Category Archives: Pragmatism

Itsy & The Infinite Web 7: Hands In The Palm Of The Head

The three walked silently down the long reflective hall past many, many indistinguishable doors for what seemed like an overlong time.  Finally one of the doors flew open and out stumbled a giraffe in a long lab coat. He saw them and stopped in his tracks, bewildered.

“Oh!  Hello!  I didn’t know we had visitors.  I’m the division head here. Did you know that six hundred and seventy two orangutans in seven piles would put precisely ninety six apes in each?  I thought you would not. Allow me to show you around or two,” he said, chuckling at his little joke as he continued across the hall to the door opposite the other, which he opened, revealing another giraffe in a lab coat.  “This is my disassociate.”

No I’m not!  I’ve never seen this giraffe before in my life!  This isn’t the time or the place!  I’m not here right now, but you can leave me a message after the beep,” stammered the second giraffe, clearly surprised and upset.

“On second thought,” the division head said, carefully closing the door in the disassociate’s face, “let’s go over here, instead,” and he walked back across the hall to a third door and opened it.

The silence of the hall was filled by a sea of sounds.  The giraffe ushered them into a gigantic factory full of humming and buzzing machines, swarming with attendants in white hazard suits and thick yellow gloves.  They worked away in all shapes and sizes, with little way to distinguish their species. The division head led the tripartite tour group through the room and between the machines, clasping his hooves together as if he had a firm grasp of the situation, and gazing upward from the top of his long neck as if the ceiling held secret answers no one else could see.  He began to lecture the three, presumably to guide the tour.

“Have you ever wondered to yourself: Who are all these fools and jerks?  Where do they find them all?  Is there some sort of competition to be this stupid, or can anybody do it if they know the right people?  Clearly it takes all kinds, and not just the kind kind of kinds.  We know our world is full of fools and jerks, yet many important questions remain unanswered.  Are jerks merely fools of a certain feather? Are fools always fooled by jerks?  Can fools or jerks be contained or counteracted through the proper use of institutions, or is it always a losing battle?  Here at Establishment Labs, we are first and foremost in these fundamental studies.

Sometimes we say things, others agree, we put them in practice, and things work out, but there are also times that all this happens and not a single thing works out, sometimes because of fools, sometimes because of jerks, and sometimes just because.  Then there are times when we say things and nobody agrees, times we can’t do anything right, and times when we say things as if we don’t mean them, sometimes because of fools and jerks, and sometimes just because.  Because of all that, we haven’t completely extracted fools or jerks from anything yet.

We now know, after extensive, objective analysis, that fools and jerks are sub-composed of solids, liquids and gases: food, water and air, irrespectively.  Unfortunately this does nothing to isolate them from or contain them within the general population.  There are even those who theorize that fools and jerks are indistinguishable from ordinary folks like us, but that could mean…” and here he trailed off, bit his lip, and motioned for them to huddle together, his eyes darting nervously around the room, lowering his higher head carefully down to their level.  “We could be surrounded by fools and jerks, right now,” he whispered, “ IN THIS VERY ROOM!

HELLO MARSHMALLOW!” sang Joy to one of the suited attendants, who fell backwards in fear and curled up into a ball on the floor, covering masked head in massive gloves.

“Oh, you don’t want to talk to the hands,” said the division head.  “They aren’t trained to communicate. We carefully breed them to have no life outside the lab.  They live and work in arranged pairs, taking turns working and sleeping. One hand washes the other, feeds the other, sends the other up here to work, and then they rotate.  They don’t interact with others, other than that.  You should really only speak to me, or any of the other division heads.  We divide people and things, and speak for them.”

“Typically, things can’t speak,” said Itsy with a questioning gaze.

“Actually, science, religion, politics, philosophy, history, art and all sorts of things say all sorts of things, but they have to say them through us, the analysts.  We specialize in everything.  We envision how things are, and put the tune to words.”

Itsy & The Infinite Web 4: Too True & The Standing Consensus

Itsy dove over the cliff and down through the fog, into the valley below.  Yet again she saw more, not a pile and two but a circle of four. A small flock of sheep, if four makes a flock, stood out in a field enwrapped in a passionate conversation.  The grass was finely trimmed around them, which was odd as Itsy couldn’t see any trimmers.

