Monday, August 26, 2013

Daoism, Nature’s Tragedy, and the Existential Hero

The dominant religion of those living centuries from now will likely be pantheistic, because pantheism best reconciles atheism and theism and thus also our rational and irrational sides. But pantheism is actually an ancient form of religion, as exemplified by Daoism, a religion that seems understood best in relation to Confucianism. Confucius was a humanist who believed that peace can be obtained by cultivating our personal qualities. Confucianism is thus similar to ancient Greek virtue theory. But instead of “virtue,” the supreme value for Confucius is ren, a kind of love and respect for human nature. How is ren cultivated? By modifying our behaviour according to rules that allow us to express our desires within moral limits.

By contrast, Daoism is meta-ethical. Instead of engaging in debates about which social conventions best express our nature, Daoists say we should appreciate that human beings are part of much larger systems, subject to their own rhythms. There are the vast cycles of the cosmos, as explained by scientists, as well as the ineffable way of the whole of being. According to the Daoist meta-ethical perspective, the problem with Confucian humanism is that by focusing on the individual and on society, this humanism separates us from the rest of nature. Our moral rules may have the laudable purpose of helping us find peace, but Confucius offers a council of despair, the ego’s desperate strategy of dealing only with the symptoms of inner and social discord. The root of the problems of suffering and of evil is the dualism that walls us off from nature. When we lose sight of the larger dao, or ways, we live out of alignment with the wholes of which we’re parts. For example, we have excess desires which can’t be fulfilled, because they’re born of myopia. Daoism’s overall solution is wu wei, the paradoxical action without intention, a sort of simple, spontaneous, and natural going with the flow of things. Forrest Gump and the Dude from The Big Lebowski exemplify this sort of unexpected sage who lives in harmony with the world largely because he doesn’t overthink or become preoccupied with the arbitrary rules of social games.

Pantheism and Aesthetics

My main interests in Daoism are twofold. First, there’s the question of pantheism that arises from the unification of human and natural ways. Second, there’s the issue of wu wei. Beginning with pantheism, then, Daoist monism collapses the distinction between artificial rules and natural regularities, and thus both naturalizes us and humanizes the world. The big question is this: What are natural regularities, the nomic relations or patterns that are the facts of which natural laws speak? By calling these regularities ways, the Daoist compares, say, a star’s orbit to the path you might take while walking through a forest. But can something be a path if it has no destination? Suppose you start walking along a sidewalk, but the sidewalk goes on forever. Are you still on a path? Is this infinite “route” to nowhere a way at all? As we first come to understand them, paths and ways are teleological because they’re our artifacts. We bushwhack through the forest and lay down pavement to produce unmistakable pathways. So even when there’s only natural order there’s the appearance of intelligent design which invites us to engage in anthropocentric projection. Thus, it’s because there are cycles in nature, finite and contingent patterns with beginnings, middles, and ends, that we can compare natural regularities generally to ways or paths down which things journey. And where there’s the appearance of intelligent design, there’s the extended anthropocentric metaphor: not only are there ways throughout the universe, but there are natural functions, systems or mechanisms that can go right or wrong, in or out of harmony with each other. In this way, we can compare any natural system to an artifact that works according to a purpose.

To be sure, these anthropomorphisms may not be rationally justified; David Hume, for example, would hold out dao as “occult qualities,” as unobservable aspects of causality. We observe regularity, not purpose or harmony. But the point is that for Daoism the metaphor of the natural way is aesthetically or metaphysically significant, where metaphysics is mythology (cryptic fiction) for intellectuals. According to the Anthropic Principle, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that nature is an ordered, rational place, since without that order life couldn’t have evolved to be surprised. But this misses the point: we should be nonplussed to find both natural order and us. We can imagine the alternative of endless chaos or nothingness, a void with no emergent patterns nor any rhyme or reason. According to quantum mechanics, chaos is unstable and it self-organizes, producing order as a matter of probability, but this presupposes the laws of probability. In any case, all patterns and cycles in nature are surprising because they have the appearance of being plotted just in so far as they’re finite and contingent: there’s a wide variety of particulars in the world that regularly come and go, suggesting a hidden narrative and intention rather than just an impersonal absence of order. Assuming there’s no God as a matter of fact, because there’s no rational basis for theism, we must leave aside theology as a pseudoscience and honour that appearance of meaning throughout nature merely with an aesthetic appreciation. We can thus deal with myths as pure fictions, as artworks made up of words and ideas.

So whereas dispassionate, scientific theories clearly have their utility, myth-making becomes viable too, not as a mode of inquiry that tells us the facts, but as an aesthetic mode of appraisal that can nevertheless be as objective (cold and detached) as rational explanation. We can note that nature is full of systems, mechanisms, rhythms, cycles, and processes that are comprehensible not just because they can be quantified and instrumentally explained, but because they have the appearance of being works of art. That is, the fact that natural things are structured leaves them open to us recognizing their beauty and harmony, or their grotesqueness and tragicomedy. Whether natural processes really are artworks, according to science, is irrelevant. All aesthetics needs is the phenomenology, the structured content of perceptions. By “structure,” I mean something that has distinguishable features. For example, the thing may have a shape and a size, in which case it’s spatially finite, or more to the point of Daoism, the thing may come and go in time. In short, all things, as limited individuals or processes in the field of becoming, called maya in the Hindu Upanishads, are subject to aesthetic interpretation. Dao, or ways, are just temporally-defined things in that teleological, metaphorical sense.

