Monday, September 17, 2007

We don't know what's possible

I just began reading a book by Nicholas Taleb called "The Black Swan" about the impact of the highly improbable on human life.

Can't say enough good things about this book, which is an exciting investigation of the flaws, errors and outright wrong assumptions rampant in mankind's ordinary mode of "thinking." Go buy it and read it. The prologue alone is worth the price of admission.

The book serves to remind us that we don't know what is possible. Our intellectual, emotional and physical lives are built on an endless series of assumptions that bear little relationship to what actually happens. Gurdjieff himself pointed this out when he mentioned to Ouspensky that men spend an absolutely enormous amount of their energy worrying about things that they think will happen, but almost never spend any time worrying about the things that can, will, and do happen.

Perhaps the whole point is that we can't think of what will happen. And, in fact, Taleb points out--much like Gurdjieff and Dogen--that our experts aren't expert, and that what we think is thinking isn't actually thinking.

The man who swims through the water will always get further than the one who mixes cement into it and then tries to swim.

In the same way that it is nearly impossible to comprehend what might lie in front of us next in the unpredictable conditions we inhabit, it's equally impossible to predict what could happen to us in an inner sense. This means that, as some Zen schools believe, enlightenment could take place at any moment. We just don't know. Making any presumptions--positive or negative-- whatsoever about our possibilities is a mistake.

It brings to mind Jim George who, as I personally witnessed, once stood up in the presence of "mighty and powerful Beings" who were making sage pronouncements about what we couldn't know and couldn't do, and powerfully asserted:

"We don't know what's possible!"

Way to go, Mr. George. Bravo.

Since we don't know what's possible, if we have to make assumptions, to paraphrase Martin Luther, "Since we must assume , let us assume boldly." (He said sin instead of assume, which may mean much the same thing, come to think of it.)

While we are assuming boldly, let us boldly assume. Let us assume that many impossible things are possible. Let us assume that impossible things come true every day.

So anything is possible. And we might as well assume good things are possible for us in our inner life!

One more slightly tangential note that I think deserves a mention.

On Saturday night, at the dinner table, the family and guests were discussing if free will exists.

My stepson Michael brought up the idea that if it were possible (as in some perverse and gnomish theories perhaps it could be) to determine the exact location of every atom, molecule and quanta in the universe at a given moment and calculate the exact sum of all their effects on each other, one could predict exactly what would happen next.

This idea assumes an absolutely deterministic universe. In a universe of this nature no free will would be possible.

We don't live in such a universe. All the reductionist analysis in the world cannot change the fact that at the quantum level, the location and momentum of any given particle exists only as a probability. Ergo, quantum physics offers us free will in a truly scientific form: at the root of physical reality lies an "instability of choice" that allows for an infinite number of possibilities to be manifest--all of them, in their unique individuality, ultimately unpredictable.

We could go further and mention mathematical models which predict that, if the universe is truly infinite--as it rather appears to be at present--then at a relatively low number (low relative to inifinity, that is) the probability of seemingly "impossible" events--such as there being exact duplicates of our solar systems, planets, and ourselves, right down to the exact details of our lives--becomes very nearly 100%.

Kinda scary, I think, so we better not mention that stuff.

May your own improbabilities become manifest in joyous ways!

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