PictureEstates Theater, Prague
Continuing Part I of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there on some themes in the End of Belief. 

The Buddhists try hard to live by their Eightfold Path, I reminded her. Living by the right thoughts, right actions, right intentions, etc. as opposed to the wrong ones is a huge deal in their doctrine. So when it comes down to it, Buddhists cling to binary choices as much as anyone else. 

Well of course! She grinned. How else will they keep their Karma accounts in balance? She stiffened her back and primly ran her hands down the white tablecloth as if going down a bookkeeping ledger. When she got to the end she stopped for dramatic pause and leaned forward with playful sternness. I don't think you will make them very happy if you tell them the universe doesn't really care, she said. 

Oh, I wouldn't worry about them, I smiled. They're quite happy with their fixed system of 'revealed truth'... not plagued with doubt like the two of us, I said and clinked my glass to hers. That seemed to strike more of a nerve in her than I intended. She looked down and swallowed, then looked up at me, as if searching. Anyway... I continued, hoping to gloss over the moment... it's not so much whether the universe cares or not. What's funny is they actually preach the Tetralemma; they just don't want to practice it. Which for them is a double paradox: if you believe everything is an illusion anyway, you pretty much have to admit the whole concept of binary right and wrong is an illusion too, don't you? 

So, yes, well... she said, gathering herself. I agree that reality we see… I mean believe we see… is just ah… ah… what’s the word… She was obviously looking for a different word than 'illusion', helped by an unexpected and delightfully goofy gesture of puckering her lips while trying to pull the word out of her mouth like a strand of toffee. While I half suppressed a chuckle, she sank her chin into her hand and huffed in frustration. Seemingly defeated, she then suddenly perked up and began outlining semi-circles in the air with her upheld palms.

… cloud? I guessed, prompted by the airy elegance of her motion.

Yes cloud. She said, not missing a beat. We think we see reality, but actually it is just Cloud. We have to see what is real behind Cloud if we want truth. She paused and seemed to shrink an inch. Looking behind the Cloud is what I have to do in next three days… she sighed and finished the rest of her coffee in a huge gulp. As she crossed her arms and huffed more frustration, I thought hard about what would help her.

M… what if there’s nothing behind the Cloud? I finally asked her emphatically. What if it’s all just Cloud? 

Then it's even worse! she laughed ironically. Escaping Cloud was my last hope... As she drooped her head and sank even further, I thought... Yup... I really knocked that one out of the park... We sat in silence for a moment, then worked our way through two more rounds of booze - sorry, I mean coffee - and I've somehow forgotten what else we said. Eventually she gave a somber, deliberate nod  that told me she had to leave. And I felt I had failed her. 

Walking outside together, I assumed it would be the last I would ever see her. I took a long, calm breath and looked up at the night sky. In the dim light of the narrow cobblestone street I could see the Pleiades cluster. Bronze Age Europeans at these latitudes used them as a sign for planting seeds, I remembered from an earlier museum visit to the Nebra Sky Disk. At such poignant moments in life I do the present-moment thing very well... it's actually quite easy when you have no clue what's coming next... Before I could look down and wish her a happy life, she had leaped the gap between us and locked her arms around my neck. There was surprising strength in her slender arms and she seemed in no hurry to let go. After a while of standing motionless together - and me wondering what my response, if any, should be - it dawned on me she was making a statement. 

But no... as much as my old ego would liked to have imagined otherwise, it wasn't a romantic statement. At least not the conventional kind. She was simply welcoming me into her life. No matter what she would finally decide to do, no matter what path in life I would take, we were now joined by the higher designs of fate and so the universe was a good place - in spite of her momentary difficulties. When she asked if I would I come by the shop the same time tomorrow, I just nodded, feeling equal parts enlightened and stupefied. After seeing her off to the Metro station, I wandered the rest of the night along the river, trying keep things in perspective. Well, as much perspective as possible after three Irish coffees. If there were ever a sublime illustration of the exquisite random whims of the universe, I knew, this day was it. 

Of course randomness is always an unpopular interpretation. We seek the warmth and glow and beauty of higher purpose everywhere in life, and feel that to admit randomness would be like stabbing the meaning of life in the heart with an ice pick. But I think that's only based on a profound misreading of what randomness really is. And a worse misreading of what 'meaning' is. 

'Everything happens for a reason', we learn since childhood, and reinforce that view in one form or another throughout life by our spiritual, religious and or scientific beliefs. Hollywood movies do their part too, of course. And we assign meaning according to what reason we imagine is behind it all. M had been primed by her beliefs (in her case, astrology) to think of our chance meeting as pre-ordained fate - that's why it meant so much to her. A traditionally religious person would have seen it, like everything else that happens, as part of God's plan. Finally, a traditionally scientific person would have seen the mathematical laws of nature gracefully turning their wheels, as they must in a lawful and causal universe. Here, the laws of nature are the scientific meaning of existence. But in each case, we believe in our metaphysical heart of hearts that a greater, forward-looking plan - call it The Plan - must be in place, everywhere and at all times. After all, our brains evolved over the eons as prediction machines; our existence is tethered to the unshakable conviction that The Plan - and hence, true meaning - not only exists, but that we can at least partly decode it. How could we possibly believe otherwise? 

Except that The Plan is a figment of our imagination; part of the Cloud that M mentioned. Quantum mechanics already teaches that, at the most fundamental level throughout the universe, randomness rules. And this randomness is not, as some people like to imagine, one of human ignorance, limitation or misunderstanding. This randomness is the very essence of existence. It's as if the universe is saying to us: 'You might like to think I need a Plan for what I do, but, seriously, guys... I don't.' And we should be thankful for that. Only a truly random universe holds all possibilities - if we know how to pay attention. 

And as if to close the last escape hatch for our dogged misconceptions; the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel and Gregory Chaitin show that even some mathematical statements are just true or false randomly. To bring that home with a small example: there are an infinite number of profound facts about the number 2 which are true for absolutely no reason. (Chaitin has put it quite pithily "God not only plays dice in physics, but even in pure mathematics, in logic, in the world of pure reason.") Before you talk yourself into believing those are just bizarre, borderline situations that have nothing to do with 'the real world' you live in, it may help to remember that John Lennon knew better. I sometimes call it Lennon's Lemma: Life is what happens while you're making other plans.

But there is also a deeper point to understand. The Plan actually cannot exist outside the Cloud of our imagination. To pretend otherwise is conceptually incoherent. To pretend that meaning comes from anywhere but the same Cloud is just as incoherent. Things have the meanings we give them and no other. And we can change those meanings. That's not depressing, not frustrating, not an ice pick stab at life. On the contrary, that's actually where our true chances in life lie. Again, if we know how to pay attention. But that was for the next evening.

To be continued

 


Comments




Leave a Reply