The transcendental explanation of natural order is that we put the order there in our act of understanding the prehumanized flux of experience. Thus, the appearance of natural order is aesthetically interpretable because we literally create an artwork whenever we perceive something, just by processing the information in our brain and thinking about how to conceptualize the sensation. But this isn’t the Daoist perspective. Daoism says there are larger ways that transcend ours. This makes aesthetics a transhuman mode of interpretation. The objective things in themselves become potential subjects of storytelling and of aesthetic criticism, which means their beauty or hideousness is no longer merely apparent. The nonhuman dao are objectively things that are eerily similar to the functional artifacts we create, and that’s surprising, especially since there’s no intelligent Creator of all things! Moreover, Daoism says that that similarity isn’t accidental. Leaving aside theism, the point is that we create artifacts, because we’re made of star dust, because we’re part of systems that arrange themselves into aesthetically interpretable forms. We’re not the only creators on the scene, since even though there’s no God in the heavens nature creates itself and thus us as well.

In so far as natural things and the whole of existence have dao, we find we’re one with the cosmos because much of our humanness was already present throughout nature before life came along. Both Confucianism and Kant’s transcendentalism, then, become forms of humanistic egoism. Contrary to Kant, we don’t arrange the world when there’s no God, because our miniscule species isn’t the source of finite being. Rather, we create our personal and cultural ways, our artificial worlds, because we’re natural creations and nature was busy creating long before our evolution. Our social conventions are indirectly produced by a world that follows its own laws, and the two kinds of law are comparable in that either can be aesthetically esteemed or condemned, because they’re made by the artistic processes of complexification and evolution. As Plato said, particulars live up to universal Forms, more or less, and the source of Forms is the Good. At a minimum, this means that one kind of normative evaluation, the aesthetic, gets at part of objective reality, at a way things are regardless of what we do or say. Again, according to Daoism, there would be natural paths and thus purposes even without life, although this says little, because the great dao necessitates the emergence of life, since that dao encompasses all ways in what amounts to a grand story.

The Nature of Tragedy

Now, in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch discusses the nature of tragedy and she points out that “Real life is not tragic. In saying this one means that the extreme horrors of real life cannot be expressed in art…Art offers some consolation, some sense, some form whereas the most dreadful ills of human life allow of none. Auschwitz is not a tragedy” (93). As she explains,
The tragic art form is rare because it is difficult to keep attention focused on the truth without the author slipping into an easier sentimental, abstract, melodramatic (and so on) mode. In the truthful vision evil is justly judged and misery candidly surveyed. The language which can achieve this is a high poetic language. Tragedy is a paradoxical art because to succeed it must really upset us while exhibiting, but not as mere consolation, some orderly and comprehensive vista of evil and catastrophe. Death threatens the ego’s dream of eternal life and happiness and power. Tragedy, like religion, must break the ego, destroying the illusory whole of the unified self. (104)
Unlike ordinary works of art, which reassure us with illusions, the medium of tragedy must match its message so that a tragic artwork should be a broken whole, threatening the ego with this omen. Thus, she says, tragedy founders on the nature of art. “Art cannot help changing what it professes to display into something different. It magically charms reality, nature, into a formal semblance. Hell itself it turns to favour and to prettiness” (122). Not only, then, are natural processes not tragic, Murdoch implies, but there are hardly any tragic works at all, because tragedy is paradoxical.

Before I respond to her analysis, let’s consider the meaning of tragedy. Murdoch quotes Schopenhauer as saying, “The true sense of tragedy is in the deeper insight that it is not his own individual sins that the hero atones for but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself.” As Murdoch says, this original sin is shown in the way ordinary people come together “to a point where they knowingly and inevitably damage each other and cause the innocent to suffer, a point where evil seems inevitable, necessary, even a kind of duty” (101). This kind of evil was demonstrated by the Milgram experiments and by the Nazi ranks.

Strictly speaking, Murdoch is correct: “tragedy” refers primarily to the narrow art form of the dramatic composition that deals with somber themes. But from the Daoist perspective, this narrow definition presupposes dualistic humanism. Art is not something we create from nothing; we create because we’re created by creative processes, and our ways are one with nature’s. Sure, our art tends to offer consolation and we can’t say that mindless nature consoles, without unduly anthropomorphizing the world. Thus, nature doesn’t produce human art (except through us). But because all our endeavours are versions of larger, nonhuman processes, according to Daoist pantheism, human art must be only a type of cosmic art. We should then consider not just the prospect of alien art, but the impersonal art that surrounds our planet. Why should we say that the universe is filled with art and not just with facts? Because natural facts are creations: they’re finite and contingent; they come into being and pass away, abetted by innumerable causes and circumstances; nature is neither living nor inert, but undead. This is the key point of pantheism. The universe keeps creating itself, creation is the essence of art, and so aesthetic judgments of everything are forced upon us.

Is it wiser to submit or to rebel?

Broadly speaking, then, is nature tragic? The question gets at my second concern with Daoism, which is the prescription of wu wei. Daoists think that wisdom amounts to a surrender to natural ways for the sake of the part’s harmony with the whole. This is, of course, directly opposed to Gnosticism, existentialism, and all ascetic forms of spirituality which prescribe detachment and rebellion against what’s felt to be the world’s wrongness, what Schopenhaurer calls original sin. If nature is tragic, frankly Satanic rebellion is morally superior to abandoning our sense of revulsion at what the world has wrought and at its monstrous manner of creation. If nature’s impersonality is the original sin, the root of all suffering and absurdity, then surrender to instinct and to the flow of larger processes is complicity in that sin, whereas existential revolt attests to the fact that someone somewhere condemns the whole work as fundamentally sad.

