“All descriptions of reality are temporary hypotheses.”

The language in this quote, “All descriptions of reality are temporary hypotheses” (also found in the form “All descriptions of reality are temporary hypothesis [singular, which makes no sense],” “All descriptions of reality are only temporary hypotheses,” and “All descriptions of reality are but temporary hypotheses”) is so modern that it’s hard to believe that anyone would think it was uttered over 2,500 years ago.

The earliest book that I’ve seen this in is From Science to God: A Physicist’s Journey into the Mystery of Consciousness, by Peter Russell, published in 2002.

It’s also commonly found on Twitter and Facebook.

Its origins are unknown at present, at least to me. If you find anything, please let me know.

In a 1996 edition of Family Perspective (a publication from Brigham Young University) there’s a sentence, “Finally there is ‘truth’ in the sense of a tentative and temporary hypotheses in a changing universe” (page 446). There’s no mention of “reality” on that page or nearby, although there is elsewhere. However, “truth” is close enough that I wonder if this passage is the origin of the quote. How the Buddha’s name would have become attached to it, however, is a mystery.

The basic notion contained in this quote—that Buddhist teachings are merely an expedient and approximate guide to help us to understand something that is essentially inexpressible in words—is sound. The Buddha said things like “This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture [attakavacaro — beyond the scope of words], subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.”

The Buddha famously described his teaching as being like a raft, which will help you to get to the far shore, but which will be unnecessary once you get there:

The Blessed One said: “Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?”

“No, lord.”

“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”

So as a statement of Dharmic principles, there’s nothing wrong with this quote. It’s simply, as far as I’m aware, not something the Buddha said.

5 thoughts on ““All descriptions of reality are temporary hypotheses.””

    1. It’s always possible, but there were frequent contacts between the Buddha (and his disciples) and Jain practitioners. Those encounters are recorded in the Buddhist scriptures. I’ve only dipped into the Jain scriptures once, when I was researching a book, but I remember coming across records of a debate between a Jain practitioner and a Buddhist (the latter of course lost the debate!). If the Buddha was a fiction, then you’d expect that a rival and contemporary sect would make much of that fact.

      1. Thanks BP I have often thought that Buddhism is a less severe form of Jainism. To me Buddha, Mahavira and even Jesus seem like fictional authority figures. They all originally came from ‘Royal’ households (they are all given the title Lord) and seem to be an attempt gain control of enlightened teachings by creating followers rather than independent practitioners. This keeps ordinary people in slavery. What do you think?

        1. I think you’re right that they seem like fictional figures, but that the mechanism is not that they’re fictional, but that they’ve been fictionalized, because there are certain tropes that resonate: for example, your teacher may be humble, be he is of royal stock, which gives him more credibility. Historically, of course, neither Jesus not the Buddha were actually royal, but through mythology they gain royal status. (The Buddha was born into an oligarchic tribe, not a kingdom.)

  1. Yes you are right, all religions are really soap operas. It the TV soaps the characters are more glamorous, good looking and have more interesting problems than you and your friends who seem quite banal by comparison. That’s what keeps everyone watching.
    I don’t suppose we can ever know if those characters really existed and as consensus reality is just an illusory and impermanent anyway I suppose it doesn’t really matter!
    Thanks for your kind reply and clarification.
    All good wishes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *