“The laws may themselves evolve or, rather, be more like habits. Also, the ‘fundamental constants’ may be variable” (Rupert Sheldrake 2012: 108).
“Each of us is a unique strand in the intricate web of life and here to make a contribution” (Deepak Chopra).
Contents: Introduction - Invariance - A Joke - Variability - Genetics - Are there Laws of Nature? - The Semantic View of Laws and Theories - Law and Order - Uniqueness - Suchness - A Meditation: Who am I? – Summary - References
Like flexibility and rigidity (the topic of Chapter 8 of this book), variability and invariance are closely related to dynamics and statics (the topic of Chapter 7). Another title for this chapter could be “uniqueness and constancy”. Uniqueness reflects variability, constancy implies invariance.
Invariance means no variation, that is, constancy. We often look for constancy in our lives. It seems reassuring and supportive in the endless flux of variation. Thus, many people expect constancy of faithfulness, love and devotion from their partner. And the disappointment is great when the partner changes. Then they might get a dog because a dog is usually more constantly devoted to its master than a human being. But even a dog may change, and it may die. So even a dog cannot provide absolute constancy.
People may also believe in God, but even God may appear unreliable. One burning question for many believers is: Why does he allow so much misery in the world? Why does he not intervene when suffering seems unbearable?
Where else may we look for constancy? Laws of society are supposed to protect us against injustice and hardship. But even these laws may change and we may end up in despair. There are, however, laws of nature as a last resort. Many scientists and laypersons consider them totally invariant. But are they? I shall deal with this question later on. First let us look at variability.
Osho (1999: 410) told the following joke:
When an Englishman does not get on with his wife he goes to the pub, a Frenchman goes to his mistress, A Greek goes to sea, a German goes to war, an Australian goes to a cricket match, an Indian goes to the Himalayas, an American goes to his lawyer, and a Japanese goes to commit hara-kiri.
Variability seems so obvious that I don’t have to elaborate much on it. For example, I wake up in the morning and see the pure blue sky that makes me feel so good. But soon little clouds appear. They keep changing their shape and get bigger. Eventually the last blue patch in the sky disappears in a heavy overcast. It starts to rain. When it stops, a beautiful rainbow appears and I can see again patches of blue sky that delight my heart.
Many phenomena do not change as fast as the sky, but they change nonetheless. A friend may not look very different from one day to the next or even from one year to the next. But we may notice subtle changes. The physical changes that occur during one’s life can be well demonstrated by time-lapse photography.
According to Buddhism, impermanence is considered the hallmark of all existence. This seems well supported by our personal experience and science: there seems to be no absolute constancy in the world we can observe and experience with our senses.
Genetics, the study of heredity and genes, the units of heredity, is much concerned with invariance and variability. Mendel, who is considered the founder of modern scientific genetics, explained both invariance and variability through laws that are still considered basic today. According to these laws and the insights of modern genetics, complete genetic identity of organisms is practically impossible, except in identical twins. If we consider also the interaction between the genetic make-up of an organism and its environment, then even identical twins are not totally identical. This means then that each organism is unique. Each human being is unique.
Although Mendel’s laws explain genetic variability to a considerable extent, phenomena are known that contradict Mendel’s laws. This weakens their status as laws. Strictly speaking, they are no longer laws, if we define laws as invariant.
Are there Laws of Nature?
Rules are allowed to have exceptions. However, laws are defined as invariant, that is, they do not have exceptions. If exceptions are found, they are no longer laws, but rather rules. The question is whether there are laws of nature, whether laws govern all the fluidity and variability we observe; in other words, whether there is invariance. Many scientists and philosophers say yes, there are such laws; others say no. And the debate between these two camps continues (see also Sheldrake (2012) who thinks that the so-called laws of nature should be seen as habits that may change) .
In my own field of specialization, comparative plant morphology, I examined the laws that have been postulated and found exceptions to all of them. Most textbooks ignore these exceptions. Therefore, reading only textbooks, the student obtains a more lawful picture of nature than it is actually the case.