But is nature a sad place? That is, should the dao of nature cause us sorrow, above all else, so that we should resent the call for surrender to worldly ways, just as the Jews in the Nazi prison camps resented the kapos for double-crossing them? If there’s any truth in tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth, that’s because Shakespeare was merely a messenger who wrote about dire natural processes. The reason evil comes to seem “inevitable, necessary, even a kind of duty” is because we’re able to dehumanize ourselves and go with the flow of impersonal nature. The world lacks a conscience, destroying what it creates to make room for something else, due merely to the circumstances rather than to some benevolent ideal. And when we surrender to instinct, we become animals, machines that follow the codes of our programming like molecules or the wind or the rain. We leave our artificial worlds and follow natural laws that are fit for the wilderness. And what are those laws in the biological sphere? Not every biological event is evil, but on the whole the adventure of life on this planet is sublime mainly because it should cause our hearts to burst with sorrow. There’s heroism throughout the animal kingdom and also cooperation and altruism, but the whole organic spectacle is absurd and the nobility of animals’ struggles to survive has value only because all life is doomed. Were, instead, all creatures immortal, we’d be victims of another kind of absurdity, since then we’d suffer the living death of heaven.

In our case, the most natural form of behaviour isn’t humble selflessness, but gamesmanship in the dominance hierarchies that accrue around us like spider webs around spiders. The more we interact, the more we’re forced to compromise for the greater good, and thus the weaker among us tend to give way to the strong so that the group can benefit from the elites’ greater ability to keep order. These power relationships are perfectly natural; they’re fruits of natural dao, the universal structure of large groups of social animals. I repeat, the ways of the dominance hierarchy are not the arbitrary conventions prescribed by Confucians, but precisely some larger dao that govern most social species. Thus, surrender to natural dao means surrender to your natural station in the power hierarchy, and for most people that means submission to their masters. The natural inequality between people is itself a grotesque state of affairs, the result of an absurd lottery that rewards and punishes on the grounds of genetic variety and environmental circumstance.

For example, there are hormonal and other neurological differences between the human genders that affect our thinking, and feminism is an artificial revolt against natural inequalities, motivated by the supernatural fantasy of egalitarianism. This isn’t to say that men naturally overpower women in all respects. In some species the females dominate, and in ours females may outperform men in some important areas. The point is that, for evolutionary reasons, the genes tend to divide the workload in sexually reproductive species, so that the genders are innately unequal, meaning that the males will be better at some tasks while the females will dominate in others. Wu wei, the return to nature so that we don’t waste effort in fruitless resistance to the world’s norms, means going with the flow of those biological differences, whatever they happen to be.

Is that submission wise? Well, if wisdom is a matter of pragmatism, then perhaps wu wei is wise, since existential rebellion is likely futile and indeed itself a case of tragic heroism, at best. Wu wei is supposed to be selfless and thus effortless action, the kind performed by someone who’s sacrificed her ego to let the greater dao flow through her. But utility needn’t be the ultimate ideal; in fact, pragmatism is for philistines. If we’re thinking in Daoist terms, about the marvelous ways of all things, the regularities that order the universe, we’re thinking not just of objective facts but of created works. Most of these works are effects of natural forces, initial conditions, limits imposed by related systems, and so on, so that nature is hardly filled with art that has the same purpose as human art. Nevertheless, the universe is a giant art gallery and when we appreciate the limits and dependencies of things, the structures that individuate them, we’re bound to think of them aesthetically. That is, we’ll think of what it means to be such and such a created work. Is the work beautiful or grotesque in certain respects? Is there a narrative that best situates the work in some larger scheme, such as in the great dao?

Two facts would be central to that narrative which should inform our aesthetic criticism of natural creativity. First, there is no living, intelligent artist responsible for anything in the universe, except in the special case of an organism that imitates and improves on nature’s creativity. Pantheists are atheists. Second, everything in the cosmos passes away. When the universe ends, whether in a heat death, big crunch, big rip, or some other catastrophe, the great dao’s destination will have been reached. Everything will have journeyed along their paths, nudging their neighbours along to that final death of all creativity. Together, I think these facts make the universe an immensely tragic work of art. The tragic flaw at the heart of all creativity is nature’s undeadness, the fact that there’s nobody home to reverse the downward slide of the great dao. Pantheism is thus the subversive inner truth of theism, that which remains after we’ve disposed of the dross of our more infantile anthropomorphisms. (Transhumanists envision a more uplifting scenario in which we intelligent beings are the universe’s minds, and we’re destined to become gods capable of perfecting nature. This is another speculative myth, but it is indeed an encouraging one.)

Moreover, just as we pity children as they scribble on paper with their crayons, or we condemn beavers for cutting down forests to construct their rude dams, so too we must be appalled by the mindlessness or mere “instinctiveness” of nature’s artistry. However far beyond our comprehension quantum mechanics may be, the motions of atoms are more like the child’s crude wielding of the crayon than like a masterful painter’s handling of the brush. The reason evil becomes a duty is that the artist responsible for the universe is an undead monster: things are finite and so they pass away, because that monster is fickle, choosing no favourites and wiping the board clean like a child who loves to play, but is never satisfied because she has no ideals in mind, no goal to reach; ordinary people are easily corrupted, because we too are fundamentally undead in so far as we’re natural beings, and so we too are all monsters. We’re petty, self-deluded, and selfish animals even as we distract ourselves with supernatural fantasies in which virtue triumphs. And the punishment for nature’s tragic flaw and original sin is the death which, as Iris Murdoch elsewhere points out, is part of every tragedy. That is, there’s the finiteness of all things and what seems like the inevitable end of the universe in the distant future. The narrative implicit in this performance work, which is the universe’s unfolding, is thus a tragic one. (Granted, the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics complicates this, but either the universes would be connected, in which cases there would be laws of the whole multiverse, which would raise the question of the fate of that whole, or there would be no connection between them in which case the narrative implicit in each universe’s unfolding would stand as a separate artwork.)

Is existential resistance selfish?

