January 11, 2016

Taoist Meaning

Continuing  to discuss Taoism for the Modern Age...

Let's say I give you two sums: 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 and 4+4.  Both sum up to 8, and from a pure arithmetic point of view this means they mean the same thing.

Now let's say that the first expression represents a coach going out and recruiting athletes to make up the eight of the rowing team, and the second expression represents a man with three sons marrying a woman with three daughters (i.e the Brady Bunch).

Either way you end up with eight people. Counting the people, turning them into numbers, and then summing them to a total is an example of reductive meaning. This might be just what you want if you need to fill a block of 8 seats in the theatre, or a table of 8 at a banquet, since any eight people will fill the bill.

But for the purposes of winning at Henley or starting a sitcom, the two groups of 8 are not equivalent. A lot of detail about the full picture gets eliminated when you sum things up into a simplified whole.

Language is also reductive in a similar way to arithmetic.  When I call the first eight people as "a rowing team", I focus on a subset of the attributes of those people, and I lose the fact that one of them is, say, called Fred and is a fanatical supporter of Manchester United.  When I call the second eight people as a "blended family", I may lose the information that Jan is jealous of the attention her older sister Marcia receives.

Any reality is much more complex than any description of it.  The limitations of our minds and of our language require us to reduce what we experience to such descriptions.  For this reason, we need to remind ourselves that we never have the whole picture if we want to remain in touch with reality.

While it may be convenient for a focused purpose to reduce things down to a simpler description, the true meaning of things can only ever be in their full, indescribable complexity.

January 7, 2016

No Good or Evil, Only the Tao

Continuing  to discuss Taoism for the Modern Age...

Most people will be familiar with the Taoist symbol known as the taiji (even if you didn't know it was called that.  By the way, that name is the first part of the Chinese martial art/exercise system called taijiquan or Tai Chi.)

It is a circle with two different colour "swirls" with a dot of the opposite colour in each swirl.  It represents the union of yin and yang in the Tao.  Each of these is traditionally associated with particular qualities (yin is darkness, femininity, cold, etc.; yang is light, masculinity, heat, etc.).  But for philosophical purposes, it really only matters that these are opposite qualities.

In most of the western religious and philosophical tradition, dualism is the norm.  Good and evil, spirit and matter, to take two obvious examples, are conceived as utterly distinct and opposing things.  Once you have classified something as one or the other, it is permanently and solidly in that category.

In contrast, the Taoist approach to opposites is monistic, in that the opposites are conceived as being part of the same thing, flowing organically into one another.  (Hence the opposite dot in each swirl.)  The whole philosophy of the Yijing is based on this idea: yin lines change into yang ones and vice versa, the speed and ordering of the changes producing the different flows and outcomes.

The canonical model of Chinese dynastic history follows this model: an old dynasty becomes corrupt and ineffectual, and is replaced by a new, virtuous and vigorous dynasty that will ultimately succumb to the same fate (hopefully after centuries).

We see similar examples all the time in the modern world: the hot, new thing becomes tomorrow's cliche, today's hero is tomorrow's villain (and sometimes vice versa).

A major form of dualism these days is political dualism: left and right, conservative vs. liberal.  Strangely, when the Left/Right metaphor originally became current, the conservatives were those who believed that the state (the king) should control everything for the common good, and the liberals were those who believed in free markets, free enterprise and individual autonomy.  Today, these words tend to have the opposite associations.

The big problem with demonizing one's enemies and being so sure that your side is on the side of the angels is that it can be a little bit too easy to miss the changes in the flow.  Today's liberator is tomorrow's dictator. Today's high-minded idealist is using gutter techniques to beat "the bad guys" next week.

A Taoist outlook reminds us that there are no hard lines between opposites and that these lines are always moving and shifting. Rather than clinging to certainties, it is better to keep a holistic, realistic perspective.  Those who cling too vigorously to a particular "good" often end up not noticing when the thing they are clinging to has shifted over to the side of harm.

