Thursday, September 06, 2007

Prisms and Mind:
an interview with Zach Shatz

Zach Shatz is an American author, teacher, and Big Thinker who recently moved to China. He found a post of mine, the old Contra Vallicella piece, and congratulated me on what he thought was a good argument (the analytical philosophers in the corner, however, weren't quite so impressed and gave me a sound drubbing from which I still haven't recovered). Zach and I struck up a cordial email dialogue many months ago and he was kind enough to mail me a copy of a book he'd written, titled Prisms and Mind (visit the book's website, Prismind, and order a copy). I received the book and read it in no time at all, as it's only about 70 pages long. The prose is clean and well-edited; the words have a poetic ring to them. As it turns out, Zach is, among other things, a poet, so his book's simple eloquence is no accident.

I had agreed to help Zach promote his book by doing some sort of interview; we negotiated a bit on format, with yours truly gently insisting on IMs for more spontaneity. Zach kindly consented, but my summer vacation intervened and we couldn't do the interview right away. After various delays (some for technical reasons; it turns out that the Chinese internet isn't always user-friendly), we finally managed to sit down and IM for three hours on Monday, September 3rd. I had also noted to Zach that I had several fundamental disagreements with the book, and that I hoped we could hash those out. I admitted that my disagreements might be rooted in misunderstandings of his ideas, which was another reason I was looking forward to the exchange.

What follows is the transcript of the three-hour IM conversation we had. We've cleaned up the typos and adjusted the formatting for clarity's sake, but the substance of the dialogue remains untouched. I hope you'll enjoy reading the exchange. Of course, this isn't really the end of it: the dialogue will likely continue, and you, Reader, are invited to participate in it through comments or email (keep my email policy in mind, please; the policy is on my sidebar).

So without further ado...


KEVIN: Zach! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. We're going to be talking a bit about your book, Prisms and Mind, but if you don't mind, I'd like to start off with some questions about you.

ZACH: Great, Kevin. Thanks for your patience in waiting for my ability to get connected.

KEVIN: Cool. OK-- about you, then. Background: what were you doing in the States and what led you to move to China?

ZACH: I’ve had a varied work history, from cooking to editing to teaching. I was teaching before I moved to China. I moved here to enjoy the experience and, frankly, to get away from the U.S.

KEVIN: Get away?

ZACH: Absolutely. The U.S. is falling down. Let's not get me into a diatribe about the failings of the Great Experiment, ok?

KEVIN: OK. How's your time in China been? You've begun learning the language, if I remember correctly. What impressions do you have about China, Chinese culture, etc., at this point?

ZACH: It's been really good. Everybody's helpful and friendly. The language effort is going to be slow going. I knew quite a bit about China before coming, including a visit back in 1980. My present impression is that they're working hard to enter the modern world, and to contribute.

KEVIN: A visit back in 1980? How old are you, if you don't mind my asking? I've been completely unable to place your age.

ZACH: Haha. That's a good sign. I'm 47, was 20 in 1980. I came to China with my mother and siblings.

KEVIN: Old fart. I just turned 38. Old fart in training-- one wisdom tooth already gone. Could you tell me a bit about your family? What do they think of your current adventure in the Middle Kingdom?

ZACH: Old fart? You Big Hominid! My family is a lot of baggage, but my parents were both professionals. My father, an optometrist, passed away last week, and my mother is in academia, in social work. They're fascinated by my spontaneity and like to live my adventure vicariously.

KEVIN: Oh, my God! Please accept my condolences re: your father's passing. Now I feel bad that we're doing this interview at all.

ZACH: Please don't feel that way. He was ill for a long time, and we weren't very close besides. I've been in touch with family and they're managing. Let's not worry about it.

KEVIN: OK. Forging ahead, then. You mentioned cooking, editing, and teaching as part of your background. Seems you and I have something in common in this area, though I've never tried cooking professionally. What were you teaching before coming to China?

ZACH: I taught basic math to both at-risk youth and incarcerated men. Suggestion: Pay yourself for your own meals and put it on your resume.

KEVIN: That must have taken a lot of patience. I taught high school French for two years in the early 90s, and realized I couldn't deal with the bullshit that accompanies adolescence. My time in Korea has been largely free of American-style discipline problems, perhaps because I spend most of my time teaching adults and young adults. I never have to yell, "Siddown! Shaddap!"

