The Systems of the World

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Martial artist and folk hero Bruce Lee founded the martial art known as jeet kune do, “the style of no style.” Lee said of his style, “True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems…I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns and doctrines.”

Compare my friend David Chapman on the post-systematic system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.” The systems and patterns that can oppress us are also extremely useful. Growing beyond them does not mean throwing them out. Chapman describes skillful use of systems as piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.

Bruce Lee begins his article with reference to a Zen koan:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too. …” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

A naive reader might expect that Lee would only accept novice students, already-empty cups, free from the shackles of systems. But in fact he generally selected experts in some style of martial arts as his students. This is not a contradiction. Both Lee and the subject of the koan were speaking to those who already have a full cup.

People who have not yet absorbed systems are not shackled by them, and have no need of learning ways of navigating them without being hindered. Those who have not yet spent years learning and practicing within systems are not capable of moving beyond them, to a perspective where systems can be held lightly as tools, not clung to as totems.

A recent article on demon possession illustrates my point. In this article, a psychiatrist explains why he believes in demon possession, using as evidence cold reading techniques and second-hand reports of parlor tricks. Someone well-versed in rationalism would immediately spot egregious epistemic problems. This is not postrationalism; this is prerationalism. Is belief in demons (and the rituals to eradicate them) interesting and worth studying, as a phenomenon and even as a metaphor? Of course! But accepting the literal reality of demons, and the effectiveness of techniques to eradicate them, uncritically, indicates a basic error.

In this piece, I will review my pieces so far on Ribbonfarm and contextualize them in terms of the skillful study and use (and not rejection) of systems and systematizing. (Note: I’m not leaving Ribbonfarm, this is just a summary of where we’ve been so far.)

Systematizing Ritual

I have said that the hypothesis that behavior is “ritual” is presented when the behavior appears irrational – for example, when resources are sacrificed or behaviors are performed for no visible gain. Categorizing lots of apparently irrational behavior as ritual and analyzing their logic and function, rather than naively condemning them, has been my project in several articles:

Viewed as co-evolved expressions of rational human desires, rituals are fascinating and profoundly ambiguous. To embrace ritual as a system does not mean that ritual is always good, or that old rituals must be strictly adhered to. But understanding ritual and the sacred can make us much less annoyed and confused by our own behavior and that of our conspecifics.

Systematizing Social Cognition

One of the most interesting things to look at is ourselves, and how we think. Human cognition is special because we are constantly modeling the minds of others, and projecting models of ourselves onto their minds. We see ourselves in both the first and third person. And we understand the world not just through reading and reflection, but through our behaviors alone and together. I have attempted to systematize our cognition in a few posts:

Systematizing Wrongness

I love Snopes, and I love the study of folklore. It’s extremely useful that a few people go around playing Whac-A-Mole with all the myriad wrongnesses that our culture produces. But we don’t all have to do that. Since some people do that very effectively, the rest of us can look for interesting patterns in the wrongness, and see how it functions and evolves. I have written about deception and the evolution of narrative in a few posts:

Systematizing Cartography and Stigmergy

Maps are an extremely useful consequence of “book consciousness,” which I have lambasted as our “consciousness monoculture” even though it is awesome and fun. Recently I was running in the mountains at Lake Tahoe, and noticed lots of information: dozens of unused parking spaces painted on the asphalt near a ski resort; still, silent chair lifts; drainage tunnels under a road next to a dry stream. These features give us otherwise-unobservable information about the location at different times: there must be tons of cars and skiers in the winter, and there must sometimes be water pouring under the road. I have written about maps, and how they relate to territories and our cognition, in a few articles:

Systematizing Jokes, Puzzles, and Farting Around

In systematizing humor and puzzles, we are both coming to understand them, and seeing how they undermine our project of total systematization. I have written about humor and puzzles here:

In Puzzle Theory, I hoped to demonstrate the playful, nonjudgmental use of systematization, and to point out when rigid systematization fails.

I attempted to systematize human recreation and fun here:

Skillfully Systematizing Systems

Being stuck in any particular system is no fun. It limits our ability to think and act skillfully, and to communicate with others who are not stuck in our system. However, without grounding in things like rationality, science, evolution, statistics, economics, game theory, and even analytic philosophy, we lack the ability to lightly take up and play with systems as the situation merits. Some warn against “armchair” theorizing, but this is only a danger if we are going to be forever beholden to our theories, rather than play a serious game.

Bruce Lee includes a parable in his article:

It is conceivable that a long time ago a certain martial artist discovered some partial truth. During his lifetime, the man resisted the temptation to organize this partial truth, although this is a common tendency in a man’s search for security and certainty in life. After his death, his students took “his” hypothesis, “his” postulates and “his” method and turned them into law. Impressive creeds were then invented, solemn reinforcing ceremonies prescribed, rigid philosophy and patterns formulated, and so on, until finally an institution was erected. So what originated as one man’s intuition of some sort of personal fluidity was transformed into solidified, fixed knowledge, complete with organized classified responses presented in a logical order. In so doing, the well-meaning, loyal followers not only made this knowledge a holy shrine but also a tomb in which they buried the founder’s wisdom.

This is the future for what is called “postrationalism,” just as it was the future for jeet kune do at the time Lee was writing, if it should become an institution. But we are not playing in the future; we are playing right now.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter