As of late, I’ve been contemplating the relationship between, on the one hand, intention/aspiration; and, on the other hand, accomplishment. What determines the extent to which an intention or aspiration translates into an actual accomplishment of the thing (or no-thing) that was intended or aspired to?
As a starting-point, I’ve divided the inquiry into two cases:
1. When the accomplishment is within the realm of phenomena—which includes cultivation of body and mind as well as influencing worldly circumstances; and
2. When the accomplishment is noumenal—which would include, notably, insight into our nondual nature as pristine Awareness.
These lines of thought are, for the most part, an expansion upon my earlier exploration of the serenity prayer: viz. the distinction that is to be made between what we can rationally hope or expect to influence; and what lies outside of our influence (however much we may desire to influence it).
This essay will primarily address case #1 (accomplishments within the realm of phenomena) with only occasional forays into case #2.
We’ll begin by making a distinction between night-dreams and waking-dreams ….
Night-Dreams & Waking-Dreams
Both dream experiences and waking experiences occur within the space of Awareness. For this reason, we can say that waking-world phenomena are just as dream-like as are the appearances within a dream. And the same is true for mathematical entities (e.g. Pi or prime numbers), Platonic forms and other archetypal phenomena. They all are appearances within the space of Awareness.
But there’s an important difference between waking-state phenomena and dream-state phenomena. The difference is that waking experience is subject to certain physical constraints that are determined, for instance, by the laws of physics.
There are physical laws regarding the behavior of molecules, atoms, photons, sounds waves, etc.—that necessarily configure the contents of the waking-dream. These are limiting parameters that—while often transcended in the dream-state—are (under normal circumstances) fully operational within waking experience.
And it is these physical constraints that place limitations on the influence that a specific waking-world entity (e.g. a human body-mind) can exert upon its surrounding physical environment; and also limit the extent to which a mental intention or aspiration can actually manifest, physically.
Aspirations, intentions and imagination—may be wholly unconstrained. But physical actions in the waking-state are constrained by physical laws. This is why we say that waking-world experience is dream-like—but not identical in every way to dream experience.
So, what exactly are the contours of these possibilities for and limitations upon causal potency, upon the influence that one physical entity/event might have upon another, within the waking-state?
You may be familiar with the so-called butterfly effect—a poetic way of illustrating the Chaos Theory insight that small changes in the initial conditions of a nonlinear network of causal influences can lead to drastic changes in the eventual results.
So, a butterfly flapping its wings in Boulder, Colorado has the power to “cause” a hurricane in China—in the sense of providing a necessary condition for the arising of the hurricane. In Chaos Theory, this story is used to show, also, how the movements and outcomes of nonlinear systems are impossible to precisely predict.
Most likely, the butterfly never imagined that the simple act of flapping his/her wings at a specific space-time location would end up contributing to a hurricane.
Just so, the human mind can never know the full extent of causal networks—can never comprehend how a single action might ripple out its various and evermore subtle positive, negative or neutral effects. Why? Because, in a certain sense, these effects are infinite.
Imagine dropping a pebble into the center of a lake. The impact creates ripples which move out in concentric circles along the surface of the water. The movement in the ripples in turn initiates movements just below the surface of the water, and also in the air just above it. And those movements, in turn, generate other effects—at molecular, atomic, and subatomic levels.
At a certain point these effects move beyond what a human body-mind (with its limited sensory organs) can directly register. A scientist might amplify his/her perceptual capacity by using a microscope or telescope; or by building the CERN large hadron collider to detect subatomic particles; or the LIGO lab to detect gravitational waves.
Even then, there are limits to the nuance available in our assessment of causal influences.
Even though such influences can properly be considered as infinite—in the way that there are an infinite number of real-numbers between zero and one—the majority of phenomenal causes have effects that are experienced/measurable only locally (i.e. within a limited sphere) rather than universally.
If I accidentally cut my little finger with a paring knife, as I’m chopping vegetables for my stir-fry, the effect of the knife-blade upon my finger is primarily felt locally: on my finger. The wound will also affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments and other tissues contiguous with the original cut—as well as the blood-flow throughout the finger and hand.
If the cut is deep, its effects may be directly experienced in my arm also. But unless the cut is truly life-threatening, its effects will not be directly experienced by every muscle, bone, organ of my body. My little toe is very unlikely to directly experience the effects of the cut on my little finger.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t seem outrageous to say: “I’ve cut myself”—with the “self” here referring to the entire human body that I call “mine.”
