Thursday, 14 July 2011

How is novelty possible?

written by Tom Armstrong
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
~Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953, No. 125
A meatspace friend of mine, with the online moniker Nagarjuna, is greatly interested in the philosophical faceoff of Free Will v Determinism.

He greatly believes that the Determinist [or, termed in the manner he sees it all: Inevitablist] side has the better argument, his logic being that whatever we decide is the determined result of a chain of outcomes, without there being any evidence of an agent [a homulculus, e.g.] intervening.

Mark Johnson in his 2007 book The Meaning of the Body comes down on Nagarjuna’s side in this essential philosophical debate, it seems, but he raises a novel issue: that of novelty. If the universe is determined wholly by chains of causes and effects, how does something new arise?

Johnson writes:
Our ability to make new meaning, to enlarge our concepts, and to arrive at new ways of making sense of things must be explained without reference to miracles, irrational leaps of thought, or blind impulse. We have to explain how our experience can grow and how the new can emerge from the old, yet without merely replicating what has gone before.

As it turns out, this may be one of the most difficult problems in all of philosophy, psychology, and science: how is novelty possible? As far as I can see, nobody has yet been able to explain how new experience emerges. The problem is that if we try to give a causal explanation of novel experience or novel thought, these come out looking causally determined, rather than creative and imaginative. An embodied theory1 of meaning will suggest only that new meaning is not a miracle but rather arises from, and remains connected to, preexisting patterns, qualities, and feelings.

Most people believe that human will possesses absolute freedom, which is why we think we can hold people responsible for their actions. But if there is no transcendent self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice, then what sense can we make of real choice, or of moral responsibility for our actions? This problem has plagued all naturalistic accounts of mind, from David Hume to William James to Antonio Damasio. We need a view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodiment of mind and yet which doesn’t make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility.
I raise this topic in this Buddhism blog because of Buddha’s Enlightenment and insight into the essential problems of the human condition. Buddha’s Awakening was “new” -- for him, at least, if we posit that former buddhas Awoke in ages past.

Thanissaro Bikkhu writes in an essay online, “The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening":
… Buddha says at one point in describing his Awakening, "Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute." In other words, he gained liberating knowledge through qualities that we can all develop: heedfulness, ardency, resolution. If we are willing to face the implications of this fact, we realize that the Buddha's Awakening is a challenge to our entire set of values. The fact that the Unconditioned can be attained forces us to re-evaluate any other goals we may set for ourselves, whatever worlds we want to create, in our lives.
“The Unconditioned can be attained”!! Something new coming from nowhere? But coming to us only if we are heedful, ardent and resolute?

In a paper called “The Unconditioned: In Buddhism, Zen and Our Own Lives",” Jeff Shore explains the path and implications of the reality of losing ourself.

What is Buddhism? Simply put, it could be called a practical way of emancipation or liberation. Liberation from what? From everything. From all conditions. …

You might think that we somehow transcend the conditions. Buddhism, however, affirms no such transcendental, supernatural reality. …

Buddhism uses terms like ignorance, craving, and attachment to describe the relative cause of our dis-ease. This may not satisfy someone seeking a simple, either-or answer. If we look under the surface, however, we can see that these causes are, indeed, intertwined and pointing to different dimensions of the problem. Ignorant of who we really are, we crave fulfillment in something else. We can never come to rest that way, so we go on, blindly entangled in craving and attachment.

Attached to something, we become possessive and afraid to lose it. Rather than finding fulfillment, our dis-ease only seems to increase. Why do we crave? Because we don't know who we really are. If we truly knew ourselves, we would not crave to be or to have something. And that craving in turn keeps us from seeing who we really are, thus perpetuating the vicious, painful cycle of ignorance-craving-attachment.

Practically speaking, here is the core of the problem: this tiny, literally insubstantial — yet damned tenacious — knot of deluded self-attachment. It's really nothing at all, but through conditions entwining, a tight knot of "I-ness" emerges. And we all know how painful this can be. That's what impels us to begin religious or spiritual practice. That's what drives us to sit zazen.

