Friday, December 14, 2012

Communities of Learning

Today's tragic slaughter of schoolchildren in Connecticut is almost impossible to think about in its utter senselessness, but we have to think about it all the same. One natural response is to tighten the restrictions on the sorts of weapons used in such slaughtering, and clearly that is a good idea, but superficial. Anyone who could commit such an atrocity must be severely disturbed. Somehow people who are that broken need to be identified and treated appropriately, for their own benefit as well as that of society. This approach goes a bit deeper, but, in dividing the world up into the normal, the pathological, and the institutional authorities who are to enforce such distinctions, I fear it cannot be very effective either. Of course the world has always been subject to incidents of senseless cruelty. But there are surely differences of degree. The only sane way to live is to take as crucial and urgent the responsibility to cultivate compassionate and meaningful lives, as individuals, families, and communities. What makes lives meaningful is relationships. When our lives manifest as the cherishing of each other, the likelihood is vastly reduced of anyone becoming so disconnected as to commit random murders. If somehow a person becomes so deranged as to be capable of such senseless violence, in a community where relationships of cherished, the pathology will be recognized and at least taken on as a struggle. Remote and abstract institutions may have a role, but the primary focus of response can be the community, which can work to keep any sort of weapons out of the hands of such a disturbed individual.

In our time and place, community is a rather ethereal concept. Our modern technologies of communication and transportation seem to have been the primary agents of the dissolution of community. We have ready access to a few hundred million other people, those of us living on the grid, on the network, on the web - pulverizing our relationships to bits, to broken fragments. Such a broken system cannot sustain itself, and indeed the signs of collapse are everywhere. How far we have to fall before we rebuild enough integrity to revitalize our relationships and make richly meaningful lives again normal, that is our crucial and urgent challenge.

Archdruid John Greer proposes that "devising a framework for adult education outside the grip of the current American education industry is one of the most pressing needs of the decade or two right ahead of us." Perhaps it is not going too far to extend this proposal, to see learning as the binding fabric of human community. Learning is life. This points to the real pathology of our science today, which has far too much the smell of death, of an escape from the grappling and tangling with the ambiguities and paradoxes of raw experience, an escape into the pure clean clear realms of the ideal, of mathematics and theory and abstraction.

We need widespread local venues where learning can be shared, learning that promotes engagement with the realities of experience, of daily life. Some of these might be workshops oriented to somewhat specialized crafts. But the general foundation needs to be the cultivation of how to live a sane life. The basic skills of living need to be taught, rooted in our world today and reaching to the world we envision for tomorrow.

Gardening, nutrition, physical exercise, the skills of reading and writing, household finance, home repair, bicycle and automobile repair, computer skills, crafts such as sewing and woodworking, arts like painting, sculpture and music, how to manage interpersonal conflicts, the basics of working with government agencies and other large scale institutions such as insurance companies… these sorts of down to earth basic skills whose sharing can provide not only the raw material for revitalized community but also the context for critical thinking. It is through vital engagement with the substance of experience that the sublime arises, not by chasing after abstractions. Theory and abstraction properly work when they enhance our engagement with experience. They are means, not properly ends.

Let us learn together, to reconnect through the world, to each other.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thriving Science

When out driving long enough distances, I've been listening to Malcolm Eckel's lectures on Buddhism that he recorded with The Learning Company. In his talk on The Sangha, he brought up the great monastic institutions of India, whose destruction effectively brought an end to Buddhism in India. Eckel compared those institutions to our modern universities.

This comparison got me thinking. To a large extent the practice of science is highly concentrated in elite institutions: our great research universities, along with a few government and industrial research labs. Perhaps it is also the election cycle that is coming to a close over the next few hours that has also reminded me, for example with the reports of bizarre beliefs about the human reproductive system, that the scientific outlook is not so very widespread.

