Knowing and Not Knowing – What is Possible?


Knowing and Not Knowing – What is Possible?

‘Human thinking can only imagine reality, just as a portrait represents a person. And as a portrait is not “the person” it represents, likewise any theory is not “the reality” it describes. We then must humbly recognize that our minds’ coherence and logic do not necessarily match the consistency of reality. And that also entails that reality does “occur” and that we cannot conclude it is an “illusion of our minds” simply because we cannot make sense of it.’

Henri Salles1

‘The universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.’

J.B.S. Haldane2

‘Much exists and evolves in this world which is not accessible to our comprehension, since our cerebral organization is primarily devised so that it secures survival of the individual in natural surroundings. Over and above this, modest silence is the appropriate attitude.’

Walter Hess3

The Buddha would not have thought to put a label on his teachings and, in fact, there are many texts in which he discourages speculation about the ontology of the external world. His message was that we should concentrate on our cognitive experience of life here and now – “The world,” he said, “lies within this fathom-long human carcass”.4 Although describing some considerations is a form of conceptualizing and carries all of the flaws inherent in conceptualizing, it helps us to better grasp a Right View and develop confidence in what the Buddha wanted us to understand, like a map that shows the terrain.

Construction of Reality

Since the Buddha emphasized the crucial role of our construction of reality using our cognitive apparatus, was he teaching a model of metaphysical idealism – a model in which no material things exist independently of the mind? The answer is, clearly, no; the Buddha’s teachings can be better described as a form of transcendental idealism. The crucial feature of transcendental idealism is its assertion that, while our world of experience is subjectively created and the ‘real’ lies beyond the ordinary range of our perception and conceptualization of what can be experienced, we have our experience only because there is the transcendentally real.

The Buddha taught that, through the khandhas, there is a vital and clear link between the sense organs and what they sense; this was not an idealistic assertion. There is a substantial ‘environment’ with which we interact and to which we respond. So, for the Buddha, there was no denial of the existence of an external world as there is in Idealism. Rather, the Buddha taught that our ignorance is the ordinary, pre-enlightened, constructive cognitive understanding and experience of our world. We process what we sense and then create subjective constructions at the reflective phase of experience; we mistake our interpretations of the world for the world itself – we take our mental constructions to be the world. Ignorance is ‘seeing’ the world as consisting of discrete, static entities, both internal and external.

Transcendental Idealism

In transcendental idealism, that which we call the ‘external’ world – the world we inhabit – is actually only a representation or interpretation we create with our cognitive apparatus, not the actual reality itself. Just as, in a vaguely similar way, a creative modern artist creates a totally different art form from an ordinary object, we create a picture of or representation of Reality which in no way resembles it in its actuality. We can never truly know or sense Reality because we are limited by, and cannot transcend the input of, our khandhas. The fanciful and inaccessible nature of sense data is such that as soon as one thinks in terms of them, one is estranged from reality. Our entire framework of conceptual categories is only a set of representations or pictures of reality, and the input through our sense organs is only possible because of an integral relationship between aspects of Reality and our sense organs. Unlike idealism, which usually states that there is only mind or mental construction and that nothing other than that is substantially real, transcendental idealism states that we have experience only because of the Transcendental Reality. In other words, in Hamilton’s words, ‘…the reality of experience is experiential. And the reality of Reality is unknowable in (normal) experiential terms. The aim for the Buddhist is to understand the nature and limits of experience by means of understanding the nature and extent of one’s subjective cognitive apparatus. In Buddhist terms, this subjectively and objectively correlated insight is knowing and seeing how things really are.’5

The Buddha, then, was not trying to answer ontological or metaphysical questions, because they are misleading and unanswerable. Given our pre-enlightened way of seeing things, we assume that the world is real as we cognitively construct it. We also think of the ‘self’ – the experiencer of experience – as an individual, independent, and continuing being in a world of other such discrete entities. However, as the Buddha taught, since all things existing in samsara are cognitively dependently originated, and subject-object dualism is illusory, Reality is not conceptually graspable or verbally articulable. When the experiencer finally sees through the illusion of the projected dualisms and understands the non-substantialist nature of her cognitive world, she experiences Nibbāna – bliss, serenity, and liberation.

Freedom from pre-enlightened conceptuality arises when concepts are understood as creating or projecting both the sense of self and the experience of a world where the self and the things of the world together form the basis of desire. The self (name) is what desires, the things of the world (form) are what are desired, and grasping with intention occurs when the two meet in the vortical interplay with consciousness. This is the crux of suffering.

