Sunday, March 29, 2015

Science, Buddhism and Causality

Kurt Lewin was brilliant to distinguish systematic from historical causality. When people think of causality today, most of the time they are thinking of cause and effect within some artificial, abstract reference system. That's because their education trained them to think within these reference systems. They work like transparent maps that are superimposed onto perceived phenomena that structure the otherwise chaotic experience below. Those reference systems in modern, scientific terms most commonly share one important property: they reside within Gaussian space with its independent-event models. Within this type of thinking, cause is always linked to an effect, most commonly within a dimensional reference frame.  If a projectile travels in your general direction with a certain speed, you can calculate the time until impact. You're hit because a projectile travels toward you. Even if there are exceptions, the Gaussian assumption guarantees the explanation to hold true for at least a significant amount of cases. What is significant, then, goes by consensus. (Lewin, 1936, ch. 5)

When reading and thinking about classical Ionian and Buddhist philosophies, systematic causality is not very helpful. It is tied into our modern, scientific thinking whose models were not established yet. Apart from "everyday" causality, i.e. that which is apparent to our rudimentary thinking, ancient causal chains were free from the predictive notion of effect. They were retrospective, explanatory models of phenomena that emerge upon each other, where the subsequent phenomenon may arise on these causes non-predictably, but it may not arise without these causes. Probabilities, equal and other distributions were not "scientifically" available yet.

So cause in this sense is retrospective: It is not possible that the latter may be there without the former. Thus, the chain of dependent-origination as translated by Walshe (1987) must be understood in that particular epistemology:

  • Aging and death may not be there without Birth.
  • Birth may not be there without a concept of Becoming (something).
  • Becoming may not be there without a concept of Clinging (to the concept that is the target of Becoming).
  • Clinging may not be there without a concept of Craving (the desire to experience the target of craving).
  • Craving may not be there without Feeling (sensual experience conditions desirable and non-desirable concepts)
  • Feeling may not be there without Contact
  • Contact may not be there without the Six Sense Bases (that which smell, taste, touch, sound, feeling and thought emerge from)
  • The Six Sense-Bases may not be there without Mind-and-Body (the biology and the emerging phenomenon of a mind)
  • Mind-and-Body would not exist without consciousness (there was nothing that could take notice of it as Mind-and-Body)
  • Consciousness would not exist if there were no Karma-formations (a cosmic momentum that drives the evolutionary and autopoietic processes and produces awareness, being conscious of being conscious)
  • Karma-formations were not possible without Ignorance (the illusion that phenomena are something special that need conscious recognition and appraisal; Walshe, 1987, p. 34)

So this causal chain is a cognitive rather than an ontological one, from an introspective first person perspective that does not assume any outside phenomena that exist apart from consciousness thereof. From today's perspective this chain is not deterministic. Only because there is craving, there must not be clinging. Each stage is constructed on the prior one. So this model of the world is perceptional, not a cosmology. This is understandable, as it serves the purpose to deal with and rearrange internal, perceptional phenomena of the mind. Buddha aims at the deconstruction of mental phenomena in the sense of Derrida, who stated that there is no thing outside of context, "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (Derrida, 1967, p. 219). All things reside within the the perceptional context of the now. Thus, deconstruction aims at the above-described schemata that are superimposed on the perception of what we project as "outside" world. John Locke distinguishes these two modes of perception as sensation (direct perception) and reflection (internal perception of thoughts; Locke, 1690, Book II, ch. I-5).

Thus reflection is the target of the chain of deconstruction that is done by bracketing mental constructions to understand their nature and thus transcend them. Buddha  explains these stages to his disciple Ananda in the Mahâparinibbâna Sutta that describes Buddha's last days:

  1. Realize, that everyday consciousness produces internal perception of external forms that are limited and judged beuatiful or ugly.
  2. Realize that there is judged internal perception of external forms, but the external forms are really unlimited.
  3. Giving up internal forms, one sees external forms that still appear to be limited and judged.
  4. Giving up notions of limitation, one realizes that external phenomena are not limited but everything is expresison of one context, however there is still judgment of the perception. This stage creates the awarenes of an observer of observation.
  5. -7. When the perception of forms are given up there is still the perception of colours that makes a difference (blue, yellow and red).
     8.  One transcends the perception of colors and realizes everthing is light ("white")

Thus, the final realization is one of a blank slate of light, the consciousness where every phenomenon appears in (Walshe, 1987, pp. 248-249). As with the above causal chains: Every realization is only possible if the stage before has been established as a foundation where further realization may form upon. Thus, an early notion of causality is explanatory, retrospective and non-empirical. Modern notions of cause and effect are limited to homogenistic, hierarchical and independent-event epistemologies. The early chains of causation were describing complex effects that are heterogenous and reside outside of these models. Maybe the drive to judge and model arises from a preference of many people for predictability over ambiguity. However, it is the chaos and ambiguity that brought them forward in the first place. Pondering this predictability, many people are concerned with next lives, past lives and afterlife. So from a perceptional point of view Buddha is not wrong when he emphasizes that this mental deconstruction is good for people in "all of their lives". Very likely concepts of past and subsequent lifes will fade once this deconstruction has been made. Of course, there is a human tendency to reintroduce them at any time.


Derrida, J. (1967). De la grammatologie. Prais, FR: Minuit.

Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Locke, J. (1690). An essay concerning humane understanding, Volume 1 MDCXC. London: Eliz. Holt.