ZACH: Yes, now we're reflecting on the American nightmare. My jobs took patience, and it often wasn't enough. But the students were desperate for help and care, and appreciated it even as they gave the teachers a rough ride.

KEVIN: How long do you see yourself in China? Do you plan to travel to other countries while based there? If so, where?

ZACH: If I travel, it will probably be within China. I went to Hong Kong last month for a visa issue and had a great time. I'm undecided about my future plans. I might stay in China for a few years, or go to another country after this year, but I'm disinclined to return to the U.S., at least for the near future.

KEVIN: Well, I hope the China experience proves both pleasant and fruitful. Do you keep up with the China-based blogs at all? There's a huge online expat community there.

ZACH: Sure is, but I try not to be owned by the web. I do my thing, dabble here and there, and try to do more off my rump. China has been wonderful, as I'd hoped.

KEVIN: It's a big country, so I'm sure there's plenty to do. Before I turn the interview bookward, I'd like to talk a bit about cooking. What's your specialty? What were you cooking in the States? Are you learning to cook any new dishes in China? Do you have any pics of your culinary achievements?

ZACH: Well, Luoyang is a backwater. But it's enough just to "be" where I am. If I do travel, I'm thinking of Sanya. Darn, don't want to give away the secret paradise spot. Well, I was a cook for ten years, but not a chef like my brother. I've cooked in Greek, seafood, Italian, and breakfast places. A hack, you understand. I've been cooking here, and pleasantly surprised by my creations. Sorry, no pics. Good idea, though.

KEVIN: Damn. I often foodblog (nothing I do is pro caliber, but the food occasionally turns out camera-friendly), and I was hoping to get some pics. We ready to move into heavier topics?

ZACH: Anytime, Hominid! Well, if the food looks good, that's all that matters on the blog!

KEVIN: Indeed. Even if it tastes like shit. OK-- about zee book. Very fascinating little tome. What inspired you to write it?

ZACH: Damn. One of those broad questions. Like I said, the family wasn't all happy-go-lucky. Through a combination of family dysfunctions and at the same time an enormous amount of psychobabble, I learned a lot very early about the mind's machinations. I've always written poetry, initially as a source of healing. Then when I learned more about quantum mechanics, I began noticing unusual analogies between the physics and the poetics. They both had similar "shapes" in my head. So all this came together, the psychology, the physics, and the spirituality from a deep poetic space. Call it a way to cover all the bases with one frame of reference.

KEVIN: And for the readers of my blog, the ones who will, I hope, rush out and buy your book after reading this interview: how would you sum up the message of your book? What's your book about? It's unfair to ask for summaries of big ideas, but I'm a bastard that way.

ZACH: Big Hominid, what a sweet guy! Okay, to sum up, science is stuck in one half of the reasoning mind, the rational. My proposition is that the intuitive half isn't just a source of inspiration, but has a reasoning system of its own, which we might identify by correlating the quantum complementarity of particle and wave with the cerebral complementarity of rational and intuitive. The problem here is that we're so entrenched in the analytical, positivist mode of the rational, that we try to make the intuitive system conform to or abide by our rational criteria. The intuitive has its own criteria not subject to the rational. It doesn't derive from the same place, and it doesn't offer the same kind of insight. In a nugget, the intuitive functions archetypally, and the rational, the scientific paradigm, doesn't recognize archetypes.

KEVIN: Impressive summary. Is this split (rational vs. intuitive) something that humanity has done to itself? Would it be fair to see your book as an attempt at showing how the rational and intuitive aspects of (human?) existence are, in fact, totally integrated?

ZACH: No, the difference is necessary, as are the quantum complements of particle and wave. This is the paradox of reality. And the word "complementary" helps to discuss this. These are two sides of one coin. Yet each side has its own nature, and its own way of constructing the world. Thus we have, by analogy, a magnetic system of energy and an electrical one. They're not the same, yet they are one. We do great service to ourselves and intellectual progress by knitting the two as well as possible, finding their true oneness, yet complete integration isn't possible from the human vantage point, where the brain's hemispheres have been designed to relate to the two distinct sides of the coin.

KEVIN: OK-- complementarity. Your book uses the prism as its primary image. In the book, you contend that prisms are more than just a metaphor for reality-- reality, in fact, exhibits a prismatic quality. Prisms are "the implicate order" (pp. 7-18 passim). Why prisms? What is a prism?