On the one hand the challenge is real enough of how to steer science toward the actualization of its greatest potential for benefiting humanity and the planetary biosphere. This challenge takes for granted the continuing vitality of our scientific institutions. But a very real challenge to that vitality may well be sitting on the other hand.

I've been reading Linda Lear's biography of Beatrix Potter. Potter was evidently a fine amateur naturalist. Her illustrations for her children's books grew out of her botanical drawings, from which also grew her interest in the biology, in particular of mushrooms and lichen. She was a real pioneer of lichen biology, perceiving their symbiotic nature far ahead of almost anyone else. Lear tells us that it was just around the time of Potter's insights on lichen, around 1900, that botany was becoming professionalized, so that the insights of an amateur were discounted. Of course the fact that Potter was a woman didn't help matters either.

If science is to survive then it seems that somehow it must become more localized and to recover the appreciation it once held for the amateur. This is quite distinct from any sort of indulging of incompetence. To some extent the current professionalized approach to science can actually provide more support for incompetence, since the competition for professional status and position can overshadow the quest for truth. The competence we need to cultivate has to do with willingness to break through confused thinking despite the cost, rather than the exploitation of confusion for profit.

The increasing financial, political, and natural stresses on our scientific institutions, from fiscal cliffs to surging seas, will shake them profoundly. This shaking can provide an opportunity for a new more vital vision, for a science that inspires and thrives as a pervasive element of society.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Our world consists of many objects of various types. There are physical objects like automobiles and cell phones, illusory objects like rainbows and reflections, imaginary objects like hobbits and unicorns, institutional objects like corporations and nations, philosophical objects like truth and beauty, and many others. Both the objects and their types have ill-defined boundaries. One fundamental boundary is temporal, the birth of a thing and the death. A particular automobile comes into existence at some point in time, and goes out of existence at some later point. Beyond particular automobiles, there is the general class Automobile to which these belong. The notion of a birth and death of such a general class is harder to pin down. Was the invention of the Automobile a discovery of an eternal class or the creation of a new class? Whatever heaven might house such eternal classes, it must be a very crowded place to contain every possible invention. A more useful way to think of such classes is as patterns of human thought and communication, which would then have invention a creation of a new such pattern.

When Charles Darwin was studying barnacles, he realized that the division of particular barnacles into species, and into higher taxonomic classes, was to some extent arbitrary. When does the variation within a species cross into variation across species? There are some general rules to be applied, but just how the rules should be applied to particular cases can get thorny enough to become a taxonomer's judgment call, in the last case an arbitrary decision. And it is just this interpenetration of intra- and inter-specific variation that makes evolution possible. If there were an uncrossable chasm between species, evolution would be impossible.

Science is another general category whose ultimately undefinable frontiers enables evolution. What sorts of propositions and activities should properly count as scientific? Evolution of such a category is not likely to happen through wholesale redefinition, but instead through incremental shifts at the frontiers. One notion of the frontier of science is where new scientific propositions are created or where their truth value is in an active process of determination. This frontier corresponds roughly to the regular introduction of new models of automobiles. This is an evolution of the various things that we class in the category of Automobile, but it is not a change in our very notion of what makes a thing an Automobile or not. The rise of electric bicycles is a bit more interesting, as it puts in question the boundary between bicycles and motorcycles. The evolution of the category Science is pushed where there are propositions or activities that we're not quite sure should properly called scientific.

A collection of phenomena becomes recognizable as a pattern, can be seen as an object, when it repeats itself often enough across a long enough time, which then requires some regularity or stability in its environment, the associated phenomena that are causally intertwined with the object. As conditions shift, the object responds, evolves. Science is an evolving category in just this way. For example, the use of automated experimental observation and mathematical calculation and deduction have raised the question of whether scientific activity is properly limited to human activity and the acceptable degree of indirection.