Support of Modern Science

Modern science supports the Buddha’s understandings about our relationship with Reality. In his studies aiming to define and explain the nature of a living system, the biologist H.R. Maturana comes to a conclusion similar to the Buddha’s regarding the limits of our understanding of the nature of experience: ‘The observer as an observer necessarily always remains in a descriptive domain, that is, in a relative cognitive domain. No description of an absolute reality is possible. Such a description would require an interaction with the absolute to be described, but the representation which would arise from such an interaction would necessarily be determined by the autopoietic (the natural process which includes the potential for transformation, the creation of novelty, from within the organization itself) organization of the observer, not by the deforming agent; hence, the cognitive reality that it would generate would unavoidably be relative to the knower.’6

Some consider these paradigms, including the Buddha’s, to represent a form of solipsism; the whole of reality and the external world and other people are merely representations of the individual self, having no independent existence of their own, and they might in fact not even exist. But this is clearly a conclusion or teaching offered by neither the Buddha nor the modern authors cited here. In all of their writings, however, these thinkers do speak of an existing separate world; they do recognize that other humans and creatures exist in our environment and that it is possible to empathize and interact with them. In fact, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths specifically so that other sentient beings could awaken from their ignorance and stop suffering. What all these thinkers are claiming, and I think rightly so, is that the outer environment is only partially accessible through the specialized doors of our sense organs, or khandhas, and that the rest of Reality is beyond the abilities of our input mechanisms to absorb; all this leaves us with a very limited cognitive construction of Reality.

The theoretical physicist Wolfram Schommers also postulates that information about some external reality flows into the body of the observer through his sense organs and that the brain forms a picture of that reality. Yet the symbols in this picture are transformations of the objects in the outside world. On one hand, we have the reality; on the other hand, we create a picture of reality, and the structures in the pictures are different from the external reality they are created to represent. Echoing the Buddha’s reluctance to search for and answer metaphysical questions, Schommers writes: ‘Furthermore, we can say quite generally that there is no picture-independent point of view conceivable, i.e. there is no external point of view which would enable a direct observation of basic reality. Thus, questions like “How is basic reality built up and what kind of processes take place in it?” makes no sense.’7

Schommers continues:

 ‘Events occurring in the cosmos are presented inside a biological system only as symbols in a picture. The picture (mental manifestations) in the mind contains aspects of reality only in symbolic form, i.e. the elements in reality are not identical with the pertinent elements in the picture. Therefore, “basic reality,” i.e., reality which exists independently of the observer, is in principle not accessible in any DIRECT WAY. Rather, it is observable or describable by means of pictures on different levels, i.e., levels of reality […] Everything is located in the head, not only the products of fantasy and scientific laws, but those things which we understand as “hard” objects.’8

Schommers argues, from a modern physicist’s perspective, for a viewpoint that is very similar to the Buddha’s and to Transcendental Idealism.9 Bernard d’Espagnat, a physicist, also argues that we cannot directly know the Transcendental Reality, because:

‘When, in its spirit, quantum theory and Bell’s theorem are used as touchstones, the two main traditional philosophical approaches, realism and idealism, are found wanting. A more suitable conception seems to be an intermediate one, in which the mere postulated existence of a holistic and hardly knowable Mind – Independent Reality is found to have explaining power. […] This model considers Reality as not lying in space and time, indeed being a prior to both, and it involves the view that the great mathematical laws of physics may only let us catch some glimpses on the structures of the Mind-Independent Reality.’10

Veiled Reality

D’Espagnat calls this model ‘veiled reality’ to suggest that the Mind-Independent Reality, so similar to what we are calling Transcendental Idealism, is for the most part unconceptualizable. ‘Veiled reality’ refers to a ‘world’ independent from humans and veiled by perception, brain structure, and the language of our minds’ participation in knowledge. However, d’Espagnat believes that we are involved in this reality because it is not separated from us by the dualistic chasm of object vs. subject. Rather, we exist in it. We are an integral part of the reality. We are ‘swimming’ in it. Reality is not a specific area of the universe that exists separate from our senses. Our limitation is that we have only the capacity to be involved in an exceedingly small aspect of it.

D’Espagnat holds, as the Buddha taught, that sense impressions and sensations are real, as are our sense organs. As we saw in our earlier discussion of sight and color, both the photons or waves as well as the retinal cones are real, and their interactions create our vision. The same is true of our other sensations. This is the middle way of understanding our place in reality. We don’t have to seek our participation in it; we are a part of it. However, in our ignorance we take our cognitive representations or pictures of reality to be reality itself. But under certain meditative conditions, we can understand how our subject/object dualistic substantialism creates this illusion – the illusion that is the ignorance that creates our suffering.

