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.


White Tiger Wayfarer said...

I agree with the main thrust of your points---the level of discourse and the subject matter at many Daoist forums can be downright disappointing. I also agree that many people take Daoist teachings out of context and as a result

With regard to qi though, I think we can make a distinction between people using the term as an "occult quality" and people who actually use the term in a very specific, practical sense. Qi is still very much a big part of TCM, and many martial arts or qigong styles use the word to refer to very specific phenomena (Yiquan for example, and there are many others). Just because some people use vague talk about qi to justify an anti-science attitude doesn't mean the whole concept is bunk.

As an aside I have also heard that in China there have been scientific studies which suggest there is a physical basis to qi---whether or not such studies are valid or whether their results are conclusive, I can't say, but they have been preformed.

White Tiger Wayfarer said...

Sorry to double post, part of my comment seems to have gotten cut off; I meant to say "as a result, they miss the point" or something along those lines.

Niles Gibbs said...

I think we're in agreement.

Specifically, I've written on the human need for such frameworks to pass on essential knowledge ("primary things or essential meaning vs. secondary things or outer accouterments"), acquiring kung-fu in applied skills, striving to become someone who doesn't strive, (which I've taken to calling "skilled-unawareness", after a previous post of yours), the shunning of pedantic, Confucian style-knowledge for observation and direct experience.

And I most heartily agree that the occult/new age movement has done a wonderful job of cobbling together out-of-context "ancient materials" toward their (ultimately financial) ends.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

White Tiger Wayfarer:

Good to meet you.

I'm still not convinced about qi. I have bumbled around for quite a while and have yet to actually see someone manifest qi in a way that suggests to me that there actually is such a thing. Of course, I could be convinced, but until I see something (either directly or through a reputable scientific process), what most people call qi just looks like a homeostatic process to me.

To give you a practical example. When I wake up in the morning, I can feel a warm glow flowing out of my thorax through my limbs and through my head as part of the waking up process. Is this qi flowing through my body? Or is it a complex series of activities (hormonal and otherwise) that are taking place throughout my body?

As a teaching tool in a pre-scientific context, the idea of qi made sense of all these sorts of processes. But as a human artifact, Daoism should change with the times and accept that a lot has been learned in the last few hundred years.

White TIger Wayfarer said...

I'm not sure it has to be an "either or" proposition---i.e. either Daoist practioners give up notions of qi as vague and pre-scientific/anti-scientific or else they cling to them and reject all notions of Western science. I generally consider myself to be “pro-science”: I find science interesting and useful, I am grateful for scientific advances, and I’m in favor of scientific research. But this doesn’t stop from frequently thinking of things in terms of qi. Is that a contradiction? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I have a lot of thoughts about this, so I apologize if my response is long-winded.

I certainly agree that one can, to some degree at least, “translate” talk of circulating qi into the concepts of homeostasis and other physical processes. And I think at least some qigong practitioners do exactly that, for example this article on zhan zhuang qigong talks about the effects and goals of practice in terms of training postural muscles. In many ways, training in this fashion allows the body to develop the sort of spontaneous, effortless response of wu-wei, which I think is very much aligned with your comments on kung-fu and what Niles calls “skilled unawareness”, the kind of skill Cook Ding has in the Zhuangzi.

By the same token, however, one can translate many notions of Western science into the conceptual language of qi. In TCM at least, this is fairly precise; the feelings you experience upon waking up, for example, are part of the circulation of qi through the body. This circulation as described by TCM is very specific, going through certain “organs” in a specific order at specific times. Even concepts like DNA can be understood in terms of jing (which as you noted in one of your earliest entries doesn’t correspond to “sperm”).

My point is that TCM (and other associated arts and practices with Daoist roots) is an entirely self-sufficient system with its own concepts and methodologies, just as science and Western medicine is an entirely self-sufficient system with its own concepts and methodologies. Given this, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that one system is “better” than the other, since any judgment of a given system will be based on criteria from the other system, and this assumes from the outset what we want to prove---namely, that one system possess better criteria than the other.

I think the solution resides in a Feyerbend style of methodological/epistemological anarchy---otherwise known as “anything goes”. We can acknowledge that both systems work, but neither is superior to the other or a perfect system that can provide answers to every question or cures to every problem.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

White Tiger Wayfarer:

What marvellous links you added to your post. I really liked the one on standing medititation. Yes, it is exactly the sort of thing I am looking for with regards to nei dan.

