“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 [atakkāvacaro — 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.

10 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, but 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.

  2. This ‘quote’ sounds to me like a it came from a member of one of a couple of early 20th-century schools of thought that were in dialogue with Buddhism at the time it was beginning to become known in the West.

    One possibility is that the author was a student of General Semantics. It sounds like something Korzybski or one of his followers might have written.

    The other obvious possibility is someone associated with C.S. Peirce’s fallibilist philosophy of science. Again, this quote reads as very Peircean in style.

  3. I wish I could *be* more definite. I have myself expressed the idea more precisely thus:

    “Everything you think you know is wrong. But some of it is a useful first approximation.”

    My formulation builds on a quote by the SF author Robert Heinlein, which quote I do not directly remember. He in turn was strongly influenced by Korzybski.

    Part of the interpretative problem is in the late 1930s and 1940s there was a lot of traffic between emerging Western Zen, analytic philosophy as expressed by thinkers like Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap, the then-new genre of Golden Age science fiction, and General Semantics. Some of the links go in surprising directions, and it can be rather difficult to sort out who influenced whom and when.

    (This was after C.S. Peirce and roughly contemporary with the early career of Karl Popper, the one fallibilist you re most likely to have heard of if you don’t know technical philosophy. The quote could very plausibly be Popper.)

    Many of my own roots as a thinker are in this nexus. That’s how I recognize the style and language. If I run across this quote in situ I will post a reference here.

  4. Not *The* Buddha, not Siddhartha, but at least considered a Buddha / manifestation of the eternal godhead, Krishna did say something a lot like this in the Bhagavad Gita.

    Here is a quote from the translation of Eknath Easwaran:

    Bhagavad Gita 2:16
    “The Impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of all knowledge.”

    This could also be translated, most likely, to something very similar. Because everything that we can describe is temporary, and no description can ever actually capture any part of reality in itself. All descriptions are context dependent too, so a good description of something today is good because it uses the right concepts that we can think about clearly. But in 2000 years, people reading that same description will lack the context in which it was written. And without the context, it becomes a lot more like guesswork to interpret it.

    “Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging imperishable reality.”

    “The Self cannot be pierced or burned, made wet or dry. It is everlasting and infinite, standing on the motionless foundations of eternity.”
    “The Self is unmanifested, beyond all thought, beyond all change. Knowing this, you should not grieve.”

    I just wanted to also post these parts, because they reinforce exactly what is meant by 2:16; that this Self is the ultimate reality and that it is beyond all thought, thus also all description.

    Of course I understand that to many this will not be the same as if Siddhartha Gautama would have said it. But I think that anyone who is familiar with Buddhism would recognize the Bhagavad Gita, at least as interpreted by Eknath Easwaran, as Dharma.

    1. Hi, Mikal.

      Thanks for sharing these quotes from a lovely ancient scripture. Incidentally, it’s generally thought to have been composed a few centuries after the Buddha’s time.

      A lot here is actually very different from what the Buddha taught. The concept of an everlasting self in particular was one of the main things he denied. So as a Buddhist I read these words and recognize much that the Buddha was arguing against his entire life.

      The author or authors of the Gītã conceived of an “unchanging imperishable reality” as Brahman, or a kind of universal godhead that is both abstract (indescribable) and personal. Again this is the opposite of what the Buddha taught. He did talk about certain laws or processes in the universe as being constants, if nothing else is, but he didn’t see these as being an aspect of divinity, any more than contemporary scientists see physical laws as being divine.

      Lastly, Hindus might see Krishna as being a Buddha, but from a Buddhist point of view he definitely is not.

      I do appreciate texts like the Gītā for their poetry and as an illustration of how differently various spiritual traditions approached the same problems — essentially the problems of reconciling change and permanence. The quotes you shared are very lovely, even if the Buddha, despite what you said, wouldn’t have agreed with them at all. Some of the quotes to do with ethics in the Gītā are much more aligned with the Buddhist tradition, however, especially those to do with the importance of non-grasping for results as we follow a spiritual path. I wonder if the author or authors were influenced by Buddhism?

      Thanks again for sharing this!

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