. Anxious that his should be a truly international language, Schleyer had eliminated the sound r from his lexicon on the grounds that it was not pronounceable by the Chinese–failing to realize that for the speakers of many oriental languages the difficulty is not so much pronouncing r as distinguishing it from l.

Besides, the model language was English, but in a sort of phonetic spelling. Thus the word for “room” was modeled on English chamber and spelled cem. The suppression of letters like the r sometimes introduced notable deformations into many of the radicals incorporated from the natural languages.

The word for “mountain,” based on the German Berg, with the r eliminated, becomes bel, while “fire” becomes fil. One of the advantages of a posteriori language is that its words can recall the known terms of a natural language: but bel for a speaker of a Romance language would probably evoke the notion of beautiful (bello), while not evoking the notion of mountain for a German speaker.

To these radicals were added endings and other derivations. In this respect, Volapük followed an a priori criterion of rationality and transparency. Its grammar is based upon a declensional system (“house:” dom, doma, dome, domi, etc.).

Feminine is derived directly from masculine through an invariable rule, adjectives are all formed with the suffix –ik (if gud is the substantive “goodness,” gudik will be the adjective “good”), comparatives were formed by the suffix –um, and so on.

Given the integers from 1 to 9, by adding an s, units of ten could be denoted (bal = 1, bals = 10, etc.). All words that evoke the idea of time (like today, yesterday, next year) were prefixed with del-; all words with the suffix –av denoted a science (if stel = “star,” then stelav = “astronomy”).

Unfortunately, these a priori criteria are used with a degree of arbitrariness: for instance, considering that the prefix lu– always indicates something inferior and the term vat means “water;” there is no reason for using luvat for “urine” rather than for “dirty water.” Why is flitaf (which literally means “flying animal”) used for “fly” and not for “bird” or “bee?”

Couturat and Leau noted that, in common with other mixed systems, Volapük, without claiming to be a philosophical language, still tried to analyze notions according to a philosophical method.

The result was that Volapük suffered from all the inconveniences of the a priori languages while gaining none of their logical advantages. It was not a priori in that it drew its radicals from natural languages, yet it was not a posteriori, in so far as it subjected these radicals to systematic deformations (due to an a priori decision), thus making the original words unrecognizable.

As a result, losing all resemblance to any natural language, it becomes difficult for all speakers, irrespective of their original tongue. Couturat and Leau observe that mixed languages, by following compositional criteria, form conceptual agglutinations which, in their awkwardness and their primitiveness, bear a resemblance to pidgin languages.

In pidgin English, for example, the distinction between a paddle wheeler and a propeller-driven steam boat is expressed as outside-walkee-can-see and inside-walkee-no-can-see.

Likewise, in Volapük the term for “jeweler” is nobastonacan, which is formed from “stone” + “merchandise” + “nobility.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 319-21.

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