Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Dao and Pessimism

I've always been concerned about the state of the earth.  Frankly, I cannot understand people who are not.  But I think it's very important to think rationally and logically about this.  I raise this point because someone very close to me recently stated that she thought that because of climate change in fifty years there will be no more multicellular life left on the planet earth.

Major Extinction Events
I looked around a bit and tried to figure out whether or not there is any reason to believe such a thing.  Perhaps the best argument against this point of view is to put a little energy into reading up about past extinction events from the geological record.  A good summary, as usual, is on the Wikipedia.   Basically, there have been many extinction events in the past.  Several explanations are offered, including gamma-ray burst from super novas, volcanic activity leading to massive climate change,
asteroid impacts, and so on.   The thing to remember about these is that many of them are far, far more damaging than anything human beings are capable of doing, and none of them came close to killing off all multi-cellular life.  Indeed, the mass extinctions that took place mostly involved elimination of species that were peculiarly adapted to the pre-existing climactic conditions and unable to thrive in the new.  For example, in times of warming, species that were able to survive under tropical conditions thrived and those that had adapted to the cold failed.  As a general rule "weed species" that survive best when a climax ecosystem is disturbed tended to do well.  (Since humanity is the ultimate "weed species", this bodes well for human civilization.)

IMHO, this gets the "science bit" of this discussion out of the way.  That allows me to deal with what I think is the real issue at play.  I think the real problem isn't the environment but rather the existential dread that some sensitive modern people feel when they reject the existence of  God.

As I see it, a fair number of the most intelligent, sensitive and conscientious people that are alive today find themselves in a significant bind.  They can see that the "old way" of being-in-the-world just doesn't work anymore.  Intelligent people can no longer simply believe that God is going to make all things right.  Nor can they believe that some sort of Marxist Utopia is going to arrive because of blind historical laws.  Neither can they believe that science is going to bring some sort of "Star Trek" inter-stellar paradise.  Instead, all they see is the same old stupid human species mucking things up on a greater and greater scale.  This is a profoundly depressing state of affairs.  Given this background, is it any wonder that the human imagination takes the next step and projects that life is not only not going to have any meaning but that it also will no longer exist?

George Orwell
I've just finished reading the collected essays of George Orwell and they serve as an interesting vantage point to think about this problem.  Most people who don't know him well tend to think of him as an ardent anti-communist.  This is accurate up to a point, as he was the author of probably the two most devastating critiques of Communism ever written:  Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But if you read his other work, you will see that he was just as hard on Capitalism and Colonialism.  For example, his short essay "Shooting an Elephant" (which you can read here), explains how colonialism forces a class of men, colonial administrators, into doing certain things in order to exploit people in other countries.  His essays about the life of the poor, such as "How the Poor Die" (also available on line), illustrate how badly the poor of England and mainland Europe were being treated under the capitalist system of the day.  In fact, Orwell always described himself as a "democratic socialist".

This put Orwell in a very delicate position during his time.  Most intellectuals had decided that you had to choose one way or the other----either capitalism or communism.  Orwell would not compromise, however, and steadfastly refused to excuse the excesses of either in favour of their supposed benefits.  Indeed, he even refused to "opt out" in favour of the sort of pacifist "third option" that people like Gandhi were offering.  He fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war, for example, and clearly described the vile infighting, the secret police, etc, that riddled the Spanish Republican Forces----yet still argued that the war was just and had to be fought.

I'm sure that George Orwell was a royal and mighty "pain in the ass" to just about every organization that he came into contact with because he adamantly and absolutely refused to avoid seeing uncomfortable and painful realities.  I'm sure that this unwillingness to avert his gaze also caused him personal anguish.  He certainly had a very bleak vision of the future, which he thought was bound to be dominated by totalitarianism.  Think about this quote:  "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face---forever."  Isn't this vision as bleak as my dear friend who contemplates the extinction of all multi-cellular life within fifty years?

I raise the example of Orwell because I want to suggest that the problem that both he and my dear friend face are similar in nature and also come from the same source.  I suggest that they come about because both of them have totally rejected the existence of God, yet hold onto a sort of "ur philosophy" that goes with it.  It seems to me that this places them in an intolerable position and would like to suggest a way of looking at the world that will help them out of their pessimistic outlook.

