Friday, July 22, 2011

Ontic Apophaticism

Ontic Apophaticism
by Scott Bradley


As you probably suspected, there is no known cure for ontic apophaticism.

Lest you think I am trying to impress with big words, I confess now that I only saw apophaticism for the first time yesterday and would not have had a clue what it means had not Raimundo Panikkar (The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha) mercifully (and uncharacteristically) defined it. It essentially means ineffable, which he does not use because it does not say enough.

What it means is that Ultimate Reality is such that we cannot speak of it, not for lack of a big enough brain, but because It is absolutely not reducible to knowing. 'Ontic' refers to being, of course.

"Ultimate reality," Panikkar writes, "is so supremely ineffable and transcendent that, strictly speaking, Buddhism will be constrained to deny it the very character of being. Being, after all, is what it is; but what it is by the very fact of being, is in some manner thinkable and communicable." This explains the Buddha's "ontic silence" and the apparent atheism of Buddhism — there is no Ultimate Realty, in as much as to speak of it is to negate It. “It is in order to defend the absolute transcendence of divinity that the Buddha, reasonably enough, denies devinity.

I recently listened to a TEDTalk by the cosmologist Sean Caroll in which, not surprisingly, he spoke about the vastness of the cosmos. There are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. There are a hundred billion galaxies like or bigger than our own, each with its hundred billion stars. The Universe is roughly 100 billion years old ("in dog years"). It is an expanding Universe. It is also accelerating. And because of an ever present "dark energy" in empty space, there is no reason to believe it will ever stop. It's as if it were trying to fill infinity. It's really big. But it may be simply a tiny fluctuation within the Multiverse where are infinite other possible Universes.

Besides making one wonder at the marvel that we should be the most-important-center and reason for it all, this shows us how ineffably big it all is. But this is mere "epistemological apophaticism" — too big to know. Ultimate Reality, on the other hand, is unknowable because knowing can't know it how ever big its capacity to know.

Can we experience It just the same? Senor Buddha seems to have thought he had. I wonder. Nor do I think it matters. Just enough transcendence is enough for me.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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