ZACH: This is the key question, Hominid. Let's first look at how complementarity is represented by the prism. For our purposes, let's consider a prism as a set of facets, while also a whole. Here is found the reductionism of the rational, describing reality in terms of parts, and the holism of the intuitive, describing reality in terms of oneness. So the prism is a complementary system, parts and whole being one and the same, yet two sides of a coin. Now let's step into science. As the book shows, prismatic form is present in nature at all scales from the quantum level to the astrophysical. My contention is that the particle interactions at the quantum level (interactions which are "remembered" in entanglement), create an energy matrix that is prismatic in its properties. This quantum template manifests throughout nature. And look at consciousness. We can use the terms clarity, reflection, integration, focus, coherence and resolution as properties of light, and of the mind, and of prismatic behavior.

KEVIN: What do you think of Robert Aitken-roshi's belief that there are no paradoxes in nature; it's merely the mind that creates them? I'm not quoting him exactly, but this claim is in The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian-- a dialogue between Aitken-roshi and Brother David Steindl-Rast (Benedictine).

ZACH: Ha. The mind is itself of a paradoxical design. That's not to say paradox originates in the mind, but that the mind follows nature's paradox, the quantum complementarity. I think he's wrong. Further, the Dalai Lama has stated, where the Buddhist scriptures differ with the physics, we need to reexamine the scriptures.

KEVIN: re: Dalai Lama: True. And I agree. What rational or intuitive proof can you offer that the cosmos is paradoxical? I admit I'm skeptical on this point.

ZACH: Proof is a problematic and dangerous term. It stems from the rational's overactive need for absolute definition, which it cannot achieve. As for paradox in nature, look at the brain's hemispheres and their attendant difference in masculine and feminine orientations. Do you dissent on this?

KEVIN: Brain hemispheres: I'm not sure how that qualifies as paradox.

ZACH: Hemispheres: One wants proof, one wants myth. Then color mixing is another example. Is not additive and subtractive color mixing paradoxical?

KEVIN: The idea that one hemisphere wants proof and the other wants myth (is this actually the case? what's the justification for saying this?) doesn't strike me as paradoxical. As for color mixing... I don't know anything about the subject, alas.

ZACH: Bummer! That's a better, clearer example. If you mix yellow and blue paint, or sheets of acrylic, they make green. If you mix yellow light and blue light on a white wall, they don't make green (red, I believe). This isn't controversial. As for hemispheres, look at scientific and religious tracts, the artifacts of the rational and intuitive, they are proofs and myths, no? Both science and religion claim to speak truth. That's what makes it paradox.

KEVIN: re: paint and light: OK, gotcha. It's not controversial because there are ready-made physical explanations for this phenomenon. It's at best an apparent paradox, not a real one. Of course, not being an expert in the field, I can't offer that ready-made explanation, but I bet it's out there in a science textbook. At a guess, we're looking at the difference between (1) the chemical interactions of paint and (2) whatever optics tells us about the interaction of light at different wavelengths. (1) and (2) likely overlap since our ability to see paint has something to do with the light the paint absorbs, but my point is that this phenomenon probably doesn't rank as a paradox. re: hemispheres-- I still don't get it. Let's say I have two daughters. One is a big fan of pizza; the other is a big fan of a certain TV show. This is normal, not paradoxical. If the two hemispheres have different tendencies, one toward the mythical and the other toward the rational, this isn't paradoxical at all; it's merely natural (again, assuming this claim is true).

ZACH: Your thoughts on color mixing are game but they fail. At least I haven't seen any explanation in any textbook or elsewhere. Pizza and a TV show are not purporting to be the same thing. Religion and science both make claims to the truth, but are mutually exclusive as far as they exist in the world today. If you don't see a paradox, let's keep moving. And in the end, yes, color mixing does have a resolution, just as do the particle and wave, the magnetic and electrical. But this resolution requires both rational and intuitive formal components.

KEVIN: Your idea was that there's a paradox in the brain hemispheres because one wants myth and the other wants proof. This can only be a paradox if myth and proof are fundamentally different. But just now, you said that, unlike the case of pizza and TV shows, "religion and science both make claims to the truth," implying a basic sameness-- both pursue the same goal: truth. Where, then, is the paradox? If religion and science are "mutually exclusive," this mutual exclusivity seems to be more a function of differences in doxastic practice than basic teleology. And a horrible followup question: what is truth?

