Friday, December 14, 2012

Tao and the Laws of Nature

The Chinese word Tao and Western phrase the Laws of Nature refer to largely the same thing: that which is responsible for the regularity, complexity and organization we find in the universe.   They do so, however, from nearly opposite perspectives.  Tao emphasizes what we don’t know, the mystery of this phenomenon; science emphasizes what we do know and are able to use dependably.  The Taoist approach is existential and holistic; the scientific approach is abstract and reductive.   The Taoist approach is simultaneously cosmological and psychological and its meditative methodology fulfills itself in the complete unity of these two; the scientific approach demands the separation of the cosmological and psychological, at least in its basic methodology.  It is the consequences of this third difference that I want to explore here. 

The physicist Steven Weinberg one stated that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  (The notion that the mechanical universe of science provided neither meaning nor orientation for humans was prevalent long before Weinberg, however.)  This raises a question: Is this alleged pointlessness actually true of the universe, or is it simply a consequence of the particular perspective from which science approaches the world?  We have noted that the perspective of science is connected to a methodology that systematically diminishes the subjective from consideration.  One might ask, if the subjective is eliminated at the base of the scientific enterprise, is it any surprise that it is absent from the world it reveals (and to a certain extent, invents)?   And, is it any surprise that the world science presents to us is not one in which we, subjective as we are, find ourselves at home?  These considerations would support the position that the alleged pointlessness is not necessarily true of the world, but only of the scientific perspective on the world. 

Taoism, for which the cosmological and psychological are always addressed together, exists in a world in which we humans fit quite snugly.  Nothing emphasizes this better than the great Taoist landscapes.  Here we find humans proportional in size to the landscape, their activities fitting harmoniously with the activities of other creatures.  But one might ask, what justifies addressing the cosmological and the psychological together?  From the Taoist point of view, it doesn’t need justification.  But we can turn to science for its justification.  Although Western science began in a spirit of mind/matter dualism, it quickly evolved to overcome that dualism, at least at a conceptual level.  Whatever mind is, it is based on a material substrate and cannot violate the laws of nature.  At least since Darwin, world, life and mind all belong to the same process (even if we don’t fully understand that process).  Within science, we can find no justification for drawing a boundary between the processes of mind (psychological process) and the process of the cosmos.  Thus the process that enables the mind to find regularity, complexity and organization in the universe is likely the same process as that which brings regularity, complexity and organization to the universe. 

The ideal state of being of a Taoist is a state of deep, dynamic equilibrium and peace.  The Tao Te Ching states: "And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it."  The modern world, which produced science and in turn has been produced by science, is endlessly restless, chasing after crowing roosters and barking dogs all the way to the farthest galaxies. It is the world that transforms people into consumers, and celebrates and exploits the consumers’ insatiable hungers.   

The modern world, the world we live in, bears scarcely a trace of resemblance to a Taoist landscape.  It is very easy, therefore, to simply dismiss Taoism as a quaint notion from an age long past.  But the spirit of Taoism is flexible, it adapts.  Who is to say it cannot absorb the entirety of the modern world and the scientific perspective into its dynamic equilibrium, its peaceful meditation?  I won’t attempt to answer that question, though.  Here I want to suggest only a simple point: If you find the world pointless, then perhaps you should explore a different perspective from which to view the world. 

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