In summary, then, I think Daoism is a form of pantheism which interprets natural processes as being teleological, as being more or less in harmony according to some purpose or higher good. The only justifiable sense in which nature generally is filled with purpose is the aesthetic one, in which case all creative acts with limited results can be praised or condemned in those normative terms. Although there are surely comedic interpretations of natural processes, including the existential kind represented well by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and there’s also natural tragicomedy, the overall tale of our universe appears to be woeful. If this is right, wu wei, the surrender to greater norms, is far from the noblest course of action. As it stands, then, Daoism strikes me as incoherent. If we accept my aesthetic construal of its pantheism, we should leave aside the ethical principle of wu wei in favour of some kind of resistance to those norms.

You might be thinking that any such resistance would surely be egoistic and thus not particularly ethical. How arrogant must you be to stand up to the whole of which you’re a part and to denounce that whole in the way Job condemned his God? Indeed, mustn’t you thereby condemn yourself, including your standard of right and wrong, in which case your denunciation nullifies itself? I agree there are some paradoxes here, but they’re resolved when we compare the matter to the misanthrope’s self-loathing. If a person is repulsed by people in general, she would indeed reach the height of arrogance to make an exception of herself. So the misanthrope who has personal integrity must loathe herself as well. Does this mean she deprives herself of any reason for making those negative judgments? Not really, because these aren’t rational judgments in the first place. A misanthrope doesn’t draw up a flowchart that catalogues everyone’s deficiencies, only to calculate the wrongs done in contradistinction to the rights. No, we’re talking here about feelings of resentment, of disgust, disappointment, disenchantment, and so forth. These are emotional reactions that flow from a personal character, formed by experience and codified by a dark worldview. So whatever the misanthrope observes that’s disgusting duly disgusts her, regardless of whether she’s looking outside or within herself. This is a matter of causality, not of logic. For example, Job’s criticism of God could include his shame at being reduced to such a pitiful state by the Almighty, the point being that Job would feel God is to blame.

So the point of resisting rather than submitting to natural impulses is to struggle to create something unnatural. If undead nature is monstrous, then unnatural, disharmonious pockets of the universe aren’t simply parts of the whole; they’re antithetical and potentially heroic for going against the poisonous flow of natural dao. Indeed, the artificial worlds we create, on which the Confucian focuses, may imitate grand natural patterns of creativity, but they’re also glaringly anomalous. After all, we are intelligent creators compared to the natural forces and many of the conventions governing our social games are relatively freely chosen. As I argue elsewhere, we reverse the given facts by using our values and ideals as blueprints to guide our technological and cultural transformations and enchantments of the wilderness that would otherwise confront us with the horror of our greater homelessness. When we resist the tragic course of nature, we may copy natural ways by nevertheless trying to create something, but our goal as a species should be to tell a new story, to stand as a mystifying singularity in the natural plenum, as our alpha and omega, as the beginning and end of history. Our lives will then be stories within the greater, inhuman story; our narratives will feature characters that cast accusatory sideways glances at the rotting corpse of the great tao, and that disassociate themselves from that monstrosity as much as possible. This ideal of moksha, of liberation from the realm of impermanent things, is of course the goal of most religions. The pantheistic version recasts supernatural escape as existential rebellion, as creative resistance to the greater horror and tragedy playing out all around us.  

But is this resistance selfish? Must we be ignorant of the ego’s smallness to conceive of such a misadventure? Certainly, there’s no implication that an existential hero can engage only in selfish actions, meaning those that benefit just herself and her kin. On the contrary, selfishness is natural, which is to say biologically well-established, so self-sacrifice is already rather ghostly in its uncanny reversal of the natural tide. The point of this objection which should be granted, though, is that, short of the transhumanist’s dream coming true, existential rebellion is likely as foolish as selfishness. The genes make foolish puppets of hedonists and the tide will likely overwhelm the walls around our unnatural sanctuaries. Our artistic protests will be forgotten long before the universe has finished its slow march to nowhere at the end of time. So we’ll imitate not only nature’s creativity, but the greater tragedy as well. Still, we’ll have improved upon the whole work, however brief may be our digression.


  1. Hey Ben, you really fit a lot of stuff into this one!

    The primary problem I have with your conclusion (and indeed, it permeates your whole outlook) is the idea that nature is tragic. I believe the heart of tragedy lies not in death or in destruction, but death and destruction *arising from the inability to accept natural order.*

    This natural order is precisely the basis of the Tao: constant change through the expression of yin yang. Arrogance arising from good fortune -- and the consequences of obtaining what you always dreamed of -- are at the heart of tragedy. Ultimately the art form is to highlight that no person can escape cosmic rebalancing.

    I do not see how nature can be tragic, for it has no ego to fight its ways. Regardless of the end state of the universe, it has no intent and thus no clear purpose. Therefore, I don't see how you can apply an aesthetic critique to Taoism; particularly become it prides itself exclusively on pragmatism. Harmony has no ends other than its own.

    In that regard, original sin is the sin of becoming separate from nature, not the inherent state of being. All of metaphysics is ultimately about the best way to recognize how to become One with fundamental nature, but the existence of natural itself is not sinful.

    RWUG is based on the idea that the truth of nature is horrifying, but I do not find it so bad. I find it calming and just. In my mind, aestheticism is to be valued because it is an expression of that path to understand fundamental truth, not because it is rebellious against nature (although it is often rebellious against society, which is constructed to mask natural truths).

    Your last point that creativity mimics the natural path is quite apt, but it needn't be tragic when it can be sublime.

    1. I agree with your take on some major themes of tragic narratives. I don't say that nature generally is tragic in exactly the same way as what I call human tragedies (the works of art we create and sometimes classify as tragic). To keep Daoist pantheism, I think we have to broaden the idea of aesthetic qualities to make room for teleological metaphysics. That is, human artworks should be compared to natural creations, but the former make up a subset of the latter.

