Monday, July 31, 2006

More on karma

So what am I saying here? I'm saying that we, as humans, see patterns in our experience. We see repetitions of patterns which, for whatever reason, we tend to think of as having a cause or basis which exists in its own right, of its own accord. We think of this independent existence as an underlying core which structures the patterns of our experience by which we come to know it. I'm saying that the search for this underlying core, and the attempt to define it, and even "get in touch with it", once and for all, has largely been the goal of philosophy, science and religion.

So I'm saying, What if there is no underlying core? What if I give up on this reductionist urge? Well, there are still patterns to my experience. This doesn't make them fundamental or anything because "fundamental" is what I've given up on. But these patterns are my life and my reality, and I think they are reality enough. For the most part these patterns are consistent and expected. At times these patterns have changed dramatically and in unexpected ways. On a few occasions these patterns have almost completely dissipated. It was when these familiar, consistent patterns were almost entirely absent from my awareness that I first became convinced of their status as patterns, without any underlying core.

So do I think that the world is an illusion? No. I think it is best not to think of the world as an illusion, you will almost certainly get seriously hurt thinking that way. It is best, in my opinion, to think of the world in some way which does not contradict everyday experience. The idea that the world has an underlying core which determines its structure seems to me, from a historical perspective, to defy experience, or at least it seems dispensable. We have moved from one 'underlying core' to the next. From Plato's world of Eidos to the scientists constructing theoretical vibrating strings beyond the boundaries of observation, through to the mystics finding oneness beyond the boundaries of everyday perception and intelligibility, one underlying core steps up to replace the last. It seems there is always another way of reducing the world to one thing or another.

So I have said that, for example, the self is not so much this or that but this, that and anything else that is compelling enough to warrant continued focus. The cause of an event is not this or that, but those conditions which draw their salience from a given context of inquiry. I have said that if one is to adopt a model of the world, as it seems one must, then one of interdependent conditions is the least likely to admit of the reduction which I'm trying to avoid. So instead of reductionist inquiry, I advocate relational inquiry: an inquiry which seeks to sketch varying models of salient relations which enable us to understand and predict experience within multiple contexts. I have therefore advocated the application of the Buddhist notion of karma by which certain active values of the past can be thought of as constraining the emergence and evolution of active values in the future. For the reason already stated, I don't think karma is the fundamental process of the world. I do think one can gain multiple, instructive perspectives on most events by considering them within a karmic model of recurring value patterns. By creating, highlighting and promoting those values now which we want to see propagate and evolve in the future we may become active participants in the karmic process with which we understand the world.

As an inappropriately brief but pertinent example, if one thinks of the current Middle East crisis in these terms you can build various models of relations at work which can be seen to fuel the conflict in mutually dependent ways. There is the immediate salient condition of the conflict which is the capture of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah fuelled by their valuing destabilisation by provocation and maintenance of Israeli fear and unease. There is the recurrence of Israel valuing its unconditional right to defend itself by any means necessary. These two opposing values are largely dependent on each other. In the larger context of history there is the recurring Jewish value of the right to occupy the stretch of land presently defined as Israel. There is the recurring Arabic value of the resistance of the right of Jews to occupy said land. In a larger political context there is the recurring American and British value of the need to support western democracy at all costs in the Middle East. There is the recurring American and British value of resisting Iranian development of nuclear capability. In a religious context there is the recurring Judaist value of the right of Jews to occupy said land. There is the recurring Shi'a Muslim value of the desire to bring about a Shi'a majority in Lebanon. There is the recurring Judao-Christian value of resisting a dar al-Islam. There is the recurring Jewish value of feeling unjustifiably reviled throughout history.... I could go on but you can begin to see the complexity of values and dependent relations which one can discern in this present conflict, the great tragedy of which is that all of these related values appear to be stronger than the value given to a child's life. Any viable, multilateral solution to the crisis must spend some time with a variety of relational models to determine which values can be engaged and/or disengaged in order for the situation to progress to something better. The search for an unequivocal and underlying core to the problem is not the right approach, in my opinion.

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