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A Broken Koan

6 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 May 2008 07:04PM

At Baycon today and tomorrow.  Physics series resumes tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here's a link to a page of Broken Koans and other Zen debris I ran across, which should amuse fans of ancient Eastern wisdom; and a koan of my own:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, "The flag is moving."

The other said, "The wind is moving."

Julian Barbour happened to be passing by.  He told them, "Not the wind, not the flag."

The first monk said, "Is the mind moving?"

Barbour replied, "Not even mind is moving."

The second monk said, "Is time moving?"

Barbour said, "There is no time.  You could say that it is mu-ving."

"Then why do we think that flags flap, and wind blows, and minds change, and time moves?" inquired the first monk.

Barbour thought, and said, "Because you remember."

Comments (11)

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Comment author: steven 24 May 2008 11:01:07PM 1 point [-]

There is no time. At most, this is true in the same sense that there is no flag, there is no wind, there is no mind.

Comment author: Ardiente 12 March 2011 03:49:03PM 1 point [-]

Well, could it be said that time is an empirical reality? Now that I think of it, all our time-measuring instruments would be useless if we didn't have memory...

So change isn't "in the mind", but it needs the mind to be known. Like everything els- Dammit, now I'm confused!

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 25 May 2008 12:31:56AM 2 points [-]

This love affair of modern rationalist materialists for Buddhism's metaphysical negations is peculiar in that the superficial similarities derive from completely different trains of thought. In a nutshell, as I understand it, the Buddhist argument (or a very prominent version) reduces all things to mind, by noticing the subjective element in all experience, and then reduces mind itself to ineffable formlessness by turning the argument on itself. By contrast, modern materialism in effect proceeds by substituting mathematics for subjectivity at every turn, until it reaches the point of saying that there is no subjectivity, only number (or whatever abstract category forms the basis of the preferred formalism).

I suppose the two approaches genuinely are potentially complementary, in that a Buddhist procedure could serve to make the scientific ontology subjectively plausible. But two wrongs don't make a right. We don't just think that time moves or that we are conscious; they are both quite real. At most it may be the case that the former is internal to the latter. But that is metaphysical idealism, not materialism or Buddhist relativism.

Comment author: VAuroch 07 January 2014 11:07:31PM 0 points [-]

I think the basic appeal is that both are designed to structurally demonstrate the unreliableness of our basic assumptions, and Zen koans have a proven track record at succeeding.

Also, some people may be attached to the original principally through the AI Koans.

Comment author: Peter3 25 May 2008 01:29:50AM 1 point [-]

"There is no time. At most, this is true in the same sense that there is no flag, there is no wind, there is no mind."

It's true in the sense that time is a static dimension.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 25 May 2008 02:27:28AM 9 points [-]

Two students of Bayes were walking to the dojo one morning, and when they passed a newsagent, the senior of the two said to his friend "hold on a mo", and went in and bought a lottery ticket. As they continued their walk the junior student was frowning, and he went red with mental effort, and finally at the dojo gates he accosted his friend and said "I've been thinking and thinking and I can't see why the hell you bought that ticket. You know they're useless. I know you're not mad. Now I'm going mad. Explain yourself!". The older student cracked up laughing, and said "I have received what I paid for", before throwing the ticket in the bin and proceeding into class. The younger student was enlightened.

Comment author: frelkins 25 May 2008 05:37:12AM 1 point [-]

@Mitchell Porter

I see you are not very familiar with Buddhist thought. Might I suggest you read some Nagarjuna? The definition of what is "real" in Buddhism is very rational and precise.

In these terms, time is certainly not "real," and while there is consciousness, there is no self-existent "we." Time and we are certainly conditionally dependent non-entities. I believe modern physics holds this view as well.

However this doesn't mean we don't experience these things or that time doesn't inexorably pass. Buddhism never denies the material universe, you know.

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 25 May 2008 07:13:34AM 0 points [-]

frelkins: There's a story (which you may know) that Tibet held a debate between Indian Buddhists, who insisted that enlightenment can only be reached after many stages of analysis, and Chinese Buddhists, who said you could get there in one step. The Indians are said to have won the debate, but I was writing with the Chinese side in mind; I was trying to describe the path to nonduality in the most abbreviated way I could. I am aware of Nagarjuna and "codependent origination", and it may be that it was misleading of me to pass over that aspect. I welcome discussion and correction, though here may not be the place. (There is an unofficial Overcoming Bias forum here. Also, I'll mail you privately.) But, speaking mostly metaphorically, I favor Shankara over Nagarjuna. I believe in substances, essences, and a self. I think Buddhism is at the opposite extreme of error from the error of eliminative materialism - an all-negating subjectivity, rather than an all-negating objectivity - yet somehow complementary to it, as I suggested.

Comment author: Caledonian2 25 May 2008 02:16:43PM 1 point [-]

all-negating subjectivity, rather than an all-negating objectivity

What is the difference in the implications of these two premises?

Comment author: frelkins 25 May 2008 03:27:40PM 1 point [-]

@Mitchell porter

As tempting as it might be to employ Socratic irony, and drive you with a stick down your own path, since we are already familiar with the arguments, it would be pointless, as you say; especially as you admit the Chinese position is always a loser there. Surely it would also bore the blog.

But in the spirit of OB, at least you admit your biases by name-checking Shankara and adopting the "negativity" position. That you believe in "substances" and "essences" is a bold admission here -- I am surprised enough to find a monist on OB, but an alchemist too! I feel drawn back to the days of the Golden Dawn, in the most charming manner. I applaud you, in the nicest possible way.

@Caledonian

The core of my discussion with the delightful Mitchell will, no matter how he wishes to phrase it, in the end reduce to his embrace of monism. He has declared himself in favor of self-existent Being, or perhaps considering his profession of the Vedanta, Sat-Cit-Ananda, whereas I -- like modern science -- prefer to start without a catechism. This is what makes Buddhism an interesting philosophical position to so many scientists.

But because one arguing from the Buddhist position will deny monism -- that is, to massively simplify, be an atheist -- Mitchell names that "negativity." Since Mitchell believes in self-existent, non-dependent Being, he has to call that "subjectivity," because Consciousness implies a Subject.

Indian philosophy is so poorly understood in the West, as it's usually associated with mere New Age handwaving, that it is hard sometimes to have people accept that in fact "even" the Vedanta is a beautifully argued, elegant, supremely logical and highly rational thought structure.

However a Buddhist would simply note the difference and move on - because Buddhism isn't hung up on theory and thought structures, and also because both Mitchell and the Buddhist will in the end admit each has a recognized darshan. Thus I embrace Mitchell!

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 26 May 2008 08:22:16AM 1 point [-]

Caledonian, perhaps I should have written "objectivity-negating subjectivity" and "subjectivity-negating objectivity". The first would deny that reality has any intrinsic qualities (qualities independent of observation, basically), while the latter ends up denying the qualities of experience itself ("not even mind is moving").

frelkins, taking a stance in opposition to Nagarjuna is difficult because he's so neither-nor, but maybe just saying that something, somewhere, has an intrinsic nature is enough to do it. :-) You shouldn't read too much more into my remarks than that. I am agnostic on many points, and I am skeptical that anyone has ever yet known the truth about metaphysics. I have my preferred hypotheses, and I'm prepared to reject certain others, and that's about it.