What is it About?

I’m walking to my car when I see her.  Sophia!  Hurrying, I try to get to my car and beat a hasty retreat, but alas, she catches up to me…

Sophia: Where are you going?

Me: Away from you.

Sophia: How?

Me: Ummm, this car?

Sophia: How?

Me: Huh?

Sophia: How?  How will you use the car to get away?

Me: Ummmm, I will go inside, stick the key in the ignition, turn it on, then use my mad driving skills to steer the hell out of here.

Sophia: But how does turning the key in the ignition actually turn the car on?

Me: Beats me.

Sophia: Shouldn’t you find out?

Me: Of course not.

Sophia: Why Not?

Me: Because I don’t need to know this in order to drive.  I turn the key and the engine starts up.  I guess it’s an internal combustion engine or something.

Sophia: But what if it isn’t an internal combustion engine at all?

Me: So what?  There could be hamsters under the hood for all I care.  All that matters is that my key turns it on, the steering wheel controls it, the gas makes it go, the brake makes it stop…

Sophia: So you also don’t care about how turning the wheel gets the wheels to turn, or how the gas–

Me: No, no, I couldn’t care less.

Sophia: So it’s fair to say that as long as the car runs, you don’t need to think about how it works.

Me: Yep.  In fact, it’s just a distraction.  Cars are meant for driving.

Sophia: So you never wondered how it worked?

Me: Well… Now that you mention it, there was a time.  It wouldn’t start, and I started wondering about the engine and crap.

Sophia: So really, if you start wondering how the car works, then that’s because it’s not working.

Me: Sure.

Sophia: Who built this car?

Me: Mr. Who Freakin’ Cares, that’s who.

Sophia: But what if the person who built it was of a poor character?  What if he he didn’t come from an authorized lineage of factory workers?

Me: Who. Cares.

Sophia: Why not?

Me: Because it’s irrelevant!  The. Car. Runs.

Sophia: I see.

Me: Ok, so what are you up to?

Sophia blinks innocently.

Me: Oh, don’t act all innocent you junkyard Socrates.  Spit it out, what’s on your mind? What’s the thinly veiled metaphor behind this conversation?

Sophia: I was just thinking about people who practice contemplative paths like Buddhism.

Me: And… ?

Sophia: It just seems that they should have the same attitude as you do towards the car.  Yet many of them argue about details or why or how something works.  But if it works, then that’s all that matters, right?

Me: Hey, isn’t this a modernized version of the Buddhist Parable of the Arrow?

Sophia: Yes. Back to the point, I wonder if they argue over these things because they are not getting results? After all, why would they need to worry about lineages, schools and so on,  if they see with their own eyes that their life is getting better?

Me: True.  Why would they even need to have faith?  I mean, I don’t have faith in this car, I don’t need to.  If it runs, it runs.  Seems you only have faith if you can’t get results now.

Sophia: Which is fine for a religion that only rewards you after death; but Buddhism is a philosophy that is supposed to yield results in this life — in relatively short order, and without the supernatural.  Yes, in Buddhism faith is a bad sign; it means you failed.

Me: Or maybe you’re not trying?

Sophia: Pardon?

Me: Some people don’t actually practice, but love talking about it.  Or maybe they’re more in love with the idea of being Buddhist then they are with improving their lives.  So instead of applying the teachings, they instead memorize sutras, give themselves Buddhist names, wave a stick of incense around. It’s like… like…

Sophia: Venerating an auto service manual?

Me: Exactly! It would be like me reading the auto service manual over and over, clinging to every word, and getting into stupid arguments with people who have different manuals.  I’d start having crises of faiths, and worrying about stupid crap like the character of whoever put this thing together.  All the while, I’m not doing the one thing I was meant to do — DRIVE THE DAMN CAR!

Sophia: So Buddhism isn’t about Buddhism, it’s about–

Me: Life!

Sophia: It seems we’re on the same page.

Me: Thanks for the lousy pun.  Can I leave now?


    • Thanks! I’ve wanted to use her for a while, and even started a Bishop Berkeley starring her a while back, but haven’t felt satisfied with it, so it’s been in draft limbo forever. Also, I haven’t forgotten about the one on ESL & interactive fiction. Got a draft of that as well, but I’m thinking of expanding it to include an AI/limited world/mental model/behavioral view of language connection. I might need to narrow the scope on that one :).

      • I think it’s a great format. I look forward to seeing more from her.
        I don’t think it does any harm to let things simmer on the back-burner for a while. Time seems to sort out the kinks in an idea, don’t you think?

