The Tao that can be expressed

[This is an essay I wrote in 2008, on an old blog.]

The following is the first part of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching — it’s my favourite piece of eastern philosophy. I’ve quoted it many times, ever since I started blogging, but I’ve never really written about my take on it.

“The Tao that can be expressed
Is not the Tao of the Absolute.
The name that can be named
Is not the name of the Absolute.

The nameless originated Heaven and Earth.
The named is the Mother of All Things.

Thus, without expectation,
One will always perceive the subtlety;
And, with expectation,
One will always perceive the boundary.”

There are many translations, each offering strikingly different interpretations of the basic Chinese text. This is my favourite version. I keep returning to the last stanza about expectation. I think it is one of the best clues about the ways we can respond to life’s challenges. Another translation renders it as follows: “Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”

What does it mean to live with expectation? I think it means to be ambitious, aggressive, competitive, and goal-oriented. These impulses —  the passions and desires —  are important, because goals cannot be achieved without them. However, with expectation, we always come up against boundaries. Walls. Obstructions. We fail. We are stymied. We see things as black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. We enter into the game of life, and all its ups and downs become manifest. The life of expectation is the life of yang — it is “hot, fire, restless, hard, dry, excitement, non-substantial, rapidity, and corresponds to the day.” One could even go so far as so say that the West’s great successes can be attributed to it’s relentless ambition.

What does it mean to live without expectation? It is that calm, desireless state that we frequently associate with eastern philosophies. The Buddha recognized that desire is the root cause of evil, so he advocated the elimination of desire, rather than any attempt to satiate it (as most people do). Proceeding without expectation, we perceive the subtlety — the nuance. Looking at things without a goal in mind, we are free to view them from a variety of angles, appreciating the mysterious complexity: the dynamic interplay between countless shades of grey. This is the territory of yin — “soft, slow, substantial, water, cold, conserving, tranquil, gentle, and corresponds to the night.”

The great difficulty in life can be expressed as the problem of when to proceed with expectation, and when to lean back and perceive the subtlety. In a sense, this problem is about dealing with free will. Let’s jump into some examples.

Just before the Mahabharata’s great battle, Arjuna finds himself in a quandary: how can he fight his own flesh and blood? His friends and his teachers? A Kshatriya suddenly starts seeing the subtlety, so Krishna  attempts to bring Arjuna back into the field of action — there is a time for doubt and contemplation, but now Arjuna needed to execute his duty.  His dharma. A warrior needs to see things as black and white, or he will drive himself mad.

Hamlet’s primary dilemma can also be seen in this light.

To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them[.]

Should he sit back and suffer the slings and arrows of his terrible fate, or get off his ass and do something about it? Should he commit the sin of killing his treacherous uncle in order to avenge his father’s murder? Despite supernatural intervention, Hamlet takes a verbose four acts to finally work up the courage to do the deed. And as Fortinbras and Horatio survey the carnage, we’re still left wondering — should Hamlet have unleashed all this death and destruction?

Science requires proceeding with expectation. If we ask nothing of the world, we are at the mercy of mysterious and capricious forces of nature. If we examine the origins of these forces, some of the mystery clears up, an many new things become manifest. [If you’re know a little about quantum mechanics, you will quickly see why some physicists like eastern mysticism. But I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.]

The reason I’m picky about the translations of the Tao Te Ching is that most translators make a virtue out of living with subtlety, belittling the boundaries. I prefer the value-neutral version. Both yin and yang and needed to make the world go round. However, the primary thrust of Taoism is to live without expectation, always perceiving the subtleties. This is probably why I gravitate to this philosophy, whose exemplary element is water. Water humbles itself by sinking to the lowest places, and there finds calm and stillness. Yet water can break rock when it has to. Even if I recognize my passive, watery side, I often find myself expecting things. I have my hang-ups. My judgemental tendencies. My competitive streak lies dormant most of the time, but I’m pretty sure it’s not dead.

There are interesting knots one can tie oneself into while examining cryptic verses such as these. The next part of the section goes as follows:

The source of these two is identical, Yet their names are different.
Together they are called profound.
Profound and mysterious, the gateway to the Collective Subtlety.”

So is the fundamental subtlety the recognition that yin and yang spring from the same source and must needs coexist? Or is the fundamental boundary our very quest for consistency, unity, and a common source for all knowledge? Do we not expectantly seek out subtlety? The author humbly preempts even these attempts at cleverness, warning us that “The Tao that can be expressed / Is not the Tao of the Absolute”.

Profound and mysterious, this Tao is. And of course, the rest is silence.

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Is there any such thing as “nothing”?

Perhaps we have to start by asking what a “thing” is.

Let’s try the following definition: a thing has the attribute of location in space and time. Further, we might conclude that in order to locate something, we must have a sense of its extent in space and time: its boundaries.

This definition of “thing” is handy because we can “try it on for size”. An apple is a thing: it has a location and a boundary. An electron is a thing, albeit with a more fuzzy location and boundary. Even certain abstractions can count as things under this definition, like the United States, or a hurricane, or a sports team.