In other words, the effects of the local injury are applied to and in a sense “shared” or “owned” by the entire body with which I identify—even though there may well be locations in the body which have experienced no actual physical effects of the original cause (viz. the knife-wound).
This is all a bit of an aside—to illustrate the difference between (1) an identity-driven mental attribution of causal scope/influence; and (2) actual causal influence governed by physical laws. For the most part, here, we’ll be exploring the latter.
As we’ll see, waking-state causal influence is never wholly unlimited. The effects of any specific action do have limits—which are determined mathematically by the speed of light (aka the speed of causation).
And we know intuitively that there are certain things that we (via our body-mind) can influence, and others, not really. This is what makes the serenity prayer as rational as it is practical. Accurately assessing the reach of causal influence available via the actions of my human body-mind is an important skill—even if (a la the butterfly effect) I can never know the precise contours and all the subtleties of such influence.
Returning to our pebble-in-lake example: If we drop a pebble into a pond, the expanding ripples at some point cease to ripple, i.e. lose momentum completely and are absorbed back into the stillness of the pond’s surface. This illustrates a limit to a specific causal influence.
Though we’re focusing largely on causal influence within phenomenal realms, it may also be interesting to consider:
Do actions motivated by noumenal qualities such as wisdom, truth, love or beauty somehow distribute themselves universally—i.e. have universal benefit—in a way that other actions do not?
Is the force of love greater than the force of ignorance? What’s the relationship between the “force of love” and the “causal potency” associated with phenomenal entities/actions?
For the time being, we’ll leave these as unanswered questions ….
And instead take a quick peek into the mind-bending noodle-baking realm of time dilation and length contraction—which tends to throw a wrench into habitual assumptions about causality.
Time Dilation & Length Contraction
The nitty-gritty scientific reasons why any specific phenomenal cause can only have limited effects begin with a couple of surprising outcomes of Einstein’s theory of relativity: time dilation and length contraction.
The basic idea is that a range of observers—each with his/her own frame of reference defined by a space-time location and a velocity—will not necessarily agree up the length of an object or the sequence of events.
A stick that measures eight inches in one person’s frame of reference may measure six inches in another person’s frame of reference.
Likewise, events that are simultaneous in one person’s frame of reference may be sequential in another person’s frame of reference. And even more surprising: an event that is in one person’s past may be in another person’s future!
The overall conclusion is that neither length nor time are absolute measurements. Both length and time are relative to the observer’s frame of reference.
If you’re interested in knowing the details of how this works, check out these excellent videos:
- Space-Time in Special Relativity
- Space-Time Intervals
- Are Space & Time an Illusion?
- The Geometry of Causality
And now, you might reasonably be wondering: Is there anything that all that observers agree upon, in relation to the appearance and activity of phenomena?
And the answer is … yes! The space-time interval is something that all phenomenal observers agree upon. So, what is the space-time interval?
The Space-Time Interval
In our habitual way of thinking, the length of an object is independent of time/velocity, and the temporal sequence of objects is independent of space. But Einstein discovered that this is actually not the case.
But if we considered four-dimensional space-time, then the interval between any two space-time events is something that all (phenomenal) observers will agree upon. For the math nerds among you, the space-time interval is calculated using this equation:
s² = x² + y² + z² – c²t²
x, y & z are the distances in space between the two events,
t is the “distance” in time between the two events,
c is the speed of light, and
s is the spacetime interval.
What if we wanted to see what a particular event “looked like” in another frame of reference? The Lorenz Transformation is a mathematical function that facilitates translation from one frame of reference to another. And it also predicts the speed of light.
But what does any of this have to do with causal influence—which was our original question?
As it turns out, certain values of the space-time interval indicate the possibility of causal influence between two space-time events; while other values indicate the impossibility—given the speed of light—of such causal influence. The speed of light is basically the equivalent to the speed of causality. And since the speed of light has a constant limit—causal influence is also shown to be limited.
On a space-time graph, the area of possible causal influence—into the future and from the past—is depicted via a pair of cones, called “light cones” (pictured above).
