The Middle Way

An old ex-girlfriend of mine unfriended me on Facebook partly (supposedly) due to my use of the term ‘Zen-like’ to describe fly fishing.  Of course, I know quite well what Zen really is (technically it is a version of Buddhism dating from the 7th century AD that emphasizes experiential learning over the theoretical) and I continue to maintain that fly fishing is very Zen-like.  While I am not a Zen practitioner – nor am I Buddhist – my personal spiritual philosophy, rooted in a combination of modern druidry and unitarian universalism, shares much in common with it.  As with Zen, my spiritual philosophy has come from experiencing and observing and my work in physics and mathematics has done much to further that.  Thus it would be wrong to say my spirituality informs my science and more accurate to say my science informs my spirituality.

One of the most enduring themes that I have ‘experientially’ discovered over the years has been the ubiquity of balance and symmetry in everything from particle physics to economics to human relations.  Whether or not there are scientific reasons for this, it seems to be an undeniable aspect of nearly everything.  As an example that is not necessarily related to science, consider the functioning of any bureaucratic organization such as a government.  There are essentially two extremes: a very hierarchical autocracy on the one hand and a direct democracy on the other.  As a libertarian I obviously favor democracy, but, as Fareed Zakaria describes it, democracy can be ‘messy.’  Because you have so many voices that must be heard and so much consensus that needs to be built to get anything done, it often seems like it takes forever to accomplish anything and progress is often slow.  On the other hand, things can take forever in autocracies as well, but for different reasons – too many requests clog the narrow information pipeline leading to the top.

Physics is much the same.  It is both a way of thinking as well as a way of doing.  Doing it well requires one to strike that delicate balance between the two.  On a more general level, the world has seemingly devolved in the past decade into fights between extremes over everything from religion to health care.  While this can give the illusion of being a balance, it is an unstable one.  To use an analogy from physics, imagine a realistic (i.e. not frictionless) teeter-totter with weights balancing on either side.  If the weights are further to toward the ends, it is tougher to balance because a small amount of added weight to either side produces a large torque that could easily overcome any resistance in the rotation bearing.  On the other hand, if the weights are closer to the center, it’s slightly more tolerant of a slight imbalance in weight since the torque is lower.

In other words, the world has devolved into a teeter-totter with the weights shoved out to the ends – lots of torque.  Slight differences make for large imbalances.  What we need is a middle way.  We need a middle way in almost everything we do, from indulging our vices (chocolate!) to running our countries to caring for our bodies to protecting people but also their rights.  Politically, this is not necessarily the same thing as traditional centrism, i.e. dilution via compromise.  Neither is it the unstable state of ‘maximum torque’ we seem to be in presently.  It is something new entirely – a new way of thinking.  It’s scrapping old ideas in favor of new and untested ones that better blend the best of all sides of an issue.  But it also means recognizing and acknowledging evident truths and, occasionally, admitting we are wrong.  Otherwise, sooner or later, the teeter-totter is simply going to break, and then what?


5 Responses to “The Middle Way”

  1. Great post! The issue of balance and disruption is an interesting topic that reaches deep into most aspects of reality.

    I like to see the picture in terms of complexity and self-organization. There are systems (for example bio-physical systems such as the human brain or social systems such as an ant colony, or for instance a scientific community) that although vary in scope and complexity share some underlying properties.

    They are made up of highly networked components which interact non-linearly together to produce emergent behavior which cannot be explained solely in terms of its parts.

    They also co-evolve with their environment and they self-organize by internal feedback mechanisms. for example, the brain receives sensory input from its environment which it differentiates from noise if it can interpret that data by matching it with its previously held stock of knowledge and concepts. This interpretation is a top-down process from established knowledge authenticating new data so as to maintain the integrity of the system.

    But there also is the bottom-up process where new data is ‘introjected’ in the system creating a temporal system crisis or imbalance where the system has to change its structures to accommodate the new data.

    This happens in all types of self-organizing systems. Look at the growth of science and scientific theorizing. It is a social system made up of a community of scientists who share a more or less loose set of values and a general paradigm. when a new hypothesis challenges the current scientific paradigm, the whole establishment becomes under threat. It either discards the new hypothesis and keeps its structural identity or it breaks down and changes completely so as to accommodate the new theory. This is what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution.

    Systems evolve only through this constant and mutual cycle of self-perpetuation and change through crisis at the same time.

  2. quantummoxie Says:


    Great comments! I have been thinking a lot lately (largely due to a book I’m reading) of science itself in this context. On the one hand, science likes to represent itself as a conveyor of ‘truth’ in some sense – scientific facts that are (somewhat?) immutable. On the other hand, science, in the words of Mike Fortun and Herb Bernstein, is ‘muddled’ and by it’s own seemingly paradoxical (to outsiders, anyway) rules assumes that the best scientific theories are ones that have the ability to be falsified. So, in essence, science seeks that middle way – that balance between certitude and advancement of knowledge.

    In relation to that, complexity is a simultaneously fascinating and irksome field. How do biological systems get built up from seemingly simple physical ones? How can we scale up quantum effects and produce something macroscopic? In other words, how does complexity emerge from simplicity?

    I have read Kuhn and the book I just mentioned a moment ago is ‘Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the 21st Century’ by the aforementioned Fortun and Bernstein. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as anti-Kuhnian, but it does make you realize that paradigm shifts only seem sudden in retrospect. It echoes many of the sentiments that you expressed in your comments.

  3. I don’t understand quantummoxie. You’re ex girlfriend defriended you because she was offended at your use of the word Zen in describing fly fishing (i.e. Zen should only be used to describe Zen religion?) Or because she’s not Zen and was offended that you might consider something you do Zen?

  4. quantummoxie Says:

    I believe the correct term, according to the Facebook intelligentsia, is ‘unfriended.’ 🙂 Anyway, she is supposedly a Buddhist and assumed that, because I referred to fly fishing as ‘Zen-like,’ I really didn’t know what ‘Zen’ was. I suspect there was more to it than that, but that was what I gleaned from her status update just before she unfriended me.

  5. When you realize that nothing in the real world is 100% good or 100% bad, then you can begin to see that “Reality is Between the Dualities”. This is my reinterpretation of Buddha’s Middle Way.
    I asked a physicist if an electron was 100% positive, as electrons are in the real world. His reply was no, if you take Time into consideration. So even an electron is between the dualities.
    In your teeter-totter analogy, you said that people have pushed the weights to the ends. This is similar to dualistic thinking, with the ends being the left-right, conservative-liberal. “Reality is between the Dualities” means that there is no left-right, conservative-liberal, up-down, in the real world. Reality (the real world) is between the opposites. Once people become aware (enlightened) to that fact, then movement (change) is much easier and enjoyable.
    If you apply that to your “friend”, everyone in the world is between being a friend-unfriend.
    In terms of zen, one master said, “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born”. The purpose is to get people out of dualistic thinking, thinking in a box, everyday thinking, monkey mind… to become enlightened to the real world around us.

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