Sunday, August 8, 2010

Balance and Paradox

Sometimes when people ask me what religion I subscribe to, I tell them I’m a Baladocian.  Primarily I do this because it sounds cool and it gives them something to chew on.  The truth is that I believe that all the major religions are right ... and they’re all wrong.  Heck, that probably applies to most of the minor religions too.  When it comes to Truth, you take it where you can find it, be that the Bible, the Tanakh, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Analects, the Tao Te Ching, Stranger in a Strange Land, or Cat’s Cradle.  The Buddha (supposedly) said:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.  Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.  Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.  But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

and I reckon that pretty much sums up my views on religion, authority figures, and urban legends all in one.

So what is this “baladocian” thing I sometimes go on about?  Well, in actuality it’s less religion than philosophy of life, although I suppose a sufficiently motivated person of evangelical nature could turn it into a religion with enough effort.  (But then that’s true of just about anything.)  But what I mean when I speak about “the Baladox” is that I believe in balance and paradox.  Not just that I believe that they exist, but that I believe everything in life is ruled by those two principles.  That the world is not black and white, but that sometimes it is gray, and sometimes it is both black and white and the same time.  And, recursively, sometimes it’s sort of halfway between gray and both black and white at the same time, and then sometimes it’s black and white and gray, all at once.

That’s the short version that I sometimes give people when they ask.  But, really, it’s sort of useless.  Oh, it sounds vaguely “deep,” but what does it really tell you?  Not much.  So let me see if I can explain it a bit more understandably.

Balance is a curious thing.  If I tell you that there is no black and white, no pure good or pure evil, neither pure enlightenment nor pure ignorance, you will likely give me an insulted look.  “Of course,” you might say.  “Everyone knows that.”  I think the majority of people accept that there is a place between extremes, and it’s the place where the vast majority of us live ... at least in theory.  But the problem is, even though we think we believe it, we don’t.  And we don’t because we’re totally screwed up by Aristotle.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Aristotle was a really bright guy.  He profoundly influenced our ways of thinking, and mostly for the better.  But he wasn’t always right.  For instance, he thought there were four elements (okay, five, if you count “aether,” whatever that was supposed to be).  And today we know about the periodic table.  How about if I ask you how many senses you have?  Did you say “five”?  Do you have any idea why you said “five”?  You guessed it: because Aristotle told you so.  And was he right?  No, he was not.  Don’t believe me?  Go look it up.  I’ll wait.

See?  All this time, you’ve firmly believed in something that wasn’t true just because “it is spoken and rumored by many”: “merely on the authority of your teachers and elders,” we might say.  And now you know better.  Probably won’t stop you from referring to “sixth senses” and whatnot, but at least, intellectually, you know.  It’ll worm its way down into your hindbrain at some point.

Now I’m going to ask you how many “truth values” there are.  Go ahead, look at me like I’m stupid.  “Two: true and false.”  I’m sure that’s your answer.  Now, riddle me this, Batman: how you can say you believe in shades of gray when you believe that everything—every single statement in all of human history—can be categorized as either “true” or “false”?  Anything that’s not “true” is necessarily “false,” and anything that’s not “false” is necessarily “true.”  This is what Aristotle has bequeathed us.  You—most of us—believe in a two-valued, mutually exclusive view of the universe.  Everything you’ve ever been taught, in other words, tells you that balance (and paradox, for that matter) is all hooey.  So we pay our lip service to balance—we talk a good game—but, when it comes down to it, we don’t really believe.

But, you know, there’s a reason why we all claim to believe in the “shades of gray” theory, a reason why this meme has persisted to the point of cliché.  It’s because our experience of the universe is in direct contrast with what we “know.”  We know that light and dark are never absolute: there are an infinite number of shades in between.  We know that things don’t have to be either “hot” or “cold”: they can be lukewarm, cool, temperate, warm, chilly, freezing, or scalding.  We know that in between black and white reside not only gray but in fact the entirety of our visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.  The universe pushes us over and over to forget this whole silly zero vs one idea.  Computers may be binary, but real life ain’t.

Which is not to say that “true” and “false” aren’t useful concepts.  I am a programmer, after all: boolean logic is one of my most well-worn tools.  I just tend to view them along the same lines as “infinity” or “the square root of negative one”—extremely useful abstractions that quite possibly don’t have any concrete representation in the physical world.  The trick is not to get too caught up in these abstract mathematical concepts.  Use them when you need them, but don’t let them run your life.  And, if you really think about it—like, think about it deeply and profoundly sometime—you probably are letting the concept of truth and falsehood run your life.

Now, if the concept of “balance” is contrary to what you think you know, the concept of “paradox” is much worse.  After all, paradox is that thing in time-travel stories that’s always destroying the spacetime continuum.  Paradoxes are impossible ... by definition.  Aren’t they?  Well, if you look up “paradox” on, you’ll see that three of the four definitions are not impossible at all.  My favorite is the first (a.k.a. “most preferred”) one:

a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

Yes, that’s right: a paradox is a possible truth.  Which you already knew, if you’d have thought about it.  If you are a Christian, you are a monotheist who worships a trinity: that’s pretty paradoxical.  If you prefer science to religion, then you are forced to confront the idea that light is (paradoxically) both a wave and a particle simultaneously.  And if you are a human being with any depth of emotional experience whatsoever, then you’ll know exactly what I mean when I refer to a “love/hate relationship.”  The truth of the matter is, we’re surrounded by paradox every day, in all areas of our life, but we try to ignore it, because it makes us uncomfortable.

And when we can’t ignore it, we try to explain it away.  How many of you, when I talked about love/hate relationships, immediately discounted that as not paradoxical at all?  Perhaps you said, “no, no, that’s when you love someone sometimes, and hate them other times, but not both at the same time.”  Perhaps that made you feel better about the whole thing.  But you’re just fooling yourself.  It certainly is possible to feel like you’d lay down your life to protect someone at the same time you’re fervently fantasizing about wringing their little necks, and most of us have felt it.  Hell, if you’re a parent, you probably feel it most every day.  So forget all the hand-waving.  Just embrace the paradox, I say.

So when I say I believe in balance and paradox, I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy.  For all the above reasons, it is in fact damned hard.  But you can do it if you try.  You can learn to reject the concept of extremes.  You can learn to be okay with feeling two contradictory things at once.  You can learn to stay in the middle and ride both ends at the same time.

This turns out to be far less useful as a general theory than in specific application.  I do believe in almost all things in moderation—excess and abstinence both being extremes—but really this philosophy is primarily useful as a backdrop, something you have lounging comfortably in the background of your life, waiting for you to wrangle with a particular question.  Here’s a simple one: astrology.  Astrology, of course, is complete hogwash.  Also, I know that I’m a Scorpio and a Horse, both of which mean that I’m a hard worker who can become passionate about topics I believe in, and I can’t argue with accuracy like that.  People sometimes ask me if I actually believe in astrology.  Of course I don’t.  Of course I do.  Also, I like my astrology in moderation: I know my signs, and those of my friends and family, but I don’t read daily horoscopes, or invest in star charts ... that would be silly.

I’m not sure that understanding this about me is going to make much sense on its own.  But it certainly makes understanding my views on reality vs. perception, or parenting, or quotes, or other things (including the third sentence of this very post) easier.  Or at least less nonsensical.  I hope.  Your mileage may vary.

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