Saturday, March 15, 2014

Jumping the Shark: A Return to the Uncarved Block

     "Though the uncarved block is small
     No one in the world dare claim its allegiance."
          (—Tao Te Ching, section 32, D. C. Lau's translation)

     I've been intending to write this post for about a year. But it's metaphysics; and metaphysics is served best with a clear head and, ideally, a quiet heart; and the past year, for the most part, was a rough one. So I kept putting it off. But now I'm sitting on a bamboo mat in front of a cave in a remote Burmese forest, and my meditation and overall mindfulness are making a comeback, and furthermore I've started reading a magnificent book on metaphysics—Appearance and Reality, by F. H. Bradley—which has helped to put me in the mood. So I'm writing about one of my true loves, the Goddess of Ultimate Reality, as opposed to mere appearance (as though Ultimate Reality could be opposed to anything).
     This post is a sequel, or followup, or continuation, of the post "The Simile of the Block of Marble," published 5 January 2013. That post elicited few remarks, and one person even observed that I had "jumped the shark" by publishing it. I didn't know what that meant, so I was sent a link to a Wikipedia article explaining that jumping the shark means something like, doing something so over the top that one becomes a caricature of oneself. (The origin of the term comes from an episode of the old TV show "Happy Days," in which a character called Fonzie goes waterskiing for the first time in his life and expertly jumps over a large shark, signaling an early stage in his metamorphosis into a sort of demigod with superhuman powers, which became more and more ridiculous as the TV series progressed.) This remark struck me as somewhat ironic, as it is easily one of the oldest things I had written and published on the blog, being essentially plagiarized from a letter written several years previously. It is true, though, that I never had it copied and distributed as an article because I figured Theravada Buddhists might consider it too "far out."
     But as I've said before, I consider that one post to be, in a way, the most important post on this here blog, the axle around which everything else revolves. It's a kind of theoretical foundation upon which my philosophical perspective rests, my Theory of Everything, and people will often misunderstand what I write, "where I'm coming from," if they don't take it into consideration. It's one of my few contributions to philosophy, despite the fact that serious metaphysics is an endangered species in the West since the advent of the barbarous intellectual monoculture of Scientism, and also despite the fact that it's not exactly original—the Taoists and Mahayana Buddhists, at least, came up with very similar ideas. Mainly I just reinvented the wheel, or rather the axle. But each reinvention will have its own unique qualities. And besides, although it obviously has less specific predictive strength than science (for example, it could hardly be used to develop new pharmaceuticals or rocket fuels), it is more comprehensive (for example, it explains why the Universe bothers to exist in the first place), and, in my honest opinion, is more logically valid as an explanation of Reality than is Scientism. And it does make some predictions: like the possibility of miracles, or violations of the scientific "laws of nature," and the possibility of spiritual transcendence of any phenomenal system. The block of marble contains within it all that is conceivable; and so it contains science also, but extends infinitely beyond it.
     Before discussing a few weird philosophical implications of the theory, I'll explain how the idea occurred to me in the first place. 
     Back around 1998 or so, I was living in a large forest about 80 km northwest of the small one where I am now, and one day I was standing by a pond, washing my bowl, when suddenly, unbidden, the sentence arose in my mind, "The entire Universe is contained within a single point which has no dimensions." I was intrigued by this, partly because the thought just popped into my mind when I wasn't even philosophizing, and partly just because it was an interesting, weird idea. So, as a kind of thought experiment, or mind game, I took it as a hypothesis and tried to work out some of its implications. 
     One of the first things to occur to me was, owing to its ultimate zero-dimensionality, that the Universe would resemble Leibniz's monads, except all superimposed one on top of the other. (If you are familiar with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his Monadology, then that's fine. Never mind. If you are not familiar, which would be completely understandable, then you will find I've included a semi-explanatory Appendix below to avoid a bigger digression than this one is.) Also, since there would be no space or time separating them, they would be all merged together into a single "meta-monad," with the distinctness of each individual monad being maintained entirely by its own internal self-consistency. Also, each individual monad would have to be conscious in order to generate the illusions of space, time, and/or distinct individuality. And since it's all merged together, consciousness would permeate the system (that is, if a single point can be called a "system").
