Saturday, August 9, 2008

Daoism and Science

I cruise around the internet a fair amount and once in a while I "eaves-drop" on conversations on Daoism discussion boards. Usually I'm more than a little disappointed by what I read (which is why I decided to start writing this blog.) Part of this stems from the antagonism to science I routinely observe.

I understand why many ordinary people are concerned about "science". But it needs to be pointed out that what people are reacting against is not science, per se, but rather something altogether different: the rapid adoption of powerful technologies without any appreciation of their impact on the world.

Scientists often get upset about this antipathy and proclaim that it is totally misplaced, but I think they have to accept some blame because the culture of scientific research consistently evades any sort of moral responsibility for the consequences of the application of their research. (Incidentally, I think at least part of the solution would be to make being a scientist a regulated profession---like a doctor or lawyer--- so there can be sanctions applied to misconduct.) To a large extent, I think that this is because most scientists see what they do with a certain romanticism that is increasingly out-of-step with reality. For them, the iconic image is that of a lonely researcher seeking the roots of reality. In contrast, ordinary citizens more often envision a huge corporation developing new some new technology and willfully "fudging" its research to hide from government regulators any harmful side-effects. Scientists think "penicillin", while concerned citizens think "thalidomide".

In actual fact, there are precious few independent researchers in the world today. The overwhelming majority work for large institutions following agendas that are far from altruistic. Researchers mostly work for corporations, the military or universities. And of those that work at universities, most either work for grants by the military or corporations, or departments that increasingly tailor their research to make themselves more attractive to outside money from these two sources. (I know a retired biology professor who complains bitterly about how concern about patent infringement has destroyed the sense of collegiality that used to exist at the university where he taught.)

If scientists are honest with themselves they admit that science is now big business. And while ordinary citizens see a great deal of value in the free market, they also understand that it is basically amoral and reckless. The invisible hand is simply not interested in moral questions or the well-being of the community.

Some of the people who are concerned about the dangers that market-controlled technology end up on Daoist discussion boards. There are probably a lot of reasons why, but several immediately come to my mind.

People see concerns about education in some Daoist texts and then jump to the conclusion that this is similar to modern fears about technology. For example, if you check out the Dao De Jing you will find passages that say a ruler should keep his subjects' stomachs full and their minds empty. But contrary to what modern readers may think, the scholarly consensus is that this is a suggestion that ignorant peasants are easier to control than educated ones, rather than a statement about the inherent value of knowledge. (Large parts of the Dao De Jing are somewhat cynical suggestions about how a governor can retain control of a state. But that is at topic for another post.)

There is also a significant strain in Daoism that suggests that greed for knowledge can be just as great a barrier to wisdom as greed for wealth and power. Zhuangzi, for example, begins chapter three of his book with the following:

Our lives are limited,
But knowledge is limitless.

To pursue the limitless

With the limited
Is dangerous.
(Victor Mair trans.)

The casual reader has to understand, however, that this rejection of greed for knowledge was always balanced by a profound interest in a certain type of learning. This gets back to a paradox that lies at the root of Daoism---the striving to become someone who doesn't strive. The author of the Dao De Jing starts the book by warning that the Dao that can be spoken of is not the real Dao. And yet, he goes on make a great many statements about the Dao anyway. More to the point, no matter how many times in the Daoist tradition people have written about the value of "going with the flow", a great many more words have been used to describe very intense practices aimed at changing oneself. "Going with the flow" only seems to happen after one has put a lot of effort into swimming upstream! A problem I have with a lot of casual modern readers who identify themselves as "Daoists" is that they simply refuse to see any reason for putting in all of this effort.

Modern readers don't understand the cultural assumptions that the ancient Daoists were working with or reacting against. The first of these is the concept of "kung-fu", which is probably one of the deepest held of Chinese cultural artifacts. Most Westerners will only associate this concept with Bruce Lee and acrobatic martial arts. But the term really refers to any type of applied work that results in a deep and almost miraculous ability to do something well. So "kung-fu" in martial arts results in someone like Bruce Lee or the Shaolin Monks. But it also applies to any other human activity, and Zuangzi discusses it with regard to butchers, carpenters, boatmen, archers and so on. Another example of kung-fu comes from Journey to the West. In that book all the miraculous creatures, demons, Gods, immortals, etc, started out as ordinary beings and gained their powers through applied work. Even animals and plants can become immortals if they simply apply themselves to kung-fu.