      So whereas human artists are concerned, as you say, with egotists getting their comeuppance from natural processes, that's obviously not nature's "concern," which is to say that that idea isn't implicit in the great dao. We'd need to stretch our mind to appreciate the essence of (nonhuman) tragedies.

      My take on that essence differs from yours. I follow Schopenhauer's talk of original sin and I find the source of that sin (the tendency of everything to be corrupted) to be nature's undeadness/monstrous and mindless creativity. And if we don't take up that aesthetic interpretation of Daoist teleology, I think the comparison between human and natural "ways" is at best superficial.

      Next week I'm going to address Brassier's nihilism. He has no truck with any of this teleology or broader aesthetics.

    2. Why do you think Taoism is teleological? I don't see it, so don't see how tragedy can exist.

    3. Again, like natural artworks/creations, dao couldn't be purposive in the same way that our actions have purposes, since Daoism is atheistic. But I see Daoism as putting forward an analogy between cosmic and human ways. A way has an end point and that's why it's proper to stay on the path, assuming the end is good. If there's no end point, there's no imperative to follow the way, nor is there any sense in speaking of harmony between ways or of the goodness of going with the flow of counterbalancing yin and yang.

      This is as tricky as Aristotle's teleology, since he too begins with human experience of artifacts and extends that notion of purpose to that of natural functions (final causes). The problem is that the pantheist's analogy between our ways and the larger, nonhuman ones is limited, so we need some non-anthropocentric vocabulary. "Function" might be better than "purpose," assuming the former is consistent with atheism.

      Anyway, if you think I've got this wrong (I'm certainly not an expert on Daoism), how should we interpret the meaning of "dao"? What do all dao have in common? Is it just the idea of order or regularity or is it something at least quasi-teleological/purposive/normative?

    4. Well my reading of Taoism is nihilistic. Certainly that isn't the only reading or even the dominant one: I've been researching about it historically and it used to be very supernatural in ways that other eastern religions are, filled with ancestor worship, guiding of spirits and the like.

      When the Dalai Lama says "the first thing to recognize about Buddhism is that it's nihilistic" he is surely talking in a modern context, because historically the nihilistic schools of eastern religions have been in the minority.

      I think it's more accurate to state that they don't presuppose teleological necessity in order to operate and achieve consistency. That is very different from paganism or monotheism.

      So, in my (admittedly modernist) nihilistic reading, I see the Tao as descriptive, not prescriptive. You say there is no imperative to follow the way without an endpoint, and I say, "yes, but of course." That is why Taoism has no imperative.

      Where I struggle with addressing your perspective is that you keep inserting value judgments. There is no "goodness" of going with the flow, it is just a struggle not to and so wisdom is grounded in flow. Of course the colloquialism "go with the flow" means "do what everyone else is doing" but most of the time everyone else is struggling against a turn, so a wise person is often acting against popular opinion.

      I'm not sure what all Dao have in common, because there is only one and it is everything.

      I believe you are asking, what is the construct in which it manifests. This page explains a bit about that. Wuji is boundless infinity of all states, and taiji is infinite differentiation.

      I might be stretching it, but it is somewhat similar to a mathematical construct of boundless vs. countable infinity. The set of natural numbers is infinite because n + 1 can go on forever, but it is countable in the sense that every state is differentiated. By contrast, the set of rational numbers is uncountable because there is an infinite set between any two members. 1 and 2 are rational, but 1.1 exists between them, and 1.01 exists between those and 1.001 exists between those, etc.

      In this manner, wuji is the superset of reality and the "attractor" to go back to systems theory. Taiji explains circular return and circular time, or the process in which paths are created between opposites.

      But this process still has no value judgement, as wikipedia notes, "In Taoist metaphysics, good-bad distinctions and other dichotomous moral judgments are perceptual, not real; so, yin-yang is an indivisible whole. In the ethics of Confucianism on the other hand, most notably in the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu, (c. 2nd century BCE) a moral dimension is attached to the yin-yang idea"

      I was talking with my partner about the silicon billionaires funding of projects to create immortality and how they believe they can unlock the "secret of life" through genetics. She stated, "I know the secret of life: everything dies."

      At its core, the Tao is simply that. There is no great insight other than reality is constantly changing and flowing through a myriad of oppositional manifestations that we differentiate but ultimately are part of the boundless expanse. Because of this, I do not see Taoism as an analogy between cosmic and human ways, I see it as a direct description (through the concept of taiji and yin/yang) of reality through human perception.

    5. Thanks for sharing your perspective. The Stanford Encyclopedia article on Daoism also says there have been numerous interpretations of Daoism, including nihilistic, pluralistic, mystical, and skeptical ones.

      I see your point about the lack of moral judgments in Daoism. This is what I tried to get across in the distinction between Daoism and Confucianism. Daoists criticize Confucians for taking arbitrary moral judgments too seriously, since underlying those are nonhuman processes that are more important than social conventions, because we're only parts of a greater cosmic whole.

      My point is that that criticism presupposes value judgments. They may not be *moral* ones, but I think Daoists tend to be pragmatic. This comes out clearly in your statement that 'There is no "goodness" of going with the flow, it is just a struggle not to and so wisdom is grounded in flow.' You're assuming here that going against the flow is impractical, because it prevents us from being happy. That is, struggle causes suffering and wisdom consists in finding happiness. But those are pragmatic, hedonistic value judgments. Maybe some kinds of suffering are proofs of wisdom, and happiness is for those who fool themselves so they're not even aware of the cosmic processes and they just get lucky by avoiding much hardship.

