Friday, June 8, 2012

Fragility and Transcendence

Dmitri Orlov posted a great talk on the difficulty of predicting the timing of system failures. The challenge he identifies is that systems are designed and constructed on the basis of a model of the way the world works, the interactions between the system and its environment. As long as reality matches the model tolerably well, accurate predictions are feasible. But it is always possible for reality to diverge from the model, throwing the system into uncharted territory where even the modes of failure are unknown, much less their timing.

As David Loy pointed out in his Buddhist History of the West (SUNY 2002), the character of a culture is largely a matter of a strategy for systematizing experience, a struggle to impose an orderly understanding of and control over phenomena. Our modern industrial culture is yet another such strategy, remarkable for its mechanistic materialism, its vast breadth and lack of depth. Life in general consists of an endless series of attempts to repair the breakdowns of the ever-shifting strategies.

Is it possible to build a model from which reality will never diverge? If instead every possible model has some limited scope beyond which the risk of divergence becomes non-negligible, can a model incorporate an accurate definition of its own scope of validity? Can any sort of higher level meta-model of the models themselves somehow extend or transcend the limits of those models, or is any meta-model really just another model with the same inevitable sorts of limits as any other model? Such fascinating and challenging metaphysical questions have been explored deeply over the millennia. In the Buddhist tradition, these discussions revolve around the topic of emptiness and the two truths (relative and ultimate). In the European tradition these are core philosophical questions in the realms of ontology, epistemology, and philosophy of science.But whatever one's metaphysical approach might lead one to expect, our experience continues to be one of constant surprise and breakdown. Whether or not a universally valid model is possible, no such model is in our grasp.

In Buddhism, one's understanding of the inescapability of constant breakdowns and one's approach to managing the repair process are at the core of its transformative project, liberation from suffering for oneself and those with whom one shares those struggles. Our present struggle itself is, at every moment, a perfect example displaying the true nature of reality, a doorway to understanding and effective engagement.

While every moment brings some such struggle with that kind of precious potential, our present crisis of industrial culture, where the breadth of our social-technical systems is amazingly exceeded by the scope of their breakdowns, from the nuclear meltdowns of Fukushima to the massacres of the Syrian civil war, from the collapse of financial institutions in New York to the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica, the magnitude of our present crisis perhaps brings an opportunity of parallel magnitude, to see in this crisis the stamp of reality, the nature of samsara, the clear understanding of which and effective engagement with which are its transcendence.


  1. Keep in mind that everything in your post (and in this reply) is just a model of how we model. Even only asking the question “Is it possible to build a model from which reality will never diverge?” is itself a divergence from reality—whatever that is.

    But thanks for asking the question anyway. It's fun to think about.

  2. So few people can think at the meta-level! Even fewer can *act* at the meta-level; possibly none at all. Most of the models we rely on (that guide our perception) are unconscious and unexamined. This is especially clear (pun alert) in our visual perception of objects. I've always been intrigued by the possibility of hiding/disguising objects by modifying their appearance in insignificant ways, such as Douglas Adams' SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) field used as a cloaking device.

  3. The practical approach to meta-level acting is training. With enough practice, one can access the deeper layers of action and perception. Of course the supreme achievement is to be so clear and supple that one spontaneously responds in a way that is effective at every level. But however short one falls of that ideal, one can embark on regular practice, slowly molding one's habitual reactions in more positive patterns.

    One of the greatest challenges of our time is how the pervasive mass media so effectively mold our patterns of perception and action, while the control of those media is in the hands of so few, hands dedicated to the profit of the few. To unplug from that systems and take responsibility for one's own patterning, one's own practice, that is the meta-meta-action that is essential, yet frightening.

    One thing that can help is the support of a community and/or tradition. Of course there are brainwashing cults a-plenty so there are no guarantees! But in any case, however many levels of abstraction one manages to ascend, there is no way to step utterly out of one's context. The risk of an errant exploitative community and tradition is always present: one is always in the game, so one might as well play the cards to the best of one's ability!

    Communities are always built of smaller circles within bigger circles. The really pinnacle launching points to the infinite are probably always limited to very small circles. Large scale society is probably always centered on the basics, on raising families etc. In a healthy society there can be a symbiotic relationship among these circles.

    Going though the challenges of the coming decades, large scale society will have its hands full with the basics, with food and medicine and housing and defense. Can we keep alive through all this a vibrant tradition and community of liberation, of conscious self-molding? The raw challenges of basic life can actually spur and enhance such practice. How to realize and cultivate that possibility?!