Saturday, February 12, 2005

Satya (Truth)

Satya, or truth, is one of the five yoga "yamas" - ethical precepts. I haven't had a good discussion of it in teacher training; we skimmed over it: "Yeah, you're not supposed to lie, duh." I think it's a lot more complicated than that.

But first I want to tell you about a book I'm reading called "Faster than the Speed of Light" by Joao Magueijo, a Cambridge theoretical physicist who started a controversial school of research based on the idea that the speed of light in a vacuum is variable. Einstein's general theory of relativity is as close as the scientific community can come to gospel, and I think the shock of the psychological scorn and anger Magueijo faced when promoting his theory opened him up to a more philosophical world view. (A scientist whose career never had a hitch is probably less likely to think hard and deep about the context of the community surrounding him: the ways in which irrational humans have organized themselves to create rational science, and the benefits and failings of the current system.)

"Faster than the Speed of Light" explains all the relevant physics (using mostly words and a minimum of math), but it's also full of anecdotes about scientists' lives, personalities, and insight into the personal dynamics of their collaborations.

Magueijo writes, "But even if this idea is discredited - always a possibility, if not a likelihood, with any intellectual breakthrough - there are several reasons why this story is still worth telling. First, I want people to understand the scientific process for what it really is - rigorous, competitive, emotional, and argumentative. It is people endlessly debating each other, often shouting their disagreements. I also want the nonscientist to understand that the history of science is littered with speculations that sounded great but ultimately did not demonstrate explanatory power and ended up in the garbage bin of scientific inquiry. The process of trying out new ideas, and then accepting or rejecting them, is what science is all about."

And even besides this interesting insight into the community of theoretical physics (which, let's face it, it's probably too late for any of my readers to dream of seeing on the inside), the book has some great cocktail party stories about Einstein. For example:

*When Einstein was a teenager he had a strange dream about watching cows near an electric fence. A nearby farmer switched on the current to the fence, and to Einstein it seemed that all the cows jumped away from the fence at the same time. But when he compared notes with the farmer, the farmer claimed that the cows had jumped off one by one. This dream haunted Einstein and was a big spur to his ponderings about relativity.

*Leopold Infeld was a Polish scientist who worked with Einstein in the 1930s. When it became clear that Germany was about to invade Poland, Einstein tried to sponsor Infeld to immigrate to the States, but he'd already sponsored so many other Jewish families that the US authorities had begun to ignore his affadavits. Out of desperation, Einstein decided to write a popular science book in partnership with his friend: The Evolution of Physics, which they cranked out in just a few months, became an extreme success, and made Infeld suddenly desirable to the US authorities.

*Einstein had a lot of cats; he loved them, but they roamed around his house, scratching at closed doors. He decided to cut holes in the bottom of the doors, producing cute little cat doors. In that year he had roughly equal numbers of large and small cats. So he cut out two holes in each door: a large one for the large cats, and a small one for the small cats.

But I have gotten side-tracked, dear reader! I set out to tell you about truth, but instead I have been telling you stories.

Let me try again:

It's a continual frustration to mathy people the extent to which non-mathy people*are terrified of math. An English major might talk forever about the trickiest nuances of semiotics, but show him a simple equation and his eyes glaze over faster than a supercooled magnetic monopole: "Oh no, I don't have a math brain." As a result, any communicative attempts between the world of math and the world of math fear have to be couched almost entirely in English, even when the syntactical contortions required make the result far more ocmplicated to explain than the original equations would have been. Even in my university - which was a good university! - introductory economics courses were forbidden to use calculus, lest they frighten away the tender humanities types, and the badly sewn seams in the mangled syllabuses that resulted would have made a tramp ashamed.

(But lest you get too smug, math-y types, you are often equally as culpable. For example...I speak for everyone who has related a terrible problem to a mathy friend and, instead of a sympathetic hug and a receptive ear, instead got a flippant remark or a lecture on how they handled the problem wrong; then, upon being asked to explain their wrath, received the reply: "Oh, I just don't understand that emotional stuff." It's not that hard, people, if you're willing to try!)

Anyway, a book like Magueijo's, aimed at a general audience, is pretty much precluded from using any equations, except for "E=mc2", which you can get away with - just. As a result, the metaphorical capacity of the English language is stretched like silly putty, twisted into all kinds of bizarre shapes, tie-dyed, given amphetamines and hallucinogens, and made to spin around in circles really fast. There's probably the richest literature of attempts to explain special relativity, with a cast of characters ranging from the original cows on fences, guards on trains, people on space ships, flying clocks, pilots of planes, and reckless characters who somehow manage to ride along with single particles of light. But we have the phoenix universe sub-model of Big Bang theory, which explains the flat horizon problem by means of successive cosmic bounces. Or the concept of a geometrically "open universe"; it is infinite and resembles the saddle of a never-ending horse. Let me quote a random Magueijo sentence: "Flatness, rather than being an unlikely tightrope, became the inevitable valley into which the inflationary universe had to flow."

Of course, if you can't use the actual math, any of these colourful metaphors are just going to be an approximation, fitting the phenomenon you're trying to describe in just a few ways. The phoenix universe doesn't have red feathers and the Big Bang didn't actually sound like a balloon being popped. So another tendency of non-mathy pop physics books is to present you with an introductory metaphor that explains a thing, allow you to grasp it, and then after a little while sweep the rug away from you and explain that the original metaphor was misleading. When trying to explain gravity, for example, you often start by outlining a Newtonian universe full of pool-ball planets. Then, when you get to Einstein, you admit that this original metaphor was completely wrong. Again I quote Magueijo: "To see how inflation solves the horizon problem, I have to admit that I have so far simplified the problem. However, simplifications are often unavoidable if one wants to discuss physics without mathematics - and the version of the horizon problem I have given you is qualitatively correct for Big Bang models. Nevertheless, it breaks down for inflationary expansion because a curious subtlety comes into play..."

