By Martin Bosworth
Awhile back I was introduced to the concept of the “five supernatural perceptions” or “superknowledges,” achieved by bodhisattvas as a pinnacle of achievement in meditation and understanding in Buddhism. I had cause to reflect on this recently while reading George Soros’ 2006 book, “The Age of Fallibility.” If it seems odd to connect a famous financier and philanthropist with mystical powers gained through enlightenment and transcendence, don’t worry–it is odd. But there’s a common key that I found, and that is the key of flexibility in philosophy.
Soros devotes the book to exploring and questioning the larger philosophical frames that enabled America to buy into such absurd concepts as “The War on Terror” without any questioning, breaking it down using his oft-discussed “theory of reflexivity,” the essence of which I’ll quote here:
And that is the starting point of my theory, the theory of reflexivity, which holds that our thinking is inherently biased. Thinking participants cannot act on the basis of knowledge. Knowledge presupposes facts which occur independently of the statements which refer to them; but being a participant implies that oneâ€™s decisions influence the outcome. Therefore, the situation participants have to deal with does not consist of facts independently given but facts which will be shaped by the decision of the participants. There is an active relationship between thinking and reality, as well as the passive one which is the only one recognized by natural science and, by way of a false analogy, also by economic theory.
I call the passive relationship the â€œcognitive functionâ€ and the active relationship the â€œparticipating function,â€ and the interaction between the two functions I call â€œreflexivity.â€ Reflexivity is, in effect, a two-way feedback mechanism in which reality helps shape the participantsâ€™ thinking and the participantsâ€™ thinking helps shape reality in an unending process in which thinking and reality may come to approach each other but can never become identical. Knowledge implies a correspondence between statements and facts, thoughts and reality, which is not possible in this situation. The key element is the lack of correspondence, the inherent divergence, between the participantsâ€™ views and the actual state of affairs. It is this divergence, which I have called the â€œparticipantâ€™s bias,â€ which provides the clue to understanding the course of events. That, in very general terms, is the gist of my theory of reflexivity.
Soros largely applies this theory to the ebbs and flows of the financial markets, using a reformulation of what is, essentially, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle–that the act of observing changes the conditions of that which is observed, or sometimes even failing to observe can make the same changes. Put in even simpler terms, it’s impossible to look at anything with an unbiased view, because we all have biases and bends to our observations, inculcated by culture, personal foibles, and social interactions. That’s why simplicity is equated to looking at the world through the eyes of a child–because only a child’s mind is free from the weight and burdens of years of accumulated experience, and can see things with a clarity we complex adults lack.
You can see Soros’ observations play out in the collapse of the housing market and how it has rippled into a larger economic malaise (succinctly summed up here by Gavin). People bought into the myth of the bubble because they wanted to be rich, because they wanted to escape the risk, because they thought, somehow, that the consequences wouldn’t touch them. And indeed, some people were smart or lucky enough to get out right at the peak and enjoy the rewards of timing. But many others were not. Were the “winners” smarter or inherently better than the “losers?” Of course not–neither group had perfect knowledge, but one group simply made better decisions with the information they had.
Soros said in his book that in order to achieve a model of a truly open society, America has to undergo a deeper philosophical and sociological transformation than simply getting rid of Bush and the Republican neocon machine, although that would certainly be a good start. I’ll let him elaborate:
My contention is that America has become a â€œfeel-goodâ€ society unwilling to face unpleasant reality. That is why the public could be so grievously misled by the Bush administration. Unless this feel-good attitude can be changed, the United States is doomed to lose its dominant position in the world. There will be serious adverse consequences not only for America but also for the world…I contend that our understanding of reality is inherently imperfect and all human constructs are flawed in one way or another. Open societies recognize our fallibility, closed societies deny it. America is an open society, but people are not well versed in philosophy and they do not fully understand the principles of open society. That is how they came to be misled.
You can see this fundamental flaw in so many aspects of our culture and view of the world–everything from the almost terminal inability to keep up with concepts for more than a few seconds before tossing them aside out of boredom. The cynical passive-aggressiveness that drives people into mewling despair or undirected anger the moment life doesn’t go exactly the way they want it to. The aversion of responsibility when things go wrong (“XYZ Big Corporation agreed to a settlement without admitting any wrongdoing”) while soaking up the privilege of success. The constant trilling whine of a need for certainty, for stability, direction, and purpose. The overwhelming disgust with the media machine for not reporting the issues exactly the way we want them to be said.
The reality is that we have to recognize that the only way to understand something perfectly is to first admit that our understanding is flawed. Everyone approaches, reports, writes, and shapes something according to the conditions we bring to the table. We’ve been taught to enshrine Reason as this distinct plane of existence apart from our own imperfect minds–that our own rationality is perfect and everyone else is bugfuck nuts. This, of course, contributes to the continual breakdown of debate and idea-sharing into angry words and flamewars–because we have to be right, so the other guy can’t possibly be right. Let me tie this back to an eloquent summation of how Buddhist principles can help build an open society:
Buddhism teaches awareness and acceptance of change. Change is a fundamental reality of our conditioned existence.
The concept of not-self also has a profound lessons for all of us. Our Western understandings of self often keep us from living in right relationship with each other and with our environment. When we understand ourselves to be distinct, static selves, we keep ourselves from the awareness of how radically interconnected we are. We literally constitute each other. Our intentions, and not just our actions, have an impact upon everyone and everything around us. It is our responsibility to change them through a difficult process of change. There is a difference between being interconnected and taking other into oneâ€™s own ego. With strong ego, and a sense of ourselves as separate, we tend to relate to other people as if we are taking them into are own ego. We perceive them through our own preconceptions and we are not able to perceive them as they are. An awareness of interconnectedness leads to unconditional love and compassion, rather than a conditional love born out of the needs of a ravenous ego.
In order to achieve a truly open society, we have to overcome the distinctly (but not uniquely) American tradition of worship of individiualism as the cult of self, the be-all/end-all of existence. The odds aren’t particularly good that we will achieve perfect knowledge, but to coin a phrase, the journey matters more than the destination. The glory of perfect understanding may or may not lead to the ability to perform miracles, but it can lead us to a more harmonious state of existence that recognizes individuality while urging understanding of others’ views, cultures, beliefs, and the shared connections that bind us all.