Bob Schwartz

Tag: Talmud

The binary and the infinite: What we learn from computers, the I Ching, the Bible and breathing.

We live today and have long lived in what seems to us, at first glance, a binary world. So it seems.

At their most basic, computers are binary machines. Countless combinations of yes/no, on/off decision circuits, adding up, as speed and the number of decisions increase exponentially, to processes that mimic (or exceed) human thought.

The I Ching begins its panoramic presentation of world with a simple binary calculation: either a solid yang line or a broken yin line, combined into eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, from which the entire nature of life and time is profiled, if not actually predicted.

Traditions, such as Taoism, Zen and others, suggest non-duality. That reality exists between those choices we are so attached to. That it is not either/or, not neither/nor. Computers agree. Reduced to each of the billions of digital decisions, binary means nothing. The I Ching reduced to a single line means little. The meanings, all of them, are in the matrix of combinations.

The Bible agrees. It would seem, in its rules and lists, to promote binary behavior. The Ten Commandments are a prime example. But at the literal first moment, if we immerse ourselves in the question of what is between existence and non-existence at creation (contemplation that according to one legendary interpretation drove the Talmudist Ben Zoma crazy), the answer may be everything. The Book of Ecclesiastes, famous for saying that all is ephemeral vapor and listing the binary poles (a time to laugh, a time to weep…), is telling us we live now and ever in the changes in between. Not unlike the I Ching.

Physics has also given up on the binary. Simplistic analysis has given way to acknowledgement that as much as we would like to hold on to a concept of this or that, now or then, the physical world at a foundational level exists in simultaneous multiple states.

Not everything about our organic human lives is binary, but plenty of it is. Ten has its place (fingers, toes), but a distinct second place to two. Two arms and hands, legs and feet, eyes, ears, lungs.

Lungs bring us to breathing, the penultimate binary. Inhale, exhale. There is nothing in between. The failure of that binary leads to the ultimate: life, death. Some do posit an alternative to that binary, a third option. But if we just stick to life/death, what do we learn about either one from this discussion of binary?

Things as they are are not exactly binary, except we make them so. This doesn’t mean that one can think away breathing or death. No inhale/exhale, no life happens. But the values in between—the digital fabric, the I Ching, the space between existence and non-existence, the time between laughing and weeping, the quantum states—are where it is at.

Poem: My Night with the Sages


My Night with the Sages

I found their numbers
Six, sixty-three.
Dispensing wisdom
Demanding action
Citing authority.
And talking
And talking.
How could they possibly
Help with the night?
Lost in loud logic
Where is the comfort or distraction?
But I called anyway
And they came.
To uneasy free floating
In the bleak
They added gravity
And light
Not quite
In reach
But there.
To sleep.