      Anyway, I see teleological implications in Daoist mereology, in the pantheistic hierarchy of dao, from social, to natural, to the great dao which unifies them all. A pluralist would say "All dao are equally 'good' because they're equally real, so just pick your way and that will be good enough." But this liberal attitude is at odds with the Daoist prescription of wu wei. Some lives are in harmony with the great, unifying dao, whereas others are not, and pragmatic Daoists at least imply that harmony is better for us than disharmony. That's the move I have trouble with, for existentialist reasons. Maybe that pragmatism is more ingrained in Chinese culture than in Daoist writings, though.

    6. Originally I had written something about wu wei but then wanted to see what your response was.

      I wrote two things. First, wu wei is prescriptive for behavior given the descriptive nature of the Tao. That doesn't mean that the Tao itself is teleological. As you say, the prescription is merely pragmatic.

      Secondly, I think "happiness" and "hedonist" are inaccurate descriptions of the goal of the sage. It of course has an ego oriented focus, so a sage cannot truly be happy. There of course is a lot of suffering that arises out of the journey of becoming a sage, and some paths are ascetic and some are materialistic; different paths arise for different roles.

      To me, wu wei is fundamentally about the distinction I've made elsewhere of nurturing vs. creating. It is the equivalent of planting a garden physically and psychologically.

      People that know me well often marvel about how many things I do even though it seems like I am expending little effort. I reply that the greatest force is often just time. Instead of focusing on having paths for all my projects and planning them all out, forcing myself to stay on each one, I have general deadlines and then cycle through all tasks as the time seems appropriate. If something is dependent on myself only, that appropriate time is based on my internal cycle; if it is dependent on others, I merely make sure they are on the same page and then check in to see what is needed from time to time. It is said that 80% of work gets done in 20% of the time, so by having a myriad of different projects in different categories of being, one can casually work half of the time and yet achieve twice as much as working full time on one aspect. Incorporating others into this habit and then teaching them how to utilize it as well creates an exponential increase. In this way I am enormously productive and yet lazy.

    7. I secured a contract for a company through a friend who worked there. Inspired by my iconoclasism, he started advocating for a "purer" way of programming and against things that made no sense. He was fired and yet I was made head of projects.

      At this he was bewildered, because we were advocating the same principles rationally, and so his only explanation was that it was personal.

      I asked him to consider our styles at meetings. Whereas he laid out exactly what should be done and chaffed against other ideas as stupid, I sat back and listened to all ideas, searching for common threads. When those threads were apparent, I would merely point out how seemingly disparate approaches could be synthesized, retaining the strengths of each and minimizing the weaknesses. In this way, the solution is found through everyone, and it seems as though I did nothing.

      This is not the idea of "moderation" or "compromising" however, for when the sum of the ideas did not add up to a valid approach, then I would work on each individual separately, challenging them to push their vision to its extremes. Sometimes it would take weeks or months, but eventually they fully understood the entirety of their idea. By doing this in parallel, I was merely nurturing the system. Eventually it got to the point where the interaction of all ideas led to a systemic whole, and this occurs with in a flash of insight that is nearly cosmic to behold. Not only did people agree that way was best, but they were truly excited about the potential and were reborn.

      What about when a bad idea is suggested, you may ask? Well in that case I would attempt to point out how the idea was bad because it didn't fit into the system, but sometimes they would not realize this because of ignorance. In these cases, it is wise to let the bad idea proceed because then its failure will become apparent to all, but the *way* it fails gives greater insight into the system as a whole, improving it in unexpected ways. With the right mindset and patterns, failure is to embraced because it can easily be rolled back.

      This style of leadership is referred to as leading from the middle. This means that the group moves forward of its own accord, but as a leader, you step aside or in front or behind to clear obstacles that need clearing and nothing more. Thus, it appears that the outcome is the only possible one and natural, yet it was secretly achieved with quite a lot of (quiet) work.

      Thus, wu wei is not about inaction (the sage may act more than anyone else) nor is it about supporting the status quo (the sage may be the most rebellious) but it is about accepting the reality of nature and emulating it in practice.

      If you fear/hate nature then this seems ridiculous and ignoble, but I don't see the purpose of disliking pantheistic reality. People often state a preference for having a sentient God because then He can protect them and make sure everything has a plan. I find that possibility terrifying because then it means I would be forced to rebel against God, since there is so much pain in the world and is forced submission. But when there is no consciousness (undying as you put it) then what is there to rebel against other than yourself?

    8. This is an interesting illustration of wu wei. Leading from the middle sounds a little like Obama's style of leadership. When you say this isn't about defending the status quo, this suggests to me that the sage can't always rely on the system to sort out inputs. If the system is corrupt, as it arguably is in the US government, a sage might have to be radical in not going with the flow of the system; indeed, the sage might have to jump ship for a better system to oppose the corrupt one.

      So the question is, Does the sage distinguish between good and bad systems? A pragmatic nihilist shouldn't be able to do so, and this leads to my criticism of postmodern liberalism, which I've laid out elsewhere on this blog. I think pragmatic liberals like Obama are nihilistic systems managers who do in fact defend the status quo, because they've lost faith in their modern ideals.

      Regarding rebellion against nature, the talk of rebellion is indeed metaphorical, given atheism. But I've pointed out that we all use technoscience to rebel and have done so for thousands of years, in the sense that we humanize the world of facts by implanting symbols of our values in our artificial worlds which make the wilderness feel more like home. That's one sort of rebellion, where we simply use technology to improve our standard of living, because without that labour we'd have to settle for nature's inhumanity. The existential kind of rebellion goes further than this, because the existentialist is more aware of the conflict between us and nature-as-inhumane wilderness.

    9. A system that is unnatural cannot be sustained. Society relies on exponential growth yet the world is finite, and already it consumes far more than the earth can support.

      I would gather that a sage would not exacerbate these issues, while also being aware that social systems have their own lifespans and disease/death is merely a phase within it. The question is how to live through the transition, remaining sane in an insane world and figuring out how to live when death is growing upon us.