I mentioned before that this sort of affliction only affects the especially sensitive and intelligent.  This lets almost all people who believe in God off the hook.  After all, if there is an omnipotent "Daddy in the sky" who is totally involved in our day-to-day lives, can't he fix everything?  Even if there is a real apocalypse on the horizon, won't a post-death life in Heaven make everything all right?  I suspect that most atheists also have nothing to worry about, as the overwhelming majority are the type who don't give much thought to the issue one way or the other, but just reject God as "so much bosh" and leave it at that.  Most folks who can just dismiss religion this way have an equal facility to dismiss just about everything else that doesn't relate to them personally and immediately.

So if an intelligent sensitive person rejects God, what is it that I believe they hold onto that makes their life miserable?  There is a Sanskrit saying that sums up the problem succinctly:  "Tat Tvam Asi", or, "That art Thou".   The phrase comes from the Chandogya Upanishad and refers to the idea that in some sense the concept of "self" and/or "soul" is directly linked to the idea of "God".   I think that there are two key issues at work.  Our naive assumptions of life are a:  that there is this single, atomic entity known as the "self" or "soul" that b:  exerts something called "free will" in order for us to choose one action over another.  This is the "ur philosophy" (or, naive common sense view) that just about everyone in our society holds even if they have long since turned their backs on the "daddy in the sky".

The problem with it is that it posits an enormous burden of responsibility on people.  If you are intelligent, you can see just how incredibly bad the state of your world can be.  And again, if you are sensitive, you feel an enormous responsibility to "do your bit" to make the world better.  In Orwell's time this responsibility extended itself for people to fight against the excesses of Capitalism (made manifest during the Great Depression), and, the dangers of Hitler, Fascism and totalitarianism in general.   People devoted their lives to "the party", they went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, they went underground and joined the resistance, they joined radical organizations and suffered real repression.  My experience from reading about people did do good things like organize unions, hide Jews, etc, is that most felt that they were morally obligated to do so.  Indeed, it is also my experience that the various projects I have undertaken over the years as an environmentalist and community organizer also come from a personal sense of obligation to "do the right thing". 

For people in Orwell's generation this sense of obligation came with the added burden of their feeling that often had to make soul-destroying moral compromises based on the principle that "the end justifies the means".   This meant that many people supporting what they thought was a good thing---socialism---had to find ways to justify things like secret police and show trials in the Soviet Union.  During World War Two, they also found themselves having to justify the non-aggression pact that Stalin signed with Hitler after a decade of proclaiming that the Nazis were the worst danger that civilization faced. They did these things because the context they inhabited seemed so absolutely bleak that they were forced to choose between two different options, neither of which seemed terribly appealing.  If you didn't support the Soviet Union, then you were supporting the capitalism that was destroying the working class, exploiting the colonies and building up the Nazi menace. Trying to exist as a sensitive intelligent person in that sort of moral landscape was absolutely degrading because many felt that there was only two choices and you had to choose one or the other.

In the same way, anyone with a well developed social consciousness who lives in the modern Western world has to understand how they are personally participating in a process that is undermining our environmental infrastructure and will result in a great deal of horror for all living things.  We have a direct experience that seems to tell us that we are independent beings with the ability to choose one course of action over another, we see how badly we are abusing the earth----and yet we continue to participate in this abuse through the simple act of living our lives. The feeling is inescapable that the very act of life commits us to killing the future.

The problem with this intense feeling of personal responsibility, however, is that there are devastating arguments, both ancient and modern, against it.  This is because the feelings that we have of as independent "souls" exercising "free will" are fundamentally illusions.

The ancient argument against the soul was developed independently both in the East and the West.  This involved the use of careful self observation which resulted in the insight that there really isn't any single unitary thing that could be called the "soul".  Instead there are just momentary, fleeting thoughts. In the West, David Hume pointed this out.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic'd reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.
In the East, Buddhism came across the same insight, which they described as "anatta", or, "no self".