     It occurred to me that once you have a certain number of superimposed monads, a kind of "critical mass," then there may as well be an infinite number of them, since they are all merged together anyway, with nothing separating them, and thus are all sharing the same unthinkable essence, whatever it is. So the meta-monad became an Absolute, containing an infinitude of phenomenal qualities.
     One image that arose early on, as a means of helping me wrap my head around the whole idea, was a sheet of paper completely covered with black ink (with maybe a little insignificant white left around the margins). Contained on that one sheet would be every printed page ever printed, and every printed page that ever could be printed. By simply ignoring the extraneous black, one would find each and every page in the complete works of Shakespeare, every section of every scroll in the library of Alexandria before it burned down, every page in the Library of Congress. That one page would contain, in virtual or potential form but still really there, literally infinite information. But a two-dimensional page seemed unsatisfactory as a metaphor for our Universe, so before long I upped it slightly to the block of marble. Infinite information, infinite variety, and infinite consciousness contained within a sizeless point.
     As I've already mentioned, one implication of the theory, assuming just for fun that the hypothesis is true, is that virtually anything is possible, including the modification of the rules of our "internal self-consistency," and including transcending it altogether, and thus merging consciously with the existent/nonexistent Absolute meta-monad which in Buddhism is called Nirvana. So one incidental advantage of the theory is that it helps one to be open-minded. It may also help one to be weird, which is also good.
     Another implication, a rather strange one, is that cause and effect, or causality, would be ultimately unreal. Philosophically, this is not a new idea at all, and should not be seen as a manifest invalidation of the whole hypothesis. For example David Hume, possibly the greatest philosopher to write in the English language, pointed out, or rather hammered away at, the idea that we cannot really know the existence of causality, or of causal force. All we really know, at best, is that we consistently observe A followed by B; therefore we say that A causes B. But we really do not experience that causation, not externally, not even in our own mind; it is merely an inference, and not necessarily a correct one. We may consistently feel the urge to move a finger, followed by that finger moving, but we do not feel or know any actual causative force, any more than we know it in a falling axehead followed by splitting wood. What would pure causation feel like anyway? What would it taste like? (If you would like to read a longer and more persuasive argument along these lines, I recommend Hume's An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which is relatively easy to read, and not very long.) Also, as I've pointed out in a previous article, orthodox Theravada, as represented in the Abhidhamma philosophy, also suggests that temporal cause and effect would be impossible, considering 1) that the past and future are considered not to exist, but only the present, and 2) that one moment of existence is not contiguous with the next, but completely passes away before the next arises. So if A (say, a particle in one's unmoving finger) arises and passes away, giving rise to B (say, the seeming continuation of that same particle), then the result B has arisen from a nonexistent cause; and what arises from a nonexistent cause arises from no cause whatsoever. Thus it wold seem that in Abhidhamma the only valid form of causality would be some kind of sahajāta paccayo—a causal condition in which the cause and effect are simultaneous. Science may have similar difficulties for all I know. For instance, if Einstein was right, and time is a dimension essentially like the dimensions of space, then to say that the falling axe causes the splitting wood might be as meaningless as to say that our forearm causes our wrist. It simply follows in succession. But in the block of marble, there is no space or time; only Here and Now is real, if anything at all.