I realize that I cannot necessarily make extrapolations from my own field of research. My impression, though, is that most, if not all, so-called laws of nature have exceptions, which means that they are not laws in the strict sense. I mentioned already that the so-called laws of classical genetics (Mendel’s laws) have exceptions and the same can be said for other so-called laws in biology. I have also been told and read that it is questionable whether there are constants in physics (see Sheldrake 2012, Chapter 3). Since science is open-ended, we cannot expect a final answer on this question of whether there are at least some laws in nature. Because of this lack of finality, the semantic view of laws and theories presents an innovation of fundamental importance (see, for example, Sattler 1986).
The Semantic View of Laws and Theories
According to the semantic view of laws and theories, laws and theories are only definitions. As definitions, being only semantic, they do not tell us anything about nature. Therefore, the question no longer arises whether laws and theories are correct. The question is only whether (semantic) laws and theories apply to a particular situation or situations. For example, with regard to Mendel’s laws, the laws of classical genetics, the question is whether they apply to the inheritance of sweet peas. As Mendel himself and others have shown, they do. Then, the next question is to which other instances they apply. And it has been shown that they apply to a wide variety of plants and animals but not to all.
Any law or theory that applies to a vast array of situations is, of course, highly desirable. But a semantic law or theory that applies to fewer instances can still be useful, especially if more inclusive laws or theories do not cover these instances.
The semantic view of laws and theories seems compatible with the principle of complementarity because even contradictory laws and theories are useful as long as they apply to at least some situations. The nagging question which of them is true does no longer arise, and thus the relativity of scientific knowledge is recognized (see also Chapter 8). At the same time, the semantic view does not prevent us to look for laws and theories that are very comprehensive. Even laws and theories that cover everything are not ruled out, if we can find them. Thus, the semantic view provides a non-dogmatic, open attitude.
Law and Order
The semantic view of laws and theories has a liberating effect on our view of law and order in both science and society. First, it removes the absoluteness of law and order and replaces it by a more humble view. Laws and theories are not God-given; they are given by our definitions and our limited experience, and therefore we can look at them in a more flexible, non-dogmatic way. Second, the antagonism between those who believe in absolute laws and those who don’t can be softened: those who take the semantic view don’t prevent others to look for laws and theories without exceptions; however, while we don’t have such laws and theories, the exceptions have to be recognized and from the semantic view they are not problematic.
Although the semantic view was not developed for law and order in society, it can have a beneficial effect in this regard by reminding us to be more flexible and to respect exceptions, and not to force laws unto situations where they don’t apply because of the uniqueness of circumstances, which brings us back to the importance of uniqueness.
We have to distinguish between two levels of uniqueness: 1. Uniqueness that can be described by words that refer to concepts, and 2. Uniqueness that cannot be captured by words and language. This uniqueness is beyond the reach of science and everyday discourse. It opens the door to the centre of the mandala of this book, the unnamable, the mystery...
Let me illustrate the two levels of uniqueness by an example. Scientifically a person can be described by a list of traits such as black hair, brown eyes, soft movements, playful behaviour, etc. As we add more and more traits, the uniqueness of the person becomes increasingly obvious. However, there seems to be no end to the number of traits we can list. Always something seems to be left out. The concepts we use also limit the description we can give. For example, if we use only the concepts “brown”, “blue” and “green”, we cannot capture much of the uniqueness of eye colour because of many nuances of eye colour. Even if we use quantitative concepts that describe the degree of brownness or blueness, we still miss nuances that are not represented. Furthermore, a person changes continually. And the environment of the person also changes. For example, as the light of the sun becomes more intense, the hair may shine more or the eyes may sparkle more. Therefore, the person appears unique in every moment. And this uniqueness cannot be totally captured by a verbal description. The person appears always much more unique than any description by words and language can indicate. Korzybski illustrated this through his Structural Differential and concluded, “ Whatever you might say something [or a person] “is”, it is not” (Korzybski 1958: 409; see also Healthy Language-Behavior and Spirituality).
As the ultimate inadequacy of words and language becomes obvious we enter the centre of the mandala of this book, the unnamable, the mystery that may illicit a feeling of profound reverence and awe.
This changes not only how I experience myself but also how I relate to others. Since they all appear mysterious and unique in their own way, I will not force them to behave as I do, nor will I impose on them an abstract behavioural norm. I will honour their uniqueness. And I will not allow others to impose their way or abstract behavioural norm on me. I will also honour my own uniqueness.
