How I Read: the Jointed Robot Metaphor

“All living beings, whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they are aware or unaware, whether they are not aware or not unaware, all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death. And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.” The Diamond Sutra

What do you do when you read a passage like this?

If you’re not a Buddhist, does it read like nonsense?

Does it seem intuitively true or deep right away?

What I see when I read this is a lot of uncertainty.  What is a living being that does not have form?  What is Nirvana anyway, and could there be a meaning of it that’s not obviously incompatible with the laws of physics?  And what’s up with saying that everyone has been liberated and nobody has been liberated?

Highly metaphorical, associative ideas, the kind you see in poetry or religious texts or Continental philosophy, require a different kind of perception than you use for logical arguments or proofs.

The concept of steelmanning is relevant here. When you strawman an argument, you refute the weakest possible version; when you steelman an argument, you engage with the strongest possible version.   Strawmanning impoverishes your intellectual life. It does you no favors to spend your time making fun of idiots.  Steelmanning gives you a way to test your opinions against the best possible counterarguments, and a real possibility of changing your mind; all learning happens at the boundaries, and steelmanning puts you in contact with a boundary.

A piece of poetic language isn’t an argument, exactly, but you can do something like steelmanning here as well.

When I read something like the Diamond Sutra, my mental model is something like a robot or machine with a bunch of joints.

Each sentence or idea could mean a lot of different things. It’s like a segment with a ball-and-socket joint and some degrees of freedom.  Put in another idea from the text and you add another piece of the robot, with its own degrees of freedom, but there’s a constraint now, based on the relationship of those ideas to each other.  (For example: I don’t know what the authors mean by the word “form”, but I can assume they’re using it consistently from one chapter to another.)  And my own prior knowledge and past experiences also constrain things: if I want the Diamond Sutra to click into the machine called “Sarah’s beliefs,” it has to be compatible with materialism (or at least represent some kind of subjective mental phenomenon encoded in our brains, which are made of cells and atoms.)

If I read the whole thing and wiggle the joints around, sooner or later I’ll either get a sense of “yep, that works, I found an interpretation I can use” when things click into place, or “nope, that’s not actually consistent/meaningful” when I get some kind of contradiction.

I picture each segment of the machine as having a continuous range of motion. But the set of globally stable configurations of the whole machine is discrete. They click into place, or jam.

You can think of this with energy landscape or simulated-annealing metaphors. Or you can think of it with moduli space metaphors.

This gives me a way to think about mystical or hand-wavy notions that’s not just free-association or “it could mean anything”, which don’t give me enough structure.  There is structure, even when we’re talking about mysticism; concepts have relationships to other concepts, and some ways of fitting them together are kludgey while others are harmonious.

It can be useful to entertain ideas, to work out their consequences, before you accept or reject them.

And not just ideas. When I go to engage in a group activity like CFAR, the cognitive-science-based self-improvement workshop where I spent this weekend, I naturally fall into the state of provisionally accepting the frame of that group.  For the moment, I assumed that their techniques would work, engaged energetically with the exercises, and I’m waiting to evaluate the results objectively until after I’ve tried them.  My “machine” hasn’t clicked completely yet — there are still some parts of the curriculum I haven’t grokked or fit into place, and I obviously don’t know about the long-term effects on my life.  But I’m going to be wiggling the joints in the back of my mind until it does click or jam.  People who went into the workshop with a conventionally “skeptical” attitude, or who went in with something like an assumption that it could only mean one thing, tended to think they’d already seen the curriculum and it was mundane.

I’m not trying to argue for credulousness.  It’s more like a kind of radical doubt: being aware there are many possible meanings or models and that you may not have pinned down “the” single correct one yet.

22 thoughts on “How I Read: the Jointed Robot Metaphor

  1. Yes!!!

    I’ve thought of my thinking in terms of swarm intelligence algorithms (although I think I would do well to explore the idea further), but I’m having trouble groking the moduli space metaphor. I’d be very excited to read more about that, although as a non-mathematician, it might be the case that an unfeasible amount of explaining would be required.

  2. They should also give up our conceptions of as separate, independent things and merit. How must I understand a universal self, but nevertheless take it to happen? A pure faith and knowledge do not independently exist.

  3. This can also be useful even reading things that aren’t metaphorical and associative, just due to people using words differently or making different background assumptions.

  4. My steelman interpretations of the passage (which might be inaccurate):

    “All living beings, whether born from eggs, from the womb,”

    The other classes of beings described might make more sense if the word “living” is replaced with “sentient,” or possibly “animated.”