But eventually we must come to concepts. Are they things? I don’t really know. Dragons are not things in the real world. But what about the concept of dragons? Is that a thing? I suppose you could say that a person’s concept of dragons is located somewhere between their ears.

But what about the fact that we tend to speak of the concept of dragons? We don’t merely talk about your concept of dragons and my concept of dragons, but also a kind of depersonalized and generalized concept. Where is the general concept of dragons located? It’s not in any one person’s head. But if it is in many peoples’ heads, then does that mean that it’s location is spread out among all people who have heard of dragons?

If we run with this idea, then it seems as if the world of concepts — often but not always constructed and accessed via language — constitutes a kind of virtual world with its own “physics”. One might call it the memosphere or the noosphere. If reality is the land of fact, this parallel realm is the land of fancy. The noosphere is the sphere of consciousness — not just one consciousness, but a space emerging from the interaction of all separate consciousnesses.

The noosphere seems to grow out of the “thingiverse” of physical matter, and maintains close relations with it. Plants and animals, rocks and rivers, celestial bodies — they all have their counterparts in the domain of ideas. And we draw invisible links between representations of things with the help of connective tissue: language, mathematics, science, art.

But the realm of collective consciousness also contains vast regions that have an unstable relationship with the things in reality. The noosphere contains fairies, angels, demons, werewolves, and little green men. It contains Heaven and Hell, Faerie, Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia, Narnia, and every other magical land accessible via furniture. It contains countless “counterparts” of our Selves: funhouse-mirror-reflections. Perhaps most importantly, it contains our ideals and idols: the abstractions that seem to beckon us.

“Nothing” is an inhabitant of the noosphere. Whatever else it is, it is a concept. As geographers or the imaginary, our task is to identify the region that this strange creature resides in: the civilized plains of sensible knowledge, where all concepts are neatly linked by rational roadways, or the shadowy jungle of fiction and phantasm. In other words, does “nothing” point to anything?

“Nothing” emerges as a placeholder. It shows up when we contemplate possibilities: the could haves, should haves, would haves, may haves, might bes, and maybes. The counterfactuals.

Do possibilities dwell in the “civilized” regions of the noosphere, or are they just across the border, in some buffer zone keeping the jungle at bay?

When we point to nothing, we are pointing to a place in time and space (or idea-space) where there could be something, but there is currently nothing. There is nothing in my teacup — but there could have been tea in there earlier, and could be more at some future time. The emptiness of space is a lot like the emptiness in my teacup: it could contain planets or spaceships or Lovecraftian horrors, but currently it does not.

Where did the universe come from? If you mention some thing, then the question is not truly answered, because one can always ask, where did that come from? So instead, you might say the universe came from “nothing”. All explanations have to stop somewhere. So nothing seems like the right word to place in the sentence “The universe emerged from X”.

The alternative is to say the universe always existed. But our cosmologists tell us everything we see seems to have expanded outwards from a very dense point: we are invited to consider that point as a starting point, rather than an inflection point in an endless oscillation.

The void is sometimes defined as formless potential. Potential is deeply connected to the idea of what is possible but not (yet) actual. If the universe began with a void, then in a sense it was pregnant with all this.

Is this void real? We can’t say, because the idea that the universe has a beginning is not something we can test. Our physical theories can waggle their eyebrows and point suggestively in one direction or the other, but we cannot travel back in time to settle the matter.

But perhaps there is another approach to the void. Creation is not complete — the universe is constantly being made and remade, and we are a part of the process. Where do we come from? If we arose on this planet, there must have been a potential for our emergence all along. We can trace this potential back through evolutionary history, chemistry and physics. We find ourselves confronting the idea that our presence ultimately derives from our absence: even if the universe is eternal, our own existence is not, and so we know that we start from nothing and become something. This is also true of individual people: before a sperm merges with an egg, what was there of you? Nothing. We might also say the same about our ideas, concepts and mental states. To trace them backwards is to follow a family tree that ultimately ends in nothingness.

So is nothing a thing, or a placeholder? I have no idea: but it seems as if a place for it emerges whenever we look closely at things.


This first appeared as a Quora answer.


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Is the mind a machine?

My latest 3QD essay explores the “mind as machine” metaphor, and metaphors in general.

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor

Here’s an excerpt:

People who study the mind and brain often confront the limits of metaphor. In the essay ‘Brain Metaphor and Brain Theory‘, the vision scientist John Daugman draws our attention to the fact that thinkers throughout history have used the latest material technology as a model for the mind and body. In the Katha Upanishad (which Daugman doesn’t mention), the body is a chariot and the mind is the reins. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, hydraulic metaphors for the psyche were popular: imbalances in the four humors produced particular moods and dispositions. By the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical metaphors predominated in western thinking: the mind worked like clockwork. The machine metaphor has remained with us in some form or the other since the industrial revolution: for many contemporary scientists and philosophers, the only debate seems to be about what sort of machine the mind really is. Is it an electrical circuit? A cybernetic feedback device? A computing machine that manipulates abstract symbols? Some thinkers so convinced that the mind is a computer that they invite us to abandon the notion that the idea is a metaphor. Daugman quotes the cogntive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn, who claimed that “there is no reason why computation ought to be treated merely as a metaphor for cognition, as opposed to the literal nature of cognition”.