Zhuangzi is not arguing against kung-fu, but rather against a sort of pedantic Confucianism that has been prevalent in China for time immemorial. Modern readers don't understand this because they don't live in a world where all the major institutions are controlled by a literati class that gained most of their power by passing examinations based on a very stylized and abstract form of Chinese scholasticism. (Anyone interested in this subject might consider reading The Scholars, by Ching-Tzu.) Moreover, because we live in such an egalitarian society (at least in contrast to ancient China) we don't understand that Zhuangzi was making a very strong statement simply by taking as examples people in such lowly occupations as butchers, carpenters and boatmen. In effect, Zhuangzi is not opposed to learning, but rather a specific form of pseudo-learning that is based on rote repetition of the Confucian classics. Indeed, since it can be argued that what is so valuable about the teaching of the butchers, etc, is that it is grounded in practical reality, Daoists should be seen as supporters of scientific study instead of being opposed to it.

Another way in which modern-day supporters of the Way oppose science comes from their tendency to latch onto old metaphysical language from ancient texts and hold onto it with the grip of death. The worst offender is the concept of "qi" and the practice of "qi gong".

"Qi" is word that is found throughout texts from the very beginning of Daoism yet is never really well explained anywhere. The important point for Daoist practitioners is that it has become associated with the strange feelings one gets when one begins to practice an internal art like taijiquan or internal alchemy. The problem is that people are not content to describe these feelings as they experience them but feel obligated to move on to make wild generalizations about what these feelings are caused by and their relative importance in the practice.

The problem is that people use the idea of "qi" as what philosophers describe as an "occult quality". Occult qualities (or, "faculties") are metaphysical substances that are used to explain other phenomenon. The problem is, however, that they are totally unknown, (hence the term "occult"), which means that they do not actually serve any purpose at all in describing the phenomenon at hand. In the language of science, therefore, if you cannot actually measure what you are talking about, it serves no purpose whatsoever and merely confuses people. In the case of Qi-Gong, therefore, the fact that we cannot actually measure or point to "qi", it is best to simply describe what we feel and not make any further step to talk about "qi".

The English rationalists came up with the idea of "occult qualities" because they were trying to cut away a lot of empty verbiage that was left over in scientific discourse from a previous era. If, for example, they were looking at an herb that helped people sleep the traditional way of understanding it was to say that it contained a "dormative (i.e. "causes sleep") quality"---like all other similar herbs. What the philosophers were pointing out was that the only thing that we can say with any faith is that this particular herb helps people sleep. Other herbs also help people go to sleep, but it is an over-generalization (because we have no evidence to say so) to say that the reason why this herb helps a person sleep is the same as the reason why another herb does too.

In fact, an appeal to occult quality actually hinders our understanding because it seems to give an answer (e.g. "dormative quality"), when it does nothing of the sort. At this point people were thinking that they had an answer and then stopped looking more deeply into the subject through observation and experimentation. I would argue that in the same way many self-described Daoists have a similar attitude to notions like "qi". They think that the word means more than "a funny feeling I have when I do taijiquan", and then stop paying attention. (Usually this is the point where they hang up a shingle and start charging money for lessons----.)

What I think this all stems from is that ancient China was a pre-scientific society. And in such places people still need to be able to transmit information from generation to generation. But this can be extremely hard to do if we don't have a conceptual framework that links different ideas together. To understand this point, think about any difficult subject you have had to learn. Until you understood the underlying principles that explained everything you are doing, you felt like you had to memorize a lot of jumbled steps. Once "the penny dropped", however, everything seemed to make sense.

If no one in your society really understand how it is that things link together, the "penny" is never going to drop for anyone. So in order to help make sense of it all, people have to create pseudo-reasons to explain things. And that is where ideas like "qi" come from. Saying that a martial arts move (or the progression of the seasons, change in government, etc) comes from the flow of "qi" isn't really telling anyone what is happening. It is sort of like using a "spacer" to fill in the part of a puzzle where the piece is missing just so the whole thing won't jumble up again if the table gets bumped. As such, it served a very useful purpose way back when. But if we hold onto it now simply because we venerate the old, we are not gaining "ancient Chinese wisdom" but instead making fools of ourselves.

The thing to remember about the old Daoists is that they lived a long, long, long time ago. They were confronted by a very different world and came up with answers that were remarkably sophisticated and very practical. Our world is very, very different. There is a lot that we can use from the Daoist solution, but only if we apply it properly. By focusing on peripheral issues, instead of holding onto its fruitful core, we completely and absolutely miss the point. The people who reject science as being opposed to the Dao have done so.