Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Library of Babel Solution

What do you do when you look for an answer to a problem and cannot find it?

  1. 1. Many people just think about it until they find the suitable answer.
  2. 2. Others do something different (playing golf, relaxing, playing music…) until the solution arrives, all in a sudden.
  3. 3. Others keep on looking at the same text/problem trying to see in it something they had overlooked before.
  4. Still others ask for help (thanks Jayarava!).

Personally I practice all three ways, but I by far prefer the "Library of Babel" solution. According to Jorge Luis Borges' wonderful novel The library of Babel (whence the following translation), the universe is a library with infinite books. Since the letters are in finite number and since all the books have the same number of pages and lines per page, all combinations of letters are represented in the library. It goes without saying that most books bear no meaning at all. But somewhere hidden is also the book which, by chance, contains everything about you personally:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. […] These examples made it possible for a librarian of genius to discover the fundamental law of the Library. This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. […]

I repeat: it suffices that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book can be a ladder, although no doubt there are books which discuss and negate and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a ladder.

Accordingly, when I face a philosophical problem (be it "Does it make sense to speak of 'free will' in Mīmāṃsā?'' or ''What does prasaṅga mean in pre-Classical texts?") I just keep on reading, hoping to find the answer. Unlike the librarians in the novel, I do have some trace (books of the same author, or of the same school, or of opponents). But I also learnt to look for books dealing with the same topic within another culture (given my theses, the obvious case is that I look for books on Western philosophy). This make me feel more confident than the average librarian in Borges' novel.

Many thanks are due to Jayarava who made me realise that while travelling alone within the library I forgot the option of asking a librarian for help.


Jayarava said...

When I was doing my librarian training we were taught that for most people who are stuck on a problem their first choice is to ask another person for help.

There is a Buddhist sutra which describes the whole world as a sutra (or a scroll in the Chinese version). This sutra is written in an alphabet, the letters of which are phenomena. So the sutra is the the text made up from all phenomena. Each letter contains within itself the key to understanding the whole text. So one need not read the whole text, but only one letter. We have to keep on looking at this letter until we see the thing that others have overlooked. However the text wants to be read and understood, and so it tries to help us understand by giving us hints.

elisa freschi said...

Thus, each letter is a part of the world, isn't it? One could reach the bodhi just by looking at a single flower… Interesting idea, it does not sound very Indian.
By the way, does it work with you?

Thank you very much for reminding me of asking for help!

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