Rather than gambling on any particular forecast of future conditions, a wise strategy is to look at a family of most likely futures and to position oneself to be able to respond effectively to any of them. A major fork in the road ahead for the world is whether energy production can continue growing or whether instead we are facing declines as precipitous as the advances of the past century. Given the fundamental role that energy consumption plays across the full range of our patterns of living, a significant decline would have a huge impact on all of our institutions, including science. Already with impeded progress in experimental particle physics and space exploration one can see some of the early effects of resource limitations.

What kinds of science will we need in an era of declining resources, and what kinds will we be able to afford?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Challenge

Ran Prieur posted part of a letter he received from one of his readers:
It seems me that the space and time for critical thought is increasingly shrinking in our world... a result of people being increasingly integrated into and identifying with systems and not an issue with particular systems. Having been out of West Point for three years and now in medical school, I can say confidently that the field of medicine is far more hierarchical, self congratulatory, malicious towards "the other", and dogmatic than I find even the American military to be.
Of course there are many soldiers, physicians, scientists and engineers who are exemplary opposites of malice and dogmatism. But how can we change the character of these subcultures themselves?

A good starting point is to begin to dismantle the mechanisms that currently encourage malice and dogmatism. One approach could be to broaden the distribution of support. If there were a way to break through to the ultimate nature of reality by concentrating enough talent and resources on the right project, then perhaps that ultimate achievement could justify the neglect of projects less likely to strike such gold. But if the rainbow is better enjoyed by viewing it from many perspectives rather than by a concentrated push to reach the pot of gold at its end, the wiser approach could be to cultivate as many open eyes as possible.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


A Buddhist practice of science is not fundamentally different from a Buddhist approach to any other mundane discipline. David McCarthy in his essay The Six-Fold Economics of Compassion uses the six perfections (generosity, ethical discipline, tolerance, diligence, focus, wisdom) to elaborate what an economics of compassion could be. My project here is to sketch out what compassionate science would look like. In large part, though, compassionate science is just compassionate action and no extraordinary analysis is required. Just be a compassionate person who happens to be a scientist, or who happens to be involved in some sort of scientific activity.

But perhaps, after all, scientific activity does have some special features that create challenges and opportunities worth examining. Of course, what it is exactly that distinguishes scientific from non-scientific activity: that is a curious philosophical puzzle. Perhaps science is distinctively objective, or quantitative, or mathematical. Science is devoted to publication and preoccupied with priority. Science is the fruit of the interplay of theory and experiment, each driving the refinement and enhancing the range of the other.

One of the cornerstones of science is its collective nature. Science is a group activity. Many of its features are consequences of this basic property. Quantitative measurements using institutionally maintained standards and the public recording of results in journals and conference proceedings: these are the means by which a scientific community's exploration can be kept coherent. Objective phenomena are essentially those which can be observed consistently by all the members of the group.

If there is a kind of group mind whose investigation of the world we call "science", then what is special about compassionate science is that it also must be a group activity, a refinement and transformation of this group mind.

Being sensitive to the moral consequences of actions, Buddhist practice in general puts special emphasis on the intent behind actions and the contribution of this intent to the formation of habitual patterns. If I try to help someone, it is certainly best if my actions actually benefit that person. But even if my effort fails, I am reinforcing a tendency to act helpfully, a tendency that can bring positive results again and again in the future.

In these modern times, it is hardly just the mutual refinement of theory and experiment that is dominated by large organizations. How can an organization cultivate a calm clarity, come to see the illusory nature of its own identity, and dedicate itself to the welfare of others? How can an organization cultivate kindness?

Another perspective from which to approach this challenge is to ask: what prevents an organization from behaving kindly?

