Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Analysis Paralysis

A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse for truth and those life-preserving errors clash for their first fight, after the impulse for truth has proved to be also a life-preserving power.

— Nietzsche

Brad Warner:

I feel like our need to slot things into established categories may be one of the deepest problems we have to uproot as human beings pursuing the dharma. It’s a survival skill we need, this categorizing of things. It’s what keeps us alive. If I’m walking down the street in a foreign country at night, as I often am these days, I have to watch people closely. If a group of guys is giving off signals I read as potentially dangerous, I walk down another street.

Maybe they’re perfectly nice people. Maybe they’re just excited about a football match they just saw. But I have no way to know. So I categorize quickly and act accordingly. This is what we all do all the time.

But we also have a tendency to go too far with this. Or to believe that the categories in which we place things are true or absolute. That becomes a problem if our aim is to see all of life just as it is.

This is all true from a descriptive standpoint. Is that really what we want, though, that God's-eye view? What if achieving such a perspective destroyed our ability to live and flourish as human beings? Do we want to transcend humanity itself, or do we just want to become as wise as possible within our human limitations? Is "pursuing the dharma" a goal to be reached, or is it a cyclical, Sisyphean process to be undertaken for its own sake, with no thought of ultimate resolution?

Of course, I'm pretty sure I know what he means when he says that. But that's the thing with labels, signs, and heuristics: they often signify different things to different people, or they suggest different emphases that can widen into huge gulfs of understanding. And it usually requires someone else, with an outside perspective, to point out details that got overlooked or underexplained.

It's terribly inconvenient, this impulse for truth. The human brain is designed to delegate as much activity as possible to the jurisdiction of the unconscious and instinctive. Biologically speaking, truth-seeking for its own sake is a luxury, and not necessarily a psychologically healthy one. In other words, it's not just a bad habit when we quickly scan a few superficial characteristics before assigning a person to an existing type and interacting with them accordingly. It's actually a fundamental quality of humanity, "just as it is". Choosing to arrest this process in order to sift through the neverending stream of information more consciously and carefully may require exempting oneself from much social activity, which is probably why it's best left to Zen monks, hermits and other outliers.