Dumbfounded

I started out to write a review of the movie A Serious Man, released last year and directed by the Coen brothers.  Seemed relevant enough.   While reviews are not my specialty murking around in the depths is.  My feelings about this movie (and those of many others, from what I could tell looking at reviews online) were heavy in the murky department.  I am still, three days later, unclear whether it was a waste of two hours or a useful intellectual exercise.

What did the first scene mean?  Was the woman supposed to be the depiction of crazed certainty, or was she a temporarily misunderstood heroine for her village?  Why did the protagonist, an academic physicist, have an older brother who was pointlessly addicted to his own genius, among other things?

The “conclusion” they reach, in the context of retelling the biblical tale of Job, is predictably catastrophic.  The conundrums it reveals – religious, scientific and otherwise – are grossly stereotyped.  The combination on screen, and in the hands of the Coen brothers, has an uncomfortable if unsurprising effect, which is, dumbfoundedness.  Some people like that feeling (rave reviews!); others hate it (insulting reviews).  I am in the middle, preferring a bit more substance and less  in the obscure allusions department.

I lured you along with this sparkly movie talk so I could hook you with a big juicy worm of a Revealing Tangent.  (It took a tangent of this magnitude to get me to reconsider writing anything about this movie after three days of dumbfoundedness).  So hang on to your holy books, because you’re going to be wondering where the answers are hidden.

An obscure branch of philosophy known as modality concerns itself with what it means about reality that some aspects of it are possible, necessary or contingent.  For instance, it is possible that George Bush could have lost the 2000 presidential election.  It is necessary that your parents are yours.

Really important at this point that you not “turn on the lights,” but be willing to muddle about in this darkness for just a bit.  Remember, that is where mysteries about reality reside.   The non-mysterious, lights-on version of reality today, when faced with the questions I want to pose, is simple:  parallel universes explain all confusing aspects of reality.

It may be true that they unconfuse a confusing situation, but explain parallel universes?  Go ahead.  Examples would be helpful… no.  Can you see this leads to a dead-end?

So, now humbled, we can get back to the tangent at hand.

First let me answer the question, what does philosophical modality have to do with the movie A Serious Man?

The reality of movies is the perfect metaphor for modal primitivism.  (Tangent – I warned you!)  Modal primitivism  is a metaphysical interpretation of philosophical modality.  It says the universe’s underlying reality is not just about nailing down the facts, so to speak, via solving enough mathematical problems or adding enough dimensions or worlds to account for everything.  The metaphysics of primitivism creates an essential distinction.  Some kind of carrier of necessity and possibility is needed above and beyond “modal facts,” or  logical statements about cause and effect.  Modal primitivism says, for instance, that connections between objects and their origins are necessary.  A mental image of a chair is not a real chair.  Possible outcomes are part of reality if and when they are contingent on a set of quite real initial conditions.  And finally, modal primitivism suggests that existence which manifests from nothing must be possible, particularly if you wish to suggest the manufacturing of an infinite number of parallel universes (aka possible worlds) to solve every problem imaginable!

Which brings me back to movies.  Movies are the closest we have come yet to making parallel universes real – a story acted out, filmed, viewed by millions.  Their existence proves that modal primitivism has to be satisfied before any model of reality can be accepted as complete.

In the period just before John died he had left academic physics and was studying modal philosophy and Buddhism.  But not in a human potential way you might expect.  He had an agenda.  He was intent on cracking open the problems that crop up in physics so often in the form of dualities, exclusion principles, and generally irreconcilability among the scales of physics.

[See my newly minted Physics Disclaimer.]

I got hints and insight about his thinking from time to time.  I grew up hearing about physics from him and the people he studied with.  Later we shared an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, me because of my mentor-in-the-kitchen Chonyi, him because of its ancient and varied doctrines. That was easy to continue after he was gone.  But the modal philosophy proved a bit trickier.  I ended up asking for help from a friend of the family, a philosophy professor, who hooked me up with a grad student who wanted an interesting thesis project, in this case, studying an ancient relic in relation to modal primitivism.