Honouring one’s uniqueness means listening to who we really are and this opens the door to Truth, but not a truth that is abstracted from reality and therefore relative; rather Truth that may happen only in silence beyond words.
Ultimate uniqueness that cannot be captured by words and language can be referred to as suchness as it is known in Daoism and Zen. “Suchness is a just-so-ness that allows things [and no-things] to be themselves. It is reached by emptying, by unlearning, by forgetting all the constructs of thinking that have been imposed by enculturation” (Grigg 1994: 323). Thus Laozi (Lao Tzu) taught (quoted ibid.):
In the pursuit of learning,
everyday something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao
everyday something is dropped.
Grigg (ibid.) added: “Suchness happens when perception is released from conceptual constructs so “the world and all the things in it” can be experienced without interpretation through ideological, philosophical, or intellectual tempering. Suchness is everything intrinsically itself. It is the result of direct experience without any interference by symbolism, metaphor, judgement, prejudice, or systems.” This implies acceptance of myself as I am and the world as it is, not in abstract, conceptual descriptions and interpretations.
A Meditation: Who am I?
Based on Ramana Maharshi, Osho (1992: 107) provided a few pointers for this meditation. We may start with an enquiry of the thinking mind. But the thinking mind cannot give us the final answer because we are more than just the thinking mind. So we have to go beyond the thinking mind, and as we transcend thoughts and words we realize that we have to go beyond the question “Who am I?” Then the door to the unnamable, the mystery may open…
You may find a Guided Meditation with Adyashanti very helpful.
We often look for invariance, something that we can hold on to, a relationship, a belief, laws, etc. But everything seems to vary sooner or later. Thus, variability seems all-pervasive. Scientists study variability and are also looking for underlying lawfulness. Many believe that there are constants and laws in nature. But upon closer inspection we find exceptions to the postulated laws and thus the so-called laws become rules that by definition may have exceptions. One may, of course, hope that we have not yet found the real laws that have no exceptions, no variability. In any case, it seems useful to adopt the semantic view of theory of laws and theories. According to this view, laws and theories are considered only definitions, and thus the nagging question whether they are true does no longer arise; the question is whether they apply to observable instances. This view of laws and theories seems compatible with the principle of complementarity because even contradictory laws and theories can be considered useful as long as they apply at least to some situations. This view also has a liberating effect regarding law and order in both science and society. It removes the presumed absoluteness of law and order and replaces it by a more humble view. Laws and theories are not considered God-given; they are given by our definitions and experience, and therefore we can look at them in a more flexible, non-dogmatic way. Furthermore, the antagonism between those who believe in absolute laws and those who don’t can be softened: those who take the semantic view don’t prevent others from searching for laws and theories without exceptions; however, while we don’t have such laws and theories, the exceptions have to be recognized and from the semantic view they are not problematic. They remind us of uniqueness in nature and society. Two levels of uniqueness can be distinguished: 1. Uniqueness that can be described by words that refer to concepts, and 2. Uniqueness that cannot be captured by words and language. This uniqueness is beyond the reach of science and everyday discourse. It opens the door to the centre of the mandala of this book, the unnamable, the mystery... In Daoism and Zen it is also called suchness, which “happens when perception is released from conceptual constructs so “the world and all the things in it” can be experienced without interpretation through ideological, philosophical, or intellectual tempering. Suchness is everything intrinsically itself. It is the result of direct experience without any interference by symbolism, metaphor, judgment, prejudice, or systems (Grigg 1994: 323). Thus we can ask the question “Who am I?” in a profound way and make it a meditation.
Grigg, R. 1994. The Tao of Zen. Boston: Tuttle.
Korzybski, A. 1958. Science and Sanity. 4th edition. The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company (CD-ROM edition: http://esgs.free.fr/uk/art/sands.htm).
Osho. 1992. Meditation. The First and the Last Freedom. A Practical Guide to
Meditation. Cologne, Germany: Rebel Publishing House.
Sattler, R. 1986. Biophilosophy. Analytic and Holistic Perspectives. New York: Springer.
Sheldrake, R. 2012. The Science Delusion. Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry. London: Coronet (also published as Science Set Free).