… zazen is freedom from all conditions, without eliminating any of them. More than that, genuine zazen is the fulfillment of all conditions … First, by actually giving ourselves up to concentrated zazen and sitting through to the end of ourselves, the tangled knot of deluded selfness naturally comes undone. There is nothing holding it together. In a sense, it is only our delusive craving to be a certain way — even to be "enlightened" — that holds the painful snarl together.
1 the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. They argue that all aspects of cognition, such as ideas, thoughts, concepts and categories are shaped by aspects of the body. These aspects include the perceptual system, the intuitions that underlie the ability to move, activities and interactions with our environment and the native understanding of the world that is built into the body and the brain.
The embodied mind thesis is opposed to other theories of cognition such as cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism.[1] The idea has roots in Kant and 20th century continental philosophy (such as Merleau-Ponty). The modern version depends on insights drawn from recent research in in linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, robotics and neurobiology.


  1. Good blogspost. Good question. I have no answer other than that so-called novelty seems to be fashioned out of existing raw materials and is not actually completely novel, and the products of the fashioning process are inevitable given the conditions of the process. Let the professional scientists and philosophers work out the details of precisely how it all works, as it seems that they may be slowly but surely doing.

  2. Entropy.

    As long as a system is not in equilibrium, new things may happen. Our universe is far from equilibrium, so new things are expected to happen. Humans are part of it just as much as anything else.

    I don't see how novelty could help the hopeless case that is the notion of free will.

  3. In a sense, every moment is unique. Everything is novel, all the time. And the nature of the universe is ever-evolving.

    And if ultimately there is no self to be either free or determined then what meaning really does this metaphysical debate have?

  4. You're responding to the title of the blogpost, not the blogpost. That's arguing, not discussion.

  5. Me? Actually I was responding to Alexander Santos above me.

    Also, it does seem relevant to the following statement in the blogpost:

    "Mark Johnson... raises a novel issue: that of novelty. If the universe is determined wholly by chains of causes and effects, how does something new arise?"

  6. I was also addressing Mark Johnson's issue (how can a deterministic universe produce novelty), which is stated in the post, not just the title. Whether I'm arguing or discussing list left to the judgment of the reader.

    To further elaborate on the issue, new species of organisms are appearing on Earth all the time, through evolutionary processes which are thought to be totally deterministic. I just don't see a contradiction between determinism and novelty.

    As for Shonin's comment, I totally agree with your first comment, but again I explain it because of the lack of equilibrium in the universe and entropy. Imagine that the universe was totally cold, its energy dissipated in a completely uniform manner. It would then b possible to imagine that nothing would change from one moment to the other, and you would have complete stasis. Perhaps we are asymptotically moving to that stage.

    As for your second comment, I think it is up to Tom to suggest an answer. As for me I think novelty and self are orthogonal issues.

  7. Alexandre,

    "I just don't see a contradiction between determinism and novelty."


    "I totally agree with your first comment, but again I explain it because of the lack of equilibrium in the universe and entropy."

    I don't feel I have a good grasp of the concept of 'entropy' so I can't comment.

    "I think novelty and self are orthogonal issues. "


  8. From a 1998 article "Encountering Koestler" by Roy Behrens that supports Nagarjuna's comment:

    "More than any other book, [Koestler's] The Act of Creation changed my thinking and profoundly affected the way that I worked as a graphic designer, artist, and writer. Prior to reading it, I had misunderstood the creative process. I had thought of it literally, in the sense of the Old Testament, as a process by which one attempts to 'create' something from nothing. Defiant and determined to be original, I made every effort to avoid the influences of other students, teachers, and professionals.

    "While all this seems self-evident now, at age 19, as I read Koestler's book, I experienced a kind of epiphany in which I realized that human beings never actually create; we never produce anything out of thin air. Rather, all innovations - whether artworks, design solutions, or scientific discoveries - come from the reshuffling and recombination of already existing components, by a process that Albert Einstein once described as 'combinatory play.'"

  9. I think that it's misleading to think of evolution as deterministic. It's composed of two contrasting processes: the random generation of diversity, and alignment with the environment through selection. similarly, our perceptions get randomized through our imperfect senses (I thought it was Harry, but it was really Bill), and we're soon into new territory ("thanks Harry" ... "huh?")

  10. bananda,

    I suppose the 'argument' against what you say is that it seems random to us, at the receiving end, but was it random, really? But I am with you. String theory seems to show there is true randomness, at least at the level of the very small. BUT, the contra-argument to that is that whenever there's a seeming-random event, the universe splits apart in representation of ALL the random possibilities, which means that an incredibly huge (well, infinite) number of universes are 'out there,' growing in number exponentially.