Nothing in modern physics fills this “primitive” metaphysical requirement.  Or I should say nothing-ness.

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Metaphysical Yoga

Yesterday I heard an interview with writer and yoga teacher Matthew Sanford on NPR’s Speaking of Faith.   Amazing, gifted person whose body was disabled after a car accident at the age of 13.  Check out the following, which is an excerpt he read from his recent memoir Waking:

Imagine walking from a well-lit room into a dark one. Imagine the darkness as a visual expression of silence. My rehabilitation made a mistake with the silence by focusing on the absence of light. It too quickly accepted the loss and taught me to willfully strike out against the darkness. It told me to move faster rather than slower, push harder rather than softer. It guided me to compensate for what I could not see.

Another course of action, however, is patience. Stop moving, wait for the eyes to adjust, allow for stillness and then see what’s possible. Although full-fledged vision does not return, usually there is enough light to find one’s way across the room. After a while, the moon may come out, sounds might gain texture, the world might reveal itself once again, only darker.

The darkness of certain physical views like quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle is dramatic.  Its experts have all had metaphysical rehab!   Media, art and literature accept their rehabilitated opinions, which morph into cultural messages full of positive spins – and, to certain ears, irony.  Quantum leap over your limitations… uncertainty makes the universe exciting, or… in an alternate universe you may be experiencing bliss!  After my brother parted ways with the physics community he regularly lamented this.

I would take it one step further now. Should theorists lose track of one basic principle – that physical theories must connect to physical reality – what would keep the problem from spiraling into a new type of darkness, one of human making?

[I am aware I keep mixing two notions of darkness / nothingness that are quite distinct.  See my Philosophy Disclaimer.]

Matthew Sanford says something similar happens to the disabled all the time.  They accept their fate as being cut off from their physical bodies rather than of needing to become more finely attuned to it and accepting of its subtleties.  First and foremost being as whole as possible should be more important that being “a fighter,” or in the case of physicists avoiding metaphysical crises, of being a pedant?  (That was John’s favorite insult to hurl at career physicists.)

Matthew Sanford, in reconnecting his mind and emotions with his disabled body, says he identified a common source of physical limitation in the world.  Without knowing it even able-bodied people disable themselves in small ways over a lifetime through closing down physical communication with the parts of themselves that hurt.  People’s focus is too often on accepting immediate relief through physical silence (a darkness of human making?).  He says instead we should focus on being patient with our existing capacity, however limited, and re-connecting with the energy and physical processes that built us in the first place.

Maybe I should rename this weblog Metaphysical Yoga.

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Necessity: The paradox of naming things… like this weblog

My posts so far have been about recent events, how they affected me, and why I decided to weblog.   The question remains, Why should anyone care?

A good place to start is with the title of the weblog.  You might be asking,what’s with “Hidden: The paradox of revealing nothingness” aside from, perhaps, a clever word play?  Maybe you get that I am in hiding, something about stealing relics and bad guy physicists, but are not clear if I am revealing nothingness or caught in a paradox where nothingness is the unfortunate consequence.  If it’s the first, then you may be unsure how you are supposed to tell when there is a revelation vs. nothingness vs. a revelation about nothingness.

Before we switch on the lights in a panic, I hope you will take a deep breath with me and consider that the dark is nothing to be afraid of.  At least not here.  You may wish I would turn on the lights and just give you a friendly tour.  You may be increasingly uncomfortable, imagining zombies, or hoards of bugs, or death each time I remind you that the lights are out.  But turning on the lights would mean deferring to our dominant sense, to “see” a problem that, while not imaginary, can only be solved by evoking our other senses.  No matter how many times someone tells you there are no such things as zombies, until you sit in the dark, awake, aware, and alone, and prove it to yourself, you will not be able to answer the more interesting question, Does nothingness have something to reveal?