Upon reading this, I was struck by the similarity of physics metaphors to Zen koans. Both are attempts to illumine mysterious and impossible-to-translate truth in a language that's completely unsuitable for it. Zen Buddhism is the the overwhelming moment; the vivid and infinite NOW; it's the study of an experience that cannot be put into words - and yet the only way to describe it to someone who has not experienced it is with words.

One of the most famous Zen koans:

A monk came to the renowned Zen master Joshu and asked, "Has a dog Buddha-nature?" Joshu replied, "Mu!"
Of this koan, Hakuun Yasutani writes, "Literally, the expression 'Mu' means no or nothing, but the significance of Joshu's answer does not lie in the word. Mu is the expression of the living, functioning, dynamic Buddha-nature. What you must do is discover the spirit or essence of this Mu, not through intellectual analysis but by search into your innermost being."

You may also be familiar with What is the sound of one hand clapping? or It's not the flag moving, it's not the wind moving - mind is moving.

And I like this one:

Once, when Chief Minister Ts'ui entered the temple, he saw a sparrow evacuate on the head of a Buddha statue. He asked, "Does a sparrow have the Buddha-nature?" The Master answered, "Yes it has." The Minister asked, "Then why does it make droppings on the head of the Buddha?" The Master replied, "Why does it not do it upon the head of a sparrow-hawk?"

Hakuun Yasutani writes, "In ancient days there was no koan system, yet many people came to Self-realization. But it was hard and took a long time. The use of koans started about a thousand years ago and has continued down to the present." I think these words are very interesting, because they seem to imply at first glance that the koan system has streamlined the process of Enlightenment. But notice that he never explicitly says that!

And Suzuki writes, "For a while you may read books, but be careful to set them aside as soon as possible. If you do not quit them, you will get in the habit of learning letters only."

How can we explain theoretical physics without math? How can we communicate the experience of enlightenment to someone who's never had it, in a medium that's directly opposed to it? It seems to be with a series of successively contradictory metaphors, fudging the complicated details, or paradoxical stories with layers of interpretation: in short, with lies. After all, in my friend Ben's favorite Picasso quote: "Art is the lie that helps us see the truth."

I was a terrible liar when I was growing up, and most of my lies had less to do with the desire to get something, than a fascination with the subjective nature of reality, and how easy it was to manipulate in other people's heads. Most of the time, I ended up distorting my own reality as well. For example, I once told my brother that our parents were witches and were fattening us up to eat us. My descriptions of the terrible fate in store for us were so vivid that I convinced myself as well, and for the next week my parents were baffled at their wide-eyed, skittish children pushing their food listlessly around on their plates, until we both forgot about it.

Or - and this is probably familiar to many of you - there's the pretense of sickness to get out of a day at school (particularly important to me since school for me was a sort of daily psychological torture chamber.) You limp down to the breakfast table, ashen-faced and coughing: "Mum, I think I'm sick!" Halfway through this day of illness, I usually did feel genuinely ill.

Even today, when I meet obnoxious people at bars, I'm tempted to make up a strange story: I'm a hammock architect, I'm a White Russian princess in exile, I'm a fortune cookie editor, two of my nieces were snatched from their cradles by ravening dingos. Or else I'll repeat urban myths I know to be false but which are just too cool not to repeat. I appease my conscience by making the lies so obvious that only a fool would believe them, but every once in a while someone actually swallows it, and I send off a poor dupe into the world, with a new version of reality, in which a man somewhere, attempting to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, inadvertently saved his own life when the bullet excised his inoperable brain tumor.

Grappling with my oft-irresistable temptation to make shit up, I often wonder what the world would be like if nobody was capable of lying. Things would be so much simpler! And yet it's an impossible dream, for the ability to lie is intimately connected with imagination and creative ability. In either case, you're picturing a reality that's different than the one which currently exists. Liars, dreamers, artists, and revolutionaries are all just different mixes of a particular attitude towards that imaginary other reality; sometimes it's used to illuminate the ultimate truth, and sometimes to obscure it. A world where I couldn't tell my silly lies would also be a world without people who could understand theoretical physics, or tell a Zen koan, or imagine a community governed by democracy instead of tyranny, or imagine the Last Judgement and then paint it.

Besides, the truth can be dangerous or overwhelming if you don't know how to handle it yet. That's the reasons that so many different scientific and religious traditions choose to parcel it out to us slowly. The fourth step of the yoga "ashtanga" path (the first three are the yamas, niyamas, and asanas) is pranayama, or breath control. Iyengar warns that if you have not mastered the first three steps, pranayama can be incredibly dangerous and perhaps even lead to insanity. And we all know what happened to poor Semele when she asked Zeus to reveal himself fully to her: she was burned to a crisp.

Oh, dear reader, what is the meaning of truth in this muddled existence of a thousand veils? Does a lie have Buddha-nature?

MU.


****************************************************************

*Themselves the originators of this rather artificial dichotomy.

2 Comments:

Blogger MJ said...

That was fascinating. Thanks, Zoe!

4:03 PM  
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