     Resorting to the simile itself may help to illustrate the situation: Just as the uncarved block of marble contains within itself, in virtual form, an infinite number and variety of static statues, it also contains an infinite number and variety of walking, running, jumping, and dancing statues. None of them could ever be carved, but they're in there just the same; each molecule of each moment of their behavior is already there, already in the right position, with only the extraneous rock to be taken away, or rather ignored. So, let's imagine a virtual statue virtually chopping virtual firewood inside the block of marble. Well, what causes the virtual firewood to split apart? It's not really the virtual swinging axe; really, it is just the power of our imagination that does it. The block of marble, as it really is, doesn't change at all. Likewise, in our phenomenal universe, according to the hypothesis, causality would be artificially generated by the power of imagination, sort of, in accordance with ultimately arbitrary rules of "internal self-consistency" that we have chosen, or that have somehow been thrust upon us, for the sake of maintaining a viable and stable virtual reality. Really, the only connective condition between one moment and the next would be some kind of similarity, and that chosen out of necessity for maintaining a stable continuum and a conscious individuality, and out of our own peculiar idiosyncrasies. The appearance of causality is simply an arbitrary way that happens to work for us. But within the sizeless meta-monad there would be an infinite variety of kinds of worlds, not all of them governed by apparent causality, but presumably with some kind of similarity relation holding them together. If it's at all possible, then it exists. Virtually.
     One implication of the theory, which I consider to be a magnificent improvement on Leibniz, is that, going with the standard simile, not only does the uncarved block contain individual statues, but also group statues (like Laocoön and his sons being constricted by snakes, to give just one example). Every single possible assemblage of particles or qualities, or conscious beings, or whatever, is necessarily contained as its own image, its own monad. Every possible configuration is in there. Let's say that three people are interacting: A, B, and C (Ahab, Bathsheba, and Cornelius). Setting aside an infinite number of virtual monads containing them, or parts of them, in addition to the monads, or images, representing the individual consciousnesses of A, B, and C, there would also be individual monads representing the group consciousness of AB, BC, CA, and ABC. Each one of these group monads would be distinct from the individual monads representing A, B, and C, and each group monad would necessarily be more conscious than any of the conscious beings represented within it. It wouldn't simply be a collection of distinct consciousnesses either, since ultimately there would be absolutely no time or space separating them, not even the thickness of two skulls. Assuming the hypothesis is true, then we tend to be oblivious of these "individual group beings" because they are, in a sense, as distinct from each one of us as are any other individual beings (AB is as distinct from A as X, Y, or A' is from A); and because they are more conscious than we are anyway, and we cannot comprehend what is beyond our level of consciousness. Presumably this kind of group consciousness was more familiar to premodern civilizations than it is to us in the alienated, modern West. In some cultures the family consciousness, or the clan consciousness, or the tribe consciousness may have taken precedence over the personal consciousness. As Rollo May says in his book The Cry for Myth:
Americans cling to the myth of individualism as though it were the only normal way to live, unaware that it was unknown in the Middle Ages and would have been considered psychotic in classical Greece.
But even some fortunate, alienated modern Westerners may transcend their individual (semi-) conscious monad and merge into a higher (yet still virtual) group consciousness—the experience of deep love may be a case in point. True love transcends individuality; and universal love, love of everyone and everything in the entire Universe, may transcend the whole system of virtual images and merge with the Absolute. Although the evidence suggests that this may not be the only way of going about getting enlightened. The potential for limited transcendence through love for another is always ripe, since versions of us are already included in an infinite number of group monads (an infinite number of them even being wise, loving versions of us); and of course the potential for absolute transcendence is also ripe, considering that every version of us is contained within the block of marble in only virtual form. Limited transcendence is still an illusion, since everything except the pristine total is an illusion.
     Anyway, hypothetical group monads may help to explain why mental states are so contagious, why simply being in the presence of a sage can uplift us, and why being in the mere presence of a raging fool can bring us down. It may also help to explain apparent "group karma," like the chronic violence of the Middle East which has prevailed since prehistoric times, and to explain why we all conform to pretty much the same rules of "internal self-consistency" in the form of "laws of science," and so on.
     It's a good thing I waited a year to write this, since the (hypothetical) spiritual significance of conscious group monads has really struck me only very recently. Alienated hermits don't have much use for that sort of thing, and I'm slowly transcending the myth of individualism. But then again, anything that can be believed is a myth.  