      • I agree; sometimes a dialog is the best way to represent the push and pull of ideas, or even show the development of a particular view.

        I also agree that letting an idea simmer for a while can be a great thing, so this may work out for the best 🙂

  1. Brilliant dialogue B.I.A.R.! I once had a similar exchange. I was temporarily working as a young engineer for a French chief of engineering (call him Pierre) at a company that made electrical installations. Pierre showed me a cabinet with lots of buttons, levers and displays. Nice, I said. He then opened the cabinet to show the inside. OMG – it was such a mess, with cables crisscrossing allover. No attempt at guiding them along neat cable gutters. I pulled a face and told Pierre it was a mess. He growled that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it worked and good look at the outside.

    As an engineer I never agreed with him. It matters a lot. It told me that the guy who made that mess didn’t care. If he took as little care of the important things as he did for the unimportant things, that it was an ugly piece of work. Superficial and cheap. I’d be happier with the opposite: rough on the outside but beauty within.

    Over the years I have found that there are two types of people. Those that care about the outside and those that care about the inside. A Buddhist master would smile at both and berate them both. It isn’t about thinking or judgment. Go and count the stars, he would say. And don’t come back before you know the answer.

    • Thanks!

      In the machine example, I can see how the innards would matter both for being able to analyze the machine (much harder to do if it’s messy) and also when one needs to go in and fix stuff. These qualities can be so internalized that they are perceived as aesthetic qualities. In fact, I wonder if some of that same perception is behind “beautiful math”.

      Yet would it matter to the average user?

      A parallel in Buddhism would be the role of the scholar, psychologist or perhaps even philosopher who is trying to study the proposed mechanisms by which things work, or even the evolution of ideas. Yet for the average person who applies Buddhism, would how it works matter?

      However, there is another twist on this. Would a certain understanding of the proposed mechanism perhaps lead to a better ability to evaluate and fine-tune practice? Although this dialog only dealt with those who unnecessarily fixate on such details, there can be value to doing so, depending on what one does with said details.

  2. An interesting dialog.

    “Back to the point, I wonder if they argue over these things because they are not getting results?”
    I see this as an insightful observation. It reminds me of the endless arguments over the best governing strategies or the best way to exercise.

    “Yes, in Buddhism faith is a bad sign; it means you failed.

    Me: Or maybe you’re not trying?”
    I actually find this part a little disturbing. If Buddhism (or insert whatever philosophy or faith under discussion) isn’t working for someone, it seems a little too easy to accuse them of not trying hard enough. Presumably they were originally attracted to it for the promised results and motivated to strive for them. Not that there won’t be people who really aren’t putting in sufficient effort, but when large numbers are struggling, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if effort is really the issue.

    As usual, I may well be missing the p0int 🙂

    • Agreed; it’s possible they are trying and it just isn’t working for them. Yet the issue with faith, debates, etc… still applies. After all, if this isn’t working, they should try something else, yet “faith” could lure them into something that just is not working out for them. Buddhism basically says (if) the regular world doesn’t cut it, try something else. Well, the same logic should apply to Buddhism. I’m definitely not of the “Buddhism is the only path” or “one size fits all” school of thought.

      • Thank you. I think it’s a very good attitude to avoid saying Buddhism does or doesn’t work, and instead say whether it works for an individual. The dilemmas and arguments about universal truths only arise when people wonder “how the sausage is made” and how something can help them, but not another person. Heck, take the worst case scenario, that it’s a placebo effect. So what? Placebo or not, if I’m happier, then I’m happier. Besides, isn’t happiness based on a placebo effect? I’m happy because I think I got something that’s worth having. If that isn’t a placebo, I don’t know what is.

      • Actually, from what I understand about philosophical Buddhism, the whole idea is that it’s in your head and your best chance at happiness is controlling what happens there. It’s almost like it’s an intentional controlled placebo.

        But more broadly on placebos, I totally agree. It’s why, although I’m a skeptic, I generally don’t take the attitude that everyone must be a skeptic. I’m a skeptic because I’m compelled to be, but most people I know get comfort to one degree or another from their beliefs, and I’m reluctant to try to take it from them. (As long as those beliefs aren’t destructive; most aren’t.)

  3. Great post.

    It really highlights two things that I think are very important. The first is the way in which the question of how things operate is separate from the call to improve our lives. The second, and more interesting I think is the sense in which religion and philosophy ought ultimately be questions of how best to live your own life, rather than mere abstract considerations. Too often both philosophy and religion become about disagreements that don’t really affect life, rather than as a response to the question of how best to live.

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