Years ago, the acting director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Joseph Bordogna, put up a slide showing a triangle to symbolize three core missions of NSF – discovery of new knowledge, education or stewardship, and unification of knowledge. I was impressed that he included that third one, which has far-reaching implications.
I was reminded of that this morning, in discussion with Luda of a discussion session last Sunday at the local Quaker Meeting, where John showed us a book by Silesius and Franck trying to provide a bridge or unification between Western Christian mysticism and Eastern thinking. I am very grateful for what I have learned about the core ideas of people in China, India, Tibet and Japan, especially – but now that I think of it, maybe the majority of people in the West have lost something as they stopped wondering about “the mysteries of the east.” They are not truly mysterious, but compared with the assumptions people often make about them, a little more humility and respect would be justified.
In those discussions, I mentioned that I resonated most with a poem by ChuangTzu at the front of the book. (OK, I didn’t read the whole book in that hour, though we discussed excerpts for the whole hour.) He talks about what to do... how he knows/sees the Path but wonders what to say about it. I did not say what I thought about “the Path.” My guess is he actually wrote in Chinese, not English (duh), and that the word he used was “Tao” or “Dao”.
Why did I guess that? Well, we have a wonderful colorful glossy English translation of the Tao Te Ching, a very special informative new translation which I should cite for you sometime. (It is up in the bedroom, not the study where I type this.) For people interested in understanding the core true part of Daoism, I would urge attention to that one book as a start. Maybe I’ll mention that to the folks next Sunday. But core Daoism is not the same as popular religious Daoism; there is a labyrinth of other sources if one goes that far.
What of Buddhism? There are so many schools there, and things I have learned not from books. Nevertheless, for the core... two books, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Journey to the West (again, we have a great translation here, purchased in Beijing, for which we owe thanks again to Dr. Liu who showed us the place). Curiously, next most fundamental or useful for me has been Tricycle, the magazine of American Buddhism, crossing many schools.
Nice readings for a quick catch-up study, avoiding lots of mass confused popularizations and academic inventions.
But what of Confucianism? Of the Big Three of Chinese thought (before Mao), that is perhaps the one I am closest to, depending on how you measure distance. But it is embarrassing that that is the one I have least ability to cite a book for. I suppose that Fu Yulan, the Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, is the best I know. The real problem is that the important things I have learned were from people and from life and from places. Fu’s book contains a passage abut Meng Tzu (Mencius) and qi which was more meaningful to me than to Fu, and helped strengthen my impression that Meng Tzu was more a benevolent re-inventor and extender than just a follower.
(Unlike another guy, something like Xu Shi, who was more of a codifier and formalizer, who helped drive Mao “crazy” as he pored over his work in his little room in the school in Changsha – been there, seen that.)
I even visited Meng’s teaching room... and the main Confucius Institute in Qufu... but where is The Book? Would the famous Analects (which I have never read) really be of value to me? Should I be searching for more BY Meng Tzu?
Also... is Chaungtzu to Daosism what MengTzu was to Confucianism, or close? I am sorry to say I do not know. I even did find and buy his book... but never really read it.
And so to Luda I said: “It would be interesting to see something like a TV debate between Meng Tzu and ChuangTzu, like the Republican debate last month but maybe a bit friendlier.” (My favorite article in Tricycle was on a friendly debate between the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.)
Luda’s response: “Who needs a debate? Everyone knows which one is true. Different things are true for different people.”
Instantly, the Einstein-Bohr debate came to my mind....
Here is a case where there are three possible responses, related to “tolerance of cognitive dissonance,” a very important genetic personality variable.
One group. More like traditional Russians or most Germans, would say “We don’t need a debate, because we each already know which alternative Is True. Nothing to debate; we already know The Truth.” It is such a common way of thinking, maybe “ultra-yang.”
Another group, more like some old Chinese would say, “We don’t need a debate, because we use them all, they are all equally true in a way, and we have no trouble with contradiction.” Ultra-yin. Radical tolerance of cognitive dissonance and inner contradiction.
But, as in my previous, post I believe that The Middle Way is The Truth. I was born with low tolerance of cognitive dissonance (form the German side...) and ultra-yang, but by taking “a meta level” I have learned the logic of the Middle Way, resting in mathematics. So I might enjoy such a debate, and view it as useful IF it is friendly and constructive enough, in part because I look for the true synthesis beyond the present choices.
“Hey,”” asks Luda,”Are you saying there is One Truth for everyone? There are different truths for different people, no?”
I even find myself creating a new aphorism:
“Theology is a fuzzy way of talking about a branch of mathematics and reality not yet well-known by humans.”