As the Buddha explained in a descriptive explanation of the doctrine of kamma and dependent origination, life has a certain predictability; certain conditions have their origins in certain other conditions. Life is not total randomness, but it is also not total determinism. We see a similar approach in d’Espagnat’s account of veiled reality. We know that we are involved in reality when we obtain approximately the same results regardless of our methods of investigating a phenomenon or replicating behaviors. Stability is a reliable criterion of reality. In other words, a reasonable or practical attitude is required, one that recognizes that an event is created when a certain cause or causes originate it. When my hungry cat comes into the kitchen, for example, under most circumstances she will go to her food plate and eat. I don’t know if she will walk or run, eat quickly or slowly, or if after entering the kitchen she’ll choose not to eat because a loud noise will startle her, or whether she does not feel well. But under most circumstances, quite reliably, she will eat the food on her plate. In the affective/cognitive realm, when I am thirsty, if I think of a drink that I enjoy a lot, I will have physical responses such as salivation, and my desire or craving for that drink will increase. If my physical/affective/ cognitive experience repeats itself in a replicable way, I can assume that this stability of phenomena demonstrates an indication of reality.

Space and Time

‘The relationship between space and time in the human mind has long been the subject of philosophical inquiry and psychological experimentation. There is now no doubt that space and time are intimately linked in our minds, yet the nature of this relationship remains scientifically and neurologically unclear.’11

The Buddha’s teachings suggest that our experiencing of time and space has important implications. As Sue Hamilton notes, ‘…if the structure of the world of experience is correlated with the cognitive process, then it is not just that we name objects, concrete and abstract, and superimpose secondary characteristics according to the senses. It is also that all the structural features of the world of experience are cognitively correlated. In particular, space and time are not external to the structure but are part of it.’12 Therefore, everything that is knowable in temporal and spatial terms is dependent on our subjective cognitive process. Hamilton continues, ‘If the entirety of the structure of the world as we know it is subjectively dependent, including space and time, it follows that the very concept of there being origins, beginnings, ends, extents, limits, boundaries, and so on, is subject-dependent. The entirety of temporality and of special extension are concepts which do not operate independently of subjective cognitive processes.’13

When Hamilton turns to the ‘the classic unanswered or undetermined questions’ of the Buddha, such as ‘Is the world eternal or finite?’, she points to an important difference of the Transcendental Reality model regarding time and space as we understand the implications of the Buddha’s teachings. Inherent in these questions about eternity is the assumption that time and space ‘are transcendentally real – that is, that they operate externally to subjective cognitive process. As with the questions on the self, they seek to find a permanence or immortality. However, if space and time are part of the structural characteristics of the experiential world, and that is cognitively dependent, then one can see that the presupposition of the transcendental reality of time and space is false, and that the fundamental premises on which the questions rest are therefore also false and unanswerable.’14 In other words, the Transcendental Idealism model assumes that reality is embedded in space and time, whereas the Buddha teaches that space and time don’t exist outside but are a part of our cognitive constructions of reality.

D’Espagnat, from the perspective of a physicist, takes a similar position: ‘I am therefore inclined to think that “the Real” – alias human independent reality – is not embedded in space-time. And indeed, I go as far as speculating that, quite the contrary, the nature of space-time is [...] not “nominal but phenomenal,” that space-time is a “reality – for-us.”’15 D’Espagnat emphasizes here the fact that our experience of space-time is subjective to our cognitive constructions of phenomena.

Another perspective worth noting on the issue of space-time and reality as a cognitive construction is written by Manoj Thulasidas, an experimental physicist, who builds on ‘an insight from cognitive neuroscience about the nature of reality’:

‘Reality is a convenient representation that our brain creates out of our sensory inputs. This representation, though convenient, is an incredibly distant experiential mapping of the actual physical causes that make up the input to our senses. […] Reality is nothing but a cognitive model created in our brain starting from our sense inputs, visual inputs being the most significant. Space itself is part of this cognitive model. […] Once we identify the manifestations of the limitations of our perceptions and cognitive representations, we can understand the consequent constraints on our space and time.’16

Schommers takes a related perspective on space and time:

‘We normally assume that our sensations produced by the brain are identical with reality itself, but this should not be the case as we have argued that space-time cannot be outside the brain because space-time has to be considered as an auxiliary element for the representation of physically real processes. In other words, the outside world, the material bodies, cannot be embedded in space-time. That in particular means that not only the things in front of us (cars, houses, trees, etc.) are in our head but also space-time, where all these things are positioned. We have only impressions that all these “hard objects,” together with space-time, are located outside us. Space and time are obviously elements of the brain; they come into existence due to specific brain functions.’17

Schommers also relates the position of the important philosopher Immanuel Kant: ‘Space and Time are exclusively features of our brain and the world outside is projected on it.’18 ‘Kant argues that Space Time (and the Causal Motion of Matter in Space) are our constructions of our own mind.’19

So this model asserts that even space and time are intimately linked in our minds, resulting in a construction of a reality constructed by our cognitive representations.

