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?