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focus on February 2024

"Can we learn to see appearance as reality?" by Michel Bitbol

Do appearances conceal reality from our eyes? Or does our preconceived idea of what is real prevent us from seeing the reality of appearance? I would like to draw attention to two aspects. The first is to emphasize the importance of phenomenology, which aims to study the appearing, highlighting how our belief in the reality of external objects is generated from it. The second reason is because it seems to me that the way Western metaphysics and science have seen the difference between reality and appearance is exactly opposite to that of Buddhism.
detail of Blad met hoofden (1891), Leo Gestel (Dutch, 1881- 1941)

Do appearances conceal reality from our eyes? Or does our preconceived idea of what is real prevent us from seeing the reality of appearance?

The idea behind the title is not just to provoke, but to draw attention to two points. The first is to emphasize the importance of phenomenology, which aims to study the appearing, highlighting how our belief in the reality of external objects is generated from it. The phenomenological perspective has proven to be very powerful in helping us understand the new developments in the philosophy of physics, particularly quantum physics.
The second reason I chose this title is because it seems to me that the way Western metaphysics and science have seen the difference between reality and appearance is exactly opposite to that of Buddhism. Western science and metaphysics attempt to go beyond appearances toward a hidden reality that metaphysics might call transcendence and science might call the mechanism that explains appearances. However, in some schools of Buddhism, the opposite occurs because what we want to see clearly is the appearing, and what hides the appearing is our conceptual imputation, our intellect that (erroneously) believes it can discover a deeper reality than appearance.

Consider, for example, the theme of impermanence, so important in Buddhism. What is there, the reality we see at this moment, is impermanence itself, the flow of what we experience. At the same time, however, we want to grasp a self that we think is permanent and we also want to grasp, with perception, the identity of things: the identity of the table, the computer, etc. The object is stable, permanent, and therefore, for us, it exists in a real way. But when we let go of this grasping, we see the appearance as it is: flowing, free, open, and for me, this is the true turning point that Buddhism presents.

The turning point of Western metaphysics and science is the opposite: one must go beyond, "punch a hole" in appearance to see reality, as the famous painting of the monk looking through the appearance of the celestial vault reminds us. This is how Western metaphysics and science fundamentally understand knowledge: as a tension toward the permanent beyond what flows, as the unveiling of the immobile.

So it may be interesting to weaken the framework of Western metaphysics and science. Let's examine some classical oppositions for this purpose. For example, everyone says that reality is objective and that there are subjective realms of feelings, impressions, and judgments. And they also say that this subjective domain is limited, restricted, while objective reality is deeper, broader, and capable of embracing subjects. This is our fundamental belief: the West is based on this.
But looking closer, I ask: is what is objective really identical to the real? Kant proposed a new definition of objectivity as universal intersubjectivity, something on which all (rational) existing or possible subjects can agree about phenomena. On the contrary, what Kant calls real is not the intersubjectively valid aspect that can be extracted from phenomena; rather, he thinks that what is real goes beyond the phenomenon and calls it "the thing in itself." His idea of defining objectivity differently from reality is crucial for us because it means that reality is not only found in objectivity but perhaps elsewhere, perhaps even in subjectivity, perhaps in the "neither subjective nor objective" of pure experience. Schopenhauer, Kant's successor, said that what Kant calls "the thing in itself" is what we should call "the will," the impulse to act, the obscure impulse that I cannot know where it comes from but that arises from the innermost part of me and drives me to act. For Schopenhauer, this was reality. But in this case, reality, according to Schopenhauer, is not external at all; it is something that pushes us from the unknown side of our interiority, so the identification between reality and objectivity not only is not obvious but even represents a misunderstanding.

Husserl, the father of phenomenology, used two German words to express reality: real and reell. Real sounds like the Italian word reale, and reell is a word almost identical, but for Husserl, its meaning was completely different. According to Husserl, real means to be "similar to things," similar to the table, the computer, etc.: it is the way of being of the Latin Res. On the other hand, reell speaks of what is "undoubtedly here," "absolutely here"; and for him, this undeniable absolute is the appearance or, rather, the appearing; it is pure, lived experience. In fact, it is always possible to doubt that we are resting on a table: it could be a hologram, a dream, or even a hallucination. Instead, the fact that we are now lucid and conscious, even if something disturbs us, even if we are full of illusions, still exists. "Ah, there is something, something appears (perhaps doubt appears, perhaps hallucination appears, but it appears)." Therefore, for Husserl, reell is more solid than real. The "undoubtedly here" is more immovable than the thing (res). Husserl also insisted that reell is the domain of absolute being, while real is the domain of relative being. Buddhists might say that real is conventional truth, and reell is ultimate truth.

