Saturday, April 20, 2019

Determined To Be Free

Image result for mind

- Put down that worthless novel and talk to me.
- What would you like to talk about?
- Reading books, but not that kind.
- What kind?
- Hermann Hesse's most famous novel Siddhartha, from 1922. I finished a slow, week-long rereading this morning. My first reading was about 45 years ago.
- And how did it strike you?
- I enjoyed it more, but like before I found frustrating, arbitrary, wasteful the necessity for the title character to go through a whole series of different roles before he reaches enlightenment.
- What else was he to do? Remember what he says to the Buddha:
But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands.
The secret being why those hundreds of thousands despite doing their best to follow the Buddha fail to obtain enlightenment.
- Yes. Hesse puts Siddhartha successively through the "no body" of living in the forest with the ascetics, then sends him to the Buddha, to the practice "no self", then sends him on to "all body" taking a courtesan as a lover and becoming a merchant, and then finally to the Ferryman and his "all self". Do you know what I find really strange here?
- What?
- Despite my original complaint of having to follow this apparently meaningless path, exhausting the limited set of possibilities of all or nothing of self or body, my own life has more or less done the same, up to and including living with a courtesan and becoming a merchant.
- And now you're happy.
- A little.
- Lucky you.
- Unlike Siddhartha, no role I took on was without some detachment: this wasn't really what I wanted.
- You wanted the Buddha's enlightenment.
- Yes. Siddhartha differed from the hundreds of thousands of failed students in his going off to learn for himself. But in a sense he lets the whole world be his teacher, forcing on him one role after another. And that's the problem if it is right that self responsibility is essential in getting where we want to go. Following the path of "no body", "no self", "all body", "all self", as if this was a demand of teaching, shouldn't work.
- What would work?
- I'll tell you where my own path took me this afternoon as I was mulling these things over. A notice was posted for a lunch lecture on the subject Creative Cognition: On the Edge of Chaos. This was for me since part of what I was considering was the problem in imagining how freedom can coexist with causality.
- You were thinking that the Buddha's rules were causal, but his state of enlightenment was free?
- That's right. I went, even though most likely it was going to be a comedy of freedom made to vanish into causality,* the professor giving the lecture being a big shot brain scientist. Happiness was to be found in creativity, he said, which was disciplined but imaginative following out a plan to obtain something valuable. Flexibility had to coexist with stability.
- Flexibility in imaginative planning, stability in disciplined following?
- Yes. Flexibility, but not so far that it leads to randomness, which he says leads to madness.
- His rule is not much different from Siddhartha's flexibly throwing himself wholeheartedly into one relation to the world after another.
- With the same problem: where does enlightenment come in, in this obedience to fate? Flexibility in change of role isn't freedom: the chaos of chaos theory the professor refers to in his title isn't randomness, isn't free, but only unpredictable.** He in fact identifies systems in the brain responsible for "flexible" management of other systems of the brain responsible for stability, the whole presumably causally determined. In the professor's brain science jargon: information input from the world is being processed optimally by Siddhartha, who is flexible and stable, having had balanced and exhaustive experience of self and world, and the output is happiness. But such rule following - lack of freedom in the exercise of freedom - should not work, did not work for the other seekers after enlightenment.
- So why do you think the same thing worked for you, worked in whatever degree you're willing to admit?
- Creative people, even the most stable and flexible, don't do any better at happiness than the hundreds of thousands of the Buddha's disciples. What I think can happen, keeping one's eyes open living in the world: I think that every name we give to a thing is an act of freedom, of stepping out of the developing a habit of perception in the world. Repeatedly taking on new roles, and looking down on that passivity from the detachment of the present perception of your immersion drums into your brain, as it were, something we know when we ask where space ends or time begins.
- Because we can always stand back from any of our thoughts, just like when we say space ends here, we know there is more space on the other side of that limit.
- Yes. All can be named and all can make us free.
- And enlightenment is there for you?
- A little.

Further Reading:
The Messiah
Life Is A Machine For Creating Freedom
* See: Creative cognition and systems biology on the edge of chaos, Robert M. Bilder and Kendra S. Knudsen, 2014: "The Edge of Chaos theory can be applied to cognitive processes and brain activation states important for creative cognition. Considering the diversity of possible cognitive states, we can differentiate the highly predictable and orderly from the unpredictable and chaotic. In more chaotic regimes, network states are more disconnected from those in the ordered regime. But “at the edge of chaos,” the states are maximally novel while still connected to states in the ordered regime, and thus are most likely to manifest the combination of novelty and utility that is the hallmark of creativity." ... "The theory of evolutionary cytoarchitectonic trends may provide an anatomic and neuropsychopharmacologic substrate for these cognitive dimensions, with complementary systems that increase the stability or flexibility of cognitive states via the archicortical and paleocortical trends, respectively. Local cortical networks employ the complementary actions of tonic and phasic dopamine signaling, which putatively mediate stability and flexibility, respectively; similarly, D1- and D2-like dopamine transmission may mediate persistence or updating within cell assemblies."
** A failure of knowledge, not lack of causality.