Zen and the Art of Global Maintenance

van-gogh-yin-yangA discussion a while back, over a few beers, with a Buddhist friend about life, the universe, and everything (what else?) got around to the subject of null physics and the notion that the universe may always have existed and may exist for eternity to come.

Sciencebase regulars will know that this concept is covered in a rather bizarre book I mentioned a few posts back entitled How to Discover Our Universe. While there is certainly room for improvement in current cosmological models this notion of an always having existed universe is not to everyone’s taste, at least in terms of conventional Western ideals. Indeed, it positively reeks of pseudoscience in the eyes of many of us raised on the conventional cyclic observation-explanation-prediction rote of modern science.

Anyway, it was almost inevitable that a paper with a Zen, or should I say, Daoist, inclination would land in my inbox. And so completing the circle in drops a paper from Philosopher of Science Anthony Alexander. Alexander is currently Director for Studies and Research at a structural engineering, conservation and urban design consultancy that is apparently pioneering sustainability in the built environment. But, that is not the focus of his paper.

He notes that the physics of the 18th century Western world was fundamental in establishing the basic concepts for the study of economics and our understanding of the fledgling Industrial Revolution. However, industry and physics have moved on, not least as a product of the almost exponentially increasing pace of technological change. It is perhaps this seeming progress and our need to consider a passage through time that many people cannot contemplate a universe without a beginning.

But, before you run to the hills or roll into a potential energy well, this post is not about to go all mystical and misty eyed. There are no implications or allusions to an Ayurvedic notion of quantum mechanics. There is no incense burner on my desk. And while there might be a yoga teacher working on my accounts as I type, there is certainly no ambient crystal and phoenix rising yoga therapy session planned for this evening in a padded room with all-natural oxygen bubbling through gently illuminated vials of dihydrogen monoxide.

Anyway, back to Alexander’s technique… He suggests that 18th century physics has been “comprehensively displaced by progress within Western science. The new larger field of understanding encompasses the complex, the chaotic, unpredictable and the fluid aspects of the real world. Unfortunately, the institutions of the modern world, the industries, the money movers, the pen pushers, remain firmly entrenched in a clockwork Newtonian world view whereas science is all about non-linearity of systems, probability of sub-atomics, and duality of energy and matter. This staid view considers the world to be stable and ordered, and human activity to be somehow fundamentally distinct from nature.

While environmentalism and green economics have the grand aims of redressing the balance it is actually globalisation, according to Alexander, that has raised our awareness of other cultures and their disparate world view that could provide us with the means to reconcile the Newtonian industries with modern physics and systems theory.

Alexander turns to one of his leanings – the martial arts – for inspiration as to how this might happen. The martial arts, kung fu, karate, judo, and their Daoist counterparts, invert the logic of Western combat. Training in the kicks, punches and locks of these various martial arts are aimed not at causing pain or injuring one’s training partner but in providing health benefits to both. A Western perspective might see an arm lock as a route to pain, whereas a practitioner of a particular martial art will see it as a way to build muscular stretch, for instance. Alexander sees parallels between this inverted logic of the martial arts not only with the concepts of modern physics but with the green economics.

The status quo of 20th century Western economics [which persists even now] can be challenged by green economics, [but] does not seek harm to anyone or anyone’s interests. It seeks to promote harmony and longevity – values that are at the heart of common sense, sustainable development and [martial arts] culture, which all parties stand to benefit from.

There really is no mysticism here, we are plunging head-first into global environmental crises. Physics underwent a paradigm shift to shake of Newton’s clockwork universe, perhaps, as Alexander suggests, we should work through his analogy and see green economics as the new paradigm for industry across the globe.

Alexander, A. (2008). Different paths, same mountain: Daoism, ecology and the new paradigm of science. International Journal of Green Economics, 2(2), 153. DOI: 10.1504/IJGE.2008.019997

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