Now let's turn to the thought of George Berkeley, considered an immaterialist thinker because he did not believe in the intrinsic existence of matter but at least believed in the existence of appearance, which he called only "the idea of things." For him, the cause of appearance could only be God (let's not forget he was a bishop!), and he did not think it could be constituted by external objects.

I also like to note the strange reversal of vocabulary that occurred in the seventeenth century because it really helps us understand our banal concept of reality. For medieval philosophers, what they called the subject was the substance underlying appearance, i.e., the substance that causes appearance in us. We might call it an object or a thing, but they called it a subject (subjectum). Instead, for them, the object, as suggested by the etymology of the Latin word ob-jectum, is what we throw in front of us; it could almost be said to be a projection of the mind (almost like a fictional thing). However, we now think that the object is the real thing. So you see that something has happened between the Middle Ages and us, but it began shortly after the Renaissance. I mainly think of Descartes, who pondered what is obvious. He said that it is obvious that "I am," and therefore, he said that the most real thing of all is the ego that feels, perceives, and thinks. Substance, the subject in the medieval sense, for Descartes became the "cogito ego." For him, the "cogito ego" was more real than everything else; hence, he called it the subject. On the other hand, the object became for him the res extensa, the external thing capable of being perceived ... by the ego. This scheme is also highly questionable, but at least it helps us understand where our categories come from: from a recent history, from a sudden turning point in Western philosophy.

Taking another step back, going back to Plato, it's interesting to address a typical problem in medieval philosophy: the controversy between realism and nominalism. In the Middle Ages, realism didn't have the same meaning as today; it didn't imply a belief in the substantial reality of material things. Rather, those called realists believed in the reality of generality, of the concept, of the Idea, as Plato put it. For Plato, everything around us, all the things that appear to us, was an exemplar of something more real and fundamental: the idea. For example, the idea of a table or the idea of a computer is more real than the individual computer and the individual table, according to Plato. It may seem strange, yet we are also heirs to this. The most crucial thing to understand is that, for Plato, the most important exemplar of this higher reality was mathematical form. Mathematical form, to him, was a superior type of reality, and sensible things were merely copies of these absolute mathematical realities. For instance, in "Timaeus," he generates a world from mathematical forms, geometric forms. Aristotle attributed a much higher ontological status to the individual compared to generality, but he always said that science only concerns generality; true knowledge is only about concepts, and individuals escape science.

Now, if we study at least one aspect of Buddhist epistemology, as taught by Dignaga and Dharmakirti, a wholly anti-Platonic thesis becomes apparent. We are struck by the importance these authors attribute to singular moments of experience, to phenomena, to individuals (very limited), to this flash of immediate experience they call "svalaksana," i.e., a sign of itself. For them, these are the true realities. However, to see these true realities, which certain Theravada meditation disciplines are attentive to grasp, one must renounce prefabricated generalities and conceptual overlays called "samanyalaksana." In the terminology of medieval philosophy, this Buddhist philosophy should not be called realistic, even though it is, in a way, realistic about the individual, the immediate reality of the moment of experience or appearance. Instead, in medieval terminology, it should be said that Dharmakirti's Buddhist epistemology is a case of nominalism, not realism. This Buddhist doctrine must be called nominalist because when, for example, one says the horse in general or the table in general, nominalism says it is just a name; there is no reality beneath it, nothing; generality (universal) is merely a name. For nominalists, the only true reality is the individual. However, Buddhist nominalism is very special, much more potent and radical because it not only says the individual table or the individual horse is real but asserts that what is real is only the individual of instantaneously appearing. Even this table and this horse are constructed generalities, made up of fragments of instantaneous appearances. However, at least the reality of something is still admitted in this philosophy—the reality of the instant, the moment of appearing. In the more advanced Madhyamaka doctrine, however, there is pratityasamutpada that dissolves even this minimal ontology: there is no inherent being, not even the inherent being of a single flash of appearing. But then perhaps, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, there would be an interbeing.

