Big Currents

The ancient Greeks of Homeric times imagined the earth as a flat surface surrounded by the river Okeanos, the source of all waters – also described, in a few passages, as the source of all the gods, and even of all things (Turning Signs, Chapter 10.) “Okeanos” was not only a precursor of the meaning cycle but also of current models of the circulation of water in the planet Earth’s oceans.

image from Wikipedia
While warm-water currents such as the Gulf Stream flow near the surface of the oceans toward the poles, cold-water currents are flowing in roughly the opposite direction close to the sea floor. Near the poles, water brought by the warm currents cools and sinks, and the water brought close to the equator by the cold currents rises and begins the poleward flow again. This circulation helps to moderate the planetary climate and maintain oxygen levels in the deep oceans. Its breakdown during a period of global warming about 250 million years ago contributed to the greatest extinction event in the planet’s history. This three-dimensional manifestation of the Big Current is purely physical, but its effects on ocean chemistry are intimately related to all life on Earth. We can think of it as part of Gaia’s circulatory system.


Actual psychological closure in everyday life is a matter of minding what you are doing: in that condition, the practiception circuit is closed and the current flows freely. But human minds tend to wander.

According to a recent study published in Science by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, almost half our waking thoughts have little relation to what we’re currently doing. Although in general it’s clearly useful to be able to think about things that aren’t present here and now, and although mind wandering in particular can facilitate creative problem solving, it is also linked to negative emotions and unhappiness. As psychologist Jonathan Smallwood and his colleagues have shown, negative moods lead the mind to wander. As Killingsworth and Gilbert discovered, people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they’re focusing on what they’re doing. Furthermore, although people are more likely to mind wander to pleasant topics than to unpleasant or neutral ones, people are no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than when they focus on the task at hand, and they’re less happy when they mind wander to neutral topics than when they focus on their current activity. As Killingsworth and Gilbert conclude, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

— Evan Thompson (2014, Kindle Locations 7177-7190)

Even when you think about what you are doing, instead of focusing on doing it, your mind is beginning to wander … unless you focus philosophically, becoming a beginner.

Is that so?

Essential as closure is to life itself, closure in models can be lethal to lives guided by them. For instance, the conventional economic model which represents the flow of exchange value as a closed circle is

totally abstracted from the “environment” within which the money economy is actually embedded – there are no connections between the money flows and biophysical reality.… Worse, the implied simple, reversible, mechanistic behavior of the economy is inconsistent with the connectivity, irreversibility, and positive feedback dynamics of complex energy, information, and eco-systems, the systems with which the economy interacts in the real world.

— William E. Rees (2002)

When such a simplistically closed model operates in collusion with imperious demands for ‘growth,’ the result is accelerated degradation of the planet – a result neither predicted by the model nor intended by its users.

Likewise, a belief system that is not open to alternatives is closed to learning.

Two diverse descriptions are always better than one.

Bateson (1979, 157)

We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.

— Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 29

Certainty closes down one’s mind and heart.

— Robert Theobald (1992, 60)

Certainty is immunity to dialogue, just as death is immunity to experience.

— gnox

Stay us wherefore in our search for righteousness, O Sustainer, what time we rise and when we take up to toothpick and before we lump down upown our leatherbed and in the night and at the fading of the stars! For a nod to the nabir is better than a wink to the wabsanti.

FW2, 4-5

Apocalypse revolves

A cycle or wheel revolving round and round a fixed point never gets anywhere. Revolutions come and go; they are historical phenomena, whereas no apocalypse has happened or can happen in history, because it is the opening of time, while history is limited to that which is already determined. History is the closet, discovery the living room. A revolution seen from within is an apocalypse, while an apocalyptic event seen retrospectively will appear revolutionary.

The very word revolution indicates recycling – like the cycles of the natural world, ‘persisting indefinitely in time. Looked at from an imaginative point of view, their renewal is an image of resurrection into eternity’ (Frye 1947, 211). Frye is referring here to Blake’s sense of history, which is somewhat more evolutionary than his cosmology appears at first glance.

Thus history exhibits a series of crises in which a sudden flash of imaginative vision (as in the French Revolution) bursts out, is counteracted by a more ruthless defense of the status quo, and subsides again. The evolution comes in the fact that the opposition grows sharper each time, and will one day present a clear-cut alternative of eternal life or extermination.

— Frye (1947, 260)

But in the presence of time, the alternatives are already clear: the closed circle of birth-and-death, or the opening of the dharma eye.

Recycling the meaning

The hermeneutic circle is one realization of the meaning cycle. It entails returning to parts of a text which have introduced you to its whole idea, but which now take on new meaning in the light of its wholeness. Once a text has become a turning sign, the integrity of that text guides your continued interpretation of it. You read it as a single symbol which embodies a single intent, however complex it may be. Then your focus on any part takes the whole text as its primary context.

This way of reading is especially fruitful when the text lacks a narrative order, for then your quest for the whole intent invites you to try various combinations and groupings of the parts, which will reveal meanings that would remain submerged in a narrative flow. This might explain the endless fascination of texts which appear to be collections of isolated aphorisms, like the fragments of ancient Greek philosophers, the Tao te ching or the Gospel of Thomas.

The hermeneutic circle is called a ‘circle’ only because it repeatedly brings you round to revisit and reinterpret the same text. But where it takes you between visits to that single text would not look like a circular path if you could diagram it; it would look like a strange attractor, or perhaps like someone wandering about in a network. And of course it would take many more than two dimensions to properly portray this itinerancy.

