Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Mu

Have you stopped beating your wife?

How do you answer that question? If you resort to dualistic logic, on which (at least Western) knowledge and the scientific method are based on, your answer must be one of two options: yes or no, one or zero, is or is not. Either way, your answer suggests that you’re not a very nice person.

Because of the way our thinking is built up, we don’t easily realise that there is a third logical alternative. I haven’t been able to find a catchy term for it in English, but in Korean and Japanese it’s called mu (무 and 無, respectively). In the Zen tradition mu means no thing, un-ask the question, not applicable.

I cannot answer your question because its conditions do not match the reality.

Meanwhile in a research laboratory

A scientist aims to confirm her research hypothesis that unicorns exist (or, conversely, reject the null hypothesis that unicorns do not exist). If she cannot confirm that unicorns do exist, does that mean that they do not exist? No: we can never prove the non-existence of something with statistical measures. Maybe she just didn’t collect enough data. Maybe the first unicorn was waiting just around the corner, but she stopped looking for it a second too early.

In Europe all swans were thought to be white until a Dutch explorer saw a black swan during an expedition to Australia. Maybe the same thing will happen with unicorns next week.

The answer that our scientist arrives at is mu. She cannot confirm or reject that unicorns exist. Mu. No thing, un-ask the question, not applicable. A state of not being able to answer. Reframe the question, collect more data, check your experimental design.

Mu is not a failure; it is the starting point of everything. I don’t know, mu. It’s a fantastic state to be in.