Zen: Don’t Think Good or Evil

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If you think good and evil,

You become a person of good and evil.

I recently chanced upon a book sale and was able to purchase a book of Zen koans and a book of Haiku poetry for a fair price.  I had read about Zen in the past, but I had not read actual works by Zen masters.

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I have completed reading Zen Inspirations: Essential Meditations and Text, by Dr. Miram Levering for the first time.  It includes the complete text of The Gateless Gate a thirteenth century collection of koans, commentary and poetry by Ekai, known as Mumon.  The book also includes The Ten Ox-herding Pictures accompanied by ten poems by the twelfth century Chinese monk K’uo-an Shih-yuan It is definitely not something you read only once.  I enjoyed the Zen masters’ admonitions to read the koan and permit yourself to solve it quickly and without hesitation to discover the enlightenment that comes from honesty.  As I read the koans, I let myself be honest about my inner response and the wisdom of the Zen masters became increasingly amusing.  I think I came to be enlightened many times by their frank honesty about the human condition, the Buddha and the Tao.  I think one admonition by Zen master Mumon, that if you encounter someone filled with the Tao, strike him in the face with all the strength you have, sums up what I have learned.

The Zen koans and Taoism I find agree with the philosophy of science, the philosophy of Karl Popper, skepticism, the evolutionary biology of Charles Darwin, the physics of Werner Heisenberg and the mathematics of Kurt Goedel seamlessly.  Uncertainty remains the only certainty.

There is origin without origin, direction without direction, destination without destination.  Any sense of order is localized and transient.  That is the Tao Te and not the Tao Te, and that is what the adherents to Zen struggle with daily.

I don’t claim understanding or overstanding of this paradox.

The Brain: Hardwiring and Softwiring

I’m just finishing a very fine book by Steven Pinker, The Languange Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

and several years ago I read Donald D. Hoffman’s book, Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. Both books deal with the same subject: What part of our minds are hardwired–instinct–and what parts of our minds are softwired–reason. It is a truly fascinating exploration.

Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct very thoroughly explores all the aspects of spoken language. He discusses how broken pidgin languages are turned into grammatically rich creoles by children. He explains that whether a person learns a language or not they can have complex thought he calls Mentalese. He explains Chomsky’s concept of a Universal Grammar and how, with language, learning does not cause mental complexity, but mental complexity causes learning. He reveals that children have an acute sense of the morphology of words and rapidly acquire vocabulary as listemes because of the nature of the relationship between child, adult and reality. The perception of speech as well as the physical production of speech is explored. How we derive meaning from language rejects the technical concept of packets being transmitted and received for a much more subjective process of interpretation. The ability of children to learn language is treated as an evolutionary trade off existing only long enough to adopt the tribes language and then shutdown to make way for other special priorities. The “Language Organ” or region of the brain that is responsible for speech is narrowed down. The chain of being is pushed aside for the bush of evolution to reveal that hundreds of thousands of generations existed for language and homo sapiens sapiens to evolve separate from all our other primate cousins. The difference between living spoken language is separated from living written language, the discipline required for each and the fact that language is never in decay. Finally the relativism of the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) or tabula rasa as proposed by Margaret Mead is rejected, Pinker takes sides with the Evolutionary Psychologists stating that environment alone cannot create the complexity of the mind, the mind must have many complex modules to be able to learn from the environment at all. He discusses Donald E. Brown’s Universal Person (UP) inspired by Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG). Finally, Pinker tries to define the modules of the human mind and here I get excited as I find I am able to fit them easily into the Six Hats, Six Coats model. Pinker says that language is a system and extrapolates to say humans are a system of both hardwiring and softwiring.

Hoffman’s book deals with an aspect of mind that more easily subscribes to the module concept than language because it is a much more detached, empirical exercise to test for the visual hardwiring that humans have through the use of visual illusions. Hoffman takes us through many aspects of vision such as facial recognition, edge and shadow and color and the perceptual development of children to reveal what appears to be hardwired and softwired. He concludes with a relativistic statement, but I think that he chooses this because of the political desire of scientists to distance themselves from the eugenics of the first half of the 20th century instead of an objective conclusion that, yes, we have a complex module in our brain specifically hardwired and softwired for vision as used by our species. In other words, when presented with the depth of Steven Pinker’s work compared to the breadth of Donald Hoffman’s work, I believe that we do have a vision instinct.

All in all I believe that Steven Pinker’s and Donald Hoffman’s work is revealing that humans minds are far more than just an empty neural net at birth. That in fact there is an evolved complex predefined structure that humans make use of through the learning stages of childhood to understand their environment that diminishes to adult levels at puberty. Consequently, no form of Artificial Intelligence will succeed unless it also comes with a robust collection of Artificial Instincts.

Related Article:

Evolution: Growing Up In The Universe Series

In 1991 Richard Dawkins made a series of five one hour presentations discussing evolution called Growing Up in the Universe. The presentations are interesting and visual and aimed at young people, but as an adult I found them quite interesting myself. I have collected the links together here:

Growing Up In the Universe (Google Video)

  1. Waking Up In The Universe
  2. Designed and Designoid Objects
  3. Climbing Mount Improbable
  4. The Ultraviolet Garden
  5. The Genesis of Purpose

I hope you enjoy them with young people.