Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Two Cats, Two Kō'ans

So you're familiar with Schrödinger's cat, right?  In brief, Schrödinger uses a cat to illustrate a bizarre reality that quantum mechanics points to.  He places the cat in a box-like trunk with a vile of poison that is connected to a timer.  Once the timer runs out of time, the vile is shattered and the cat will die.  He closes the lid of the trunk and starts the timer.  Here's the thing: the amount of time on the timer is determined randomly by a computer and nobody, including Schrödinger knows what it is.  It could be 1 second or it could be 100 years.

With the lid closed and with no clue how much time is on the timer, there is no way to know whether the cat is dead or alive inside the trunk.  According to quantum mechanics, however, the question of the cat's state—alive or dead (mutually exclusive states, mind you)—is not a valid question, the situation is indeterminate until an observation is made.  While the trunk remains closed and we remain outside speculating and placing bets, the cat is not alive.  It is not dead.  It is not both alive and dead.  It is not neither alive nor dead. This four-fold indeterminacy is the case, is the fact of the matter according to quantum mechanics, up until such a time that an observation is made.  Making an observation forces the state of the cat to resolve itself into one of the two mutually exclusive conditions.  Then and only then is the cat found to be either alive or dead.  As long as the box remains closed, however, the cat is literally not alive, not dead, not both, and not neither.

Thus quantum mechanics provides an actual answer to the age-old question: if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to witness it, does it make a sound?  The answer from the perspective of QM?  Your question is bogus.  Until there is an observation there is no sound.  But that is not because sound is only sound if someone hears it.  Instead that is because, until an observation is made, the forest, the tree, the falling, and the physical properties of all of these (such as sounds) are all in an indeterminate state as long as there has been no observation.  The fallen tree does not exist.  It does not not-exist.  It does not both exist and not-exist.  It does not not-exist and does not not-not-exist.

I think that Schrödinger's cat makes a fine Zen kō'an.

Today I read these fascinating kō’ans in Jin Y. Park’s book Buddhism and Postmodernity.  The first one also involves the tragic fate of a cat [translation modified slightly for effect]:

Nanquan saw monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said, “If you can give me an answer, one genuine truth, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it.” No one answered. Without hesitating, Nanquan cut the cat in two.

In my mind, this kō’an is fascinating for myriad reasons.  But there's two in particular that caught my attention: (1) the violence to the cat and (2) the use of and impact of indirect discourse (assuming that the monks have just received an extraordinary teaching). The two, of course, are intertwined.

Here’s my take on the kō'an:

1. By virtue of the force with which they were employing words, it was clear that each side in the argument believed their words were right and true. Further, since the words of the opposing contingent of monks were spoken in opposition, each side was asserting the additional belief in a dualistic truth and falsity that these words were vehicles for. Yet when called to give a truly correct or right word, they both failed. When the stakes were minimal, they bought into the veracity of their own conceptions with gusto and quarreled, creating a problem. When the stakes were high (and only so as a consequence of the situation the monks themselves created), their conceptions and verbalizations thereof were completely impotent.

2. Each had mistaken the presence of the cat as a source of suffering, as a source of angst, as the source of a problem. In fact, each of the monks themselves were sources of a faux misery blown out of proportion and treated as though “part of the world.” They had been affecting distress with each other over the cat. When the cat, a source of possible joy and a proper object of compassion, is killed they are exposed to genuine misery, to real distress. By inadvertently killing the cat and by seeing the cat killed, the monks experience true distress.

Interestingly, a different source gives an extended version whereby a monk named Zhaozhou returns to the monastery shortly after the cat is killed. When he returns Nanquan recounts the incident. When Nanquan gets to the part where he himself gives the monks the ultimatum, where he says, “If you can give me an answer, one genuine truth, you will save the cat...” Zhaozhou immediately takes off one of his grass-made sandals and puts it on top of his head and walks away. Nanquan sighs to himself, “ah... if you’d been here you would have saved the cat.”

This seems to support my hypothesis. In response to the teaching that was making use of indirect discourse to convey its message Zhaozhou offers indirect discourse as a means of providing a viable answer without falling into the trap set by Nanquan:

3. The master, having asked for even one genuinely true word or genuinely correct statement, had asked for the impossible. Truth is not conveyed by language which necessarily operates by virtue of treating as identical that which is clearly singular. But even some sort of statement such as, “master, genuine truth cannot be conveyed by words,” would not have saved the cat. For that assertion too is so much language drawing on a mammoth epistemological framework for its coherence and cogency. What would’ve saved the cat would’ve been a response that, while not invoking language, nevertheless carried with it the force of the inadequacy of language to convey genuine truths. Zhaozhou’s response was just such a response.

4. In thinking about this kō’an, it strikes me that the power of indirect discourse is in what it illuminates, highlights, conveys, exposes, and ‘opens up’ by way of the choices and exclusions that it makes and in the communicative forms that it attempts and resists. A similar such ko’an is one wherein a master replies to a question with a forceful yet indirect answer [modified slightly for effect]:

A monk asks Zhaozhou: “Ten thousand things return to one. To where does this one thing return?”
Zhaozhou replies: “When I stayed in Qinzhou, I washed my robes, which when wet weighed seven pounds.”

The monk in this case seems to be asking about ultimate reality. This kind of metaphysical speculation is a snare. So the much more enlightened Zhaozhou embarrasses the monk’s investment in this kind of question by offering as an answer, as a legitimate answer and not a redirect or distraction or irrationalist response, an account of an everyday experience he had in a specific location at a specific time. This strikes me as potent indirect discourse and an incredible lesson in ethical praxis. What do you think? And what about the poor cat?!?

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