Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Menu is Not the Meal

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. The usual hipster suspects, of course, like This American Life, but also some ones you might not expect. I'm a big fan of the Joe Rogan podcast, because he's into MMA, which I have discovered I really dig. Aside from his emphasis on all things punchy and kicky, he is also a perpetrator and aficionado of high weirdness. He recently had Dennis Mckenna on his show to talk about the Mayan apocalypse and all that nonsense (or "fuckery" as he likes to say). Dennis is brother to the more infamous Terrence Mckenna, who was rather instrumental in the popularization of psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms and DMT in the 90's. If you went to a rave circa 1993, you heard his voice, booming at you over the speakers, explaining (and possibly inducing an experience of) the fractal nature of the universe.

the sun is also a star, as it turns out

Now, the brothers Mckenna are/were a delightful bunch (Terrence passed on to the Great Glowstick in the sky in 2000, alas). They had an interesting theory, which ended up popularizing the Mayan nonsense, in that they believed that the end of the Mayan calendar corresponded with a calendar they had discovered in the I Ching. This, bolstered with some prophesies they overheard/created while under the influence of catastrophic amounts of magic mushrooms... well, you get the idea. Long story short, they had some trippy experiences in a Mexican jungle back in the seventies, and spent the next several years trying to justify, corroborate, and generally make sense of what happened. Terrence, in an effort to explain to himself what happened to his brain, came up with a lot of weird math that he believed tied all these disparate elements together.

This fascinated Joe Rogan. On an earlier podcast, he'd discussed his fascination with the Fibonacci Sequence, which is set of numbers which outlines proportions that seem to govern much of what we consider healthy and beautiful in nature - the ways that leaves grow, the proportions of beautiful faces, the curve of a nautilus shell. He actually said something at this point, however, that struck me, and stuck in my craw, as it were. He said something to the effect that he was amazed that somewhere, there was a mathematical formula that ruled these things. The implication was that the math made the proportions happen, that somehow, these formulas were operating and creating these organizations of matter.

This may be a bit of science heresy, but I really don't believe that idea.

I think what we're dealing with here is a type of confusion very familiar to anyone who has worked with the more popularized forms of Buddhism expounded by Alan Watts. Watts has a way of compressing very complicated ideas into easy to remember slogans, and this has always been one of my favorites. In one of his most famous phrases he said, "The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal." He was talking about the confusion between our ideas of the things themselves; between the words we use for things, and the things themselves. Humans have a tendency towards this kind of category confusion. It's magic thinking, believing an equivalency exists between the words we say, the maps we create, and the world around us. There is an equivalency of a kind, and, in magick, it's a very useful belief system that can produce occasionally surprising and instructive results. For the most part, however, it's a one way street.

How does this relate to the Fibonacci Sequence? Well, the numbers describe a relationship in matter, they may even predict certain behaviors. But never, in no way, can a formula be said to be real.  Matter is the primary thing, and our experience thereof, and the numbers are a descriptive tool: useful, but having no existence in and of themselves.

When we confuse these categories, we get weirdness like people wondering if the world is going to end based on calendars and math. We also get weirdness like people believing that the formulas that we use to describe the universe (great though they are) are more real than the stuff they are meant to describe.

The takeaway (also known as tl/dr): the world is real. Don't confuse formulas (or any other prophesies) for reality. I'll talk about why I think so in subsequent posts. Have a great week!

update: some other thoughts on this subject (admittedly involving morphogenic fields and other fuckery that I'm not so sure about, can be found in an interview with Rupert Sheldrake on the very fine Disinfo podcast.

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