(I first said “religion is..,” but really, religion is much more than just theology. There are feelings and human networks and practices and actions... and of course different actions are appropriate for people in different places and times.)
(I also need to record a few other aphorisms... yesterday at IEEE it was crucial to remember: “Given a choice between a risk of failure and a certainty of defeat, I’d go for the risk any day of the week.” That’s if the goal is important to me – like the survival of humans in settling space, or on earth, both of which are risky endeavors.)
So : “In almost all ways, I am more on the side of my cousin Bohr – culturally, emotionally, spiritually. But on this one point, the Einstein-Bohr debate, I am on Einstein’s side, period. I fully appreciate and understand Bohr, but Einstein was right.” Curiously, even my nemesis ‘tHooft feels that way in principle, but has the ability to be black-and-white certain about contradictory things on different days, ultimately because he is as ultra-yang as I am, and ultrayangs often do have difficulties establishing cooperative relations, short of learning the meta level.
Speaking of the meta level – in the world of intelligent systems, I have long viewed the Einstein-Bohr debate about complementarity (using different basic models of the universe on different days of the week and not being bothered by it) as resolved. OF COURSE intelligent systems grope towards a unified global modeling, and of course partial memories and models are treated as scaffolding along the way – or, more precisely, the striving is always there for more unification. The complexity of life is viewed as a Great Chain of Approximation, Approximations put in order in something LIKE a tree, rooted in the one mathematical law of how the universe works. The core mission of physics is to uncover that true “law of everything” – and the leverage mission includes working out the chain of approxmations. (Well... I wish I had more time right now... the approximatoins are essential to figuring out the root of the tree; it’s iterative and needs to be two-way to work.)
Interetsing analogy to how earlier people thought about Gods, as a chain of manifestation... one of the early drivers for a partucular approach to the notio9n of One God. But not for today.
OK, two more very important examples, after our morning coffee ritual and before a trip to the bank.
The Tricycle article – nice and clear, satisfying to us yang types. Summing up everything, the Tibetan says “mindfulness.” Likewise, Zen guy says “No mind.” Zen guys have lots of neat practices and tricks, but at tis fundamental level, I’m 100% with the Tibetan guy. ON this one.
But – physics. More and more lately I have the impression that Bohr’s notion of complementarity (of using one model one day and another the next without really pushing for the unified truth).has had a corrupting and degrading influence which is very, very serious – and maybe worse than I thought at first. Back in the 1970’s, I saw first hand the Great Debate between Canonical Quantum Field Theory (KQFT) and “Feynmann path” QFT (FQFT) , the variations of both, and how puzzled many people were about the relations between the two. Under a relaxed Bohr/yin approach, people just use whatever seems easiest or most politically convenient from day to day... but what about the effort to learn the truth?
And what is it about a German cousin, of a yang family, like Bohr, acting so yinny anyway? Well, we also share a tendency to go for meta levels, and he happened to fall into a meta level which let him overvalue a yin way of handling models. (It reminds me of Bart Kosko, a famous leader or lieutenant of fuzzy logic, who is also ultra-yang – not a fuzzy person at all by nature.) Ironically... the Irish side of my inheritance is much yinnier (though more spiritual and novelty-seeking than yin)... and a guy named O’Connell has demonstrated strong yang mathematical thinking... utterly frustrated by the evident logical holes and inconsistencies which still exist in the handling of different FORMS of QFT. I owe him great thanks for explaining the really serious issues associated with “Haag’s Theorem,” which the yinnies have not really faced up to.
And then... this past month... I bought a new text by Greiner... which fills a very important gap in unifying some of the basics here.
I suddenly wonder: I read all the stuff about quantum optics by Scully and such, exploiting important terms terms in the famous universal interaction term “psi bar gamma A psi,” which allow one photon to come into an atom and two coherent photons to come out. I have seen the important beautiful mathematics underlying the laser, and developed an extension of my own of that math. “See my “extension” paper at arxiv.org.) And I have also seen the work on Feynman diagrams which seem to “underlie everything,” to provide the core of what people IMAGINE KQFT and FQFT both agree on. But I don’t ever recall seeing a Feynman diagram with a 2-photon or n-photon line in it Is this yet another case of two radically different models being used in practice?
Is the whole formal theory of renormalization (‘tHooft’s claim to fame) resting on an unconscious simplification/approximation which leaves out a really crucial part of the interaction term, the part which allows lasers and such (crucial to important future possible technologies as well)? I will see what Greiner has to say. As a proper German, perhaps he has thought about this and found an answer. Or perhaps it is another big gap... related to the gap between what Schwinger thought was physically possible and what people think more stuck in the mud. Searching for a more transcendent understanding is one crucial part of getting out of the mud, both in scinece and in spirit.