Sunday, April 16, 2006

Surfing, Zen, and Logical Fallacy

I felt sore for a wonderful reason, last Friday: the day before, I'd worn out my legs carving sweeping curves on head-high waves. As I hobbled about, I happily recalled those timeless moments when, suspended on a wave's face, it had seemed as if my will were translating directly into action, unimpeded by intervening thoughts. Trying to figure out how I might describe that mental state, I toyed with "Zen-like." I resisted that sort of description, however, as I've long felt chagrin with those who too readily invoke it to explain mastery of any non-verbal skill.

How often have you run across "The Zen of [fill in the blank]"? Too often, I'm sure. A quick google uncovers the Zen of weeding, of plumbing, and of quilting. For samples of that same schtick applied to surfing, see here or here.

Why do I grouse about the widespread invocation of "Zen"? Not because I am a purist about such matters. Although I've meditated twice daily for over 15 years, I regard it as little more than mental exercise—not as a sacred ritual or portal to wisdom. Though they strike me as tacky, I have no particular objection to Zen-branded snowboards, alarm clocks, or power cord cables.

I'll even grant that talk about "the Zen of surfing" (or of plumbing, etc.) conveys an important half-truth. Zen Buddhists typically seek the sort of mental state that comes from exercising mastery of a non-verbal activity. Though they cloth their appreciation in religious terms, they doubtless find in moments of "no mind" the same pleasures that people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have analyzed in psychological terms (he calls it "flow"). Surfing (like archery, quilting, etc.) thus offers some of the boons of Zen Buddhism, without the religious trappings.

My beef comes from the logical fallacy so often evident in casual "Zen of [blank]" analyses. Perceiving that non-verbal thinking accompanies skilled accomplishments, commentators wrongly conclude that it causes them. "If only you can quiet the jabber of your doubting mind," they claim, "You can achieve wonders!" Witness, for instance, Yoda's counsel to Luke Skywalker, in the swamps of Dagobah: "Do, or do not. There is no try." (Yeah, I have a problem with the teachings of Lucas.)

That mischaracterization of the relationship between expertise and non-verbal thinking typifies a particularly egregious form of the post hoc, ergo prompter hocfallacy. It not only finds a cause where none exists; it reverses the actual chain of causation. First come many hours of practice, during which (Yoda notwithstanding) you repeatedly try and fail. Whether with the help of a coach or alone, you thoughtfully analyze how to improve your performance. Only long afterward, if you tough it out, might you enjoy the Zen-like pleasures of intuitively exercising mastery of your chosen art, be it plumbing, bowling, or surfing.

To put it in economic terms, you can enjoy the payoffs of skill only after considerable capital investment. Just as you cannot become wealthy simply by driving a fancy car, you cannot become a Zen-master of [blank] simply by quieting your inner voice. Quite the contrary. If you buy a car beyond your means, you will probably end up poor. And if you stop thinking about what you are trying to learn, you will probably end up ignorant.

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