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Trolleys come to Terror

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a western koan makes it onto German TV? ]

What Hala Jaber calls a supermarket trolley in this tweet is not what this post is about — but it sure does connect trolley and terror!


Here’s the terror side of things, in a tweet from John Horgan:

The BBC halls it an “interactive courtroom drama interactive courtroom drama centred on a fictional act of terror” and notes:

The public was asked to judge whether a military pilot who downs a hijacked passenger jet due to be crashed into a football stadium is guilty of murder.

Viewers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria gave their verdict online or by phone. The programme was also aired in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The vast majority called for the pilot, Lars Koch, to be acquitted.

Here’s the setup:

In the fictional plot, militants from an al-Qaeda offshoot hijack a Lufthansa Airbus A320 with 164 people on board and aim to crash it into a stadium packed with 70,000 people during a football match between Germany and England.

“If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die,” German air force Major Lars Koch says as he flouts the orders of his superiors and takes aim at an engine of the plane.

The jet crashes into a field, killing everyone on board.

So, is the pilot guilty, or not guilty?


At the very least, he has our sympathy — but how does that play out in legal proceedings?

What’s so fascinating here is the pilot’s dilemma, which resembles nothing so much as a zen koan.

Except for the Trolley Problem:

Image from Wikimedia by McGeddon under license CC-BY-SA-4.0


Substitute an Airbus for the trolley, 164 people for the lone individual on the trolley line, and 70,000 people for the cluster of five — and the pilot for the guy who can make a decision and switch the tracks.

There you have it: terror plot and trolley problem running in parallel.

To be honest, I think the full hour-plus movie is far more immersive, to use a term from game design, than the Trolley Problem stated verbally as a problem in logic — meaning that the viewer is in some sense projected, catapulted into the fighter-pilot’s hot seat — in his cockpit, facing a high speed, high risk emergency, and in court, on trial for murder.

It’s my guess that more people would vote for the deaths of 164 under this scenario than for the death of one in the case of the trolley — but that’s a guess.


The German film scenario — adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach — is indeed a courtroom drama, a “case” in the sense of “case law”. And it’s suggestive that koans, too, are considered “cases” in a similar vein. Here, for instance, is a classic definition of koans :

Kung-an may be compared to the case records of the public law court. Kung, or “public”, is the single track followed by all sages and worthy men alike, the highest principle which serves as a road for the whole world. An, or “records”, are the orthodox writings which record what the sages and worthy men regard as principles [..]

This principle accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like a poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. [..]

The so-called venerable masters of Zen are the chief officials of the public law courts of the monastic community, as it were, and their collections of sayings are the case records of points that have been vigorously advocated.


Relevant texts:

  • John Daido Loori, Sitting with Koans
  • John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye
  • Coffee & Donuts, a topological DoubleQuote

    Monday, October 10th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — sadly, now dunkin’ diabetes ]

    Some might claim that Dunkin is the link between Coffee and Donuts — it’s certainly a link I’ve appreciated myself on more than one occasion. Here’s another, and arguably more subtle linkage — topology.

    In verbal format, it’s a mathematician’s inside joke:

    The joke goes about topologists is that they can’t tell the difference between a coffee mug and a doughnut. For those who are not familiar with topology, topology is the study of geometrical objects where you don’t care about lengths and you don’t care about angles, what matters is how the spatial relations relate to each other.

    Even better, here’s the same joke, illustrated — or refuted, if you prefer — in video by a master maker:

    The only problem here — it’ll all prove a little pointless if you dunk your donut into the coffee cup without first supplying some coffee..

    But morphing! What an ingenious way to provide and prove a DoubleQuote!

    Three self-references already, and its only 8am

    Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — with an eye for form, paradox, self-reference ]

    I’ve found three self-references already today, and its only 8am.