The modern argument is based on modern research into brain physiology.  Various experiments have shown that what we call "self awareness" is a sort of overlay that exists on a wide variety of different processes.  This can be shown experimentally.  For example, if a person has their brain cut in half (this is done as a last resort to treat a terribly debilitating form of epilepsy----I'm not referring to Nazi medical research here) different parts of her brain will no longer be able to communicate with each other.  This includes the eyes, each of which will each be associated with parts that control different aspects of the body----such as the hands and voice.  So if the eye associated with the hands is given one picture, those hands will pick up one specific object to represent it.  If the eye associated with a different part of the brain, such as the voice, is shown a different object at the same time, the voice will say that the object is something different.  If both are shown at the same time, the conscious mind will attempt to reconcile the incongruity by hypothesizing some sort of special example.  The main point is that what we call the "soul" is not a simple atomic entity, but rather a virtual construct that organizes a collection of different, fundamentally independent activities.

A second important failure of common sense is the idea that we each have some sort of personal freedom to choose one course of action over another in most aspects of our daily life.  The ancient argument against this comes from an analysis of the concepts of "freedom" and "causation".  If we are free to choose one particular act over another, then surely we must also be able to freely choose one idea over another.  That's because if I choose to make a cup of tea, for example, that choice is only "free" if I can choose to have that particular thought (i.e. to have a cup of tea.)  If the thought just "pops into my head", then it hardly seems free as I am constrained by whatever process results in this happening.  But if I can freely choose to have this idea (which is not what, on self-reflection, seems to be happening), then surely for that choice itself to be "free", would I not also have to choose it too?  The ancient argument against free will indicates that the concept either leads to some mysterious agency that simply creates ideas out of nothing, or else some sort of infinite regress where we are forced to believe that we choose to choose to choose to choose, etc, for everything we do. Neither of which seems palatable.

The modern argument against free will comes from modern psychology which shows that a great many of the higher order decisions that people make in their life seem to be strongly influenced by the chemistry of the brain or the environment in which they developed.  For example, it is pretty clear that a certain percentage of people who are given certain types of anti-malaria drugs will exhibit violent behaviour.  In the same way, a significant percentage of people who have traumatic experiences will go on to make very bad life choices while in the grip of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  How free are these "choices" if you can predict their frequency based on the specific chemistry or background of the individual in question?  In fact, I find it pretty hard to continue to believe in the existence of free will when I am confronted by someone suffering from just about any form of mental illness.

How exactly does giving up on the idea of a soul or free will help someone who is upset and pessimistic about the world around them?  Of course, the whole problem with casting doubts on free will is the fact that you could argue that we are constrained to still believe in it.  And the same thing goes for the soul----we still have the feeling that we are a single, atomic person and may be constrained to believe that it actually exists.  As I see it, however, even if we don't have the ability to choose to think one thing or another, the fact that I am thinking that I may not have free will and you are reading about this idea, means that might actually be possible to turn our backs on the idea and develop something of an improvement on the concept.  

 The first thing that occurs to me is that if we discard the idea of a "soul" and instead believe that this is an illusion caused by the integration of a whole range of sense impressions mediated by the brain over a period of time, we could also extend this notion to include culture.  That is, I am not only the sum total of my sense impressions, but also of the concepts that I have been exposed to in conversation with other people and through things like reading books and watching movies. 

Another way of thinking about this is to consider our naive assumptions about "personality".  We assume that the boundary between who we are and all the people that surround us is a very hard shell that cannot be penetrated.  But in actual fact, we are constantly absorbing ideas and feelings from the people around us.  If we didn't, how would culture ever change?  Where would fads and fashion come from?  Would love between people be possible?   I think that this is at least partly what John Donne was on about when he wrote that
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

As I see it, I am not just a single "soul", but am also connected in a real sense to my wife, my family, the guys I work with, and everyone else that I've ever met.   They talk to me and that influences the way I see the world around me.  This interaction flows both ways, so when I talk to them, I influence how they see the world.  And, in a similar way, I'm also connected to people like David Hume and George Orwell, and every other writer that I have ever read and tried to understand.  And, in the same way, anyone who reads this blog is also influenced by by me. 

This interaction is what I see as being a substitute for "free will".  I don't "choose" to have a cup of tea.  Nor do I "choose, to choose, to choose, a cup of tea".  But now, when I make a cup of tea, I make it with loose tea and a tea ball instead of a tea bag, because my wife talked me into doing it this way.  Similarly, she now drinks more tea than she ever did before she met me and had to accommodate her American self to my Canadian ways. 

