Monday, September 6, 2010

Difference Engines and Convergence Engines

In the borderland between Quantum Physics and Science Fiction, there is something called a "difference engine". Much scifi has speculated about time travel to both the past and to the future. Some have believed that time travel is not possible, because of the "grandfather paradox". If you went back in time and killed your own grandfather, then you would not be born. If you were not born, then how could you go back in time and kill your grandfather? This paradox is resolved by positing alternate time lines with events from alternate time lines affecting other time lines. In the Star Trek series, there is something called the "temporal prime directive". While the usual prime directive is to not interact with any pre-warp planetary culture (with warp necessary to go into outer space and colonize other worlds), the temporal prime directive has to do with any time travellers not affecting the integrity of the timeline.

These speculations led to what may be called "difference engines" and "convergence engines". A difference engine is something created and organized, driving through history, that changes the integrity of a timeline. It creates an entirely different branch of time where everything is significantly different than the previous timeline. A convergence engine, which is usually built into every timeline already, is something organized to do the opposite, to maintain the integrity of a timeline. A convergence engine means that most of the decisions that we make every day do not make Earth changing historical change. Whether I buy a glass of orange juice for breakfast or have a cup of tea will usually not change the character of my day. It will proceed pretty much the same. Whether or not I say, "happy to see you" or "good afternoon," to someone will also not change even the conversation I am having very much. In other words, events tend to converge and form other events in a way that shapes the integrity of the timeline. This means that there is something like fate at work. It is not so rigid as to be doomed to happen, but it is also not so loose that the timeline can go in any direction. There is a convergence engine driving every timeline forward and manifesting a line of events. This kind of timeline is both mutable and fated to happen. It is not really about "predestination" and "freewill". These ideas relate to a more rigid idea of causality that Quantum Physics has moved beyond. Our free choice does matter, does shape our lives, but there is also habit force, beliefs, values, karmaic laws, and conditioning that also shape how the time line unfolds. Our free choice does modify our timeline some, but any single decision we may usually does not have much power to shape our timeline to a different outcome. Usually we are living out a pattern of choices that remains about the same. There is a subtle set of repetitions behind our way of life that keeps manifesting our history and our unfoldment.

The Fourth Noble Trust of the Eightfold Path is interesting in this regard, because it is trying to create a "difference engine". In the three previous Noble Truths, the Buddha outlined that "sorrow exists", "sorrow has a cause", and that "sorrow has an end (in nirvana)". When I first studied this, I wondered why the Fourth Noble Truth is even necessary. Why does it take a path to implement the Third Noble Truth. Why not just apply the remedy, end sorrow, and simply go on with your life? Indeed, Buddha often talks in just this manner. He talked of his teaching as a medince you just take and then throw away the medicine. He likened his teaching to a raft used to reach another shore (the other shore of enlightenment or nirvana) and that when we reach the other shore then we are meant to throw away the raft.

But merely trying to apply the remedy meets with all kinds of challenges. It is, unfortunately, not as easy as simply applying the remedy and getting free from sorrow. The three poisons of craving, negativity, and delusion are so woven into our lives that merely deciding to end them is not enough. The Fourth Noble Truth is about creating "difference engine" so that our timeline evolves in an entirely different direction. The reverse, the wheel of sorrow, the wheel of cause, effect, and karma, and wheel of samsara, our ordinary lives, is a convergence engine that makes us manifest a life pattern that has its own integrity and fate. We are in a sense doomed to repetition unless we make a series of interlocking decisions and build up another temporal engine in our lives.

To further explore this, and scifi and mystical literature have both explored this, there is something called "the butterfly effect". This metaphor is based on something that I think comes from the writings of the Taoist master Chuang Tzu. It posits a butterfly churning is wings that slightly changes the course of the winds, which in turn move a storm system to rain in a different location, and then changes the direction of an empire. Little changes can add up to big changes. For instance, in the above example, usually drinking orange juice or tea in the morning is not going to change anything. But less us say that I am very acid sensitive and the orange juice from a can of frozen concentrate that melted and refroze in a truck on the way to the grocery store. It is slightly spoiled as a result. I get sick and have to quit working later on that day. I reschedule my appointments. One person who is in immediate need for a session goes to another healer, while another person later on that week, who is travelling through town, is able to take advantage of a schedule opening that otherwise would not have been there. Let us say that this person has a break through they were ready for and later on even studies the same healing modality, becoming a healer herself. This person later on heals several people who feel very optimistic about their lives. One of them divorces a person to break free of an unhealthy relationship. The person who is divorced goes through his own crisis and quits being in politics. Another person gets elected instead who brings in new policies. From one glass of spoiled orange juice, a lot of big changes start to ripple through many interlocking individual time lines. These changes first diverge and then converge. For instance, I could be in the district where the new person gets elected and I will be, in turn, affected by the new person. People may or may not like the changes. Some might get cynical about politics as a result and need sessions. Others might get happier if they like the changes and feel less need for a session. The overall character of the timeline will be similar and different from the other timeline where a drink tea instead. Usually the differences are not historically significant, though individual timelines can be drastically different, with some people living and dying, some people have children together and others not having children together, and affect whole communities. Yet these changes are less impactful than, let us say, an atom bomb blowing up and wiping out an entire city, possibly three generations of families, completely off the temporal map. Given the reality of reincarnation, though, many of these people might incarnate in other families, and what arises is a blend of what they bring with them and what they get from the new family line. Some things might converge back into something similar that might have happened if the city was not blown up. A person may be karmaically attracted to being with someone and meet them lifetime after lifetime now matter what. They are likely to pull children from a similar pool of souls. In short, there are factors that "correct the timeline" and move it back on track.

