Concepts of infinity
Many spiritual teachings talk about the infinite. They talk about the eternal, the everlasting, the unborn, the indestructible, the infinite bliss and that which is limitless. All these are variations on the concept of infinity.
And there are different types of infinity. You can can infinity in terms of the three dimensions of space: infinitely tall or infinitely wide or both, ie. spatially limitless. You can have infinity in terms of time: something that is eternal or lasts forever, or something that has no beginning and is unborn. You can also have infinity in terms of power and knowledge where something is infinitely powerful or infinite in its wisdom. Both power and knowledge operate within space and time, and you can have infinities that apply to many other phenomena within space and time. There are still other types of infinity, but these are more in the realm of mathematics and we can set these aside for the purposes of this post.
The transcendent as ‘infinity’
Some people use the word infinity in a slightly different way. They say there is the transcendental type of ‘infinity’, that which transcends time and space, that which is timeless, spaceless, that which time and space do not affect. This is different to saying something is infinite in space and time. Instead they are saying this is something in a different dimension, something qualitatively different to space and time. This is not really infinity per se, but a creative use of the word ‘infinity’ to indicate transcendence and something that is unaffected by the forces, energies and rules of what we take to be the world around us.
Can we know anything is infinite
So the question is, can we actually know something to be infinite? My contention is that you can’t, and I’ll explain why. But before I do, let me say that this doesn’t mean that teachings that talk about infinity are not useful. They often are very useful, but ironically, in my view, their use is limited and ultimately these concepts of infinity can be a prison to keep us trapped. They can keep us from realising our own inherent freedom that is already here and already fully realised because we think that whatever is here and whatever we are is certainly not that great infinite thing spoken of by the sages and texts throughout the ages past and present.
The usefulness of concepts of infinity
Before I explain why you can’t know if something is infinite, let me briefly explain how these teachings can be useful. Firstly, such grand concepts of infinity can be motivators to start seeking for something more, and can encourage people on their spiritual journey. Secondly, if you are feeling low in some way, eg. low in mood, low in confidence, low in energy, low in inspiration or low in self-esteem (in vedanta teachings this low energy is called tamas or tamo-guna), visions of the infinite, the divine, the omnipotent and the eternal can be hugely uplifting and inspiring. Combined with the message that not only does this divinity exist, but you are also by nature divine, this message has the potential for profound benefit. It can raise the spirits of the depressed and disillusioned and inspire them and give them direction.
In fact in the Bhagavad Gita, in then end of Chapter 1 and start of Chapter 2, the protagonist Arjuna is feeling dejected and tamasic (dull and low). His body is weak and slumped and his limbs are quivering. He is the best archer in the entire universe and he has dropped his bow on the ground. His mind is confused and he is consumed with negative thoughts whirring around his mind, he has lost all idea of what to do and he is completely disillusioned with life. His friend, Krishna, who luckily happens to be a divine incarnation of God, calls Arjuna to pick up his bow, stand up and no longer be confused. How does he do this? Krishna’s first teaching is to tell Arjuna not to worry and inspire Arjuna with a vision of infinity, something that will raise Arjuna’s spirit, something that will motivate and energise Arjuna and take him out of this depression. He teaches Arjuna of ‘THAT’ which is infinite, eternal, indestructible and inconceivable.
If this is where you are, if you are following a teaching that talks of the infinite in some way and is bringing you positivity, energy and joy, then you don’t have to read any further. Continue on your path. If you find that this path is no longer serving you, or if you find you are interested to learn more, then read on.
Infinity is a concept, not a reality
Infinity is a concept. It’s an idea, born out of the human mind. The human mind has an ability to see things around it and then take aspects of what it sees and alter it. We call it human imagination or creativity. We see something really big, like a tall tree, then we imagine a tree that reaches into the sky, like in the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk. We see a horse and a rhino, and combine elements of each to imagine a creature such as a unicorn. We see death and imagine deathlessness. We see suffering and imagine eternal joy. This is how the concept of infinity is created.
A very very long rope
Now let’s come to the basic reason why it’s impossible to know that anything is infinite. Lets take the example of a very very long rope. Imagine you came across such a rope and you had to find out if it was infinitely long or just very very long. How would you do it? You may walk alongside the rope for days and days and see that the rope never ends. You could therefore justly conclude that it is a very very long rope (relatively speaking). However, and here is the crux of the matter, you have no way of knowing that the rope doesn’t end further along. You have no way of knowing that it is infinitely long.
And this is true for all the infinities mentioned at the start of this post. Just by firmly grasping this simple example of the ‘very very’ long rope, you will be able to see why it is impossible to know whether anything is infinite or not.
‘Very very’ vs. infinite
How can you know something is infinitely powerful or that it will last forever (ie. an infinite amount of time)? Just because it is very very powerful or has lasted a very very long time, doesn’t mean it is infinite in those dimensions. Similarly, just because something has been around for a very very long time or just because you can’t remember something beginning, doesn’t mean it was never born. Maybe it is very very old, but you have no way of knowing if it was infinitely old.
If you think something is infinite in some way, then I would say that’s a belief. Infinity is a concept, and we have no way of knowing if anything infinite actually exists at all.
What about ‘transcendent infinity’?
So far I have only talked about the non-transcendent forms of infinity. The same logic also applies to ‘transcendent infinity’, which as I said before is a creative use of words, as it is not what most people would ordinarily take infinity to mean.
The transcendent form of infinity essentially refers to something that is untouchable, un-stainable and indestructible. It is something that remains constant and unchanging amidst this world of ever-changing things. Again, for the same reasons it’s impossible to know this for sure. You may be able to say that something is relatively permanent or relatively unchanging, like a mountain or the world map, and that has some use, but you can never know for sure that something will never change.
Again, this is not to say that these teachings have no use. If you realise that your awareness/consciousness, for example, is relatively unchanging in that as long as you are in the waking or dream state it is there, this can provide huge amounts of relief and alleviation of suffering. It can also form the basis by which the mind (or subtle body in vedanta, suksma sarira in Sanskrit) can be purified and be released from the bondage of thinking ‘I am a doer’. This is the essential method of many schools of Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism and also of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta or Jnana Yoga, and for me was a very liberating teaching on my journey.
In summary, my advice is to take teachings that talk about infinities in any form with a pinch of salt (or perhaps a large dollop of salt, depending on your inclination). Infinity, in all its various guises, can be useful to inspire, motivate and even purify our minds, but ultimately these concepts are not helpful as it is impossible for us to know for sure if they are true. Don’t let these grandiose concepts take you away from acknowledging the Freedom that is already here, right now, in everyday ordinary life.
See that the true teachings are not in elaborate words or clever definitions, but that they are pointing to something that is already present, here and now. The true teachings always eventually point you back to ordinary experience, life as it is.