Monday, October 13, 2014

Natural versus Artificial

I recently discovered and started to read the book How Mathematicians Think, by William Byers. I am thoroughly enjoying it and am amazed and delighted to see so well expressed and deeply explored a perspective very similar to what I have been cultivating. One core idea from the book is that the great fertile ideas are paradoxical. These paradoxes do get resolved, but never completely. They get resolved again and again, which is the dynamic nature of their fertility.

One of these great paradoxical ideas is the distinction between the natural and the artificial. An instance of this paradox is the puzzle of the role of practice in Buddhism. After all, the essential nature of our mind is already the same as that of the Buddha. If we could just let our natural mind express itself without the interference of artificial concepts, we would be enlightened! On the other hand, all that conceptual confusion is deeply habitual. Letting go of a habit most often takes dedicated persistent effort.

Even in the midst of a session of meditation, one confronts the paradox. The foundation of meditation is shamatha, a calm mind. To some degree shamatha is cultivated by relaxing, by letting go. On the other hand, one needs to maintain awareness, mindfulness, and the diligent persistence to continue to let go, i.e. to catch and correct the habit of grasping. Is meditation natural or artificial? Meditation becomes deeper through the interplay of these paradoxical poles, rather than through the resolution of the paradox with some formulaic answer.

In the arts one confronts this tangle. There is the fresh inspiration of one’s engagement with the world, with one’s muse, with one’s deeper self. But somehow this inspiration needs to be refined through practice, the cultivation of one’s craft.

In economics, the notion of a market is caught up in this paradox. The idea of a free market is an attempt to resolve the paradox through the pole of naturalness. But of course any market is structured by implicit or explicit rules. The rules themselves, in turn, may appear at times natural, at other times artificial. The paradox unfolds at level after level.

Should we be frightened by the Ebola epidemic? On the one hand, our society is naturally structured in a way that should be able to respond effectively to such an epidemic. On the other hand, perhaps an essential component of that natural structure is actually our fear which triggers our determination to pay close attention and take whatever action is necessary to respond effectively.

Should confidence in our ability to respond to a situation conflict with our determination to act in response to that situation? I remember being worried about finding a decent job, back when I was leaving school. Some of my friends told me that I shouldn’t be concerned because my skills and character would be sufficient to connect me with work. Ah, but concern and worry are part of my character! I get things done because I worry about the consequences of not getting them done. Whether I get things done naturally or artificially, I propose that it is a matter of perspective.

Not understanding that the basic nature of things is paradoxical, we can become paralyzed by the puzzle of whether our actions are natural or artificial, or we can become trapped in unreflective patterns. If we can learn to dance with the poles of the paradox, we can deepen the level of our actions to make a profound difference in our own lives and in our communities.


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  2. I just have a comment on one small part of your interesting post, the point about markets. The idea of unimpeded markets can be understood as "natural" in the context of this discussion. However, there are a lot of assumptions implicit in that. In particular, there is an assumption that power somehow remains equal in market relationships. But power was never equal to begin with, and it tends to concentrate in unequal ways in market economies. And at that point we get all kinds of "artificial" relationships (again in terms of the discussion here). This is not so much even in terms of rules, although those who have power tend to try (and succeed) at writing the rules. Even if they don't write the rules, the simple power relationships become unbalanced and unfair very easily. This takes me to a point we discussed last night that wasn't mentioned in your post: you were saying that if I advocate absolute artistic freedom, then I would have to advocate absolute economic freedom (i.e. laissez faire). I think artistic freedom is different in that it can be exercised without harming others. Economic activity is fundamentally different. I'm saying that doing something like trying to corner the silver market is different than writing a novel (however dark or objectionable). Perhaps there is a common principle in the sense that both economic and artistic freedom should be allowed to the extent that they don't harm others. And there are grey areas of course. But artistic activity, generally speaking, doesn't take power away from others, whereas economic activity embodies a completely different set of power relationships. Even the simple fact of ownership of one small thing denies that ownership to others.

  3. Yeah, what I was trying to express last night was very much that ethical aspect of art. With any sort of ethical system, at one level there is a notion of boundaries. You can do whatever you want within those boundaries. But I think when you go a bit deeper, really those boundaries are just an expedient. What is really at stake is the effects of one's actions. On the one hand, one's intent is crucial, because that steers your own path and helps to mold a pattern of repeated future similar actions. But of course the effects of one's actions on others is important too. Seeing capital as geistlich, maybe art is a lot more important than money anyway! Maybe a novel has much more powerful transformative effect than any silver market funny business. Goethe's Young Werther is one example.

  4. on natural markets being equitable or fair... I didn't mean to imply anything like that! But I would say that markets do seem to be founded, for example, on a notion of property, that a person can own a thing and can transfer that ownership to another person. My distinction between libertarians and anarchists is right there: libertarians think that property is natural, anarchists think that property is artificial. Ha! The very distinction between natural and artificial, is that natural or artificial! Sorry, I am always getting carried away like that!

  5. Really, if we look at advertising, the media, propaganda... what distinction is there really between art and politics and economics? Maybe it could be useful to add technology to the mix. There is that idea that technology itself has no ethical value, that the good and evil come from how people use the technology. Art could be some disconnected abstract realm like that. But I don't buy it, with either technology or art. These are not separate realms. Perhaps that notion that they are separate realms is exactly what allows them to run out of control and what has turned our world so crazy. Of course I am not saying that shocking art is immoral art. Maybe moral art is almost always shocking. Shouldn't be too hard to argue that Thomas Kinkade is unethical, luring us into a disconnected fantasy realm.

  6. None of the above rant touches, of course, on the question of how to promote ethical art and discourage unethical art. Or technology or economics. I certainly do not advocate making the government the primary responsible supervising agent... far from it! But at some point the risks of deferring collective judgement will outweigh the risks of inaction. Not easy choices!