May 26, 2010

Skepticisim is Free

Yesterday Dharma. Today homework. Of course, the lines are never that neat, but for now let us draw them thus for simplicity sake and then cross over them repeated like skipping rope until, like the flashing rope, the line disappears.

Today, I am writing a paper regarding the book A Theory of Good City Form by Kevin Lynch, first published in 1981. As inevitably happens, my mind wanders and begins drawing connections, relating what I have learned into the larger matrix of knowledge stored in my head. Lynch is a city planner. His books have been well received and even thirty years later, his reputation is solid and his theories strong. (That's a long time in the world of such things.)

In the design of cities he lays down not conceptual metaphors, as others have done relating cities to cosmic order, machines, or living things, but a list of five performance criteria – what a city should do rather than what it should be. Lynch recognizes there are many ways of being, or forms, that are conducive to the same way of doing things, or goals or values. Each may have their merits and be context appropriate. Thus, he makes no attempt, in this book at least, to prescribe singular forms as others have done. He also very specifically criticizes the use of metaphors in attempting to understand and make decisions concerning cities. A city is not a machine or an organism, though it may have similarities to both. And if there is a cosmic order, humanity can hardly agree on what that might be, let along whether or not it is appropriate to apply to city design.

This is a fundamentally different approach to the design of architecture that my professors have emphasized in the past years. They are both design problems, cities and buildings, but in the design of “architecture,” my mentors have continuously upheld the creation of a unifying “concept” as the end all be all. What is the concept? How can that concept be physically represented? For example, in my final project, I used the concept “Earth and Sky” and it was physically represented through the interplay of very identifiable “earth” spaces, close, dark (relatively), solid, protective, and “sky” spaces, light, opening, airy, expansive.

But for all that I can do it – this concept thing – I don’t buy it. Concepts to me seem arbitrary and limiting. Who is to say this concept is actually the most appropriate for this design solution? Might not another concept suit better? What if the physical manifestation of this concept, while appropriate in one aspect, is radically inappropriate in another? Should we carry out the design such that it has integrity to the concept regardless of whether or not it best serves the client? I see this happen all too often, even in architecture we now hold up as masterpieces. There is usually found some little area, that if the integrity of the concept was of even slightly less a concern, a solution to the problem (of a leaky roof or poor solar exposure, etc.) is readily available. So you see, I don’t buy it.

Sound familiar? Did I not just write that concerning metaphysics, and especially their presence in Buddhism, that “I don’t buy it?”

It seems I am always playing games. I am here for a short time living and working at a center where I do not accept much of the fundamental doctrine of the denomination. I can discuss the Tibetan notion of tulkas, rebirth, the bardo, karma, prophetic signs, etc., but I do not buy into it. I attended university in a school which teaches a common doctrine of architecture design, the primacy of concept and how to carry it out, but I do not buy into it. I know the rules of the game, but I recognize them only as such – rules of a game, not truths in their own right or even particularly useful tools towards the seeking of truth.

This is perhaps not unique. I ran across such a description recently while doing research for my presentation on How Architects Think. Rorshach testing carried out on 120 architects in 1959 revealed they often perceive life as a game, not in the sense that it is trivial, but in the sense that there are pieces and rules and puzzles all to be fit together and navigated among. These rules and pieces are very important, but they are also viewed in the abstract as being arbitrary and changeable, their fundamental value always in question. The designer will navigate this world because, first, playing the game is fun, and second, it appears to be necessary to their livelihood, not merely as architects, but as human beings. Everyone plays the game; they are simply more likely to perceive it as such.

It is not to say this manner of perceiving the world is either good or bad, particularly (rather I think it more useful to people of certain temperaments, while others will have similarly appropriate mental tools at their disposal), but it does remind me of the Buddhist admonishment that life is a dream from which we must wake up. It is a dream of a reality broken down and defined by discrete concepts – as if these concepts were actually physical things and not merely mental phenomena – as if they were unchanging and separate from ourselves, endowed with lives of their own.

Reality is complex and infinitely interdependent, so we simplify. A city becomes a machine. A building becomes earth. The inter-action of our thoughts, words, deeds, and their eventual and often unknowable outcomes becomes karma. Life, the universe, and everything becomes forty-two. Simple, one-word answers to offer comfort. Trouble is, like Douglas Adams’ aliens, I’m not sure we ever understood the question.

And that’s the heart it – “I’m not sure.” It’s similar to “I don’t buy it.” No, I don’t buy it, but I don’t entirely deny it either. I just leave it sitting on the shelf. It’s still there. I could buy it later. Maybe later it’ll appear to be worth a dollar twenty-five. Maybe later I’ll see the value of it. I’ll shell out, make the commitment, buy in. Because don’t be mistaken, there is a commitment to be made. As soon as you buy into an idea, belief, or concept you’re closing a door to the alternative. The trick is to keep every door cracked.

This is what a skeptic does. Yes, there are certain things I buy into more than other things. I think Lynch’s idea of performance criteria over outdated metaphors is applicable to architecture as much as city planning. I think if I walk up to a chick in a bar and punch her, I’ll get the tar beat out of me. I call that karma, and see how it operates in a very physical sense if not necessarily in a metaphysical one. Of course, I could be wrong, both about architecture, the chick in the bar (maybe she’s Buddhist too and a committed pacifist), and the metaphysical nature of karma.

That’s the core calling of a skeptic. One cannot be successfully skeptical if one is not first and foremost skeptical of oneself, one’s own convictions and beliefs, even one’s belief is one’s “self” at all. (Maybe androids dream of Buddhist girls?) Starting from this skeptical place, seeing life as a game or a dream, is part of the path of awakening to a reality free of conceptual thinking – and possibly also free of suffering. (I say “possibly” because I haven’t been there yet, thus I am slightly skeptical. Naturally.)

Of course, one could make the criticism that I’m merely wishy-washy. That’s okay. One could ask “How can you live like that? Never being certain of anything?” Well, I generally consider certainty to be a sign of insanity. (And we’re all at least a little mad.) Perhaps this is what Pema once called “groundlessness” and exhorted us to live within even though it may not always be comfortable. Or perhaps this skepticism is pure intellectual masturbation. I’ve been accused of that, too, fairly often, by one of my most delightful and most conservative professor friends. I’m not sure.

But ask this: should we be sure?

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