When I saw a book called Cosmological Koans mentioned in another book I was reading, there was little doubt in my mind that it would be delivered to me by Amazon before too long. And so it came to pass.
Anthony Aguirre is a Professor of Physics at University of California - Santa Cruz. That is so perfect! I can't imagine a more appropriate place for a koan loving, Buddhism inspired, creative writing physicist than UC Santa Cruz.
(I went to college at San Jose State in the 1960s; Santa Cruz beaches were a favorite spot for LSD trips, along with the mountains separating San Jose from the Pacific coast and Santa Cruz.)
For quite a while I could only read one cosmological koan chapter a day, because each koan stretched my mind so much. Aguirre mixes together science and philosophy in a wholly unique way. It's hard for me to describe this book, other than to say it is like no other.
But when I got to Part 5, "Who Am I? Don't Know!," I found myself in more familiar territory. So I've been reading several cosmological koans a day, eager to get to the final Part 6, "Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form."
Below is a passage from the Time and Free Will cosmological koan. You'll see that Aguirre skillfully keeps the reader off balance, as a physicist Zen master would. Just when you think his train of thought is heading in a certain direction, surprise!, it jumps onto another track.
The two tracks are connected, yet also separate. This makes for provocative reading. Also, frustrating reading, since I have to attend closely to the subtleties of what Aguirre is saying, rather than letting his words wash over me in a free and easy fashion.
I like how Aguirre presents a fresh way of what being in the present is. Basically, there's no such thing. Although in a sense there is. "Now," he says, is the point where uncertainty in the history is the least.
Brilliant. Along with perfectly obvious. Koan on...
Though the state-based and the history-based descriptions can be mathematically translated into each other, they give quite different feelings, and they relate to different aspects of how we experience the world.
The state-based view accords with how we experience the present. The world is some way, which we infer from observations. The world's future is tightly connected to its present configuration in ways that are somewhat but not entirely predictable, and the future's unpredictability leads to feelings of both freedom and frustration.
But the past feels more history based: we look back at how things evolved through time, at full trajectories, at seemingly inescapable chains of cause and effect. We may have uncertainty about the past, but feel that the past itself is certain while our knowledge of it is partial.
We might also think of the future in terms of histories, playing our stories in our minds of how things could go. But we generally believe -- or at least act -- as if we are uncertain of the future because the future itself is uncertain, not just our knowledge of it.
The state-based and history-based perspectives also give very different senses of the uncertainties inherent in the "now."
This uncertainty in the present state gives rise to a sense of "splitting" of the future into many different possibilities: from one uncertain present, many possible futures. Yet from the history-based view, no history starts now; each extends indefinitely forward and back in time.
The uncertainty in the present is just a particular type of uncertainty in the history. "Now" is, in a sense, the point at which our uncertainty in the history is the least, and it is in the space-time locale at which the different possible histories say very similar things about our observable surroundings.
Our present knowledge thus allows us to select a subset of all possible histories that accord with our present view and knowledge of the world. We call this subset selection "learning about the world"; selecting a smaller and smaller subset means that the present state is more and more precisely specified, which in turn means that we attain greater and greater knowledge.
Insofar as the two views can be mathematically related, there is no sense in which one is more "right" than the other. However, insofar as they are views of how the world works, we might be led more, or less, astray.
In particular, we are quite used to thinking of "places" in space, so it is natural to think of "places" in time. And the mathematics of fundamental physics allows us to do this. Yet we also recognize that there are some "things" that have a wholeness that is rather at odds with divvying them up into parts that are here and there.
We recognize that we can't talk about the left-hand side of a thought, or the northern half of a computation, the east end of blueness, or the bottom of a smell.
We also understand that processes unfold in time, and by its very nature a process, which involves time, cannot be happening at an instant any more than an arrow can fly during a moment of zero duration.
Yet we are often tempted to think about things like "your mind now" or "the person up until some point in time." We slice time into past, present, and future as if we might really slice it this way without doing terrible violence; but we can't, any more than we can take a slice out of a person to study the operation of their heart.
If there is no "left side" of a thought, is there really a "beginning" of a thought, or an "end"?
If we don't slice up our minds, if we consider them as just part of a chain of events and outcomes, then look what happens: they become unfettered, extending over great distances in space and time and including books, relations, records, laws, statements, and arguments, as well as neurons.
Much more than they are extended in space, our minds are extended in time, as undivided processes playing out over many timescales. Our mental life is built largely of memory, and we function as intelligences and agents in the world largely through predicting, envisioning, and acting toward the future.
Any amount of introspection will reveal that we tend to spend most of our time in either what was or what might be.
Perhaps we should take this very seriously -- this idea that our very existence is contingent on being extended nonlocally in time. Many of the rather unsettling implications we've explored in Part 5 have hinged on an assumption that there is a state of a mind, a self, a consciousness, as it is right now.
Could there be something fundamentally wrong with this notion that could extricate us from some of those disturbing directions of thought?
This view is slippery, elusive, and beguiling.