Most organizations already have regular reviews of policies that have been put in place to prevent abusive behaviors of various types. One classic principle of Buddhist practice is the constant return of attention to the here and now. Somehow the attention to kindness needs to be an integral part of the regular work of the organization, rather than an annoying interruption. Making the transformation of the organization a top priority, no less than its immediate effectiveness, ought to create space for such attention.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wealth and Theology

Somehow Buddhism and Science both address the ultimate nature of reality, both dig beneath appearances to discover the underlying truth. Somehow the truths they discover must be related. In any case, a Buddhist living in modern industrial society has good reason to relate them. We live in a world constructed by science, a world that at every turn advertises the power of the truth discovered by science. For most of us, the discovery of the truth of Buddhism is much more a work in progress. Buddhism does not build airplanes and cell phones, Buddhism builds, transforms, people. This transformation is principally a matter of the notoriously elusive mind. However inescapably intimate our experience of mind is, it is the hardest thing to subject to quantitative, objective, scientific scrutiny. Relating the truths of Science and Buddhism turns out to be problematic.

One approach to solving this problem is to bring the remarkably powerful apparatus of scientific investigation to bear more directly on the mind. If we can land probes on distant planets, surely we can probe something so much closer to home, something that is practically the very essence of home. On the other hand, a bit of caution is called for. Descartes, one of the founders of the modern scientific project, put mind in a category totally separate from the locatable objects that science can grasp. Indeed, the ungraspable nature of mind is a fundamental truth discovered by Buddhism.

Graspable phenomena are never ultimate. This perspective provides another way to relate the truths of Buddhism and Science. Science always confronts a receding horizon in its quest for the ultimate nature of reality. Is this just an accidental feature of our time, a sign of the imperfection of our understanding, an imperfection that can be and will be repaired as the scientific project is brought to completion? If the project is inherently impossible to complete, if the quest for the ultimate truth is like racing for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, if the scientific project is inherently futile… but how can that be, given its overwhelming success?

What kind of success have we achieved through science? We have learned an extraordinary amount about the world, given ourselves powerful tools for changing the world, and indeed changed the world in many profound ways. If all these are mere by-products of a futile quest for the ultimate, perhaps it is a worthy quest despite its futility.

Of course, all these marvelous accomplishments are not entirely attributable to the modern scientific project. Many significant discoveries are stumbled upon in quests for much more mundane ends, some noble and some less so. To what extent our remarkable technological progress can be credited to the modern scientific project and to what extent it is more a matter of a less coherently thought-out series of developments across many dimensions spanning the full planetary ecological system. Our wealth is not good proof of our theology!

I am not arguing that wealth and theology are totally disconnected: I am merely arguing that they are not totally connected, either. Should we choose that theology that maximizes our wealth? There are intractable challenges in any sort of experimental check. For example, if word were to leak out of preliminary findings, the latest get-rich-quick theology, the competitive landscape would instantly shift, invalidating later trials. But the difficulties are far more profound. Our theology supplies our framework for evaluating our wealth. This is akin to the challenge involved in measuring inflation, Should we apply a theology-relative hedonic correction for each trial? Does a miser's accumulation constitute true wealth?

What if we let go of the scientific quest to get to the bottom of things, recognizing its futility, and instead return our attention to the here and now, redirecting our work to understand and change the world. If Science is collectively refined relative truth, the appropriate compass by which to steer it is moral. We must collectively refine our sensitivity to the help and harm brought by our work.

And what are the truly profound challenges of science in our time? Of course there are vastly diverse technical challenges across the entire frontier of science. But when is our technology something that helps people and the planet, and when does it become harmful? There is no sense in weighing the help or harm of technology as a whole. This project is a matter of details, of each here and each now. Resigning from attentive work is just as delusively apathetic as diligent work that refuses attention to moral consequences.

Engaging in the Buddhist path is a matter of self transformation. The truths of Buddhism don't relate so much to the bright shining side of science, its spectacular achievements. The first steps on the Buddhist path are usually rather uncomfortable, as we start to see how deeply caught we are in the cycle of delusion, grasping, and suffering. This is the work that is needed now in science, to see how we have been caught up in greed, violence, and delusion. But to see, too, the unbounded positive potential opened up by the path of self transformation.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ivan Illich

I just learned about a fascinating essay, Energy and Equity, written by Ivan Illich in 1973. It's about how we shape ourselves by the way we shape our world. More particularly it focuses on how physical power consumption, kilowatts, is connected to political power. Even more particularly, it focuses on how high speed transportation destroys local communities.