So, let's return to the question of the distinction between reality and appearance and how Western metaphysics, inherited from Plato, conceives it. What is real? If I observe a painting where a fruit bowl is depicted, according to Plato, that is an imitation of nature (the fruit). But nature, according to Plato, is an imitation of something more real, which is the idea or ideas (mathematical laws). In contemporary science, it's the same: we see a tree, there's an appearance of bright green, sky, and then there's the reality of that tree, which is very different. If you look deeper, behind the veil of appearances, you find the chlorophyll molecule and then the pattern of the group of elementary particles, and this (let's say) is more real than the appearance of the tree. We are still conditioned by this duality; we are heirs to Plato.
Per esempio pensiamo ai due tavoli celebri di Eddington, nel suo libro The Nature of the Physical World For example, think about Eddington's two famous tables in his book The Nature of the Physical World (1928). According to him, there are two very different tables. There is the table that seems solid, continuous: it is the table of ordinary perception. But there is also the other table, that of science, the physics of 1928, according to which the table is made of atoms bound by chemical bonds but also by an extraordinary amount of emptiness between the particles, between the nucleus and the electrons, between atoms, and so on. A lot of emptiness and very little matter. According to Eddington, a scientist must think that the second table is the real table, while what we see here in the room with our eyes is the apparent table. This exemplifies the difference between appearance and reality, according to this metaphysics we inherited from Plato.

All this seems to arise from a centuries-old misunderstanding, and to explain, I must go back even further and ascend to Heraclitus: there's a famous phrase of his that for a long time everyone translated as "nature loves to hide" (Physis Kriptesthai Philei), spreading the idea that there is something hidden that must be discovered. This translation is from Philo of Alexandria, a disciple of Platonism. According to him, the meaning of this phrase is that the veil of sensory appearances conceals the intelligible reality of the ideal nature, and thus, we must investigate to find the secret of this cryptic reality. There have been other similar interpretations: Galileo said that nature is a mysterious book written in mathematical symbols behind the cloak of appearance, and it's up to us to understand this symbolic reality and unveil its meaning. A few years ago, Pierre Hadot revisited this famous Heraclitian phrase (Physis Kriptesthai Philei) by studying the Greek of the fifth century BCE, which was not the same Greek as Philo of Alexandria (first century); and he found that if he translated the phrase according to the Greek of Homer, he found this: "What is born tends to die," completely different! Physis is no longer nature but what is born, Philei is no longer to love but to tend towards, and Kriptesthai is no longer to hide but to disappear in the sense of dying. So Heraclitus' phrase no longer says that nature is hidden; it says that it is pure impermanence and that there is nothing else to seek beyond impermanence: no stable, permanent substance. Later, the romantics understood this Heraclitian truth well: "Nature gives everything generously; it has no nucleus or veil." "It is useless to look beyond phenomena: phenomena are their own theory," wrote Goethe.

Even in contemporary science, when examined closely, it is seen that scientists do nothing but connect phenomena to other phenomena with the mathematical laws of phenomena; and this was clear to Newton, and even more so to Kant. Newton said, "I don't know, and I don't immediately want to know what the nature of gravitation is. I only give a mathematical law that connects phenomena." Dōgen, a great Buddhist author, said the same, even if he did not have the possibility to mathematically connect phenomena: "All this universe has nothing hidden beyond the phenomenon." Everything here, everything present, everything obvious; therefore, the reality behind the veil of appearance is an empty dream.

Nietzsche, then, diagnosed why we Westerners need to think that there is something solid, firm, enclosed somewhere behind the veil of appearance. It is a diagnosis that would seem Buddhist in its principle. Nietzsche says, "Eternal becoming is terrifying - hence impermanence is terrifying - the impression it leaves is like that of someone who during an earthquake sees everything moving around them. It takes extraordinary energy to transform this effect into its opposite, into an impression of sublimity and happy wonder." We feel that Nietzsche asks us to learn to see the impermanent flow of appearance as the true reality, without being frightened, but rather seeing its marvel.

There are also data in contemporary science that question the typical view of Western metaphysics, despite the fact that the construction ground of this science is nothing but Western metaphysics. Hence Western science becomes capable of self-critique, and there are some examples of this. Like the case of Francisco Varela's theory: autopoiesis and enaction. In his definition of enaction, there is the reciprocal definition of the knower and the known, the subject and the world; therefore, there is nothing stable, permanent, called the world or the subject; everything is the flow of mutual interaction. But the process is looked at from the outside: when Varela did science, he looked at this process as if he were not himself a knowing subject; but he was, and he knew it when he did philosophy or meditation. But now, if you return to the knower's point of view, what do you see? The flow of appearing and nothing else. And there is nothing solid that can be called the world in itself, not even an objective process called "enaction"; because the world co-emerges from this moment of integration that we call appearing.

