Tao and the Laws of Nature

(cc), Bill Anderson, flickr.com
(cc), Bill Anderson (steambadger), flickr.com

The Chinese word Tao and Western phrase the Laws of Nature refer to largely the same thing: that which is responsible for the regularity, complexity and organization we find in the universe.   They do so, however, from nearly opposite perspectives.  Tao emphasizes what we don’t know, the mystery of this phenomenon; science emphasizes what we do know and are able to use dependably.  The Taoist approach is existential and holistic; the scientific approach is abstract and reductive.   The Taoist approach is simultaneously cosmological and psychological and its meditative methodology seeks the unity of these two; the scientific approach demands the separation of the cosmological and psychological (the objective and subjective), at least in its basic methodology.  It is the consequences of this third difference that I explore here.

The physicist Steven Weinberg stated that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  (The notion that the mechanical universe of science provided neither meaning nor orientation for humans was prevalent long before Weinberg, however.)  This raises a question: Is this alleged pointlessness actually true of the universe, or is it simply a consequence of the particular perspective from which science approaches the world?

We have noted that the perspective of science is connected to a methodology that systematically diminishes the subjective from consideration.  If the subjective is eliminated at the base of the scientific enterprise, is it any surprise that it is absent from the world science discovers (and to a certain extent, invents)?   And, is it any surprise that the world science presents to us is not one in which we, subjective beings that we are, find ourselves at home?  These considerations at least suggest that the alleged pointlessness is not necessarily true of the world, but only of the scientific perspective on the world.

Taoism, for which the cosmological and psychological are always addressed together, presents a world in which we humans fit quite snugly.  Nothing emphasizes this better than the great Taoist landscapes.  In these works of art, the few humans we find fit proportionally and harmoniously with the land.

The ideal state of being for a Taoist is a state of deep, dynamic equilibrium and peace.  The Tao Te Ching states: “And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it.”  The modern world, which produced science and in turn has been produced by science, is endlessly restless, chasing after crowing roosters and barking dogs all the way to the farthest galaxies. It is a world that has made the word “person” a synonym for “consumer,” and is driven by an economic system that seeks ever new ways to stimulate and exploit our desires.

The modern world bears scant resemblance to a Taoist landscape.  Thus it is easy to simply dismiss Taoism as a quaint notion from an age long past.  But the spirit of Taoism is flexible, it adapts.  Who is to say it cannot absorb the entirety of the modern world and the scientific perspective into its dynamic equilibrium, its peaceful meditation?  I have found it quite adequate in that regard.  But here I want to suggest only a simple point: If you find the world pointless, then perhaps you should explore a different perspective from which to view the world.  Taoism offers such a perspective.


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3 thoughts on “Tao and the Laws of Nature”

  1. >If you find the world pointless, then perhaps you should explore a different perspective from which to view the world. Taoism offers such a perspective.

    Well said.

    >We have noted that the perspective of science is connected to a methodology that systematically diminishes the subjective from consideration. If the subjective is eliminated at the base of the scientific enterprise, is it any surprise that it is absent from the world science discovers (and to a certain extent, invents)?

    Here I have to quibble a bit. Scientists try as much as humanly possible to remove the subjective from their *methods of study* but not from their view of the universe. Cognitive psychology, for example, is all about the recognition of human subjectivity in all its myriad forms. This subjectivity is discussed objectively, but fully recognized, acknowledged, and integrated into the view of humanity. It contributes to negative aspects of cognition (e.g. biases) as well as positive (e.g. creativity). So, subjectivity is not banished from the picture, it's just approached by a method as objective as possible.

    I suspect one of the biggest reasons why some people join Weinberg in finding the scientific vision of the universe "pointless" is because modern Western science and naturalism have emerged out of the view which sees the world as an artifact of its Creator. Many have now gotten rid of the Creator, but still retain the artifact view. And one of the ways that our intuitive, subjective brain processes artifacts is by looking for the intentions of the maker. If none can be found, the artifact seems "pointless" (see Piaget as well as many modern researchers of domain specificity for more on this subject).

    One of the other big reasons the universe seems pointless is because of the break-up of the extended family in the urban West. We now live in nuclear families or alone, and despite living in a city we can be quite isolated from others. Our intuitive, subjective brains tend to process this lack of close ties with others as it would a lone survivor in a paleolithic wilderness, reducing the sense of "meaningfulness" as well as even changing the body's immune system defensive strategies (Roy Baumeister has done impressive work on this).

    So, those may be two of the most important reasons for the so-called "pointlessness" of the modern scientific view of the universe. In addition, those are two ways that the objective methods of science have revealed very important ways that the subjective remains important to us!

    • Brandon,

      I was thinking more of the physical sciences, but your point about cognitive psychology is well taken. It would be true of most of the social sciences.

      As to your point about why many find the universe pointless, I definitely agree. The following is taken from a post from my blog titled "The Meaning of Life?"; I think it is in general agreement with what your statement:

      "The old question What is the Meaning of Life? has become something of a joke — not because it has been answered, but because it seems incapable of being answered. Below I attempt to address the question, though perhaps I only add to the joke.

      Meaning and purpose always relate a part to a whole. A word has a meaning within a sentence, a spark plug has a purpose within a machine, a person has a purposeful or meaningful role within an organization, etc.

      When a person complains that his or her life seems to lacks a purpose, it usually means one of the following:

      I. We are not a part of groups with significant goals or purpose;

      2. We are unhappy with our status within the groups to which we belong; or

      3. We do not sense an overriding coherence to the events of our life (our life is like a set of words that don’t add up to a coherent sentence).

      From this brief sketch, I will assert the following: people who have a significant function in a variety of roles; who feel that they have a high level of status within groups that are important to them; and/or who have a sense that that their life is “on track” – such people will seldom worry about or question the meaning of life. On the other hand, a person in the opposite situation is much more likely to be troubled by this question. This is to say that very often the problem of the meaning of life is really a form of anxiety over one’s lack of clear cut function, status, and goals. The question resolves, or disappears if the person enters a “meaningful” relationship, becomes a parent, finds a desirable job, gains status, etc."

  2. Thanks for this Thomas!

    I agree with Thomas, and with what BT has said. But I think perhaps there is one distinction worth noting regarding science and the subjective. There is a distinction between the study *of* the subjective (in cognitive psychology), and the subjective as a tool *for* study.

    Of course, we have no empirical reasons to suppose that the subjective should be a tool for studying the atmospheric content of Jupiter, or the existence of an afterlife, or the cure for cancer. But where the subject of study is the subjective, I think a subjective, first-person investigation of consciousness is rational and relevant. Not to discount the very important objective (third-person) studies, but I think they are incomplete without that subjective data. In other words, Siddhartha Gautama was a legitimate cognitive psychologist and his work is a part of the history of that field. Modern cognitive researchers (who happen to operate within the object they study – a brain) need to be investigating that brain from within as well; making notes on their investigations, trying different things, and making notes on those, etc.


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