I want to study this essay more, but this short note can at least serve as a public bookmark.

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Karma and Technology

Ran Prieur posted an interesting interview with Kevin Kelly. What really caught my attention was a statement by Kelly:
I would say over the long-term that humans cannot really influence the direction of technology and I would say that there are certain inevitabilities in the progression of technologies. What we can influence is the character of the technologies.
This brings out strongly for me the fundamental topic of emptiness and interdependent origination, and perhaps more fundamentally the topic of karma. I expect that Kelly appreciates the superficial absurdity of his statement, that humans cannot direct technology. Modern science has had some spectacular success in accepting some absurdity like this and following its implications to discover some very surprising facets of the world. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity is probably the paradigmatic instance. Here Kelly follows the idea that technology is not directed by humans to the further notion that technology has become a seventh kingdom of life, alongside Plants, Animals, Fungi, etc. This is certainly a stimulating vision but it can be misleading too.

Clearly modern technology is a massive global collective activity and there is little that any single individual can do to direct its evolution. This, of course, is not unique to technology. Humans are social animals with extraordinarily complex patterns of cooperative behavior. Politics would be another primary example. Can human beings direct their own methods of conflict resolution away from violence and war and toward some more constructive approach? What sense does it make to talk of any group of humans or of humanity as a whole directing anything at all or indeed performing any action at all.?

Kelly asks us to imagine rewinding and rerunning history, like a laboratory experiment. This underscores the connection to the general puzzle of free will. Not only is it problematic to understand what it means to speak of a collective action, it is just a deep a problem to understand the nature of individual action. But look again at how the puzzle arises, where we rewind and rerun history. Here is an action that stands outside the history that is being rewound and rerun. Agency and free will belong properly to the subject, determinacy belongs to the object, or, where there is indeterminacy, that indeterminacy is attributed to chance. When a person keeps shifting perspective, looking ever more deeply within to find their own mind, the root of their agency, the failure to finally isolate subjectivity as an object is not due to the subject somehow being illusory in comparison to the reality of the object, but to the fundamental structure of conceptuality, the duality of subject and object.

There is indeed value to the kind of courage that can follow subtle clues, like the problem of the behavior of light in a moving frame of reference, to surprising conclusions, like the relativity of a relationship as basic as simultaneity. If the subject is not a contingent object but instead the mirror of the object in a duality that gives rise to both, then free will is not mere raw material to be incorporated into some technological system but a perspective that defines technology. Do bees make bee hives or are bees and bee hives together a system to be managed by bee keepers? This is a question of perspective, not one to be answered by accumulating data.

Our identity is so deeply enmeshed within our technology. We are the drivers of our automobiles, we are the readers and writers of our blogs and text messages. To see our technology as impermanent, as arising through causes and conditions, is to see ourselves as impermanent arisings. Not only do we have the power and responsibility to direct our technology, we have that same power and responsibility to create ourselves. To treat technology as inevitable is to deny our potential, a retreat from courage that can hide only temporarily and superficially from the deep currents of impermanence and interdependence. Waking up to the truth of our vastness is not a trivial matter but a process that begins with a choice, the choice to recognize that what we do, what we decide, makes a real and profound difference.

Monday, May 21, 2012


The recent announcement by JP Morgan that they had lost 2 billion dollars through shoddy hedging trades has brought up again the question of how to regulate banks, to prevent them from gambling with public money. Given the important role of banking in the national and world economy, the trust placed in them by the public, and the government's backing of this trust, it seems clear enough to me that banking regulation is important. On the other hand, life is inherently risky. It is not feasible to demand that banks avoid all risk. Banking operations will inevitably involve risk management rather than risk avoidance. What's the difference between risk management and gambling? Surely regulation ought to constrain the sorts of risk taking that is acceptable by banks. But it doesn't appear to be a simple matter, to draw a clear line with only acceptable strategies on one side and only unacceptable strategies on the other.

