Breaking and Fixing

We have examined a variety of ways to describe the world and discussed the problems that prevent a precise fit between world and description. Given the boundless ingenuity and passion of humanity, one can reasonably anticipate that every problem that arises will eventually be repaired. The difficulty seems to be that every repair introduces additional complexity and abstraction into the description, introducing new and even more difficult problems. It's like the mythological hydra, where seven new heads grow in place of every head one chops off. Must new problems always arise, or might there be an end to the process, at which point a perfect description will have been reached?

It appears impossible, even absurd, to construct a proof that problems must always arise for any description. Any such proof would rely on some description for its terms, axioms, and inferences. The ultimate validity of the proof would depend on the ultimate validity of the underlying description. But the proposition to be proved is that no such ultimately valid description is possible! This is remarkably close to Goedel's proposition, which he constructed to demonstrate that there are true propositions of arithmetic that cannot be proved. To the extent that any correct description of the world must inevitably incorporate arithmetic, and to the extent that Goedel's incompleteness theorem indicates an inevitable flaw in any theory of arithmetic, we can construct an argument that any description of the world can fit only imprecisely. But the dynamics of problems and patches continues in the contemporary debates on the philosophy of mathematics and competing interpretations of Goedel's theorem. It is enough for our purposes to note that in the realm of mathematics, the debates continue: the descriptions proposed in the last round had their problems discovered; it seems overly optimistic to suppose that the current round of patches will finally resolve all problems.

This dynamic structure of problems and patches seems to be fundamental. One party insists that truth exists and advocates law and order to respect that truth. The other party points out the contrived nature of the proposed law and order and proposes free and creative improvisation in its place. These are the extreme positions of eternalism and nihilism, of objectivism and relativism. The objectivist holds that when you push an investigation far enough, in the end you get down to solid fixed reality, the ultimate cold hard facts of the matter. The relativist holds that when you push an investigation far enough, in the end you get to a set of arbitrary free choices which could just as well have been chosen otherwise.

Buddhism resolves the dispute with a Middle Way. No matter how far you push an investigation, you can always push it further. At each stage of investigation one is confronted with some set of phenomena that are discovered to underlie more superficial appearances. But these phenomena themselves can be investigated in turn, uncovering yet deeper structures, patterns, and interconnections.

Aristotle traced the causal chain back to a starting point, back to the prime mover. The Christian tradition mapped the prime mover onto God. Buddhism is atheistic, in contrast. There is no prime mover. The causal chain can be traced back ever more deeply in beginningless time.

This is the deep truth of Buddhism, emptiness and interdependence as two ways to say the same thing. Phenomena are never ultimate, neither in the eternalist objectivist version of fixed absolute forms, nor in the nihilist relativist version of freely chosen forms. Whatever phenomena arise, those phenomena are always subject to further investigation which would reveal those phenomena to be emergent patterns dependent on a network of relationships with various other supporting or underlying phenomena. This is the endless dynamic of the problems and patches of descriptions. A description records uninvestigated arising phenomena. Further investigation reveals problems that inevitably plague any such description. Patches fix the problems by rewriting the description in terms of deeper, underlying phenomena.

The Seventeenth Century founders of the modern scientific tradition were deeply religious Christian thinkers. They viewed their study of nature as a reading of a second Bible revealed by God, the Book of Nature. Their faith in the existence of an ultimately valid description was a part of their faith in God. Modern science, to the extent that it retains this faith in ultimately valid description, is thus a Christian science, or at least adheres to the family of the monotheistic Religions of the Book, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Given such a religious foundation for science, the possibility of an alternative science, a science with a different metaphysical foundation, becomes more clear.