Walshe, M. (1987). The long discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Four Definitions of Agile

According to Maruyama (1980), human thinking progresses in four roughly generalizable categories, in this particular order: hierarchical, independent-event, homeostatic and morphogenetic. These epistemologies can be roughly mapped to an understanding of oneself and one's environment as has been done in the Cynefin model. Chaotic environments call for morphogenesis, complex environments go along with maintaining homeostasis, in complicated envirnoments independent-event models can be drawn, and in simple environments hierarchical models prevail. Thus, although hierarchical thinking is at the beginning of understanding, it may only be applied to those environments where simple understanding has been established. Each of these four epistemologies has its own definition and understanding of the concept agile, expressed in its respective cognitive context:

1. Hierarchical: Agility is seen in terms of non-looped control theory where steering is possible. Agility, from the point of view of the person who steers, is seen in the ease of the steering process. The prevailing metaphor is the military. Steering is simplified, if the underlying ressources are more tightly coupled with the one who steers and at the same time follow his commands in an easier fashion, so the helmsman can produce his own result more effortlessly. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Subordinates follow commands with less resistance.
    • Subordinates work faster.
    • Reprioritization can be done as seen fit.
    • New jobs can be thrown in at any time.
    • Status can be obtained at any time and flows back from self-driven systems whenever it is needed.
    • Subordinates read the wishes from their superior's lips.

2. Independent-Event: Agility is compared to viscosity in an equally distributed environment. Being agile in this epistemology means to show a tendency towards the mean, thus a lack of agility is blamed on people's insising to be different or unique. The prevailing metaphor is the steam engine. High potential translates to high velocity, thus agility has to do with speed. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • The Gaussian end-tails of anything eliminate themselves and magically revert to the mean.
    • People who deviate from the norm work their ass off to conform to standard.
    • Self-optimizing process frameworks excel, delivering high gloss auto-documentation to those who are in authority.
    • Everybody concentrates on what is most important in a joint effort at any time.
    • The output of the engine is always routed into the most important task that is defined by management.
    • If a subject needs to be penetrated, its viscosity becomes liquid, and if energies need to be concentrated, they become hard like a crystal.
    • High potential translates to high velocity, just as the steam engine does.
    • There is no environment, our model simply has a couple of blind spots left.
    • Everything leaves without traces left behind.

3. Homeostatic: Agility is seen as the capability to maintain an equilibrium. Those who are agile can perform the necessary actions so they can never be thrown off balance, no matter what influences from the environment are hitting on them. The prevailing metaphors are organisms. Thus, agility is rated in terms of survival of the individual, its immunity, which enables conservative strategies. Stable trends emerge as eigen-values. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Redundancies magically eradicate any malfunction.
    • Subsystems function so robust and self-repairing they are virtually unbreakable, and rendundancies are available wherever that is not possible.
    • Any environmental perturbation will immediately be compensated and equilibrium regained.
    • Maintaining an equilibrial steady-state is the highest ideal.
    • Everything immediately drifts towards an organic optimum. 
    • People work like organs: Internally with perfect cohesion, externally with seamless collaboration.
    • Cells that die are instantly replaced (apoptosis and regrowth).
    • Heroes never fail.
    • To direct all the organism, a small group of highly intelligent, exceptional managers orchestrate these organs. A notion of agility is felt, if the organism as a whole complies to the managers' intended strategy.

4. Morphogenetic: Agility is seen as the ability to change and adapt, along with a shift from "agility as velocity" to "agility as rapid learning". Change and failure are necessary for learning. Change and deviation create the necessary variations upon which new possibilities emerge. Learning means to find out which alternatives are able to survive, on a cultural rather than individual perspective. Thus change and deviations are cherished, and failure marks the necessary boundary of that which works. If that what does not work has been eliminated, whatever is left does work and its combinations yield the material for subsequent attempts. Processes are usually combinations of closed and open causal-loops. Trends form as non-equilibrial steady-states that are stable for a certain span of time and subsequently may fundamentally rearrange. Particularly, this understanding of agile includes:
    • Change is cherished, as it creates opportunities.
    • Failure is necessary, as it constantly re-evaluates the boundary of that which does work.
    • Heroes fail more often than everybody else, but get back up one more time than they fail.
    • More learning steps in a shorter time guarantee survival.
    • Constant communication of individual players is necessary.
    • Teams form temporary as topics dictate the need.
    • Everybody can orient themselves in an automagical way.
    • Every contribution is equally valued, cherished and important.
    • Things and issues inherently manage themselves.
    • There is no directive, command, control, restraining process or organistic pressure to comply.
    • What are managers?
    • A harmony of diversity flourishes in the Garden of Eden.

Apparently, in any particular organization, there will be people of all these epistemologies. Their mutual definitions of agile vastly differ. The more pressure one exerts on one particular organization, the more a regression towards the hierarchial end can be expected, as it is the easiest available strategy of thinking. Maintaining morphogenetic strategies even in times of high strain is a skill that has to be trained. It does not come natural for human instincts that are biologically rooted in anxiety driven fight or flight reflexes. Mindfulness meditation may help develop the mind to be able to keep one's composure even in highly turbulent and volatile environments, to be able to see clearly through the fog.

Live long and prosper


Maruyama, M. (1980). Mindscapes and science theories. Current Anthropology, 21(5), 589- 608.