You Do the Math (or Not)

emerald: As Above So BelowGetting the giggles about the collision between two emails this morning: one, from webwizard Seth Godin, saying that what we do, in life/business/culture is not math (simple on/off duality), and the other, from a long-ago meditation teacher, pointing out that we live too much from the wrong-headed math of surface interpretation.

When I read the Godin not-math email, my old life as a “policy analyst” roared up in memory – a life in which the only official justification for any choice was the numbers involved. In graduate statistics, the professor’s opening words were “This class should be called ‘How to Lie with Numbers,’” since numbers are frequently misused to solidify an argument. He hoped to hone our insight about what was legitimate or faulty when people started slinging data around. A major bugaboo to watch for, in assessing other people’s math, was whether they were failing to mention Other Factors influencing a situation. The same principles apply, I think, to situations people claim are simple and obvious (“You do the math”), when the truth is much more subtle and convoluted.

Enthralled for those decades with “proving” things, I fell in love with complexity science. I felt its power to include thousands of factors interacting with and influencing one another, revealing amazing arrays of life as “complex adaptive systems,” with a sense that they reflect higher-order truth (beyond linearity). In more-general education, it’s been heartening to read new curricula in “critical thinking,” with their questions about “other factors” that may be at work in a situation. It doesn’t take a trained scientist/philosopher/statistician to discern gaps in claims or conclusions of causation, whether in mechanical engineering or mystical pursuits. But even the Santa Fe Institute itself, global HQ of complexity science, now has artists in residence, expanding the scientists’ decision-making into a more intuitive format; reportedly, when the writers and other artists interact with the scientists, re-activating their natural sensitivity to the deeper mysteries, somehow solutions to tortuous scientific problems arise. Yes, there are different “modes of knowing,” from sensory to logical to intuitive and transcendent insight – and how wonderful it is when they interact. Only some of them can be measured.

The question of how we know what we think we know is not new. The crow-coconut story, for example, highlighted in this morning’s meditation email, has been told in India for thousands of years. A guy sits under a palm tree. A crow lights on a nearby branch. Immediately, a coconut drops. The guy’s mind leaps to causation (instinctively trying to discern how things work, to escape the terrifying helplessness of chaos). Could’ve been coincidence.

If there’s any loss in trying to say what causes what, it might be in drawing a wrong conclusion – since infinite variables have gone into the crow’s flight and into the fall of the coconut – or it might be a waste of time, if nothing valuable depends on the answer. Full “knowing” may be beyond human capacity. (Was it not the crow that made the coconut drop, but a gust of wind that moved both crow and coconut? What is the guy’s/listener’s history with [bias about] crows? With coconuts? What’s at stake, in the answers – for the guy, all crows in the neighborhood, and the coconut crop?) There are so many variables, especially when invisible forces are considered; “Correlation does not imply causation” has become the accepted shorthand for this complex challenge. And fixating on it, at a lower mental level, can yank consciousness out of the Now, where the higher/deeper/truer “answers” live.

But claims are made every day, everywhere, about the power of this or that X to cause this or that Y. They offer explanatory power, whether true or not, plus a temptation to try to sway others with bogus conclusions about how things work (and thus what needs to be done, to solve this or that problem). Some earlier larger variables may be driving them both. Or not. Someone seized with certainty about a cause may be insulted by implications that their “knowledge” is incomplete, their claim invalid or only partial, whether the insult comes from the fact that they are carrying out sincere best-guesses based on limited information, or have been charged (by ego or agenda) to rack up defensible data in support of predetermined or desired outcomes. (Parallels in philosophical and spiritual pursuits, with or without numbers, are obvious.)

My wish for myself, for the world, is an optimal blend of humility and enthusiasm – awe at Nature’s intricacy, joy in the impulse to explore and comprehend what we can, and patient grace in our mutual inability to convey anything ultimate in numbers (or words). The ultimate is the space between. With this expansive appreciation of the illimitable depth and breadth of every aspect of our lives, we have a better chance, I think, to be in creative, compassionate, honest communion with each other. Thus concludes today’s note, decorated with an emerald tablet.

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