BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Three fingers back ...

I had great hopes for this book when I “won” it in the “Early Reviewer” program … it sounded like the sort of cognition/cosmology sort of thing that I've not indulged in for a while, but read a great deal of previously. Steve Hagen's Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense: An Inquiry into Science, Philosophy, and Perception seemed to have all the requisite elements in place (down to an M.C. Escher illustration on the cover), but I never quite got “traction” with it.

Now, I am perfectly willing to posit that I “just didn't get it” … there are several areas of study where I, despite many sorties against their walls over the years, still find largely impenetrable (music theory being one irritatingly notable example), and, of course, what may be one person's perfectly cogent explanation/discussion of some reasonably esoteric subject will sometimes end up being random blah-blah-blah to another's ears/eyes.

The author here is a long-time student of Zen, who has been an ordained Zen priest since 1979, the carrier of the Dharma transmission from his teacher, Katagiri Roshi, for the past quarter century, the founder of Dharma Field in Minneapolis, MN, and has written several books on Buddhism. I don't recall there being any biographical information on his having a background in either science or philosophy … which probably points to one thing that I found difficult with his book … he keeps wrestling with fairly obscure Zen technical points, and then extrapolating them into general philosophical positions, and then using that to combat assorted stances of science … which don't (from where I'm sitting) really need being attacked.

Frankly, much of this book reminds me of a Christian fundamentalist having a reasonably clueless go at some established scientific theory, just because it “doesn't support” his theology/mythology. In this case, most of the time it seems that Hagen is railing against things because they don't conform to, or filter through, some particular Zen/philosophical template. Again, I am willing to cede the concept that I might be simply not able to fully comprehend the finer points of his arguments, but it does remind me of strident types selling other religions who just can't get off their favored doctrine points … which appear, for this author, to be “Paradox and Confusion” as “guardians of Truth”, framed in a context that “Something is tragically wrong with the human world. … we're rushing headlong toward some great calamity ...” and the question: “Why this apparent madness to human life”?.

It might be useful to take a walk through the chapter headings to see the general arc of his argument. The book is in three parts, “Nobody Knows What's Going On”, featuring Belief, Knowledge, Contradiction, and Certitude, “At Ease With Inconceivability”, with Chaos, Consciousness, and Immediacy, and “What Matters” presenting Inertia, Becoming, and Totality, all of which are further subdivided into topical sections. While this looks to be a reasonably coherent movement, I found it very hard to follow, as he would weave in and out of scientific elements with which I was very familiar, some general Zen material that I knew well enough, and even philosophical whirlpools where I could at least track trajectories, but it would always come back to stuff like this:
      There are two aspects of our existence. One is called “this is it” - the this, the “something”, or r aspect. It's here that we exist as separate entities, in a particular place, at a certain time.
      But we must not forget that there is another aspect called “what is it?” - the what, the “nothing”, or i aspect. The two aspects are interrelated and interpenetrated; they are like a seiche, the back-and-forth movement of liquid in a basin. A seiche constantly spills out of itself and its “other”, only to slosh back. The r and i aspects are also like a graded stream, where as soon as something in the system changes, everything else in the system – which involves stars and galaxies, as Bell's Theorem demonstrates – begins to move to counter the effect of the change.
      So, when we ask, “what is it?” we can only point to “here it is”. “This”, is all we can say. It – whatever “it” happens to be – constantly exchanges its identity with every other thing. This is how we live. We live in a Reality that is like music,like a graded stream, or like the sloshing of liquid within a basin. We “exist” not in being but in becoming – and in fading away.
      Within one aspect of our lives – the common, bounded, this aspect – we each have separate identities. But we must also accept that “other” aspect that reveals no boundary. Given this other aspect, each object and each person is intimately connected (indeed, is interidentical) with everything that ever was and ever will be, no matter how distant it appears in space or time.
      Once we realize this other aspect of Reality, we can see that there's something more to human life than mere phenomenal existence. There's something vast, wonderful, and unbounded. There's a deep relationship, a grand symbiosis, and interidentity of the Whole and the part.
Yes, this is a grand sweep of verbiage that basically is working its way back to Tat Tvam Asi, through various strange side streets featuring Bell's Theorem, Schrodinger’s Cat, the Mandelbrot Set, and Nagarjuna's “tetralemma” … unfortunately losing me on the way. While I suspect I might have an idea what he means when he gets to “seeing”, but his “proof”, if you will, by which he arrives there largely escapes me.
Our task is to just see. Our direct experience – i.e., perception itself – is the Undefined that says with unimpeachable authority that all things appear not in being, but in becoming and in fading away.
So, what to say about Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense? … it's a revision of a book that Hagen put out 17 years previously, which he frames as having been detailing elements “about consciousness that science continues to overlook”, one gets the sense that he “reloaded” with more bits of physics and cosmology, and decided to charge the windmills again with this one. While I was fascinated with parts of this, I found it uneven, and frequently (with its r's and i's) beating something dead that I was only able to assume was a horse. You, however, might not have the same perceptions of this that I had, so you might like it better. This has been out for a year, so might be scarce in the stores, and I'm rather surprised that the online new/used guys don't have it at a significant discount at this point. If you're into philosophical rabbit-holing (with a Zen axe to grind), you will no doubt find this engaging, but, to me, it never quite got around to making sense.

Visit the BTRIPP home page!

Tags: book review
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded