“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.