“Hello there, small spider!” said the first sheep with a friendly smile.  “We are attempting to form a standing consensus. We’ve never accomplished it, in spite of all our efforts.”

“Of course, we’ve never really tried,” said the second, smugly.

TOO TRUE!” cried the third with unqualified joy.

“We’ve been trying for a long time now,” said the fourth with great frustration, glaring at the second.  The second simply continued to smug, as if he didn’t notice.

Ignoring the others completely, the first continued.  “To form a consistent consensus, we must figure out who is a fool, who is a liar, and exclude them from the group.  Then we will not only possess a consensus, but one that includes neither fools nor liars. That’s very important for a content consensus, no matter the form or content of consent.”

The second scoffed.  “Well, we all know that I could never lie, myself.”

TOO TRUE!” cried the third.

Any of us could be a liar, just as any of us could be a fool,” declared the fourth.  “Perhaps more than one of us, each.”

“Certainly,” agreed the first.  “That sounds civil.”

The second bared his teeth at the fourth.  “ONLY A LIAR WOULD SAY THAT!” he bleated, pulled a pistol from his wool, and shot the fourth dead.  There was swift silence as the first stared in horror and the gunsmoke drifted off into the wind.

TOO TRUE!” cried the third a third time.

The first nervously stared at the perforated fourth.  “Well, I guess he was the liar, and that would make me the fool!  Ha! Heh.” He did a silly little dance as best he could.  “Please don’t shoot me.”

The second raised the gun happily skyward, and put his arm around the third.  “You’re perfectly safe! Just as long as we have our consensus to stand in!”

TOO…” began the third.

“That’s quite enough,” the second interrupted.  “We heard you the first few times.”

Itsy began to slide away.  “Well, I’d better be going again.”

The first looked tearfully at Itsy.  “Oh… Don’t go!  You’ve said nothing so far, which is entirely my fault, and if you stay, I’ll agree with anything you say, I swear!”

“No, I’ve seen this all before, countless times by my count, and I have further fools to find, I fear,” said Itsy over her shoulder as she slid away once again.

The second beamed at Itsy, waving goodbye with the smoking gun.  “Remember, we’ve never really tried!”

“Yes, we’ve all heard you before,” said Itsy.  “It’s an often and popular heard mentality.”

As Itsy left she could hear the second say, “Now look, we three can do this one of two ways.  The easy way is hard, but its over really quick.  The hard way is easy, but it never really ends.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to kill a lot of folks.  Fortunately, none of them will be us.”


The Long Buddha Shortened: The Supreme Net

This is the first in a series of my distillations of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya), the Buddha’s original teachings shortened for easy reading.

In the first of the Long Discourses, the Brahmajala Sutta (The Supreme Net), the Buddha is traveling with 500 monks from town to town, and unwittingly followed by Suppiya, a teacher who criticizes the Buddha, and Brahmadatta, Suppiya’s student who praises the Buddha.  It seems that positive and negative opinions and arguments about the Buddha follow him and his followers wherever they go.  They all stop for a night at a park with shade and water provided by royalty and guarded with  a wall for travelers to rest along their way.  In the morning, followers of the Buddha were talking about how wonderful it is for the Buddha to be aware of the varied opinions that follow him.

The Buddha hears them and says that they should not be angry with anyone who criticizes him, his teachings or his followers, as this will hold them back and prevent them from seeing if the criticism is right or wrong.  Rather, they should explain what is wrong with the criticism.  Similarly, they should not be pleased by those who give praise, as that will also hold them back.  Rather, they should explain what is right with the praise.  The Buddha says that only foolish, worldly people praise him for abandoning violence, sex, lies, entertainment, luxury, property, and servants, for doing the right thing and saying the right thing at the right time and to the right extent.  Only foolish, worldly people criticize his opponents, such as the Hindu Brahmins, for acting in ways that lead to addiction and destruction, speaking about useless things, claiming to know what others do not in debate, running errands for those in power or misleading others with expert advice and fortune telling.  

