Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The "Laws" of Physics

It is interesting to observe that the heavy exchange of comments over Stanley Kutler's Truthdig article, which began with the premise that Congress is "broken," has migrated into some of the finer points of Buddhism. I find myself absorbed in this discussion until I was jolted by a comment by "prgill," which asserted that "trees, rocks, and bouncing balls" all "demonstrate intelligence to the extent that they obey the laws of physics." With my own passion for the accurate use of language, I realized (perhaps for the first time) that the phrase "obey the laws of physics" is a dangerously deceptive barbarism. The actions of bouncing balls (to take the simplest case) are explained by the "laws" (that is the word we must use with caution) of physics; but, once we leave the objective world of science, the concept of obedience entails the taking of motivated actions. Put another way, beyond the confines of the objective world, the concept of motivation shifts from a matter of conformity to one of moral obligation. When one comment about Buddhist principles wrote of verbs without subjects or objects, its author was writing of a world of actions without motives; and this, indeed, is the world of trees and rocks, as well as bouncing balls. Within that world physics can explain the actions of rocks; and, if you subscribe to the premise that all biology can be reduced to physics (a premise that has lately met with some resistance in the scientific community), then the actions of trees can also be explained by physics. Nagarjuna’s Buddhist stance is one of transcending the ego, which entails transcending the need for motive behind action.

Tempting as this may sound, I cannot accept it. I have no problem with the premise that all is illusion. Where I depart from Buddhism is in the belief that the illusion is socially constructed and necessary to the existence of the individual. (If our very existence does not have at least a fragment of necessity to it, why bother with it? As Shaw put it to Tolstoy, even if there were a God who had created us out of some cosmic joke, would we not want to make the joke a good one?) Like it or not, motives are part of our genetic make-up. We can understand them better through meditative practices, such as those of Buddhism; but we cannot transcend them without sacrificing our bodies as well.

Note that none of this contradicts that first "noble truth" of Buddhism. Life is suffering. As a motivated individual, you have a choice: You can try to escape it, or you can try to deal with it. I have considered the former option, but the latter always seems to prevail!

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