      I struggle with these answers.

      The Tao has a section:
      "Coming into life, entering death
      The followers of life, three in ten
      The followers of death, three in ten
      Those whose lives are moved toward death
      Also three in ten
      Why? Because they live lives of excess

      I've heard of those who are good at cultivating life
      Traveling on the road, they do not encounter rhinos or tigers
      Entering into an army, they are not harmed by weapons
      Rhinos have nowhere to thrust their horns
      Tigers have nowhere to clasp their claws
      Soldiers have nowhere to lodge their blades
      Why? Because they have no place for death"

      "I have three treasures
      I hold on to them and protect them
      The first is called compassion
      The second is called conservation
      The third is called not daring to be ahead in the world
      Compassionate, thus able to have courage
      Conserving, thus able to reach widely
      Not daring to be ahead in the world
      Thus able to assume leadership"

      It is difficult to describe the utility of these truths I've already found in my feebleness to follow them. The way I look at it is that by focusing on systems where you can cultivate life compassionately and conservatively, you find peace in the moment and also generate substance that will find itself able to grow in the cracks of societal facade. Perhaps it is not enough and the structure will tumble down completely, but then some of those tendrils will have room to grow into trees.

    10. You really get at the nub of the issue here when you talk about environmentalism. I see a tension, though, between these two statements of yours:

      "The question is how to live through the transition, remaining sane in an insane world and figuring out how to live when death is growing upon us."

      By "focusing on systems where you can cultivate life compassionately and conservatively, you find peace in the moment and also generate substance that will find itself able to grow in the cracks of societal facade."

      This gets back to my point about the larger systems in nature. What if the natural course is for our species to die out? In that case, I see Confucians as still being able to prescribe compassion and conservation as an unnatural, artificial course of action (similar to an existential rebellion), whereas Daoists should then be in favour of self-destruction.

      Pragmatism (possibly more Chinese than particularly Daoist) plus submission to larger forces due to a lack of ego strikes me as a recipe for a defense of the status quo, contrary to what you said.

      Again, in a corrupt society, with no Confucian emphasis on conventional or commonsense morality, the Daoist would seem to have to identify with that larger system, thus becoming part of the problem; arguably, this is the problem with Obama. Now, if that corrupt system were unnatural, natural regularities might trump the incentives for corruption, but who says the animal kingdom is generally more compassionate than Machiavellian? Corruption is the natural norm (due to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, dominance hierarchies, and the aphorism that power corrupts); that's my point about the essence of natural tragedy.

      So here's something I'm not clear about: Whence the Daoist's ideals of compassion and conservation, given nature's indifference to the fate of any species, the inevitability of each species's demise, and the Machiavellian norms of animal behaviour?

    11. I believe that tension is inherent. Who is to say what the course of nature holds? Thus, people will act differently based on their nature.

      Something that took me a long time to appreciate is the difference between compassion and righteousness (which the Tao specifically cautions against). In both situations, there is emotional empathy/sympathy towards other living beings, but the latter focuses on action and intervention. With that, comes justification and defensiveness.

      Compassion, by contrast, can focus on thoughtfulness. In this state, one may have to allow (or even cause) pain, simply out of the nature of the world.

      It is a cliche that many tribal societies are deeply compassionate towards their kills, but it is the truth. By honoring the death of their meal and thanking the animal spirit, they affirm their state of existence. We cannot live without causing pain and death of living things, but we can be compassionate in this action and not cause it needlessly.

      I am not a vegetarian, unlike a lot of eastern adherents (although surprisingly, not the Dali Lama) in large part because I view life systemically. I am about webs of life and for me compassion exists for all individual things but the ecosystem -- and its inputs and outputs -- deserves the most awe. The truth is that animals have a very important role in building and sustaining ecosystems, and when done properly, consuming them garners many more calories than otherwise. Without the loop, we must rely on external energy and nutrient inputs, which is destructive to both the local ecosystem and earth in general. Now I'm still a hypocrite in that only a bit of my consumption comes from these systems currently, but that is increasing. However, in order to do so, it involves destroying current ecosystems and repurposing them for our use. Even though the current ecosystem supports much less life and requires external input, it still feels painful to kill parts of it for my own purposes. This is reconciled by recognizing it is necessary and will lead to a healthier ecosystem in the future.

    12. All of this is to say that death is necessary for life, and causing death in the aim of sustaining life is not unnatural in the slightest.

      And in pursuit of this, your life may become forfeit by other forces seeking to sustain life, or if the environment changes, you may cause your own death by overexploitation. This too is natural.

      But since they are both natural, why would the sage favor self destruction? Being alive and active is necessary in the cycle.

      Sometimes people have asked why I don't kill myself since I'm nihilistic, as if the choice of being alive is the same as being dead. They are not however, for dying is a certainty and there is plenty of time for that. It is better to explore the cycle of life while there is the chance (unless of course there is an issue that prevents it).

      So it goes with our species as a whole. On Scott's blog I was responding to haig and stated something to the effect of, "I laugh at extinction and mourn for those in suffering."

      This is because extinction is inevitable and everything we do is just a set up for the punchline. However, the transition there is painful for those that don't understand (and myself when I don't understand) so compassion dictates mourning. Yet this process is natural, and what comes will come when the time is there. There is no use in speeding it up, and actively contributing towards living is the only way that we know when it's time to die.

      I think the last part describes how Taoism can support life in the face of seeming indifference.

    13. I have a friend who is an amazing person, but he is terrified of living. He is ruled by anxiety and lives in a destructive environment, surrounded by destructive people. This of course makes him depressed.