The mathematical tool that displays most clearly a risk management strategy is a probability distribution. A bank will take the money it holds and invest it in various ways. It can hold currency, or loan the money to customers, or buy treasury bonds, or any number of other ways to try to make money. At the simplest level, a bank should put money into whatever has the best return. If a loan returns 8% while a treasury bond returns only 2%, it surely makes better sense to loan out money rather than buying treasury bonds. On the other hand, it happens all too often that borrowers default. The expected 8% return can turn into a 30% loss. Perhaps the greater safety of treasury bonds outweighs the lesser return. Of course, with enough loans, probably most of them will be paid back and only a few will default.

Somehow a bank needs to estimate with a reasonable degree of accuracy the probabilities of the various possible returns of the various possible investments. One source of risk is simple ignorance, the unknown unknowns. A bank needs to hire the experts who can make accurate estimates, avoid investments where such expertise is unavailable, and keep a watchful eye that the experts don't shy away from too many good new ideas or become overconfident about too many bad old ideas.

Given an understanding of the probabilities of various outcomes from individual investments, and of correlations among those outcomes, a bank can then evaluate proposed portfolios, can derives the probabilities of outcomes for various combinations of investments. Each potential portfolio will imply a cumulative probability distribution with a shape something like:

Here the greatest likelihood is that of a moderate return. There is a small probability of a loss, and also a small probability of a very high return. This distribution could represent the existing portfolio of a bank. A small shift in the portfolio, moving money into a new type of investment, will change this distribution somehow.

The most attractive sort of shift is a pure win:

The dashed line shows the new distribution. If at every possible level of return the probability of making less money decreases and the probability of making more money increases, the decision becomes very easy. The proposed new investment is too good to pass up!

Generally, of course, one is faced with more difficult decisions. A typical investment might add some potential for losses, but more likely will bring improved returns:

Another type of investment that often, though not always, make good sense is some kind of insurance. Insurance will reduce the probability of large losses, at the price of smaller returns under other circumstances:
A genuine gamble is one that most likely will lose money but for which there is a smaller probability of a large win:
Of course, real proposals will often involve complex shifts in the probability distribution, giving them aspects of both increasing and reducing risk:

To regulate effectively the risk management practices of financial institutions, one must distinguish between the sorts of risks that can be taken:

  • Investments can involve significant unknowable risks, e.g. because of possible political or technological shifts.
  • Understanding risks, i.e. accurately estimating the probability of a proposed portfolio, can involve considerable expense that the institution might be unwilling or unable to incur.
  • Even when accurate probability distributions are available, it is not clear or simple how to distinguish which distributions represent responsible risk and which constitute violations of the public trust.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Ethereal Mind

Science continues to push at its frontiers: out to the remotest galaxies, back to the origins of the universe, down into the most ephemeral fragments of subatomic particles. The genetic code underlying life is read and decoded. Even the profoundest mystery, the nature of the mind, seems to be emerging into visibility. Ever more powerful dynamic probes reveal the detailed behaviors of the brain. At a much more fundamental level, experiments with quantum mechanical systems continue to clarify the role of measurement, how observation of a system inevitably interferes with its evolution.

There is a tantalizing puzzle here. The nature of mind is at the heart of Buddhism. Buddhism uses introspection to investigate this nature, rather than fMRI machines or photomultiplier sensors. Curiously, the general structure of the Buddhist investigation is to attempt to grasp the mind through ever subtler means and to discover the futility of every such attempt. But perhaps that futility was simply a matter of inadequate technology. Now, finally, are we becoming able to reveal in stark contrast what has remained in the shadows for millennia?