APPENDIX: Leibniz and His Monadology

     (I'm writing this in front of a cave in a forest, with no access to a research library and no Internet, so if it seems very sketchy or even slightly inaccurate, please forgive.)
     Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was one of the most towering intellectuals in history. Possibly his main claim to fame was that, independently of Isaac Newton and at around the same time as him, he invented mathematical calculus. Even to understand calculus requires a good brain, so a person who could invent it from scratch would be so intelligent as to be a little scary. 
     In addition to being a mathematician Leibniz was many other things, including a philosopher and a courtier. Unfortunately, he combined philosophy with politics and cooked up a system called the Theodicy, or "God's Justice," apparently for the purpose of pleasing his rich, powerful, and even royal patrons. According to the theory, God is infinitely good and powerful, and thus would not create an inferior or second-rate world; consequently, the world we live in must be the best of all possible worlds, and to change anything about it would ultimately increase the amount of badness and suffering there is. It was a logical triumph for optimistic conservatism. It may be that the ridicule of the Theodicy is more famous than the philosophy itself. As F. H. Bradley ironically observed, in the best of all possible worlds, everything in it is a necessary evil. Arthur Schopenhauer turned the system on its head, declaring, with some reason, that this is designed to be the worst of all possible worlds: any changes made to the design would decrease the total suffering. He also claimed that Leibniz's greatest contribution to literature was his serving as the model for the ludicrously optimistic Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's satirical novel Candide. Towards the beginning of the story the good Doctor asserts that it is a sign of God's infinite goodness that he gave us noses to hold up our spectacles. By the end of the story his nose has rotted off with syphilis.
     Another of Leibniz's philosophical theories, his Monadology, has fared better, and has been taken seriously by many philosophers and intellectuals since his day. Even if they haven't believed it, they still have had to take it seriously, because Leibniz was also a logician, and was certainly no idiot, and the Monadology is very logical. (I've read it, but it was years ago, and I don't remember it very well. Again, please forgive.)
     According to Leibniz, everything in the Universe is composed of tiny, atom-like structures which he called monads. If I remember correctly, the entire Universe is completely filled with them (a "plenum"), even in what appears to be empty space; and they are not infinitely small, like geometric points, presumably due to the problem of their having to fill space. At least some of them are conscious, and the monad containing our personality—our soul monad, essentially—is located somewhere in the mass of monads constituting our body. (If he followed Descartes, maybe he located it in the pineal gland, near the center of the brain.) The interesting thing about monads is that, although they seemingly interact, more or less like atoms or molecules, they are completely self-contained. As the saying goes, a monad has no windows. In other words, all monads except one could totally vanish, and the single remaining monad would be completely oblivious to this fact, and would continue to function as though everything was fine. Each monad mirrors everything else in the entire Universe, and seems to be affected by it, but is effectively solipsistic, completely alienated. Logically, each monad's condition is entirely its own, somewhat as in Buddhism we are taught that our karma is entirely our own. Thus it would seem that Leibniz, being an extremely top-heavy intellectual and believing in such a world of solipsism and total alienation, was deep down a very lonely person.



  1. Would it be right to call a meta-monad 'more' conscious? I think of a nation, where the individuals that make up the nation are conscious (to a certain degree) and the nation itself can be said to have a [virtual] consciousness of its own-- it consumes resources, it seeks to grow in strength, it defends itself, it attacks other nations, etc-- but while this 'higher' consciousness is constituted by the activity of many 'lower' consciousnesses, it is a simple, brutish consciousness-- not what you'd expect from a consciousness that is 'greater.' Perhaps also do the cells, viruses, bacteria that compose my body have a very rudimentary sort of consciousness, but I have no access to it. So perhaps Nirvana is a 'simpler' sort of consciousness despite it being 'higher,'-- that would seem to fit its description better as a place of rest.


    1. Assuming that a nation has a group consciousness, we as individuals would be as incapable of understanding it as our own body's cells would be able to understand us. So such a group consciousness would be completely incomprehensible to us. Our own body's behavior might "seem" brutish to our individual cells, if, that is, they were capable of perceiving anything.

      I have encountered the idea that the earth is a conscious organism in its own right, and that its consciousness is far beyond our own, somewhat as though Gaia were a real deity, like the ancient Greeks believed. And that furthermore, it is starting to take measures to prevent the cancer of modern civilization from killing it. That would be interesting.