In Buddhism, when a person has created a difference engine, through his or her commitment to the spiritual path, through the sincerity of their intention, and through all their work to live their intentions, not matter what they were (so that having an intention is not a helpless wish that does not change us), there is a timeline shift. A Buddha, initiating another into the spiritual path, sometimes "gives the prophecy" of the eventual enlightenment of a sentient being. They can see this timeline and notice that the person will reach enlightenment. They can often see the details of the event. The actual event may be a little different, because time is very alive and undergoes change. But there is also something I call "lock in". This is where we are locked into a timeline and can know it will manifest. Some lock ins are very good and some are very painful karmas manifesting. Usually when a lock in is strong the convergence engine that drives the event cannot be stopped. It still may be theoretically possible to switch to a different time line, but for all practical purposes the timeline integrity is so airtight that it is not possible to alter it. This was called "fate" in previous cultures.

The Eightfold Path is a difference engine that can even alter fate. It can have a person switch from a timeline of repeated sorrow in the samsaric universe to a meaningful life that ends in the bliss of nirvana and even continues beyond this. In Sufi language, you would shift from fate to destiny, with the latter being always good and being under different formative laws where more freedom exists. One teacher called this kind of difference, "a difference that makes a difference".

The teachings of physical immortality, too, are a difference engine that can make a difference. It is moving beyond the pattern of sickness, accident, aging, poverty, and death. This pattern has been changing over the thousands of years of human history. If you look at the historical pattern individual histories and apply a bell shaped curve and look at the age marker where it is certain that 90 percent of the people of the culture have died, then the age marker has moved from about 40 years to about 80 years. It might be pushing past 90 years now. It depends on how you form the numbers and whether you only include death by old age or include accidents. But whatever factors are used, the age marker is pushing later and later. This is partly because of the difference engine called "science" which has been increasing its influence in shaping our world and rippling out vast changes in the timeline in the form of new technologies and new understandings of religious history as well.

Another difference engine is "democracy" which has replaced "monarchy". This has organized human life differently. There are many friends that I have that feel we do not really have a democracy, that some hidden special interest groups or conspiracies are really in control. But whether or not this is true, the very idea itself of democracy has shaped the timeline. It is has implemented something that has had at least a partial illusory existence, just as behind a monarchy might be hidden democratic processes (where debate, discussion, voting, parties, and alliances shaped events even with an overt monarch seeming to rule). Even humans thinking that they have more power to choose their leaders has been difference engine which has changed the timeline. The idea of democracy, too, while being a difference engine is also changing with the changes it brought into existence. It is not remaining static. I do not think the early Greeks, the Romans, the Feudal Lords, and the Founding Fathers could have envisioned such a complex high tech civilization emerging out of their early contemplation of the idea of democracy. Perhaps Padmasambhava did see the timeline, since he predicted that Tibet would get invaded "when metal birds fly across the sky" (which to me is a good way of referencing airplanes to a pre-airplane culture). This was approximately 1,000 years ago.

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha makes the prophecy that all sentient beings will become enlightened. Before this, only some individuals received the prophecy when they created, through their initiation to the spiritual path, a difference engine that locked them into a time line where their enlightenment could be seen. I take that the prophecy of everyone eventually getting enlightened is different. But it involves seeing a massive convergence engine that has computed all possible timeline deviations and corrects them so that everyone does become enlightened. This fits in with the "teaching of historical inevitability" which asserts that when a Buddha teaches in a world, then the world must get enlightened. It is not a question of "if" but simply when. The possible time lines and time branches might realize this outcome through a different amount of years. But the "end points" of each time branch has enlightenment as the outcome.

There has been some flavor among Buddhists that is cynical about the final enlightenment of all sentient beings, even though all Bodhisattvas and Dakinis vow to help bring this very process to completion. This cynicism shows up in long time spans where things actually get worse until another Buddha has to incarnate and put the planet back on track. Part of this is due to how much cyclical time has shaped Asian philosophies. There are exceptions like Mencius, who felt that humans were progressing and that doing evil was like swimming upstream, against the current, and that it would eventually fail. He was actually describing a positive macro convergence engine shaping all timelines. His vision would fit the Lotus Sutra. I call this positivity "metaphysical optimism". It is not merely optimistic about life, but it is intrinsically optimistic. Some people are only optimistic because they interpret the thrust of events as going in a good direction and they will get pessimistic when events seem to turn sour. A metaphysical optimist will stay optimistic no matter what, because he or she understands that there macro positive convergence engines driving life forward and that these engines are driven by a universal field of energy infused with unconditional love, intuitive wisdom, and infinite creativity. This kind of positivity is implied in the "gift of faith" that comes during Sufi initiation as well as being a cure for the second poison of the mind (negativity).

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