Monday, June 4, 2007


Okay, xkcd is an awesome webcomic about, as it says, “romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Actually, science should be thrown in there somewhere too. But the “Powers of One PastedGraphic3-2007-06-4-10-57.png” strip is particularly awesome. As with several webcomics, there’s a little additional joke in the tooltip (mouseover) text, and in this case, it’s cooler than the actual strip. See the strip to understand what’s going on, but I’m adopting the tooltip joke as a new quote: “It’s kinda Zen when you think about it, if you don’t think too hard.”

That so sums up much of Zen-type stuff for me. That’s how I believe a lot of Zenlike stuff (I’m not really dissing Zen itself here; Zen philosophy is too complex for the kind of light treatment I’m giving here. So let’s say this applies to some actual Zen stuff and a lot of pop Zen, or Zen-like, stuff) is. It sounds all cool and spooky and paradoxical until you actually examine it closely enough to understand it. For instance, I got an email from a friend today that said, “My father's mother once said ‘I'm not a feminist. I'm not particularly feminine’ and she was both right and wrong.” Now, I’m not poking fun at the author of this email; she knew exactly what she meant, and so did I. But this is the sort of quote that could be interpreted all Zen-ly: oooh, something’s both right and wrong at the same time, there’s no absolute truth, we’ve just got to go with the flow and take a lot of drugs (or meditation, or whatever) so we can try to grasp, non-intellectually, the ultimate, seemingly contradictory Truths of the Universe.

Poppycock. For someone with an intellectual, scientific mindset, this is a simple problem (and I realize I didn’t choose a particularly difficult example; if someone has a better one on tap, I’d gladly use it). Either this was intended to mean “she was both right and wrong at the same time and in the same way,” in which case it’s utterly contradictory, therefore it was nonsensical, therefore there was no meaning in the statement whatsoever; or it meant “she was right in at least one way and wrong in at least one other way,” in which case it makes perfect sense, but isn’t creepy or mystical or contradictory in any way, it’s just couched in a shorter, more-interesting-sounding way (this is precisely how it was intended to be understood in this case, by the way).

Again, I realize I used a simple, almost straw-man example, but I really view a lot (if not all) of the seemingly-contradictory, mystical statements of the Zen-loving crowd this way: either they’re actual contradictions, in which case they’re both meaningless and utterly useless, or they’re not, and a little analysis will uncover what’s actually going on, thus removing the spooky mysticism from the situation. Yes, sure, this removes a little of the mystery from the Universe, but isn’t the point of mysteries that it’s fun to try to solve them? There’s plenty more mysteries in the Universe to uncover, and meanwhile, you’ve increased your understanding of the world, which in my mind is more important than maintaining unnecessary mysteries.