Actual Reality

Actual reality is not fully accessible to us because of the sense organs/input relationship inherent in the khandhas, which can select from the larger transcendent reality only some input that they can absorb and then cognitively process. Actual reality is not accessible in a direct way, and the subjectively independent point of view is cognitively constructed. In actual reality, space and time as we experience them do not exist. While cognitive constructs can be formed on the basis of different types of space-time structures, there will be no similarity between the structures and characteristics of the ‘veiled reality’ and our corresponding cognitive constructs. Put another way, a transcendental reality does exist; the human mind and ideas are dependent on human bodies and brains to exist; there is a necessary connection between the matter of our brain and body and other matter in the universe which enables us to see it, move it around; our representation of Reality (including space and time) does not come directly from our senses, but is constructed by the mind and is limited to sensing only a tiny fraction of what exists in Reality. So we have the assertion that space-time is a part of our cognitive modeling of the external world, a modeling that is severely limited by the fact that the input of information that creates our cognitive constructions is extremely selective and narrow. The conclusion, as the Buddha explained, is that we cannot know the absolute reality; chasing after this knowledge is a part of the pre-enlightened ignorance that creates suffering.

Modern science continues to expand our knowledge of the selective knowable reality because it continues to create more sophisticated sense-dependent measuring instruments (such as the electron microscope, PET scanner, telescopes, X-ray astronomy detectors, and the like) that allow us to investigate previously unknown aspects of the world. This, however, does not change the fact that what is being expanded is merely such knowledge as is available through the khandhas and cognitive apparatus. However, in fact, basic Reality, the reality which exists independently of us, remains inaccessible in any direct way. As Karl Mannheim stated: ‘[…] The world as “world” exists only with reference to the knowing mind, and the mental activity of the subject determines the form in which it appears. […] This is the first stage in the dissolution of an ontological dogmatism which regarded the “world” as existing independently of us, in a fixed and definitive form.’20 For the Buddha, questions concerning the existence of the world in time and space and so on are unanswerable because they are formulated on false premises and therefore can never really be answered. Speculating about these questions is not the way to peace, to release, to Nibbāna. Buddhism is very pragmatic: the attainment of Nibbana. The practice of mental culture or development along the Eight-factor Path is aimed at that direct understanding of how our cognitive apparatus works and, therefore, at showing us that our lived experience is truly neither an ‘I’ nor a ‘world’.



Salles, H. ( consistency.htm) Retrieved 7 June 2013.

Haldane, J. B. S., Possible Worlds and Other Papers (Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1927), 286.

Hess, W. and Fischer, H.. “Brain and consciousness: a discussion about the function of the brain”, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 17 (1973), 109-118.

Saµyutta Nikåya I, 62.

Hamilton, S., Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (New York: Routledge, 2000), 198.

Matur”ana, H. R., and Varela, F. J., Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1980), 121.

Schommers, W., Space and Time, Matter and Mind: The Relationship between Reality and Space-time (London: World Scientific, 1994), 118.

Schommers, W., The Visible and the Invisible: Matter and Mind in Physics (London: World Scientific, 1994), 128.

In Schommers’s, Quantum Processes, he lays out the mathematics of quantum phenomena.

d’Espagnat, B., “Quantum Theory: A Pointer To An Independent Reality”, Quantum, April 1998, 1–17.

Casasanto, D., Fotakopoulou, O. and Boroditsky, L.,  Space and time in the child’s mind: Evidence for a cross-dimensional asymmetry”, Cognitive Science 34 (3): 387-405.

Ibid., Hamilton. p. 169.

Ibid. Hamilton. p. 174. Hamilton’s assertion constitutes an important difference from what some claim is the reason that the Buddha refused to answer these questions. For example: ‘But the Buddha’s fundamental point – which was always for him the soteriological point – was that to know the answers to these questions is not necessary for liberation and that to treat them as though they were will only hinder our advance toward liberation.’ (John Hick, ‘The Buddha’s “Undetermined Questions” and the Religions’ (available at, accessed 7 June 2013). Instead, the Buddha was often asked about the substantialism of self, time, and space because the seekers who asked these questions were still approaching these topics from a pre-enlightened perspective. Therefore, the questions were nonsensical to the Buddha since he understood that the questions were founded on ignorance. His not answering was not based on a strategic manner of teaching; his point was merely that there is no answer to these questions.

Ibid., Hamilton, 175

d’Espagnat, B., On Physics and Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2006), 239.

Thulasidas, M., “Constraints of Perception and Cognition in Relativistic Physics”, Galilean Electrodynamics 6 (2008), 103-117.

Schommers, W., Quantum Processes (London: World Scientific, 2011), 33.

Ibid., 31.

Haselhurst, G., “Kant”, ( Retrieved 7 June 2013.

Mannheim, K., Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge, 1936), 166.

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