      He told me sometimes he thought of committing suicide because he has a hard time withstanding the pain of being alive. I said this was stupid because he has not actually tried living. He has not tried moving out of the environment or letting people help him alleviate the causes of immediate anxiety so that he can begin healing and living within the flow of life.

      He knows this and it keeps him alive, but it is important that my judgement was preceded by compassion first and foremost. I do not blame him for his situation or fear of change, for I completely understand and accept it. We both look forward to when he has the strength to try something else.

      I have another friend who was depressed for over 10 years. She had been on every medication known and had each one fail. She lived to an extent that made me embarrassed and yet would come to feel nothing -- not even sadness. She was dead inside despite striving for life in all ways.

      Eventually I told her about ECT and she found a psychiatrist who agreed to do it. She talked to me a week before her first treatment and told me that she was committed to doing the full course, but if it did not work then she would kill herself. She told only me this because she felt I was the only one that would understand and did not want to burden her family and friends with the knowledge -- particularly if it worked. She grieved for the pain she was afraid she would have to cause, but accepted it.

      Fortunately the ECT worked and she is the most lively person I know! By accepting death, she honors the value of living, and she knows it's not time to die because she is once again alive.

      Still, if she had killed herself or he does, I would accept it and have told them as much. This is because I am confident that they both perceive their internal reality clearly at times. They said respecting their decision whether to live or die was incredibly affirming as part of me loving their conscious being, instead of my feelings being projections of my ego.

      I wish humanity could be self aware enough to speak to itself in this manner, and have a hard time accepting that it does not. It is one thing to commit suicide knowingly, and an altogether different thing to bring about destruction.

      I am not convinced this is a natural state of things, for animals often leave their packs to die in peace and documentaries show many instances in which an animal realizes it cannot escape its pursuers...only to lie down and calmly wait to be a meal.

    14. Many interesting points here, as always. Mind you, when I spoke of self-destruction, I meant the destruction of our species. I wasn't speaking to whether any particular person ought to go on living.

      The thing is that while you're surely right, that killing is naturally a part of living, humans kill in an unnatural way. As I understand it, we've killed off many more species than any other species has extinguished. In my article on the environmentalist's nightmare, I speculate that our species may be nature's instrument for bringing all terrestrial life to a close.

      And this raises the point about broad corruption in nature. If our species is particularly corrupt (more sadistic than compassionate), what's a Daoist to do when she finds herself in that system? I like to think of Obama's plight as a liberal who assumes the Oval Office in what I call a stealth oligarchy. Can he change the system from within or must he succumb to the system's biases and become a sort of Darth Vader figure?

      Both compassion/altruism and Machiavellian double-dealing may be natural, but the latter seems truer to the spirit of evolution, considering the basic conflict between the genes and each host organism. Schopenhauer made this point when he said that our evolved instincts (genes) care about the species whereas the individual cares about herself. That's the root of much self-deception.

    15. I too was speaking of the destruction of our species...there is nothing exemplary about my friends.

      It's unclear whether there is anything unnatural about human destruction. My uncle was looking at this picture and a coworker walked by.

      "I see that pattern all the time," he said. "It appears in my petri dishes right before the population collapses."

      When there is a plethora of prey, predators rapidly expand until they are too numerous and cause starvation. Then the pressure is released and prey rebounds, starting the cycle over again.

      If too many prey exist compared to predators, then the prey exhausts its food supply and collapses; lowering the total amount of life the ecosystem will support.

      Thus a stable but disequilibrium system can fall into collapse.

      In simulations of this dynamic that incorporate genetic algorithms, both predator and prey evolve in response to each other. Eventually, one side has an explosive mutation that causes too great of fitness and the system collapses.

      This suggests humans don't kill unnaturally, just in an unprecedented fashion.

      I just read your essay on environmentalism and see it makes this same point. You also hit the Taoist critique of cleverness and comfort, particularly the alienation it causes when you're not wise to the nature of things.

      I'm glad you recognized that a gestalt switch is possible; there is no (rational) reason why humanity can't change. I'm not optimistic though, since it requires a willful rejection of power, which as you noted, isn't a rational process.

      That said, I severely doubt we'll cause extinction of all life, or even ourselves -- at least in the near future. Instead, it is much more likely that our fragile systems will collapse and population plummets far below carrying capacity. Over specialization makes us destructive, but it also makes us weak, and from weakness comes fear, which will sort out the rest.

      I struggle with your question about our corruption. Personally, I find it effective and satisfying to merely ignore the status quo as much as possible, which basically means contributing to a more holistic path in my free time, and using all my resources to help people that want to drop out and contribute. Part of me recognizes that the longer things stay together, the more can transition, but the more overall damage will be done. Thus, I fear and pray for collapse of our oligarchy.

      Part of me used to feel that we should help usher it on, but then I came to understand that the primary problem is based in fear. Trying to destroy the proximate cause out of fear will only exacerbate and draw out the mindset causing the problems in the first place. Compassion on the contrast, hastens the decline and gives people strength.

  2. Have to say this is a fascinating debate, guys. Mikel is expressing in a much more coherent way one of my reactions to Benjamin's worldview...the introduction of an idnependent, human moral judgment into discussions about the universe.

    1. I'm glad you're getting something out of it. I'm not looking for followers or anything like that. All I want is for folks to think more about these issues and to draw their own conclusions.

      Next week, though, I think you'll see how Ray Brassier's nihilism challenges your more laid-back optimism, if you're not already familiar with his view.

  3. I'm looking forward to it.

    But, my view is not "optimism" in any way. It's more passivism. :)

    I actually agree with you that Daoism seems to suggest that natural reality is a "positive" thing, which I agree is not supportable from our perspective. I mean, a hurricane wiping out a village is not a "good" thing in any sense of the (human) word "good". Natural reality just "is".

    1. Point taken about the optimism. But I think we all might be optimistic compared to Brassier.