When it comes to pondering nothingness (metaphorically = darkness), I would equate “using all of your senses” to letting our collective blend of scientific wisdom (wonder), faith and philosophy mingle instead of reflexively evoking a media sound byte understanding of valid debates and concepts.

I have reason to believe that these things – wonder, faith and metaphysical philosophy can be brought together only in darkness.  Not darkness in the sense of uncertainty and fear though.  Darkness in the sense of potential, of a coherence that, if it exists, is not separate, to be observed, but must be conceived.  The place it exists is in the paradox of revealing nothingness.

We are hardly the first to bravely go where I am suggesting I will go.  Any of you familiar with lay theologian C.S. Lewis’s “Wood Between the Worlds,” central to his Chronicles of Narnia prequel The Magician’s Nephew, can consider this endeavor a scientific and philosophical application of that spiritual vision.   Far, far fewer of you may be familiar yet with the radical doctrine of a 14th century Buddhist monk Dolpopa.  It energized, and divided, Tibet’s spiritual development for three centuries.  Then in the 17th century, political agendas that eventually led to the re-stabilization of Tibet and its establishment as a theocracy, squashed the rich diversity of doctrines such as Dolpopa’s that had flourished.   A potent doctrinal vacuum resulted.  I would compare it to the reality crisis sparked this century by the indoctrination of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Not just nothingness but emptiness, nothingness devoid of the possibility of meaning and ruled by uncertainty.

__________

This 5 minute YouTube video “What is theoretical physics for?” is fascinating in relation to what I’m doing here.  Youth plus the perceived nothingness that surrounds us, in relation to physics theory, metaphysics and beyond.  Check out the funky lighting… he’s barely illuminated in the darkness.  Very humble.  I like that.

I know I said media perspective is bad, but I meant mainstream media…

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Description and sketch of the Chenpo Terma (pre-earthquake)

What can I say.  This doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing, though in some cases that’s what we had to do to see our way around!  Imagine Tibetan buddhas and demons in the blank areas (and you’ll just have to imagine what my unskilled drawings of those would look like).   What I’ve drawn were the unusual parts,  unusual because they are so different than designs traditionally found in Tibetan holy sites.

The wall decorations, including the parts I sketched, were well preserved, and easy to see – except that our battery-powered light sources got low and we had to rely on torch-light until we were ready for our ascent.  The actual size of what you see in the drawing was maybe as high as a two-story building.  Big.  The lines of the center “starburst” were made up of mostly of red coral and turquoise.  Our Tibetan guide Chonyi described it as the “jewel.”  Because of the stone inlay design it did bear strong resemblance to the jewelry common to Tibet.   The white “wave” segments away from the center were apparently made of carved bone, probably yak bone.   And the gold dots you see were just that – dinner-plate-sized protrusions covered with precious metals.

The room where we found it was a sort of portrait hall with one prominent wall (featuring this design).  The other walls tapered steeply in an efficient and cautious geometry.  The ceiling, walls, and floor of the cave-like room were made of earth and covered with some kind of natural plaster.  Stones were embedded in the floor but their formations seemed random.  Hard to examine because cave debris had settled on it.  Apparently the ancient Naljorpa, or wizard, who protects the site from an external cave nearby, is not also a housekeeper.

An inscription, credited to Dolpopa Sheyrab Gyalten and in Tibetan, of course, read

“The ground of emptiness is naturally noncomposite radiant light”

Another inscription, outside the entrance to the hall, was a dedication.  It read

“Erected in 1633 by Taranatha’s volunteer army with the mission that the wisdom treasure [terma] inside be protected during hostile times ahead”

We were able to make rubbings of the inscriptions, but it will take some time to render them here.  I only hope the interior hall, which has never to my knowledge been photographed or preserved in any way, was not destroyed in the earthquake.

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