I have a few children’s books that are very precise about animals. Alina has learned to ask “what is that?” and expect an answer that is “real”: “thats a Northern Cardinal.” Some people feel really satisfied by knowing an animals “true” name. What I do when my daughter Alina demands something more than “thats a red bird” is “well people call it a Northern Cardinal, but this particular Northern Cardinal’s left leg is a little longer than his right, and there is no name for that.” Its like when Thich Nhat Hahn was asked by child “what color is that tree?” and his answer was “its the color that you see.” He explained that he didn’t want to replace the child’s experience of the tree with something else, a word, a concept. The Northern Cardinal visiting your yard is not a Northern Cardinal; it is the bird you see. The Buddha shrine is not an image of the Buddha. My Buddha statue in my house has a most unusual head, with a golden spike coming from the top and pointing up, and the rest of his head is black and knotted and bumpy, except for his face. If you forget it is an image of the Buddha, but an image of a human being not unlike yourself, you can learn a lot from this image. What can a bird or an ant teach you, about being a bird or an ant, if you forget what you think you know about them, like “what” they are by their name?
Look at a cockroach, for example. Imagine being a cockroach. Would you protect your life from a predator, and crawl below the surface of the sidewalk for shelter, even if it lead into the sewer? Of course you would, because you would think you’re life is good and worth protecting. This insight is not available to people who dismiss a cockroach with a technical name, or worse, try to kill them; both acts are ignorant. I invite you to pit yourself against the lives of cockroaches with all the conceptual knowledge necessary to kill as many as you can, and I hope after while you will see that the cockroach will find a shelter you cannot reach. It will survive all the names you give it, even “it”. For this, I am grateful to the cockroach.
Identity is important for logical reasoning. We have to have objects and identities for logical laws to be about something. Strangely, the laws themselves create the identities the laws are to be about, not the other way around. What I mean to say is, with the law of excluded middle (either it is p or it is not p): either a human is male or female, is a part of a human’s identity– not because we went out and asked people what their identity was, but because logicians need us to be that simple, so they can depend on their logical laws, and publish what they think they know.
But the cost of the Law of excluded middle is a great cost. The knowledge we think we gain is largely vapid and empty:
The law of excluded middle excludes every shade and color that can impress the soul. It is an about-face from any instructive experience that one could pay attention to. But the worst damage is the Law trivializes our thoughts into overly simple formulae.
The real number system has been painstakingly built and demonstrated logically because some people want to imagine that any point in space has a name. Maybe its name isn’t “one-third” or “0.2145…” exactly: you could make other sounds with your body’s inside noises. The point they want to make is that these points in space can be singled out with some name or other. If you would like to see how this attempt fails, I direct you to my essay Many Roads from the Axiom of Completeness (2013). The desire behind identity, regardless of what bodily inside noise you use to designate that identity, is extended here to other things besides numbers.
Also, it is good to be reminded that all the names we know are not any real kind of knowledge, even if one already knows that “in name”.
The woodpecker is a kind of borderline case because it is both a name and a description. Even for these types of names, seeing, hearing, smelling this woodpecker peck wood is real knowledge. The animals don’t need those names, they don’t need the name woodpecker to peck wood. People who like to watch or care for animals will already know a lot more about what its like to peck wood, and don’t need those names. Its the person who clings to this type of “knowledge” that needs them. People think they are doing a good thing, even an ethical thing, by calling each thing by their “proper name”. They can get rather righteous about it, but actually they are only clinging to an ill founded desire, or needing, to know names that that are of no consequence. The name Northern Cardinal is of no consequence. Recognizing this bird, its relationships to others you have seen, and understanding it, the way I tried to understand a cockroach above, this bird’s condition, way of behaving and expressing, regardless of what you decide to call it, that is real knowledge.
I have something to say
And the old words show a way
But the way I am bound
There are no words to be found.
Gotta unthink the unthinkable
A hope, another lie
Its a different point of view
The liar said he would fly, and then he flew.
Hard bind like a railroad line
Face the race and step out of place, yeah
Hear the bell rhyme
In the middle of your mind
Our poem crows a broken joy
That’s changed all its lines
So I built this shrine with the help of Father Time