ZACH: You missed it. Yes, they both claim truth. But the two truths are incompatible, as they stand in today's world. What makes them paradoxical is if they are both, in fact, truths! Which I do believe, that myth is a different system of truthtelling. No, I don't believe it's merely doxastic (I'm going with your word). The truths of religion are archetypal, and the truths of science are didactic. Again, the scientific and religious truths come from different places and offer different kinds of insight. What is truth? What gives a person the right to even ask this question? Just kidding. But maybe you'll think I'm kidding with my answer, though, that truth in its fullness can only be described in terms of parts and wholes, in terms of complementarity. Or, if you will, in terms of prismatic form. Kind of a demagogue, then, aren't I?

KEVIN: I'm going to need some time to digest your answer, but it's something for me to chew on. Regarding something on p. 37: "...particles do have free will." What does free will mean for particles?

ZACH: Simply that they have a subjectivity, as all things have both sides of the complementarity - in this case, objective/subjective. A particle is both defined by its context and also acts as an “individual” to help define the context.

KEVIN: I do like the idea that the objective and the subjective are complementary. My own superficial readings in philosophy of mind have been focused primarily on the old question of substance dualism versus, say, physicalism or supervenience. Dualists often claim there is an unbridgeable gap between "first-person ontology" and "third-person ontology." I'm not convinced the gap is unbridgeable. How do you think the intuitive science described in your book might help (or hinder?) research in artificial intelligence? Will scientists working on "conscious machines" need to undergo some major paradigm shifts to get what they want?

ZACH: It's all happening. In particular with optical computers which, instead of linear processing where signals follow each other as if in traffic, they cross each other without interfering because of the optical properties, much the same as in entanglement. Optical computers offer an increase of one million x speed. But artificial intelligence is still being configured in a rational format, thus still hampered. I agree that the ontological quandary is bridgeable, by means that the third person is merely another orientation of the first person.

KEVIN: Zach, your book packs a lot into a little space, and it's partly because you use language that, while beautiful, isn't immediately accessible to the (perhaps over-rational) layman. For instance, what you wrote just now: "the third person is merely another orientation of the first person." WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? One thing I strongly felt while reading your book was that it was like peeking through a doorway, getting only a taste of what's really out there. Many of the ideas need to be unpacked. So now for my question: are you ever going to write a book that unpacks the ideas in your 70-page tome? Or am I just a lazy bum seeking easy answers?

ZACH: This is a huge question that I must sadly answer by saying a lengthier explication will not serve the purpose. When you integrate such broad categories as physics, psychology and theology, this encompasses quite a scope. To unpack would require a huge work of many volumes that wouldn't be accessible to most readers. Yes, my book does require some basic foundation in all these areas, but given that, which many learned laymen possess, it's all there in 70 pages. Thanks for mentioning that. It's a selling-point. My experience with readers is that when they read this little book multiple times, it becomes clearer and clearer to them, and then they're in a much better position to build on their global mental structures with more science, psychology and theology. The size of the book makes it possible for anyone to take on, but yes, it does require a little foundation. How can we unite these categories without a basic knowledge of them? We can't do that! Addressing these subjects substantively can only be made so easy.

When we understand the point of view as necessarily first person, regardless of how many "persons" removed, then we see the first person as archetypal and the third person as just our first person view in another first person. We're one.

KEVIN: You mentioned your readers. What sorts of reactions have you gotten from friends and other readers? (You've obviously had quite a few readers-- I couldn't help noticing your book is in its second printing!)

ZACH: Mostly all very positive, and some people who claim life-changing impact. Also, I've met world-class scientists and many others on my journey and they've been largely very positive also, but refrain from getting on board because their exalted reputations demand the rejection of anything spiritual. I've found many high-level theories in the canon which match mine (to the extent of the rational). Some examples: hyperspace crystallography; and crystal holography. The second printing was for a title change and important revisions.

KEVIN: Fantastic. Always encouraging to get positive reactions from readers. By the way, please don't take my own disagreements as a sign that I dislike your book: for me, disagreement is a sign that the book has engaged me. One more question before I finally let you off to dinner: what the heck is a Kretschmann prism?

ZACH: I can't answer that at the moment! Try Wikipedia! Thanks for your great support and enthusiasm, Hominid, including your disagreements, which shed light on the steps forward. We are all one consciousness trying to find coherence with each other, one prism and one soul, yet our own facets of this whole.

KEVIN: You've been very gracious with your time, Zach. Thanks.

