Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Aporia

Aporia. From the ancient Greek. Poria = passage; thus aporia literally means impassable. Like the gateless gate, an aporia is therefore an impenetrable barrier. In western philosophy "aporia" is understood to stand for "an insoluble contradiction or paradox." Many Zen koans are presented in the form of aporia. For example, "A philosopher asked Buddha: 'Without words, without silence, will you teach me the Dharma (truth)?'" Since the truth can only be either spoken or transmitted silently, the question takes the form of a contradiction in terms. (NOT an oxymoron, by the way. This term is often confused with a contradiction but it is not. It is a figure of speech that suggests a contradiction.) And since there is no evident way of resolving the contradiction, it is an aporia.

Another example: Shuzan held up his staff and waved it before his monks."If you call this a staff," he said, "you deny its essential existence. If you do not call this a staff, you deny its temporal existence. What should you call it?"

Another: "Suppose you meet a Zen master on the road. You can't
talk to him. You can't stand there silent. What can you do?"

Or this: Baso said to a monk, "If I see you have a staff, I will give it to
you. If I see you have no staff, I will take it away from you."

The situation we now find themselves in is actually very much like a koan, in that it takes the form of an aporia and appears to present an impenetrable dilemma. It is indeed a gateless gate. If presented like a koan it might go something like this:

If the government doesn't bail out the many failing banks and other financial institutions holding toxic assets then there will be a ripple effect among similar institutions all over the world. The entire financial system will collapse and along with it the stock market. As a result we will have a terrible depression. On the other hand, there is no way to meaningfully bail out these institutions, first, because their debts are so huge, and second, because there is no way to determine how much they are worth. If the government tries to bail them out nevertheless, either by guaranteeing their debts or by nationalizing them, it will have to print so much money that the dollar will almost certainly collapse -- and the world monetary system along with it.

Or, to put it in simpler terms: the economic system cannot be allowed to collapse because that would be a catastrophe; on the other hand, there is no way to prevent the economic system from collapsing without producing a catastrophe. So what are you going to do, Mr. Obama?

The Financial Armageddon we are now confronting is not simply a technical problem that has to be solved, as assumed by our leaders, the pundits and the media generally, who are continually arguing back and forth on this issue -- but an aporia, an inherently insoluble dilemma. Our future should not, therefore, be in the hands of either the politicians or the economists. But you already knew that. Only a poet can pass through the gateless gate!

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