    Unless of course you count architect Matteo Pericoli‘s building design to illustrate the structure of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s mystery novel The Judge and His Hangman:


    — in which case, I’ve found four. Pericoli comments:

    As in the novel — with its surprise ending that flips everything upside down, transforming the structure we had taken for granted into a profound moral and existential dilemma — in the building, what seemed to obscure now illuminates, what once concealed now is hidden, what seemed to give support is now nothing but a weight to bear and understand.

    Now tell me, is that self-referential and ouroboric, or merely boustrophedonic or enantiodromic?

    For Greek fun, wait till the end of this post*.


    On firmer self-referential ground, my first self-referential account has to do with a Nobel Prize, just awarded. Gina Kolata and Seawell Chan in the New York Times explain:

    Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries on how cells recycle their content, a process known as autophagy, a Greek term for “self-eating.” It is a crucial process.

    Self-eating: even the ouroboros can’t say it plainer than that.


    The second comes from an article on artist Jennifer Trask titled Death and Decay Lurks Within These Stunning Works of Art in the Smithsonian magazine. The description of Jennifer and her work begins:

    Those who encounter a piece by Jennifer Trask are likely first struck by its elegance: a baroque gold-coated necklace or an intricate floral broach. But a closer look reveals much more happening below the gilt surface: antlers woven into the necklace; snake vertebrae used as the “petals” of the broach’s flower, giraffe femurs…

    Death, here, as in earlier artistic tradition, is a reminder of the fickleness of life. The article gives us the self-referential paradox as it explains:

    Trask draws on the tradition of vanitas — moralistic paintings that were popular in 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands. She says her interest is now focused on the “symbolism and the ironic nature” of the paintings, and “how the vanitas itself ultimately became another of the luxurious objects they were meant to warn against.”


    And the third might even count as two recursions — one analogous to the other.

    You may have read the New Yorker‘s profile, Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny: Is the head of Y Combinator fixing the world, or trying to take over Silicon Valley?, and you may just be cooler than I, and either way you may already know that the Y Combinator is the startup starter-upper par excellence.

    Here’s the self-ref, from their FAQ:

    Why did you choose the name “Y Combinator?”

    The Y combinator is one of the coolest ideas in computer science. It’s also a metaphor for what we do. It’s a program that runs programs; we’re a company that helps start companies.

    A hat-tip here to Steven H. Cullinane, whose Log 24 blog today pointed me to this particular quote.


    *It’s all Greek to me:

  • ouroboros, a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness
  • boustrophedon, written from right to left then left to right, as in ploughing with oxen
  • enantiodromia, tendency of things to change into their opposites, as a natural principle
  • **

    Well, it’s past 9am now, but I haven’t been scouting around for further examples since I began this post.

    No Man’s Sky

    Friday, August 19th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a quick blog letter to Chris Bateman, and more broadly to the global God NoGod argument ]


    This post may or many not be of interest to individual ZP readers, so here’s what’s up. The philosopher-game-designer-blogger Chris Bateman gets into blog-with-blog discussions, the rubric with his articles on his own iHobo and Only a Game blogs being “all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going” – and this ZP post of mine is in response to his No Man’s Sky Roundup post today, and the pieces about the game of that name he led me to.

    It is also an attempt to put the basic insight of that branch of theology called “apophatic” (“other than speech”) theology into, well, written speech. And in a way, it is also my challenge to the entire “God vs NotGod” debate that tiresome long books are written about, since the God described by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa strikes me as the “definition of God” that any worthy attempt to attack the “God” concept on philosophical grounds should be tackling – not such local and verbal matters as whether God prefers seven days to universe completion or a little longer, burkas or bikinis, gays married or chaste, or being embodied or otherwise, three, one or both.

    It’s also written in a language you might term poetico-philosophical or vice versa, you have been warned.

    If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, have at it!


    No Man’s Sky

    Words drag their whatevers with them into some form of presence, which with “table” is not an issue, the table idea is both transparent and vague as clouds, it sits as easy in mind as I sit in a chair – wait, at my desk, a form of table, the word “table” brought table to mind, table brought chair..

