Zen in the Western Mind


"The belief that the universe is rational, lawful...is even meaningless if the laws are as complicated as our observations, since the laws are then no simpler than the world they are supposed to explain." - Gregory Chaitin


Zen is considered by most to be some magical, mysterious philosophy decipherable only to the eastern mind. This might be true; mostly because certain philosophical schools of a reductionist nature have come to dominate in a west schooled in Divisi et Imporum. We must rule, and be ruled. Our minds, for the most part, cannot even understand a liberationist philosophy.

What is Zen? The acolyte may receive a thwak from the teachers cane in answer, and reams have been written on the subject. But I will give it away in a simple paragraph. The word zen is derived from dhyana, which in Vedanta and early Buddhism was both the practice of meditation, and the unity experienced in the meditative state of pure observation. Picking up a Taoist emphasis on Unity as the practice and philosphy travelled through China and on to Japan, 'Dhyana' evolved into 'Zen'. Zen exhorts one to realize Unity through direct experience. Quiet the mind and simply observe. Hence all the mind numbing paradoxes of the Zen Koan and various riddles. They are meant to show one that it can't be figured out: so stop trying to figure it out and just watch. Experience directly.

There is, however, in the western philisophical tradition a history of inspiring unity from paradox. And it is about as old as Buddhism.

Zeno of Elea, just after 500 b.c., produced famously intransigent paradoxes - a cursory search of the lanl.arxiv referencing Zeno generates a host of contemporary math and physics papers inspired by or addressing the impossible indivisibility of things. Although an innovative Australian has argued that perhaps that space and objects are indeed divisible: but time is not! (interestingly expressive of my own experience)

Starting with Aristotle paradox was banished to the back burner in favor of certainty- a policy wholeheartedly embraced with the rise to dominance of the church.

It took a Jewish mystic to once again teach the paradox of Unity in the west. Baruch Spinoza had to flee Portugal for the more tolerant Netherlands, and was then ostracised by the Dutch Jewish communtiy, who did not appreciate his liberationist theology. Spinoza's Ethics most clearly argued his philosophy: God is the only thing that exists. It is almost pure Advaita Vedanta.

Leibniz's almost contempory Monadologie is more logical and less mystical than Spinoza, but just as paradoxical and just as holistic. In Leibniz's ontology the properties of the monad are: eternal, irreducible, individual, acausal, independent, and each a microcosm the entire universe. The logic strongly forshadows contemporary Quantum Mechanics. Leibniz divined this philosophy specifically to transcend both Spinoza's Holism and Descartes' Dualism! A true polymath, Leibniz is perhaps the broadest contributor to the philosophical and scientific foundations of the modern world: whom because of his antithetical philosophy no one studies.

Thus awakened the esoteric philosophical stream allowing mysticism rather than certainty;complexity rather than simplicity. Such research continued and expanded through Kant, GAuss, and Mach; and on to Poincare, Bolzano, Brentano, and contemporary philosophy. Coninental philosophy went on to a rich development while Anglo-American philosophy continues to struggle with REductionism - it is even called Analytic Philosophy. To analyze is to take apart.

Ironically it is right about the time that Continental and Analytic philosophies split that the paradox once again came to a central position in philosophy. Bertrand Russell, the quintessential anti-authoritarian and pacifist, championed a host of Zeno like paradoxes to bludgeon the certitude of reductionist systems.

Next came Alonzo Church and Alfred Turing, directly challenging the reducibility of experience through logical paradoxes. The most well known contemporary Zeno is of course Kurt Goedel.

Goedel's towering achievement was to rigorously and conclusively prove that no system is both complete and consistent- that is to say any system is inherently irreducible.

The latest, greatest challenge to the reductionist program comes from Gregory Chaitin, and ties it all together. Chaitin works with complexity theory, information theory, and logic. While Goedel has proved that some statements in a system are arbitrary, Chaitin seems to show that any statement in a system is essentially arbitrary! Chaitin's work essentially knocks the foundation out from any attempt at modeling experience - which is what Zen is telling us. It cannot be modeled!

Check it out:


Dualism has been called the disease of the WEstern Mind...and looking at how we manage the world that much is obvious. But with a resurgence in various disciplines of complexity and holism tying it all back together, maybe there is hope.