The circle also has a tendency to become a hermeneutic spiral, especially in a scriptural work such as the Báb’s commentary on the Qur’anic Sura of Joseph:

The work itself is the result of a re-ordering of the basic elements of the scripture of Islam that have been internalized and transformed by the apparently opposite processes of imitation and inspiration to become finally an original “act” of literature of a genre we would like to call gnostic apocalypse.… Taken as a whole, this commentary by the 25-year-old merchant from Shiraz represents a text within a text within a text which strives to interpret itself. It may be thought to offer an example of an attempt to transform what became known much later as the hermeneutic circle into what might be called a hermeneutic spiral.

Lawson 2012, 141

Hermeneutic cycling

The hermeneutic circle is a semantic expansion of the ‘syntactic bootstrapping’ which is part of the language-learning process for every child (Tomasello 1999, 122).

And this sort of circle, according to which language, in the presence of those who are learning it, precedes itself, teaches itself, and suggests its own deciphering, is perhaps the marvel which defines language.… In a unified whole of this kind, the learned parts of a language have an immediate value as a whole, and progress is made less by addition and juxtaposition than by the internal articulation of a function which is in its own way already complete.

— Merleau-Ponty (1960, 39-40)

In the same way, science does not advance by addition of completely new knowledge (Kuhn 1969), but by the transformation of a knowledge which is already complete as a guidance system for continuing inquiry, yet incomplete with respect to the questions which are still open. Likewise the evolution of bodily form: each organism is complete and ‘perfect’ enough to live and reproduce, yet the lineage keeps on perfecting its form as it carries itself forward in an evolving world.

The hermeneutic circle is also embodied in perception, i.e. in reading the world:

Even if in the last resort I have no absolute knowledge of this stone, and even if my knowledge regarding it takes me step by step along an infinite road and cannot ever be complete, the fact remains that the perceived stone is there, that I recognize it, that I have named it and that we agree on a certain number of statements about it. Thus it seems that we are led to a contradiction: belief in the thing and the world must entail the presumption of a completed synthesis—and yet this completion is made impossible by the very nature of the perspectives which have to be inter-related, since each one of them, by virtue of its horizons, refers to other perspectives, and so on indefinitely. There is, indeed, a contradiction, as long as we operate within being, but the contradiction disappears, or rather is generalized, being linked up with the ultimate conditions of our experience and becoming one with the possibility of living and thinking, if we operate in time, and if we manage to understand time as the measure of being.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 385)

Merleau-Ponty’s ‘completed synthesis’ is Edelman‘s ‘closure’; ‘time as the measure of being’ recalls Dogen’s ‘being-time’ (‘Uji’). The physical side of all this is explicated in Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature.


The vital role played by fulfillment in some religious traditions is played by emptiness in others. In many Taoist and Buddhist texts, ‘emptiness’ (hsü and sunyata respectively) is the concept developed to dispel the illusions of permanent “substances” or definitive “essences.” There’s a similar movement in the philosophy of science; for instance Ernst Mayr (1982, 249) speaks of ‘essentialism’ as ‘the most insidious of all philosophies.’ This movement encourages a shift of attention from static entities to dynamic processes. In the Buddhist context, the concept of ‘emptiness’ has played a key role in this shift. In other contexts, such as biology, the key term is behavior:

Life is distinguished not by its chemical constituents but by the behavior of its chemicals. The question ‘What is life?’ is thus a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.

— Margulis and Sagan (1995, 15)

A philosophical parallel to this can be found in Merleau-Ponty:

The something in transit which we have recognized as necessary to the constitution of a change is to be defined only in terms of the particular manner of its ‘passing.’ For example, the bird which flies across my garden is, during the time that it is moving, merely a greyish power of flight and, generally speaking, we shall see that things are defined primarily in terms of their ‘behaviour’ and not in terms of static ‘properties.’

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 320-1)

The illusory nature of the usual view consists of its positing of essences which have attributes, or fundamental components which are assembled in the construction of the object. This way of organizing experience is of course very useful in many situations – that’s why it is the usual view – but it breaks down under persistent analysis. Eliminate all attributes and you find no essence remaining, just as there is no meaning without context. “Fundamentals” turn out, on deeper examination, to be “founded” on something else. Since what appears essential or fundamental changes when you change your orientation toward the object (or subject), we can say that nothing is permanent, or that all things are empty.

And here’s a physicist’s version of the concept, from David Bohm (1975):

… the notion of something with an exhaustively specificable and unvarying mode of being can be only an approximation and an abstraction from the infinite complexity of the changes taking place in the real process of becoming.

— Bohm (2003, 32)

The Buddhist model of co-dependent origination (interbeing, sunyata, emptiness, ….. ) is sometimes presented in circular form (e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh 1998). One aspect of this is world/self interaction, here presented in a form virtually identical with our ‘meaning cycle’:

If we look at the relationship between the individual and its world, we see a kind of circularity of conditioning power, whereby the world conditions the individual, who acts, and this action in turn circulates back into the world to change it and motivate it. The motion, however, is simultaneous, and the world is an extremely active place of unimaginable change. Buddhists have always insisted, with Aristotle, that to exist is to exert conditioning power on others.

— Francis H. Cook (1989, 24)

Enlightening beings ‘turn the dharma wheel’ in order to liberate all beings from this conditioning by raising awareness of it.