virus: Science, Zen and Wittgenstein

David McFadzean (
Sat, 06 Jan 1996 15:41:25 -0700

I have some more to say about zen but I should preface my remarks by
confessing my exposure to zen philosophy is limited to skimming a few
books my former roommate bought as required reading for an introductory
university course, so I am quite willing to be corrected on these issues.

A far as I understand, a Zen Buddhist would agree with these statements:
To truly understand reality you can't attach words to things and
analyze those concepts. You have to experience reality as it is,
any attempt to formulate theories is a step in the wrong direction.
In other words to seek enlightenment, don't think, be. [1]

I think what they are getting at, and many people are fond of pointing
this out, the map should not be confused with the territory. If reality
is the territory, then theories are indeed the map and I agree that they
are different. Where I disagree with the proponents of Zen is I think
the maps are the key to understanding, not the barrier. I claim that
the very definition of understanding is the possession of a conceptual
model that shares a homologous form with the object of understanding.

The term "homologous form" comes from Wittgenstein and he uses the
metaphor of music to explain it. Imagine a tape, CD and record all
recorded with the same symphony. The physical patterns that encode
the information are quite different for each medium: magnetic patterns
on the tape, reflective bits on the CD and variegated grooves in the
vinyl on the record, but what they share, what makes them all
recordings of the same musical piece, is homologous form with the
music [2]. The odd thing is that there is no way to show the music
in and of itself. The best you can do is another representation
that shares homologous form with the music. Wittgenstein used this
analogy to show that there is no way to show a thought, but I
believe it can be generalized to reality.

Science is in the business of creating models that share homologous
form with objective reality. None are perfect, but that's OK because
a perfect theory would be as complex as reality itself and maps just
aren't very useful if the scale is 1 to 1. Fortunately [3] it seems we
are discovering unexplored territories as fast as we are developing
theories so science forges on with no end in sight.

[1] Does this mean a dog has the Buddha nature after all? :-)

[2] I believe the same is true of memes and human brains. Though two
human brains don't encode information as differently as a tape and
a CD, they are more different than two CDs.

[3] Fortunately for those of use who like exploration as much as knowledge.
Wouldn't it be terrible to be omniscient?

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Merak Projects Ltd.