Taoism suggests that it is better to be healthy and happy in ambiguity than to be rigidly and lifelessly on the side of "the good and the right".

January 5, 2016

Just Smart Enough To Be Dangerous

Continuing on the theme of Taoism for the modern age...

When we are in elementary school or high school (and for some, even to the end of undergraduate university), we learn the "facts" as known by experts in whatever discipline we are studying, and when we memorize and internalize them, we do well on our tests, papers and exams.  If we do well enough, we congratulate ourselves that we are "smart".

We learn about all the technological, scientific and sociological advancements our civilization has made, and we feel that the world is fully understandable and controllable, if not by us personally, then by some "expert" somewhere else.

Some of us reject  these "mainstream" experts, but put our faith in some other kind of expert: alternative medicine,  pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, religious beliefs, etc.  But this boils down to the same thing: the belief that we can understand and control the world, by some means or another.

The problem is that, if you study any subject area deep enough, you discover that the nice little story you learned at the novice stage is basically a massive simplification of the truth, and there are a lot of unanswered questions, and problems too complex to reduce to an understandable and controllable system.

If we look at just quantum mechanics, a well-studied field with real consequences for many modern technologies, we find that even after almost a century of study, a basic, universally-agreed-upon understanding of what it even means is still elusive.

And this seems to be true of every field I have ever examined: any system we invent to understand, predict and control things, while it may be very useful in specific ways, ultimately collapses in the face of the effortless complexity of the world.

Given that the biggest threats to our existence ( climate change, destruction of the ocean ecosystem, nuclear annihilation still lurking off to the side, etc. ) are the direct result of our over-confidence in our own intelligence, perhaps we need to work on our humility a bit, and pay attention to the actual workings of the world around us right now, beyond the narrow confines of our various disciplines and theories.  Because as remarkable as our technological accomplishments are, it is starting to look like we might be just smart enough to be dangerous. 

December 31, 2015

Taoism for the Modern Age

I used to be on a popular dating site where you answered a bunch of questions to try to match with like-minded people.  One of the questions was "How do you feel about Taoism?". The positive answer option was "I love the Tao Te Ching!" and the negative was "Don't like it. Taoists are too passive."

This irritated me in two different ways.

First, there is a second major Taoist text, the Chuang Tzu, that is a much better exposition of Taoist ideas.  It's funnier, clearer, and is made up of narrative pieces that make it a better read.  Unfortunately, other than the famous piece about Chuang Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly, it is not as well-known in the west.

The better known Tao Te Ching is quite challenging to translate, even by the usually challenging standards of Classical Chinese texts (there is a whole other post in that), and some of the translations available in English are really quite loopy, so that people can interpret them however they want with very little understanding.

This might account for the second irritation: the belief that Taoism is essentially the philosophy for slackers who plan to smoke dope in their basement for the rest of their lives.

On the contrary, I think Taoism is exactly the philosophy needed for modern western people, especially North Americans. Unfortunately, Benjamin Hoff had the same idea with his book The Tao of Pooh, a book that was popular when I was in university.  And though his book is amusing, I think it gave a lot of people the wrong idea about Taoism by aggressively attacking "Confucian" ideas (really North American success values by proxy) and making it seem that Taoism was just hippy "dropping out" from an ancient Chinese source.

But Taoism is much more sophisticated than that.  Sure, Chuang Tzu light-heartedly spoofs other contemporary philosophers, such as Confucius and Hui Tzu (the latter a philosopher of logical reasoning), but it is not to negate them, but show that their concerns are only part of a greater whole, a bigger picture.

We don't need to give up our ideas, values and goals, or abandon our strivings, so much as to remember that we are part of a huge, complex world, with its own forces and "ends". Learning to go with the world's natural flow and align our designs with the currents (human and natural) around us would allow us save some of our energy and to enjoy our lives more: you don't have to paddle so much if you are going with the current.

So a good Modern Taoist doesn't have to be a slacker. They will just spend more time figuring out how they can use the current to get them somewhere they might like to go, rather than ignoring that current and blindly going up against it and making themselves miserable in the process.