I just finished reading Chuck Klosterman’s new book But What If We’re Wrong?.
Klosterman isn’t a Buddhist. If I were to ever be in a position to give him advice, my first suggestion would be to stay as far away as possible from Buddhism.
That’s because what he writes is often very close to the Buddhist point of view. If he ever did get into a form of Buddhism that wasn’t totally corrupted by religiousity or drowning in academic stuffiness, he might find it very appealing. And if he ever started writing about Buddhism his book sales would sink to the level of mine, and he’d have to go back to writing for the Akron Beacon Journal.
In Buddhist terms, Klosterman’s new book explores what the contemporary Korean Buddhist teacher Seung Sahn called, “don’t know mind.”
Here’s his publisher’s the description of the book, “But What If We’re Wrong? visualizes the contemporary world as it will appear to those who’ll perceive it as the distant past. Chuck Klosterman asks questions that are profound in their simplicity: How certain are we about our understanding of gravity? How certain are we about our understanding of time? What will be the defining memory of rock music, five hundred years from today? How seriously should we view the content of our dreams? How seriously should we view the content of television? Are all sports destined for extinction? Is it possible that the greatest artist of our era is currently unknown (or—weirder still—widely known, but entirely disrespected)? Is it possible that we ‘overrate’ democracy? And perhaps most disturbing, is it possible that we’ve reached the end of knowledge?”
Klosterman brings a penetrating questioning attitude to things most of us take for granted as simple facts. One of my favorite parts happens near the end of the book. I don’t know if a “spoiler alert” is necessary for a book like this. But if you absolutely need to be surprised by the ending of any book you read, skip the next few paragraphs.
He goes on a little tangent in the final chapter about new studies regarding the intelligence of octopuses. I know “octopuses” must now be a legit word because my spell-check function did not try to correct that spelling.
Since the 1950s scientific researchers have been discovering that octopuses are way smarter than anyone ever dared to believe. These findings are only just now starting to reach the public at large.
Klosterman uses this to launch into a consideration of whether we are really able to measure the relative intelligence of other animals except by comparing their intelligence to ours. But perhaps other animals are more intelligent in areas that we humans are pretty stupid at. There’s evidence, for example, that some animals are more emotionally intelligent than we are. There might be other ways to be intelligent than the ones we’re used to.
I found this interesting because it started me into thinking that maybe there are other ways of learning than we’re used to, too.
To take an example related to animal intelligence, I can recall a moment around 15 years ago when I was sitting on a park bench in Tokyo eating my lunch. I was watching some crows strutting around the park looking for food. Suddenly I noticed that the very same intelligence that looked at the world through my eyes also looked at the world through the eyes of those crows.
It’s very difficult to write a good, watertight, rational kind of explanation for why I knew this to be true. It’s so unlike the way most human beings have been learning things about the world for the past few thousand years that it sounds kind of dopey. It even sounds dopey to me and I know it to be true.
This insight seems to be connected to my Zen practice, but it’s difficult to say just how. None of my teachers ever told me anything like this. It’s not part of Buddhist doctrine. At least not as such. But if I go back and read some of the older Buddhist writers with that insight in mind, some of the stranger things they said start to make a lot more sense.
It’s not just crows. That same intelligence looks out of the eyes of octopuses too. And out of the eyes of pigs. And, weirdly, out of the eyes of Donald Trump and his supporters and of climate change deniers and Klansmen. Which is why I’m not very forgiving of that kind of willful ignorance.
And it looks out of whatever trees use to sense their world. And out of whatever viruses and atoms and quarks and leptons use to… to do whatever those things do.
Intelligence isn’t a function of the brain. It isn’t contained there. The complexity of a creature’s brain doesn’t determine its intelligence.
It does determine how that creature is able to use its intelligence and what it can focus its intelligence on and to what degree it can maintain that focus. So there are huge differences between creatures (and non-creatures). As Klosterman says, even with this new knowledge about animal intelligence we’ll never elect a cat as president (though we may elect Donald Trump, which is arguably worse). Even so, it changes things when you notice this.
But that’s knowing.
What Klosterman’s book is mostly about is unknowing. Even if Klosterman himself doesn’t know this. And it doesn’t really matter whether he does or not.
We can learn from history that lots of things people used to believe in the past have been shown to have been totally wrong. It’s reasonable to conclude that lots of things we “know” now will be proven wrong in the future. We have no way of reliably guessing which of the things you and I believe today will seem stupid 200 years from now. But we can reliably guess that we’ll look like idiots for believing at least some of the things we now take for granted.
Knowledge is always provisional. It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to get caught up in a futile search for some kind of ultimate knowledge. It ain’t gonna happen.
The Buddhist solution to this is to understand that the only ultimate knowledge is the knowledge that you don’t know.
Just don’t tell that to Chuck Klosterman. It’ll ruin his career.
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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!
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July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing
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September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
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September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
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October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
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October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
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October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
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Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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