Rather, there are other things that are hard to see and beyond ordinary thought that the wise can know that do deserve praise.  Neither discipline nor reason can reveal these things.  The particular knowledge that these practices reveal leads to further birth and death, but being unattached to this itself is to know true peace and freedom.  Each time the world is reborn, God (Brahma) becomes lonely and creates the other gods and beings.  Later, those who seek wisdom beyond the home discover that things are impermanent, pleasure is addictive and logical reasoning gives stability to the ideas of the mind, and they split into those who believe that the self and world are permanent and those who do not (“Eternalists and Non-Eternalists”, also the “Infinitists and Finitists”).

Some argue that things are permanent, others that things are impermanent, others that things are both permanent one way but impermanent another, and others that things are neither in any particular way.  (These are the Catuskoti of Nagarjuna.)  Similarly there are those who debate whether we know what is good or bad, those who debate whether or not there is life after death in another world beyond this one, those who debate whether things happen by chance or necessity, and those who debate whether enlightenment and freedom are here now or somewhere else.

These “wriggly eels” on each side evade questions in debate that they can’t answer.  Those who take one side against the other do not see the fear and chaos that makes them and the other cling to one side, nor do they see that clinging to one side will not bring them peace or safety, but merely trap them in a vast, intricate net, like a fish too large to swim between the knots.  When anyone sees what is beyond all these sides, they see what only the wise can see, the supreme net of all possibly viewpoints and the superior victory over all battles.

The Chair in the Other Room: Description & Prescription, Philosophy & Action


Suppose that I tell you, “There is a chair in the other room.”  Is this a description of what already is, or a prescription for what should be done?

I could be telling you to bring the chair here, or to go sit in the other room, or to bring the chair here and sit in it, or to bring the chair here so I can sit in it, or to bring the chair here and leave it empty for someone important, or clean it in the other room to keep an important person happy.  Depending on our understandings, it could be a simple prescription for any of these things without either of us speaking any other words out loud or silently to ourselves in thought.

However, it doesn’t have to be a prescription for immediate action.  I could simply be describing the other room, though it would be odd for me to do this for no understandable purpose, without intending anything be done in the future.  Wittgenstein said that if someone said, “That is certainly a tree,” we could say to a stranger overhearing this, “This person is not insane, but merely engaged in philosophy!”  If you asked me what there is to do right now, and I tell you there’s a chair in the other room, it would be odd for you to say, “Things do temporarily exist, as the Buddha told us thousands of years ago, but philosophically speaking…”  We don’t talk philosophically to do particular things as we’ve already done them, but to think about all the possible ways we could do or change things before or after we’ve done them, including call particular things trees and chairs for particular purposes in particular situations.

Suppose I open a blog post saying “Suppose that I tell you, ‘There’s a chair in the other room.’”  You would hopefully understand that I’m talking philosophically, abstractly in ways about truth and meaning that do apply to life but not in particular immediate ways, but if I told you this as a complete stranger on the bus you would think I’m a strange narcissistic exhibitionist who is wasting your time and everyone else’s showing off, which you may or may not think at this point in the blog post.  Similarly, if I said “There’s a chair in the other room,” to a complete stranger on the bus, it would not be clear at all what I meant.  It wouldn’t even be clear that it was a trustworthy description but without purpose.

We can describe things without prescribing immediate action, much as I could tell you about the chair and mean we could always sit in it next week, but we don’t describe things without any understandable intentions, saying “That is a chair, that is a chair, and that is a table’ to ourselves or anyone else.  We would if truth were more important than meaning.  Truth is centrally important to everything, but without meaning it isn’t important.  We can prescribe things without describing things much at all, as I do when I simply tell you of the chair’s existence and expect you to act, but we can’t prescribe things without informing others about our situation.  If I inarticulately cry out, this informs you in some way about your circumstances even if I’m not intending to describe anything or prescribe action for you.

We can speak more or less descriptively or prescriptively in the same way that we can speak more or less philosophically, more or less abstractly about what to do over all compared to particular commands intertwined with immediate actions.  Reading philosophy online or sitting in a classroom talking about trees, chairs, buses and strangers, none of which concretely exist but rather are entirely imaginary, is an action, but it isn’t much action which allows for much thinking to go on relatively undisturbed by attention to many of the things that surround us.