Is it the nature of things to come to an end?

Either everything is permanent, or everything is impermanent, or some things are permanent and some impermanent.

Universal eternalism—in effect, denying the reality of time—has an illustrious history in Western metaphysics, ever since Parmenides reflected on the absurdity of getting something from nothing. In the canonical texts it often goes hand-in-hand with a kind of exhilaration or bliss; regarding everything as impermanent, by contrast, we often associate with the loss of hope and direction. According permanence to some things and withholding it from others seems to be what we normally do at the pre-reflective level, balancing idealism with realism—though it is notoriously hard to explain how entities of both kinds could exist and interact with each other.

If we grant that at least some things (not necessarily all) are impermanent, thereby according some foundational status to our experience of time, we can then pose the question: How long do impermanent things last? This question seems immediately befuddling, since it appears to admit of any number of possible answers. Maybe impermanent things last for X duration, or Y duration, and so on. But actually the choice is simple: either they last for some determinate duration or for no time at all.

If impermanent things last for some determinate duration and then cease, we can ask why they cease after that duration and neither earlier nor later. But is it really proper to ask for the cause of something's cessation? If cessation requires a cause, then we would need a positive explanation every time something ceases, and this arguably violates both theoretical economy and metaphysical clarity.

In this discussion we will zoom in on the supposed "moment of change", the replacement of one state by another state, and confront the hypothesis that cessation is intrinsic to whatever exists. If it is the very nature of things to stop being, then we have strong theoretical reason to deny not only permanence, but even duration to ourselves, what we know, what we desire, and what we fear.

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  • Thrashionalist

    THAT's the problem—I just never read past the 10th century!! "Some Buddhists, such as Vasubandhu, Dharmakīrti and his followers, have pushed the impermanence thesis to the extreme to maintain that all things are radically impermanent, that is, momentary...However, this doctrine has been conclusively refuted, both inside and outside Buddhist philosophy, since the 11th century."

    August 22

    • eric

      Paul, look no further than verse 183 before it "Not to do evil, to cultivate merit, to purify one's mind - this is the Teaching of the Buddhas." and 185 after it "Not to revile, not to do any harm, to practice restraint according to the Fundamental Instructions for the bhikkhus, to be moderate in taking food, to dwell in a secluded place, to devote oneself to higher concentration - this is the Teaching of the Buddhas." These are all injunctions not posited beliefs. Nibbana is simply the supreme or ultimate (paramam) fruit of that practice. Nibbana as the cessation of greed, hatred and delusion is to be a living and breathing actuality in one's life, not a metaphysical postulate.

      August 22

    • eric

      Paul, I have always said that Buddhism is Aesop's fables for adults. Gotama Buddha realized his literary characterishness of being Gotama. There is no Buddha! What's your current believed in story that you try to assert your completely fabricated and propped up personal identity in? See that fact (of how you are fooling yourself into believing in a personal ontology) clearly and thoroughly (paramam'ly) and you would be called Paul Buddha. :-)

      August 22

  • jerry

    This sounds like a discussion of instability: that existing situation in which the global state of the system is not stable and will be replaced by some future stable state that is qualitatively different from the existing state. There's so many examples of this concept that we expect certain things out of such conditions and even look for certain things like time-dependence, catastrophes, feedback control, limiting resources, capacities, networks, oscillations, heterogeneity, etc...

    August 20

    • jerry

      "Turning and turning in the widening gyre
      The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
      The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
      The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.

      Surely some revelation is at hand;
      Surely the Second Coming is at hand...

      August 21

    • jerry

      ...The darkness drops again but now I know
      That twenty centuries of stony sleep
      Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
      And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
      Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

      August 21

  • George E.

    Perhaps the question will morp into not whether it is in the nature of things to cease. Depending upon how we define the nature of a thing, it is likely that we'll agree it is in the nature of at least some things to cease. To the extent we disagree re this proposition, I think that disagreement will more likely arise from a definitional conundrum re the definition of the nature of the thing and/or cessation than the substantive question. I think, rather, that the question will become is it in the nature of things to change. I think we'd end up with a very similar discussion but without the sticky issue of how one defines the nature of a thing and/or cessation. However we describe the nature of the thing, I feel certain we will agree fairly quickly that that nature changes or, at least for most things, is subject to change over what we understand as time/space. Unless we return to some of the recent Bhudism-inspired discussions regarding the unity self at which time...

    August 21

  • jerryvp

    Goodness knows if this is ever supposed to connect to physical description. Were there punctuated atomism-- with atoms going in and out of existence -- the patterns and motions testified to by a set of punctuated atoms could continue without pause. Quantum mechanically, it is fair to suggest that the wave function is more real than the particle. So other than to support a cessation myth, it might be as useful and as intriqing to say that there are patterns made up of patterns made up of patterns. Only.

    1 · August 20

    • jean p.

      We as humans have an innate limitation of being bounded by a space -time paradigm of thinking and existing.The transcendance of time[concept of] would require the conception of eternity as being more than infinite continuation, which is unfortunately beyond human comprehension.

      August 21

    • jean p.

      I seem to recall that Kant said something similar in his article" The End of All Things",but he probably spelled transcendence correctly.

      August 21

  • mariann

    I love this question- I immediately couldn't come up with even a semblance of an answer. Count me in!

    1 · August 17

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