ZACH: Thanks so much again, Kevin.

Comments are welcome. I will probably write some further reflections later on.



Anonymous said...

A little bit late reading this, but I found it interesting. As far as the paradox issue goes, I think an important point that you never addressed (and which might have cleared up some confusion) was this: what exactly is a paradox?

If a paradox is something that seems to be contradictory but in fact is possible and true (most dictionaries I've checked list this as the first definition), then by definition all paradoxes are in the mind. That is, if something is possible and true, then obviously it is not really contradictory. The contradiction is simply a product of our perception of reality. If paradox is indeed about perceived (but not real) contradiction, then all paradoxes must be in the mind. When we say that nature is paradoxical, what we are really talking about is the human perception of nature. If there were no human mind around to perceive a paradox, it wouldn't exist. I think that's what Robert Aitken-roshi meant (or at least that's how I understood it).

On that note, when you (Kevin) use verbiage like "apparent paradox," that tells me that you understand a paradox to be something other than the typical dictionary definition--simply because all paradoxes, according to the primary dictionary definition, are apparent and not real. What is your definition of a paradox, and what is the difference between an "apparent paradox" and a "real paradox?"

(The above argument, of course, is predicated on a certain understanding of paradox. There are other senses in which the word is used (like the logical sense, e.g. Zeno's paradox), which makes defining the term crucial to communicating ideas with it.)

As for the color mixing issue, it would seem to me rather straightforward. Subtractive color mixing subtracts colors from white to produce the desired color, while additive color mixing adds colors to black to do the same. In other words, to produce yellow using the subtractive system, you create a pigment that absorbs all but a certain wavelength (around 580 nm) of white light, but to produce yellow using the additive system you add light of different wavelengths (in this case, red and green light) to black to produce what is perceived as yellow light (although it's not actually true yellow light at 580 nm--our eyes simply perceive it as the same color as such light because it takes the average of the two wavelengths present, in this case 510 nm and 650 nm).

So to expect similar color combinations in two entirely different systems to produce the same results would be absurd. That would be like expecting to get the same result by adding a number to zero and subtracting that same number from one hundred.

This brings up another issue--the paradoxicality of color mixing depends on the perceiver's level of understanding. Someone who doesn't understand how either additive or subtractive color mixing works may see it as paradoxical (it seems to be false, but in fact it is proven to be true), while someone who is an expert* in the field will see it as perfectly normal. In this light, we could say that paradox is simply what happens when reality does not jive with the way we understand the universe to work.

* (I am not an expert on color mixing, so it is entirely possible that I have either left important information out or misunderstood certain concepts, but I think I have a good grasp of the basics.)

Kevin Kim said...

Yes-- "paradox" can mean either real or apparent contradiction, though I'd argue that both terms enjoy roughly equally common usage. The only philosophically interesting meaning is "real contradiction," since apparent contradictions are soluble.

This is how I understood paradox in our exchange, and I'm pretty sure that this is what Zach understood it to be as well. Note that Zach says there is a resolution, but that the truths toward which the intuitive and rational approaches point are, in a deep sense, incommensurable (to wit, you cannot apply rational criteria to the intuitive, and vice versa). So ultimately, things aren't really resolved in Zach's point of view; the two truths just sit side by side.

I had to wonder what, exactly, Zach was advocating. If he was saying that, in the final analysis, the rational and intuitive aspects of reality are incommensurable, then... what? It's like saying "Life's a puzzle, but an unsolvable one." I'm tempted to say this truth is trivial, because we all know human knowledge is finite, horizoned. If Zach's "resolution" is a pair of incommensurable truths, one of which is rationally inexplicable, then how exactly have matters been resolved? To me, at least, resolution implies integration, which Zach at times seems both to advocate (cf. his talk of parts, wholes, and oneness) and to reject (you can't apply the rational to the intuitive).

You're right that we should have spent time talking about what paradox is, but I'm pretty sure we shared the same philosophical assumptions as to what the term means.

re: color mixing

Zach was way too quick on the draw to pronounce this paradoxical, when in fact the reasons for the differences in additive and subtractive color mixing are well known. I did five minutes of research on Google and very quickly found the scientific answer to this "paradox," which is at most merely an apparent contradiction. I have grave doubts about what sort of grasp Zach has on science and the scientific mindset, which is another reason for me to doubt his paradigm.

More on this later when I write my reaction.