Another interesting recent case is Donald Hoffman's theory. He says: a living being does not need to know in detail how the world works. For this being, it is very dangerous to know too much about the world. All it needs is to know things that are useful to it; for example, the availability of food, a dangerous situation. Evolution eliminates living beings that know too much about hidden mechanisms – if there are any. But then, even for Hoffman, there is still this model: there is the hidden reality, and then there are the meanings for living beings that can be called appearances. There is this duality. Hoffman calls this appearance, this meaning: the "user interface" because he makes a comparison between what we see on a computer screen and the true reality of what is in the computer, which is a myriad of electrons flying in the processors.

So there is duality according to Hoffman: the user interface and the internal reality of the computer, or there is the reality of the brains of animals living in the world, and then there is the appearance of a meaningful world for them. Hoffman remains in this duality, raising the following question: what about biological evolution and the human brain? Are they part of the user interface, or do they represent reality? After all, even what we call the brain is an appearance according to Hoffman's evolutionary model. The brain, for us, is still part of the user interface. Therefore, due to this, the duality of the pure appearance of the user interface and the internal reality of the computer must be completely reconsidered. In fact, EVERYTHING is the user interface, and everything we can see, even when we open the computer, is always a phenomenon, still the user interface, again and again. So we need to understand that this Hoffman model, like Varela's enactivist model, is a tool to make us see that we should not take things we consider as reality seriously, but only as models; after they have served this purpose, we discard them.

Now let's consider the application to quantum mechanics, which is precisely an extraordinary case where Western metaphysics has demonstrated its ultimate failure in its most immense success. When interpreting quantum mechanics, many think of it as a mathematical description of the reality of electrons, protons, and quarks. Many also say that quantum mechanics provides this description of reality with mathematics, for example, with its psi symbol, which is said to represent the state of elementary particles. However, when making this type of assumption, one encounters an incredible number of paradoxes that everyone is familiar with. There are two strategies: either one accepts the paradoxes by imagining that the world is paradoxical and that we must acknowledge it, or - with a philosophical strategy - one can think that all these paradoxes are due to an inadequate interpretation, inspired by the history of Western metaphysics, of the status of the mathematical symbols given to us by quantum mechanics. There are various paradoxes that immediately dissolve when you change the interpretation of the meaning of mathematics. One is the famous example of Schrödinger's cat, which can be both alive and dead, or perhaps even more well-known, the one that raises the question of whether something can be a wave and a particle at the same time. Can we reconcile energy quanta with Huygens' principle, which is the principle of wave superposition?

Let's delve deeper into non-locality, which is said to be the ultimate teaching of quantum mechanics. Does quantum mechanics truly assert that the world is non-local? What the quantum theory indicates is much more trivial and abstract than this. The mathematics of quantum theory includes what is called "entanglement." This means that you cannot mathematically separate a symbol corresponding to the state of one object from another symbol corresponding to the state of another object. The two symbols are mathematically intertwined. You cannot factorize these symbols in algebraic terms. Now, does this truly imply non-locality? It implies it only if we believe that psi is the mathematical description of a reality beyond the phenomenon. But if we don't believe this, if we say that psi is something else, useful for calculating the probabilities of experimental events but not capable of describing this transcendent reality beyond appearances; if we don't say it, then we find a very different truth, which I would like to express through two statements by contemporary authors. One is by Carlo Rovelli: "quantum mechanics does not violate locality," and the other by a group of physicists (Fuchs, Mermin, and Schack): "quantum non-locality is an artifact of inappropriate interpretations of quantum mechanics."
Here it is: the "paradoxical" non-locality disappears instantly when we abandon the prejudice that mathematics describes a reality deeper than appearance. All the paradoxes of quantum mechanics vanish instantly when you relinquish the bias of Western metaphysics.

Let's also consider Schrödinger's equation. The real question we need to ask is: does this equation describe reality or not? If we say yes, an incredible number of consequences can be inferred, and if we say no, another incredible number of consequences must be drawn.
There is an extraordinary statement by a contemporary philosopher of quantum mechanics, Richard Healey, author of The Quantum Revolution in Philosophy, which illustrates how quantum mechanics is not only a scientific revolution but primarily a philosophical revolution. When you refuse to make the philosophical revolution, you encounter problems that seem scientific; but if you accept the philosophical revolution, the problems disappear, and science becomes more elegant. In the introduction, Healey says that the main barrier to understanding quantum theory is not our inability to imagine the external, real world that this theory describes; a world that we then perceive as strange, paradoxical, inconceivable to our brains. Instead, for Healey: "The real barrier to understanding quantum theory is the presumption that it is to be understood as the description of a world." Quantum mechanics, according to Healey, does NOT describe a real world beyond appearances! So, what does it do? And how can this theory be so efficient and powerful in allowing the construction of computers if it describes nothing of reality? It seems incredible. At this point, we should critically examine our fascination with theoretical formalisms, i.e., with Platonic mathematics. If you answer yes to all questions regarding the descriptive status of symbols, then you are still trapped in the Western Platonist view: phenomena are only fleeting appearances, a copy of the true reality adequately described by ideal mathematics. A contemporary French philosopher maintains this: according to him, everything that can be formulated in mathematical terms makes sense to be thought of as a property of the object itself.