This is a long way from the extinction of all multicellular life or a future of endless boots grinding endless faces into the mud.  But what it does do for me is take some of the pressure off.  I am not an individual "me" who is watching the human race run like lemmings over a cliff.  Instead, I am part of the human "process" that is working its way through a problem.  And that problem could be described as:  "How does a species gain the wisdom to make the transition from being a passive part of nature to becoming the most important force of nature?"   Another way of saying it would be "How does life make the transition from being unconscious and governed simply by physical natural selection to being conscious and advancing through cultural processes?"

In a sense, what I'm saying is that I'm beginning to see myself as part of the Dao.  This "Dao" isn't some sort of replacement for God, it is not some sort of pantheistic deity.  I am simply referring to the sum of all parts of the universe.  Probably not even all of them, just the relevant bits of my culture, personal history, physical surroundings, etc.  They aren't self aware, they don't have a personality, will or anything else.  But they are what give me the illusion of choice.  And, they are what are calling the shots, not any sort of  "soul". 

The practical upshot is that I when I think of this notion I remind myself not to get too upset with myself for not living up to some sort of ideal.  I do what I do because I am part of the Dao.  When I remember I also remind myself to not get upset with others for what they do.  They do what they do because that is what their part of the Dao is all about.  And when I remember it, it try not to get upset about the future, because that too is just part of the Dao. 

What this looks and feels like is the sort of fatalism that conventionally religious people have.  "It's all in God's hands."   This attitude does allow people to feel better about the future and dissipates enormous amounts of pessimism.  Unfortunately, if it is attached to the notion of "soul", "free will" and a supernatural deity, it brings all sorts of poison into the world.  But if I cut them all away and just think of the Dao as the sum of all the universe, I can have the same sort of freedom. 

Embrace the Dao!   Hold onto this One!   Fast the Mind!



Alexe said...

Sorry this is so long. The post gave me a lot to think about.

I enjoyed this post very much, the way it connects the self-observation of no actual self to the social and historical relationships which evaporate the idea of individualism. I was startled to find that this is what is meant by dao, simply everything that is happening, considered without free will or soul. This helped me understand it better, and I really like how you have brought the Western debates about free will together with the idea of the dao.

In the last paragraph you note this feels a lot like fatalism, though it's different because it's not religious, and it got me trying to articulate the difference to myself. It seems to me that when speaking of fate, either in Chinese or Western thought, firstly fate has a sense of predetermination, a force from outside, and secondly one must usually submit or acquiesce to the difficult consequences of fate. There is also the less common affirmation of your fate, amor fati, advocated by Nietzsche.

Now, I'm only starting to learn about daoism, but I wonder if it could be different on both counts. Firstly, there is no sense of predestination, the future could be anything (and I think Hume would agree here). Secondly, as far as attitude, it's not a question of either submitting to or affirming fate, since these would need an external fate. Moreover, it does advocate acting in a certain way, namely non-action, or the most natural action, like water finding its level--and so this is a respect for non-human nature and helpful to the environmental problems. So it doesn't affirm whatever people do (the way that fatalism does), even as it sees that shouting "which side are you on?" is another non-dao action. It asks us to see ourselves as very small, whereas the moral crusader sees him- or herself as very large, at the center of the world, believes that the world depends on his or her actions.

This is just my sense of things--I may be wrong, I'm just trying out ideas here. Glad to find your blog.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Great to see your comment. Not too long at all. I love it when people engage with what I write.

First of all, please don't take what I say in my blog as being in some sense "definitive" about any aspect of Daoism. I simply do not think that that sort of thing exists. If you look at what a Chinese Daoist from a specific tradition thinks, compare that with someone from another tradition, compare that to a core religious text, compare that to a revered text like the Zhuangzi---I think you find that they are all different takes on the human experience. My blog is just one of many. Judge me by the quality of my arguments, not by whatever authority I can wrap around myself.

Thanks for pointing out an emphasis that I hadn't thought of, namely the distinction between not having free will and believing in some sort of predestination. Both can be defined as "fatalism", but they aren't the same thing at all. And yes, this does fit nicely into the "water course Way", as Alan Watts described it.

The conversation makes us all wiser. :)