It is a bit of an odd question to contemplate. Certainly methods such as fMRI reveal many intriguing regularities in neural behavior, and correlations between these and various cognitive behaviors. What sort of phenomenal pattern might justify our exclamation, "Ah, there it is, the mind!?"

Our experience of our own mind is intimate in unsurpassable degree. Looking at others, it's quite a mystery. People seem to be an unravellable tangle of sparkling insight and blind automatism. Indeed, reflecting on one's own behavior, it is often embarrassingly easy to find instances that trigger one to ask, "What was I thinking?"

At the end of the 19th Century, physicists were homing in on their goal of discovering the nature of the ether, the medium that carries electromagnetic waves such as light. Einstein's breakthrough realization, the Theory of Special Relativity, revealed that the ether was an illusion, that light is not the sort of thing that is carried by any sort of medium. One could say that light is its own medium: the changing electric and magnetic fields of one moment generate the fields of the next moment. The ether was to provide a frame of reference in which the behavior of electric and magnetic fields had a logical structure. In its place, the Theory of Special Relativity outlines the relationships among an infinite family of frames of reference, in every one of which electric and magnetic fields have the same logical structure.

I would like to propose that the scientific discovery of the nature of mind might well turn out to be surprisingly compatible with the teachings of Buddhism. The mind is what perceives and what acts, much as the ether carried electric and magnetic fields. Just as the ether provided a fixed frame of reference from which to understand electromagnetism, the mind is the locus of our confrontation with the world. Just as the realization of the non-existence of any privileged frame of reference paved the way for understanding how to work with multiple frames of reference, so might the realization of the nature of mind open us to vaster perspectives. The locus of confrontation between mind and world is not anything fixed but a frame of reference from which appears a history of experience.

Does our perceptual and active confrontation with the world actually seem to have any such sort of shiftable character?

Quantum measurement provides a first exhibit. Between some quantum phenomenon such as a photon and the ultimate act of observation, there is a whole chain of intermediary physical systems, such as a photomultiplier tube, an impulse counter, an eye, a brain; we are free in our analysis of the system to stop anywhere along this chain, treating as the quantum system as much of the world as we choose, and the remainder as the classical observer. The shiftable character of mind is very clear in this case.

Consider the puzzle of global warming as another very different exhibit. Allow me to stipulate that indeed the continued combustion of fossil fuel at the present scale will lead to ecological catastrophe and thence human catastrophe. What is to be done? The frustrating and intriguing nature of this question is that it depends on just who is the doer under discussion. As the human race, our options are straightforward enough: we must dramatically reduce our net emission of greenhouse gasses. Of course, how such coherent action might emerge out of the tangled mass of planetary humanity… that is a daunting puzzle! But the puzzle is not much less daunting however one shifts the boundary between observer/agent and world. What should the United States of America do as a nation? What should the United State Federal Government do? What should the State Department do? What should the American Association for the Advancement of Science do? What should I as an individual do? Perhaps I need most to steer somehow the thinking of the American public on this issue, and that might require me to increase my consumption of fossil fuels, flying about to various meetings etc.

A similar sort of shiftiness is apparent in the puzzle of diet, as outlined by Gary Taubes in his book Good Calories, Bad Calories. Clearly the simple energetic relationship must hold within rather strict bounds, between dietary consumption of calories, expenditure of calories in physical activity, and storage of excess calories in fat. The difficulties arise in examining consumption and activity. A famished person will stop at little to find and consume food, and if frustrated will succumb to lethargy. To what extent is any individual's behavior a function of clear perception and free choice, and to what extent are we driven by the physiological imperatives of blood sugar, insulin, etc.

There is not merely philosophical value to a clearer understanding of the division of experience into an observer/agent and a world, of how that division is itself not a feature of the world but logically prior to the world, of how our choices of how to make that division give rise to our options for exploring and guiding the unfolding of our experience. For example, in macroeconomics there are many institutions that participate in the economy as they try to understand and guide it. Are their regular patterns of institutional intervention part of the system which those interventions are intended to steer?