    “from moisture, or spontaneously;”

    Context: folk biological notions of vitalism or spontaneous generation, where the inference is made that living things can emerge from non-living things, which is somewhat reasonable (albeit incorrect, with the exception of evolutionary abiogenesis) given observations of phenomena such as when insects coming out of food, or moths from cloth, etc.

    “whether they have form or do not have form;”

    Context: the inference that minds can exist separately from particular bodies, which is somewhat reasonable (albeit incorrect) given observations of dreams that don’t correspond to physical reality, and in which people (even the deceased) can appear independently of their bodies.

    “whether they are aware or unaware,”

    I’m not sure the sense in which awareness is used here. It could be a distinction of states of consciousness among people, or non-human animals, or perhaps even plants or non-biological entities.

    “whether they are not aware or not unaware,”

    This seems to relate to the (IMO highly useful) Buddhist idea that all categories are limited in their coherence/applicability (i.e., relative truths), and so there can be senses in which a category both applies to something and other senses in which it does not apply. This also ties into notions of “emptiness” (i.e., absolute truth) in which all things have limited stability/coherence, such that the things themselves fail to fully correspond to any particular categorization, and so have a kind of irreducible ambiguity.

    “all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana, the final ending of the cycle of birth and death.”

    A simple understanding of Nirvana is the state of being permanently free from suffering. There are multiple senses in which this is the end of a “cycle of birth and death.” More specifically, in the Buddhist view, everything that exists changes, and in this sense is constantly “dying” and being “reborn.” With respect to sentient beings, there are several senses in which this is cyclic. On a macro-level, this involves a cosmology/psychology where there are several different ways of existing in the world, described in terms of different realms where beings experience varying conditions of suffering, or non-suffering that necessarily returns to suffering due to it having particular conditions that must change with time/circumstance.
    A potential liberation from this situation comes stopping the cycles of the micro-level, which involve patterns of attachment to things which can involve limited satisfaction when desires are fulfilled, but which necessarily leads to suffering as changing conditions lead to unfulfilled desires. But by adjusting one’s perspective on the world and relationship to desire, it is thought that a different kind of state can be achieved where one is “liberated” from the cycles of suffering. There are different approaches to these things, but the perspective-shift often comes through a deep understanding of “emptiness,” which often comes through a deconstruction process where concreteness-undermining/ambiguity-creating gestalt-shifts are achieved either via eliminative reductionism (i.e., there are no wholes, but only parts), eliminative holism (i.e., there are no things, but only inseparable systems of relations), emphasis on dynamism (i.e., Heraclitus’ river), or some combination. And in the Zen tradition they may bypass all of this by breaking the mind of logical/conceptual/”dualistic”-thinking via intense meditation or contemplation of koans (i.e., descriptions that create logical impasses, while at the same time highlighting principles of emptiness).

    “And when this unfathomable, infinite number of living beings have all been liberated, in truth not even a single being has actually been liberated.”

    I can see two ways of understanding this: From the Buddha’s-eye-view, in which the world is viewed without attachment, all things are already without suffering (for the Buddha) even in the midst of suffering being experienced from the limited perspective of individual minds. From the Buddha’s-eye-view, in which the world is viewed “non dualistically”, it no longer makes sense to distinguish between liberated and non-liberated beings.

    I think the passage could be (non-losslessly) summarized as follows:
    “All minds without exception will eventually be liberated from suffering by adopting a non-differentiating perspective from which suffering does not arise, nor perceived.”

    In either the original passage or my paraphrase, an uncharitable perspective would view this as being a case of obfuscation and mystery-mongering via a series of conceptual bait-and-switches and quasi-tautological hidden premises.

    Alternatively, it can be viewed as a highly compressed message that provides different means of interpreting the world, which have limited ability and uselessness, as is the case with all models.

  5. I used a pretty approximate approach on the passage. First section got parsed as “enthusiastic variation, details not necessary for me”. Last sentence got parsed as “may have interesting ideas about what liberation means, await further information”.

    On the first pass, I missed “all living beings will eventually be led by me to the final Nirvana,the final ending of the cycle of birth and death”, which seems rather arrogant, even in addition to the detail that most beings would apparently rather be alive. Is the speaker supposed to be Buddha? Could anyone get bacteria to be enlightened? Insects? How would you do that? Oh, well, it’s probably supposed to be a thought experiment rather than a serious proposal.

    I’m not a Buddhist, but I’ve done some meditating, and I’ve read some memoirs by meditators, and my impression is that the Diamond Sutra is a respected text, so the passage may have some meaningful content.