Daugman reacts to this Whiggish attitude with a confession of incredulity that many of us can relate to: “who among us finds any recognizable strand of their personhood or of their experience of others and of the world and its passions, to be significantly illuminated by, or distilled in, the metaphor of computation?.” He concludes his essay with the suggestion that “[w]e should remember than the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each “new era” can become, like their predecessors, as much the prisonhouse of thought as they at first appeared to represent its liberation.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily:

Putting the “cog” in “cognitive”: on the “mind as machine” metaphor


Here’s a list of my 3QD essays.


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Ways of Knowing

Here is an excerpt from my latest 3QD essay:

“To attempt an understanding of understanding, I think it might make sense to situate our verbal forms of knowledge-generation in the wider world of knowing: a world that includes the forms that we share with animals and even plants. To this end, I’ve come up with a taxonomy of understanding, which, for reasons that should become apparent eventually, I will organize in a ring. At the very outset I must stress that in humans these ways of knowing are very rarely employed in isolation. Moreover, they are not fixed faculties: they influence each other and gradually modify each other. Finally, I must stress that this ‘systematization’ is a work in progress. With these caveats in mind, I’d like to treat each of the ways of knowing in order, starting at the bottom and working my way around in a clockwise direction.”

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily: Ways of Knowing

(I’ve collected links to all my 3QD essays here.)

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The “Streetlight Effect”: a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance

Here’s the beginning of my latest 3QD piece:

There is a story that I think anyone interested in human knowledge ought to know. It comes in many forms. Here is one version, incarnated as a joke: ‘A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”‘muttjeff01

A parable featuring the Seljuk Sufi mystic Nasrudin Hodja may be the earliest form of the story: ‘Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”‘ The Indologist Wendy Doniger quotes this parable in her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, as a way to prepare the reader for the disappointing realization that the “available light” on Hinduism — the hymns, the histories, the archaeological remains — tends to illuminate the perspectives of dominant groups, relegating to the shadows the viewpoints of women, lower castes, and other marginalized groups.

Noam Chomsky has a characteristically dry and precise version of the story: “Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.”

So historians, mystics, scientists and drunks have something in common: they all tend to seek the truth where the process of seeking is easy, rather than where truth is. Responses to this problem vary. The mystic is most likely trying to remind the listener of how limited human knowledge is, and how often we look for solutions in precisely the wrong places. The humanities professor Doniger uses the problem as a justification for reading between the lines: using the available light to speculate about what may lie in the darkness. And the cognitive scientist Chomsky seems to be using the problem to justify why scientists answer questions that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the questions they originally set out to answer.

I’m a scientist, a history buff, and also a bit of a mystic, so I tend to combine all three perspectives on the “available light” problem, also known as the “streetlight effect“.

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

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What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

Here’s the intro to my latest 3QD essay:

I’ve always had a problem with the word ‘nature’. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn’t semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.

So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:

  1. Nature versus the Supernatural
  2. Nature versus Nurture
  3. Nature versus Culture

Let’s examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for ‘human nature’.

3quarksdaily: What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

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Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

MiBMy latest essay for 3 Quarks Daily is up: Me and My Brain: What the “Double-Subject Fallacy” reveals about contemporary conceptions of the Self

Here’s an excerpt:
What is a person? Does each of us have some fundamental essence? Is it the body? Is it the mind? Is it something else entirely? Versions of this question seem always to have animated human thought. In the aftermath of the scientific revolution, it seems as if one category of answer — the dualist idea that the essence of a person is an incorporeal soul that inhabits a material body — must be ruled out. But as it turns out, internalizing a non-dualist conception of the self is actually rather challenging for most people, including neuroscientists.
 A recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggests that even experts in the sciences of mind and brain find it difficult to shake off dualistic intuitions. Liad Mudrik and Uri Maoz, in their paper “Me & My Brain”: Exposing Neuroscienceʼs Closet Dualism, argue that not only do neuroscientists frequently lapse into dualistic thinking, they also attribute high-level mental states to the brain, treating these states as distinct from the mental states of the person as a whole. They call this the double-subject fallacy. ( I will refer to the fallacy as “dub-sub”, and the process of engaging in it as “dub-subbing”.) Dub-subbing is going on in constructions like”my brain knew before I did” or “my brain is hiding information from me”. In addition to the traditional subject — “me”, the self, the mind — there is a second subject, the brain, which is described in anthropomorphic terms such as ‘knowing’ or ‘hiding’. But ‘knowing’ and ‘hiding’ are precisely the sorts of things that we look to neuroscience to explain; when we fall prey to the double-subject fallacy we are actually doing the opposite of what we set out to do as materialists.  Rather than explaining “me” in terms of physical brain processes, dub-subbing induces us to describe the brain in terms of an obscure second “me”. Instead of dispelling those pesky spirits, we allow them to proliferate!
Read the whole thing at 3QD:
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