Any event that lies within another event’s light-cone is within the realm of causal influence. Any event that lies outside of another event’s light-cone can never be causally influenced by it—assuming the cosmic speed-limit of light.
The future light-cone determines the causal reach of a current event. The past light-cone illustrates all possible causal influences upon the current situation.
So, once again: From the point of view of any specific space-time entity/event, causal influence is limited. This is because the the speed at which one object can “talk to” (i.e. transmit energy/information) to another object is limited by the constant speed of light.
And why does our universe require a limited speed of light?
Because if the speed of light were infinite, there could be no matter; only massless particles traveling at infinite speed. There could also be no time and space, no cause or effect. All locations and times would communicate with each other instantly. The universe would be an infinitesimal here and now.
Now, if the descriptions in the previous paragraph sound familiar … you may be engaged in some form of nondual spiritual inquiry, because it seems eerily similar to pointers to the nondual experience of Pure Awareness. But that’s a topic for another time ….
Our discussion thus far has been oriented with respect to a four-dimensional space-time as articulated by Albert Einstein.
If we wanted to assume a more idealist or phenomenological point of view, we might posit—in lieu of three dimensions of space (on the x, y, and z axes) and one dimension of time—a more subjectivity oriented dimensionality, for instance:
- the vision axis,
- the hearing axis,
- the tactile axis,
- the olfactory axis,
- the gustatory axis, and
- the mind axis
But this, also, is a topic for a future post.
Bringing it back to our current exploration of the limitations of causal influence, within the realm of phenomena, let’s employ another metaphor ….
Limitations on causal influence are akin to video game parameters for a given avatar. Say you’re playing NBA Live. Each video avatar—representing an NBA basketball player—is assigned a specific skill-set, which determines the scope of their causal influence: what they can do on the virtual “court,” and what they can’t do.
The game depends—for its interest—upon a mix of freedoms/powers and limitations. That’s what makes it fun to play.
Now perhaps the one who is playing the video game has access to a multitude of avatars. If this is the case, then s/he might accomplish things that a single avatar couldn’t (apparently) accomplish on their own—by switching from one avatar to another avatar, and in this way blending the skills of a number of different avatars, to enhance their collective causal scope.
So, in relation to human experience—to the aspect of our experience mediated by the perceptual/cognitive apparatus of a human body-mind—who or what is the video-game player?
Is there a “cheat code” that allows us more immediate access to the player, as a way of expanding causal potency, transcending (if only temporarily) the inherent limitations of the physical laws of causality?
Benefit & Injury
As we’ve all noticed, causal influence can be either positive/helpful or negative/harmful. But does it hold these qualities throughout its influence? Probably not, since “helpful” and “harmful” are relative to the specific context, which changes as the causal influence ripples outward.
As described above, when my little finger has been injured, I have no problem saying that “I” am hurt—generally meaning that my body is hurt.
But if someone else’s little finger is injured, it’s generally a different story.
Separate-self is like a psychological light-cone—a limitation on our care or concern based upon the self-other dualism.
True love isn’t bound by any particular body-mind—so the limitations (in terms of causal influence) are, in a way, irrelevant.
Platonic Forms & Archetypes
Just for fun, we might consider a more vertical model of causality—for instance via the Buddhist “form realm” or Plato’s forms, or Jung’s archetypes. In such a model, material objects are—at least in part—an emanation of this more abstract archetypal realm.
Such a realm would function is way that’s similar to an architect’s blueprint for a building—not quite a “cause” but more of an overall framework, an overarching plan that guides the construction of the building from a qualitatively different dimension.
In more transparent modes of functioning (a la shamatha/samadhi) access to the form realms can perhaps be more direct and volitional—like a video game “cheat code” mentioned above.
This scene from the Star Trek TNG episode Thine Own Self playfully illustrates the conflict between a materialist and a more archetypal model of causality:
Since causation is limited,
Happiness that requires a phenomenal cause can never be certain, eternal, infinite and indestructible.
Pure Awareness is not a “state”—is not a physical or psychological frame of reference. Rather, it is the nondual “space” within which all frames of reference appear.
As Awareness, we can perceive relative subject and object as well as the perceptual/conceptual lens which defines their relationship.
From this clarity, do we naturally act—via the human body-mind—in ways that maximize (or even “miraculously” expand) the available causal scope and potency?
Do intentions and aspirations emerging directly from this clarity carry extra potency?