    Or was it, “table” brought “chair” and “chair” brought chair, I myself embodied being also enchaired, one might think “enthroned” as I write this.

    At my desk I read these words describing the books in BorgesLibrary of Babel, “every variation of the 22 letters of the alphabet (as well as the additional three symbols of the comma, period, and space” – I read them as illuminating for me the planets, fauna, flora, perils and perceptions players find in the trans-galactic game, No Man’s Sky.

    And words drag their whatevers with them.

    It is the mystery. It is the moon at which the zen finger points, it is the, a, God, whole system, the One and All I wish to speak of – the ineffable – here.

    So it is that the words “the comma, period, and space” drag with them first a tailed dot, a tadpole, a jot, yod in the Hebrew, a tongue of flame, tongue here being fire, language and insight, that descended on certain disciples of someone, arguably, then the dot without tail, a speck, point, blackness minimal – and then, like the zoom from space station window to deep space outside, space.

    In the game, No Man’s Sky. Or at your window, seen perhaps from your desk, imagined at mine. Or dragged, somehow, for I and later, you, with or from these words.

    So: zero to galaxy via a simple “and” less than a second long, short in the life of humans, long enough, it would seem, for some previously unknown game galaxy. Or “galaxy” – game or otherwise.

    The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.

    And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.

    Thus: “comma” drags its micro-tadpole with it, I squint, “period” drags it’s point – where is my jeweler’s loup? – and “space” __ I am flung far enough that I stop to take stock, look back from vague, vast imagined space at imagined period and comma, see how far how fast I have come, gasp.

    Now the great mystery, the unknowable more than human mind as human mind is more than speck, galactic cluster more than planetary spack with us specks on it, the whatever the “moon” in “finger pointing at the moon” was, is, pointing at, the stuff and substance of what the word “God” drags in, neither stuff nor substance but, per the good catholic Cardinal, Cusanus, well —

    When we attempted to see Him beyond being and not-being, we were unable to understand how He could be visible. For He is beyond everything plural, beyond every limit and all unlimitedness; He is completely everywhere and not at all anywhere; He is of every form and of no form, alike; He is completely ineffable; in all things He is all things, in nothing He is nothing, and in Him all things and nothing are Himself; He is wholly and indivisibly present in any given thing (no matter how small) and, at the same time, is present in no thing at all. –

    — That!

    The “That” in “Thou art That” with “art” the link connecting them, us, if you’ll allow me to digress into a pun, puny beside that immense No Thing at All.

    You drop the word “space” into an unremarkable remark about “the comma, period, and space” and space, the deep, the trans-galactic space is dragged into mind – mine, anyway, and perhaps now yours – and we ignore it, “space” we know here meaning what “space between letters” would drag with it – we ignore it as though shutting a window, the space station window, the window of mind.

    And God, But God.

    We foreclose the window on God with undue haste, because it is rubbish, garbage, nothing. Or because it is that someone with disciples end of conversation, agree or be damned. Because we’ve got it, we know, we affirm, “I believe”.

    But peer closer at that creed, the longer one, Athanasius’ Creed, skip a few lines and what they drag with them, you’ll find..


    To be specific:

    The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible .. as also there are not three .. incomprehensible, but .. one incomprehensible.

    Or in short:

    Incomprehensible, three one.

    — which drags a certain amount of sense with it, and the someone, and the entire ineffable.

    And that word, struck like repeated blows of a Thor-sized hammer of mind, “incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible”.

    There is no whatever, it says, no thing or person or process our mind can think or process that this word or these words, “incomprehensible”, drag with them. Such a thing, or process, or person – “someone” included – is not subject to mind, cannot be crammed, cannot be cabined, cribbed, confined, into mind, into your, my, or some – any – high priest philosopher’s mind. Or book.

    Of whom or which or whatever it is said —

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.

