by Brian

It’s not uncommon for what I’m reading to mix with things I’ve read in the past, that seemingly disparate ideas tend to find a way of making sense of one another. In this instance my thoughts lie with the last two books I’ve read, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (from which I’ll probably have more posts about). Though not necessarily of a kind–Universe is about the study of space and string theory, while Zen is largely about epistemology and metaphysics–the crossing point is the problem of what we’re seeing and thinking when we’re seeing and thinking things.

Though the seed of this thought was planted in Universe, I think it would be easier to start with Zen and work my way backwards. The entire concept underlying Zen is the correlation of objective reasoning with the subjective experience we necessarily have as beings constricted to the inside of our heads. His idea is that we manipulate human thought into two categories, the romantic (art, beauty, esthetics, etc.) and the classical (science, mathematics, reasoning, etc.), with the notion that everything we encounter can easily be moved into one of these two camps. By everything, he means the intellectual concepts rather than the physical objects, so the inner workings of a computer would be purely classical, while the actual use of it is romantic (if we’re assuming the way one uses it is though the operating systems and gateways already set up by the programmer, as most people do).

This, he says, is ugly and unfit. He starts by establishing some Kantian principles, and he does that via David Hume’s ideas on experience-based thought. Hume is strictly an empiricist, stating that all knowledge is gained only by sensory experiences. Perhaps one might want to conclude with that idea, but the consequences are heavy. For one, the belief that there is something outside of us to give us this sensory data–that is, the other objects in the universe outside of our brain–is false, because there is no way for us to move outside of the senses we have to interpret the physical substances in any way. Without verification, there’s no way to know that these things are true. Second, since we can’t interpret the world beyond what we know from seeing it, the concept of causation has to be thrown out as well, since we can’t interpret these things in any way other than that it has happened plenty of times before. We cannot conclude one thing must follow the other when the entire basis of our belief is that we’ve seen one thing happen, and then seen another thing follow it. Our knowledge isn’t gained by the fact that the causation we’ve experienced happened sometime in our past any more than a different causation chain would give us any new knowledge.

What Kant says to solve this riddle is to throw out Hume’s empirical model with one completely his own. Though he accepts the premise that all knowledge starts with experience, as Hume claims, he presents the idea that knowledge must not necessarily arise directly from that experience. Once we have built up sufficient concepts of things and how they work and for which they best function, we create in our minds these a priori concepts of how things are supposed to be in some ideal. So while we may only experience each chair as its own flawed, objectively contained existence, from these we can imagine the concept of the best chair, the ideal chair from which we interpret each proceeding chair we experience. We gather the ways in which things feel, operate, and function and put things all together in a mental concept of the thing we have experienced.

Using Kant’s a priori concept as a template, Pirsig puts everything under the new heading of Quality. Quality, he says, is the pre-intellectual conception that delineates that which is good from that which is poor, based around this a priori idea. When we interact with something like a painting, the immediate feeling is not rationalized but rather an association between the a priori concept we possess of “beauty” or some other category. The idea of subjects and objects is birthed out of this, he says, as a means of separating the object from the subject’s inner idea of the Quality in question. So when we deal with classical and romantic schools of thought, it is no longer this gulf to be spanned but a difference in their Quality types: romantic quality is of the present state, something that needs no prior information to understand; classical quality is based on past and future states, the making of previous experiences into ideas to be developed for some future function, operation, concept, or utilization.

In reading Universe, I came across an idea that butts up against this idea of classical thought being an interplay between observations of the past and expectations in the future. Once Greene went deep enough into the known aspects of space-time to get to string theory, the qualities one assumes of the universe start failing. Via three different means–the law of gravity, quantum fluctuations at the Planck length, and a hypothesis that the universe might be circular–it became clear that space as we conceive of it is not flat. Nor is it merely three-dimensional; due to the necessary permutations of strings, the three dimensions we’re familiar with are accompanied by at least six “folded-up” dimensions, along with a time dimension. And the uncertainty principle suggests that determining simultaneously where any quantum particle is and its momentum at a particular moment is impossible.

This gave me the epiphany that is two-thousand years in the making. Plato’s theory of forms questioned how we have conceptions about perfect circles and straight lines without having ever seen them, but what he didn’t push the discussion forward to is that we have no natural instances of just about everything covered in math. Not only is there no such thing as a naturally occurring straight line, due to among other things the curvature of space and the uncertainty principle, but that the familiar two-dimensional graph we put it on and numbers assigned to the hashes don’t exist either. There are no parabolas either, no points, no calculus, nothing. And branching off of that is the backing of a lot of sciences too, that depend on these mathematical precepts to exist.

That’s not to say that they aren’t useful, obviously, as their application has rendered the world we live in today. But they are, as Pirsig refers to the theory of gravity, just ghosts. Were one to wipe the knowledge of these things from every human’s mind and destroy all the physical and digital data of it, they would cease to exist. Just as we are now, the myths would render philosophy, philosophy would render science and mathematics, and science and mathematics would test and experiment there way back to something of the world we have now. The observations of the past would give us the stepping stools to experiment and hypothesize for what we can do with the future.

But as Hume had postulated on towards the beginning of this post, all we can be completely sure of is the present, and since this is a personal blog this is where I wedge my own feelings in. A lot of the subject of Zen is this cut-off of the romantic thinkers from the classical aspects of the world. The narrator’s fellow motorcycler owns a BMW, a model that is sturdy and reliable, but the likelihood that they would run into someone with working knowledge of the bike on the route of their trip is small. If the thing does break down, he’s likely to be stranded with no way of getting the thing working again. The narrator insists that his friend learn some basic maintenance of the thing so he can at least try to prevent any catastrophe, but the friend isn’t having it. The alienation he feels to the bike’s mechanisms is due to this past and future/present split: the extent that the friend wants to be involved with the bike is in riding it, not learning about its workings and applying them. The conceptual thinking makes him feel alienated from the bike riding that he wants to get out of the machine.

I feel like I often have the opposite problem: I sketch out the a priori circumstances I want to interact with and then am flustered when the exact principles are not met. Stuck up in my head too often, I feel alienated from the world far too much, not the other way around. Though the Kantian a priori concepts are useful–I don’t think I would be nearly as smart without a steady diet of them–I would also be much better served to give Hume more of his due. While its useful for the world to be thought of on this a priori plane and to be given to higher level thought, the fact that ultimately Hume is right needs to be acknowledged. Deciphering causation may be doable, but causation may also go beyond anything we can rightly observe or expect–the butterfly effect, if you will. It’s healthier and probably more Zen-like to realize that the present is all that exists, and that every second experienced is necessarily something completely brand new. Experiencing life as a unopened gift at every moment is a far more peaceful, colorful way to live.