I wrote my post because I am so disappointed with the level of discussion I find with regards to Daoist internal arts. And I think that the language has to take some of the blame for the rampant "cosmic muffinry" that is associated with Daoism.

I'm not a total Popperian and do have some sympathy for what Feyerbend has to say. Moreover, I do understand why people like to use the language of qi. It is a lived experience rather than an abstraction---which makes it much more tangible. But as long as we stick with it, it just leaves so many naive individuals with the notion that there is some sort of cosmic "force" out there that they can learn to manipulate.

As someone who is trying to accomodate Daoism to a Western setting I just find it so frustrating that so many people out there are accepting new-age claptrap because the ancient language is so accomodating to flim flam artists.

I know that there is a minority of practitioners who agree with me, so I'm simply content to be in that part of the continuum. I also have no problem with people who make the effort to enter into the discussion. I'm also willing to accept Sturgeon's rule (i.e. 90% of everything is crap) and leave it at that.

Thanks for a very insightful response and don't be a stranger.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for your comments. I looked at your website and was quite intrigued by what you had to say about weight loss and the "hacker's diet". Very interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

I wrote some words too.

Caroline Q said...

"By focusing on peripheral issues, instead of holding onto its fruitful core, we completely and absolutely miss the point"

I would like to hear more about the "fruitful core".

I have been reading and enjoying your perspective. Caroline Q

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Thanks for your support. I just ordered a translation of Guanzi from my library. Your blog post piqued my interest.

Caroline Q:

Thanks too, you make a good point. It is a lot easier to talk about what I'm not in favour of rather than what I am. As I mentioned, I've been a bit of hiatus lately with regard to the blog, but I have some free time coming up with the Yule festival, so perhaps I'll put some more work into it. I hope the fire alert has ended in your home forest.

Kanzi said...

I came to this post while doing a Google search on... Daoism and Science!... So I apologize for this very late reply. On the other hand, I have just discovered a very interesting blog (to someone interested in daoism in the first place, of course...).

My interest in the relationship between daoism and science comes from my having been trained in science (physics), and having worked as a scientist for a number of years. Over the past few years, I have also been deeply interested in China, its history and its culture.

I am currently working on a book that tries to give a different perspective to what people call science, and its link to technology, all of this done via a historical perspective. It is a perspective where China plays a very big role (as opposed to most histories of science and even technology). So along the way I have also realized that the daoist philosophy might be a good background to my story.

O.k. Now I just want to point out something about "Qi". I have come upon that concept over and over agan while reading about Chinese philosophy. What has struck me, as a physicist, is the notion of Qi as something that is continually transformed. It strikes me as a very modern view. What physicists refer to as "energy" is pretty much the same. Now before anyone starts arguing that "energy" is a "real" scientific concept, I have to say that it is quite the contrary. "Energy" is not something that can actually be measured. It is a totally abstract concept. Sure one can measure speed, temperature, light intensity and so on. And one can "convert" those measurements in terms of "energy". But energy itself is never to be seen. There is no such thing as "pure energy". It does, however, transform itself constantly from one form, or one manifestation, into another.

So the philosophical concept of Qi is very much similar to the philosophical concept of energy. Once one is ready to accept the idea that there is no such thing as "scientific truth" (and I am), then one is also ready to accept that philosophical concepts like Qi or Energy are merely useful ways of understanding the world.

So it seems to me that scientific investigations and scientific theories are like a lot of noise and chaotic activity. "Western" scientists (that is those raised within the western philosophical culture) have struggled long and hard to finally come up with the concept of energy. It was long and hard because they did not have the daoist notion of Qi in the first place!

There are more instances of such "western" scientific concepts that took a similarly long time to get to be accepted, because of the very mechanistic world view that is at the heart of western science. Quantum mechanics is another example (and I haven't read "The Tao of physics", nor do I intend to).

That is not to say that Daoists had a prescience of what "energy" was or anything like that. However, many intellectual struggles that gripped western science would not have occurred in China. For example, nowadays, "complex system theory" is all the craze, as we realize that it is just not possible to reduce reality to simple systems. it seems to me that that notion is at the heart of Chinese philosophy (for the little that I know...).

Now to those who would point once more time to the famous (or infamous) "Needham question" (why did the scientific revolution occured in the West and not in China), I don't have space here to give my own answer (or lack of) to it. But it has something to do with what is, in the end, "useful" in science, and what isn't. Is the part that is useful what is actually used by inventors, artisans and craftsmen (and their modern counterparts), or what we find in scientific scholarsly journals and that is discussed in academic settings? I tend to think that here too, Daoism can give us some answers...