But if we want to free ourselves from Platonic metaphysics, our critique must be directed not only at symbols but also at experiments. We need to learn not to make too many conceptual overlays, not just about the connection between experimental results but also about the experiments themselves. To achieve this, we must do what Husserl calls epochè: suspend judgment. I suspend, for example, judgment on what certain images manifest (for example, waves or particles). If I do that, I see what is there: appearances as they are; just points with a distribution of a particle-like or wave-like nature (but NEITHER particles NOR waves).

Now let's see what happens when we try to reconstruct quantum mechanics from this tabula rasa. In some considerations, Bohr says that quantum physics confronts us with the impossibility of a rigid separation between phenomena and means of observation. One cannot say that a phenomenon is the immediate manifestation of the thing as it is; it is only the emerging product of our interaction with something we cannot even conceptualize. Interaction constitutes a part of phenomena. Therefore, one must restrict the meaning of the word "phenomenon" to observations obtained under specific circumstances. If that is admitted, quantum mechanics, according to Bohr, is a symbolic scheme that allows predictions only regarding results obtainable under specified conditions through classical concepts. Thus, quantum mechanics is merely a symbolism for predicting phenomena resulting from our experimental action, and nothing more. But it is a formalism of the general coherence of all possible predictions, and that is what makes it immensely powerful.

Paraphrasing Hoffman: the quantum mathematical formalism is tuned into utility rather than some presumed external reality. Quantum physics is focused on the utility of prediction, not on the profound elucidation of a hypothetical hidden reality that is claimed to be represented by mathematics. The quantum mathematical formalism, Hoffman would say, is a schema created by my intellect to inform me about the adaptive consequences of my actions. Nothing else. No representation of (presumed) ultimate reality.

The two contemporary interpretations that have developed this Bohrian insight are the pragmatic one by Richard Healey in 2017 and the interpretation known as QBism (Quantum Bayesianism) by Fuchs and colleagues.
Fuchs states that a quantum state does not represent (presumed) reality but is the assignment of probabilities by an agent reflecting their degrees of confidence about the future. So, what we generally call psi, the state of a particle, is here the belief state of a physicist. Fuchs relies on the extraordinary works of a great Italian probability specialist, Bruno De Finetti.
Fuchs further contends that quantum mechanics is a manual for each of us on how to use phenomena, how to proceed with phenomena, and make something efficient out of them. Hence, it is a science of efficiency, a general engineering rather than knowledge, not wisdom.
But the metaphysical urge always resurfaces, even in a physicist as economical as Fuchs.

The classic question, inherited from Platonic metaphysics, would be: how should the hidden reality be to be represented by the symbolism of quantum mathematics? What peculiarity should that world have to be described by a theory that has superposed states and entangled states? This is the classic metaphysical question. But there is also a meta-theoretical question posed by Fuchs. You see, he has not abandoned the idea of finding out what reality is like either. However, he does not say that reality is represented by quantum mechanics and its mathematics; he only suggests that the non-representability of reality by quantum mechanics should give us an idea of what this reality is like. It is a negative metaphysics, akin to negative theology. How should reality be to show such persistent resistance to being represented as an object? Fuchs' answer is inspired by Wheeler's vision, the vision of the participating observer in which there is no longer a duality between observer and reality, and thus no longer a duality between appearance and reality. Instead, there is a single pure continuum that, by self-separating, gives rise to the phenomena in which we must navigate and predict something. This is similar to Merleau-Ponty's conception, who saw vision not as the impression of an external object on a subjective sense but as the opening of being on two sides: the observer and the observed. However, being remains singular and non-dual in this opening. Fuchs's new ontology resembles what Merleau-Ponty called an "endo-ontology": an ontology for those who participate in being rather than just facing being.

However, with quantum theory, we can systematically approach the surprises that arise from the unknown we explore, without claiming to know what exists before entering it. That's what we do. Hence, quantum mechanics is the most powerful expression of our cognitive humility.

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focus on February 2024
focus on February 2024