Levels of magnification

Every moment is a crossroads in space-time. The way you perceive this particular ‘here-and-now’ depends on who you are, where you are, and when you are – in other words, your perspective. Given the limitations of our senses and our minds, there is always necessarily an immense amount of information that we are unable to take in, that gets excluded from our perspective, rendering it forever partial and incomplete.

We not only miss out on information at our own human level of magnification – being roughly a few metres tall, and witnessing the passage of a period of time lasting a century or more at most – but also information at the cosmic and microscopic levels of magnification. To overcome this we use microscopes to peer into very small objects in minute detail, and telescopes to gaze at the universe at vast distances. Both lenses make otherwise invisible objects visible at the human level of magnification. We study history and contemplate events in the future to frame the context in which our life takes place. Despite these methods, however, it remains the case that the human body-mind affords us but an infintesimal slice of reality.

We must remember that the meaning we assign to all instances (events and objects in space-time) depends on our perspective (time, place, and level of magnification). Things which seem very important, good or bad to one person at one point in time may take on greater or lesser significance when seen from a different time, place, or level of magnification. Remember this when you think your version of the truth is the only valid version. Remember this when you are picking and choosing favourites, judging and prioritizing some things over other things. Remember it also when you are faced with loss, disappointment or change. What we perceive to be ‘truth, beauty and goodness’ depends on our position in space-time. This is not to say that our perception is right or wrong, per se, only that it is limited. Every perspective contains a piece of the truth, never the whole truth.

How is any of this relevant to our daily life? Every day we are faced with decisions and choices which force us to prioritize some things over other things and make sacrifices – sometimes difficult ones. In every situation we can do what we feel is right for ourselves, individually, in this moment, or what is right for all beings, collectively, in the long run. I am reminded of a lesson from Henry Hazlitt in his book Economics in One Lesson: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” In other words: looking at things from a higher level of magnification in both space and time. This I believe can be applied not only to economics but to the broader field of human activity. We can use it as a kind of moral compass to examine the consequences of our actions and decisions as individuals and as societies.

This brings us to the issue of paradox. A paradox is an apparent contradiction or conflict between two concepts existing at a similar level of magnification which form part of a greater unity at a higher level. For example: to be at peace with the world we must learn to orient our consciousness to love and accept all circumstances and people as they are. Yet at the same time, we should not be so passive as to allow grave injustices and abuses to continue; we ought to raise awareness and work to build a kinder and more just world for the benefit of current and future generations. Should we act to promote social justice, or stay on the meditation cushion and accept what is happening around us? The paradox here is that we should do both. It is possible to fully accept our present situation while also working to make it better.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” All systems have components which on some level seem to oppose or contradict each other, yet we can see that they form part of a greater unity which transcends and includes the components and which is non-contradictory.

Paradoxes confound our rational mind. We often try to resolve questions of ‘either/or’ by figuring out which option is best – in other words, collapsing the paradox by endorsing one perspective and excluding the other. I think this is a rather simplistic and suboptimal way of handling paradoxes. We do not find the best outcome by choosing one side and excluding the other. A deeper truth, a higher wisdom and greater good can be found in the paradox of ‘both/and’. In all things there exists a dynamic equilibrium between two polarities that integrates elements of both and sustains a dynamic tension that prevents extreme outcomes. We don’t have to settle permanently on one end or the other end of the pole. Doing so creates shadows which come back to haunt us. By balancing between both we embrace the beautiful paradoxes which make life possible.

Einstein once said: “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” I take this to mean that you cannot solve a problem from within the problem; you must be bigger than the problem. When you encounter a paradox, it is an invitation to transcend the level you are at and move up to a higher magnification. You cannot understand and solve problems at their own level, only from a higher level, and you cannot solve a puzzle when you yourself are a piece of the puzzle; you must see it as an outsider. There are many tough questions which we face, particularly in the fields of politics and economics, which are too large and complex to be fully understood from the perspective of a single person. It is impossible for one person to know what the best policy is for millions of people, most of whom he or she will never meet and whose lives remain as statistical generalizations. In order to be able to know what is best for a large society, one would have to take the perspective that is both higher and wider than the whole society, to look at it from an objective perspective. Since this is very difficult at the very least, what we get as a result is politics ruled by private interest groups and influencial individuals each manipulating the system to capture benefits for themselves. It is possible but rare that a leader or a party comes into being that genuinely and consistently acts for the greater long-term good of the entire society.

As we move up and down the levels of magnification, we see that things appear solid, then empty, then solid again, then empty. Another way to put it is: order, chaos, order, chaos, or as Ken Wilber might say, whole (holon), parts, whole, parts. Fractal geometry illustrates beautifully the concept of levels of magnification. We can look at anything up close or at a distance, and as we increase or decrease the zoom we see familiar patterns repeated again and again. The view appears different in between similar iterations but there is an order and rhythm to it all.

By ascending the levels of magnification (zooming out), we find freedom, disidentification, and openness. We are able to see the broader context, find greater meaning and purpose in events, take a wider perspective, and de-emphasize individual instances in space-time while respecting their contribution by integrating them into a larger, more comprehensive picture.

By descending the levels of magnification (zooming in), we uncover mysteries and discover quality by refining in ever greater detail and precision our understanding of the inner workings of things. We can see the complexity and intricacy of objects, events, people and processes and understand how subtle forces beneath the visible layer give rise to the outcomes we see on the surface.


~ by spiritualseeker1 on October 26, 2012.

One Response to “Levels of magnification”

  1. You write, “We often try to resolve questions of ‘either/or’ by… endorsing one perspective and excluding the other.” And also, “you cannot solve a problem from within the problem; you must be bigger than the problem, …from a higher level, …you must see it as an outsider.” Are you not endorsing one perspective and excluding the other? Without instead of within, bigger instead of smaller, higher instead of lower, outside instead of inside.

    I disagree that you cannot solve a problem from within the problem. Not only is it possible, it is essential to solve a problem from both within and without. Is that not the very paradox of this human life? I am the puzzle piece, and I am the whole. I am the particle and the wave. We are separate and we are one. Both. At the same time.

    Sometimes, the solution to a problem is not necessarily a “higher” perspective. Sometimes, the solution to a problem is in the humbling realization that my perspective, which I felt certain was “higher” or “bigger,” was actually part of the problem.

    I hope I don’t sound critical. Consider me thought-provoked. 🙂

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