    –- of which water is exemplary, which “nourishes all things without trying to” and “is content with the low places which people disdain.”

    Humility, then. And to erect a hurdle, you might call it “epistemic humility” –

    But make no mistake:

    Humility is the game. “Humility” is the name of the game.

    From medieval gold leaf to Olympic gold

    Monday, August 15th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a voyage into nondualism via the coincidentia oppositorum ]

    Here from Dr Emily Steiner may be the widest rigorous gap-bridging DoubleQuotes I’ve ever seen:

    Kudos to Anthony Ervin for his gold!

    I’m not entirely sure there’s gold leaf in the image Dr Steiner uses to represent medieval manuscripts, though it certainly works for the genre as a whole, and I think I detect some gold leaf in the hearts of the flowers depicted..


    It would be foolish for me to claim to follow JL Usó-Doménech et al’s Paraconsistent Multivalued Logic and Coincidentia Oppositorum: Evaluation with Complex Numbers, but the general notions of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus), “That in God opposites coincide” and “That God is beyond the coincidence of opposites” rae pretty basic (with appropriate variations) to Carl Jung‘s psychology — and to my own thinking.

    Here, in Dr Steiner’s tweet, we have something that comes delightfully, playfully close to a coincidence of opposites. Indeed it is that possibility of evoking and annotating opposites in a manner than allows us to transcend them — as we could be said to transcend the two streams of vision in binocular vision, the two streams of hearing in stereophonic audition — that lies at the heart of my focus on DoubleQuoting.


    If the “new atheists” were a little more widely read, they might find themselves perplexed by the trans-logical implications of a God described thus by Cusanus:

    When we attempted to see Him beyond being and not-being, we were unable to understand how He could be visible. For He is beyond everything plural, beyond every limit and all unlimitedness; He is completely everywhere and not at all anywhere; He is of every form and of no form, alike; He is completely ineffable; in all things He is all things, in nothing He is nothing, and in Him all things and nothing are Himself; He is wholly and indivisibly present in any given thing (no matter how small) and, at the same time, is present in no thing at all.

    That’s a far harder concept — if it can even be called a concept — to deal with than the “seven day creator” God that is their usual mark. And yet there is no great logical space between Cusanus’ “He is completely ineffable” and the Athanasian Creed‘s ” The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible .. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal .. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal .. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.”

    Jasper Hoskins proposes [Jasper Hopkins, A concise introduction to the philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa] that in Cusanus’ view, “no finite mind can comprehend God, since finite minds cannot conceive of what it is like for God to be altogether undifferentiated.”


    There’s an exchange in Cusanus’ Trialogus de possest (“On actualized-possibility”) in Hoskins’ op. cit.., that sets forth instructions for reading propositions about God — which also make interesting reading in terms of the flexibility ofmmind andimagination necessary for reading poetry, myth, and scriptures:

    Bernard: I am uncertain whether in similar fashion we can fittingly say that God is sun or sky or man or any other such thing.

    Card. Nicholas of Cusa: We must not insist upon the words. For example, suppose we say that God is sun. If, as is correct, we construe this [statement] as [a statement] about a sun which is actually all it is able to be, then we see clearly that this sun is not at all like the sensible sun. For while the sensible sun is in the East, it is not in any other part of the sky where it is able to be. [Moreover, none of the following statements are true of the sensible sun:] “It is maximal and minimal, alike, so that it is not able to be either greater or lesser”; “It is everywhere and anywhere, so that it is not able to be elsewhere than it is”; “It is all things, so that it is not able to be anything other than it is”— and so on. With all the other created things the case is simnilar. Hence is does not matter what name you give to God, provided that in the foregoing manner you mentally remove the limits with respect to its possible being.

    We’re close here, to the zen notion of the finger pointing at the moon — except that here is is the moon pointing at what cannot even be located in either physical spacetime or conceptual space..


    and that’s the touch of gold in the heart of all flowers..

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