  6. I majored in philosophy in college, in a department split about evenly (read: there were two professors) between analytic and continental. This division was present with about the same ratio in the majors; I was, I think, the furthest out on the continental end (to the point of raising what may be a decisive objection to Rawls’ theory of justice, which was something no other student would go anywhere near), and I frequently wound up in arguments over style with the guy who was furthest out on the analytic end.

    Just as continental and analytic philosophy have very different subject matter, with analytic philosophy confining itself mostly to the method of analysis and to questions a continental would likely see as pointless and continental philosophy tending toward the sort of political near-mysticism that the French have been so often attacked for, they have very different styles. Analytic philosophy proceeds logically, beginning with whatever it takes as its foundation and pointing out every step from there (or, as some continentals have put it, suffering from math envy); continental philosophy is more inclined toward the style of Nietzsche — or of Derrida, who never could resist the opportunity for a pun. Sometimes, as with Nick Land’s academic work, it can get even denser, even more obscure; but it’s usually explained elsewhere. (As with Land’s recent post on hyperstition, or the wise instruction for students attempting to understand Foucault to never go anywhere near anything else of his before tackling his lectures.)

    And the conclusion that I came to was that the analytic guy didn’t know how to read continental philosophy. Not only that: the department didn’t teach it. It was just assumed that, if you take freshmen fresh out of high school, beat them over the head with enough five-page snippets from Plato, Descartes, and Kant, and then fling Beyond Good and Evil at their heads, they’ll pick it up by osmosis.

    I had the advantage of having read a good deal of Carlyle, one of the least stylistically English writers in the Anglosphere, before declaring my major — and picking up his books with enough recommendations and enough motivation to seriously try to learn to read him. The way Carlyle’s books taught me to read wound up generalizing, after enough practice. And that way is pretty much what’s described here.

    • (As often happens to me, I didn’t realize this until right after I hit post, but when I say “pretty mcuh what’s described here”, I mean right down to the detail of thinking of it as a machine. There are other analogies, though, that probably developed from the specific context of the department: where analytics write math proofs, continentals write things with similar structures to paintings. The whole exists, and can be understood, but each sentence, each chapter, often even each book is only a set of brush-strokes, and the reader must stack them up mentally in order to form the whole. Of course, that sort of stasis is a vast oversimplification that ignores the real and frequent phenomenon of change over time — but you can’t get into that until you’ve gone through the process.)

  7. I think most of the first part of the sentence is political/contextual throat-clearing: a list of theories of origination, metaphysics, mind and logic that are likely (in the time, place and context of the work) to distract the reader from the actual thesis. Somewhat analogous to saying “Let G be a finite Lie group”, so someone doesn’t spend half the lecture raising counterexamples over SL(n,C) or whatever. In the context of your robot metaphor, this pins down some of the biggest moving parts, so as to concentrate better on the complicated fiddly bits.

    I think, though, that classical Buddhist works are actually a lot closer to analytic philosophy than Continental. Continental seems to me closer to the classical Chinese mode typified by Zhuangzi–presenting not *the* Dao but *a* dao, not a logical argument but a sketch of a point of view. I wrote a bit about that mode in Part of the difference may just be that Dharmic philosophy had a theory of logic much more like the Western mode.

    • Just started reading the stuff. Zhuangzi is…weirdly compelling, especially to my burned-out cynic mode, but I have been Warned Sternly about the dangers of Daoism, so I’m suspending judgment.
      I really like your translation of choice.

  8. How much did the person who warned you sternly know? Did they have any particular kind of Daoist mysticism in mind? Could it have been political? Daoism tends toward anarchism.

    B. K. Frantzis (who seems to be a more important person than I realized) is emphatic about recommending only putting in 70% effort, as a way of getting progress without injury or burnout.

    • I don’t know about the specific variety. Don’t think it was political. (I have no problem at all with anarchism.)

      I think the problem was with some antinomian stuff, and I agree with the heuristic “if it looks like ‘black magic’, if it’s super dark and creepy and makes you feel like you’re losing your mind, trust your instincts and stop.” But to be fair, Zhuangzi doesn’t sound especially like that.

      • What I meant by “political” is that there’s prejudice against Daoism for political reasons. I can see antinomialism as a problem, though I don’t get the impression that Daoists are worse-behaved than other people. Other religions seem to generate more scandals, for what little that’s worth.

        Thanks for the post– I hadn’t realized how casual my reading is compared to what’s possible.

      • Probably a good idea to dissolve “Daoist” at this point. Daoist religion and Zhuangism don’t have much in common except some foundational texts. Kind of like conflating Aristotlelianism with Catholicism.

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