Randomness and You

A very cool spherical visualization of the I-Ching hexagrams. The atomic resemblance is, ironically, not coincidental.

“Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance.”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

“When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine many things with a confused mind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. But when you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that there is nothing that has unchanging self.”
― Dōgen

I’m in the process of reading the previously quoted Taleb book about randomness. I’ve read all his other books and can confidently draw many parallels between his work and the stuff I usually reference here from Zen and Taoist masters. While Taleb’s primary focus (the market) would seem to many to be completely unrelated to Zen— if not antithetical— his approach proves otherwise. He is an iconoclast, a lone wolf searching for underlying meaning in a world of overzealous idealists, much like the original Zen masters who sought to override the stubborn clerical authorities of their day. His subject, the market, reflects events in the natural world unpredictably enough to mimic it, which makes Taleb a philosopher of sorts.

His philosophy is not about getting rich or manipulating others, but instead finding ways to cope and strategize within the supreme chaos and unpredictability of the life we’re born into. Put simply, he explores the role of chance in our lives, and while events may appear at times synchronous or related, they are often just entirely random. When we take time to truly understand the pieces on the chessboard, we can plan our moves appropriately using the most accurate knowledge available, without the delusion that we’re working with a predictable system. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stockbroker, a priest or an electrician— nature’s hidden chance operations apply to everyone.

In Eastern philosophy, this concept of chance is most famously embraced by the Chinese system of divination, the I Ching. For thousands of years people of all races and creeds have “rolled the dice” (or in this case, hexagram coins). The throwing of the coins produces random numbers, which correspond with a hexagram accompanied by a Taoist/Confucianist philosophical passage from a dense text called the Ten Wings. People who engage with the I Ching develop a religious respect for it, as it provides useful advice no matter what the situation may be. And yet the results are knowingly completely random. They mirror the randomness of life in a way that almost forces us to accept the unseen forces at play. By aligning our actions with a similar respect for chance and luck, we participate in harmony with the system rather than against it.

The composer John Cage used the I-Ching in an attempt to create music echoing the spontaneous life-force of the natural state of things, calling his work ‘chance operations’. Instead of planned rhythms and melodies, these compositions were generated by the forces of randomness. Unlike most mid-20th century avant-garde art and music, which tried hamfistedly to engage with highfalutin philosophical or political concepts, Cage used his admiration for life and randomness to produce captivating works mirroring the powerful unexpectedness of nature.

In a larger sense, his choice reflects our own: do we choose to live in a world of faulty planned ideas, or a less-predictable world of pure reality? Which world do we accept? If we stay with what’s comfortable, the same problems of meaninglessness and nihilism remain, as our ideas inherently go against nature (especially in late Modernity). What’s comfortable is a denial of our nature, and this makes us suffer. But if we can learn to get comfortable exploring the hidden role of the unexpected, we realign with natural truth. We find a beauty in the chaos that is unencumbered by simplistic humanized notions of aesthetics, success or meaning. We return to a more ancient spiritual understanding of life as a strange power to be revered rather than an obstacle to be conquered.

This requires coming to Dogen’s conclusion, which for him required many years of intense practice and meditation. The point at which it becomes perfectly clear that everything is constantly in flux is the moment we start being completely honest with ourselves about the nature of reality. This can’t be proclaimed or thought without having the experience to back it up, so we must continue to practice everyday. Witness the strange non-linear flow of time, the jumbled nature of your own consciousness, the divine randomness of nature. Observe and reflect. Eventually you’ll return to where you are.

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