Taoism, Awe and Self-Deceit

When I first started blogging, I was ‘inspired’ by two things: the first was exclusive, suppressive religious actions/ideas but as I explored both religious and atheist sites, I found myself almost more upset with self-righteous self-deception in secular circles.  Consequently many of my posts address core self-deception issues we all succumb to — believers and non-believers.

Just today, a physics student (Cathy) commented in my early 2009 post called “Truth & Beauty” where she said:

I actually like the notion of truth as akin to having a closer alignment with how the world is–it’s kinda Taoist in attitude. To have a greater affinity with the universe which allows our brief existence is so awe-inspiring that this sentiment of affinity feels beyond human language.

Now, perhaps this was meant as simple agreement with my post, but I decided to address elements of her comment which may be pointing to things I disagree with. I am an amanojaku in that sense, but leaving aside my possible misinterpretation, what do you think of what I wrote below?

Hello Cathy:

Concerning a “Taoist Attitude“:

Taoism in Asia, like Buddhism, is packed with incredible silly superstition. When it was imported to the West, the Westerners that grabbed (and continue to grab) a text or two of it, transform it into their own New Age mouthpiece. That New Age view is then digested further and synthesized again into yet another person’s favorite comforting notions.

“Awe” is a wonderful feeling – but it is a feeling, not a thing. I don’t believe in “A Universe” (as if it is a something) or “Reality” or “God” or any other such abstraction. I think the temptation to substantiate (a milder form of ‘anthropomorphizing’) one of our own unexplained feelings, is universal. The question, for scientists like you, is — how deeply should we trust such intuitions?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “Taoism, Awe and Self-Deceit

  1. roni

    I have a very simple/simplistic comment in this.

    It seems to me that this “awe” comes from the notion of believing in a two-layered reality: there is the surface, our everyday world, and there is something deeper, hidden underneath (or above and beyond — depending on the metaphor of your belief). And there are world views where there are no two layers, just the things as they are on the surface. To me it seems that there is a bigger difference between these 2 types of views (i.e. 2 layered reality and single one) than between looking for the hidden “forces” within the framework of science and the framework of a religion.

    I’m most probably writing this, because I’m reading some Theosophy stuff claiming that the point is finding this deep truth and it does not matter if it is by means of science, some occult practices or any religions. (And so it is without doubt that there is a hidden truth.)

  2. Hey Roni !
    I know no scientists who look at “just the things as they are on the surface.” Indeed, science is suppose to keep asking what is behind what is behind what ….
    The Believing Mind, on the other hand, is very satisfied with coining an abstraction to stop the depth of questioning — pretending that such an abstraction IS deep thinking.
    Does that make sense? [to readers: Roni is a Buddhist thinker from Hungary] Hey, roni, why is your comment linked to a dead wordpress blog instead of your account here: http://www.buddhapest.hu/

  3. Feelings are funny things, when I was a conservative Christian I frequently experienced what I felt was a sense of the numinous, I truly felt that I was feeling God’s presence and felt great awe. Nowadays I have similar feelings, but do not see them as mystical in the religious sense.

    I also have a permanent reminder of my Christian days, which coincidentally involves the Kanji for Tao: My left arm tattoo.

  4. (Sorry, for the dead link. I am offered this log in option through WordPress/gavatar which hosts my dead blog.)

    It does make sense, Sabio. I guess the use of phrases like Ultimate Truth, Universal Wisdom etc. just strengthen this pretence of being deep.

    About science always looking beyond… I heard a lecture on linguistics last week arguing that describing linguistic phenomena does not necessary require the notion of an underlying structure (contradicting Chomsky). So instead of asking what lies under the surface he proposed asking what are the changes, the variations (on the surface).

    I do see that it is “only” changing the metaphor used for causation (why things work like this), but I think it is a significant change.

  5. @ Mike:
    Happy New Year! Funny about your “The Way” tattoo. Thanks for sharing.

    @ Veronica :
    Yes, the metaphor’s can be traps as well as tools. Each metaphor has its own traps. It help to keep it real, eh?

    Happy New Year to you too!

  6. Happy New Year to you as well!

  7. Intuitions can be as difficult to interpret as dreams…I say experience them, and I’d necessary, test them. I’ve no problem with feelings, but to say I feel things are really THIS way in the universe is to discard all evidence to the contrary..especially when it is so difficult to even know ” oneself ” .

  8. I’m working out some ideas about the differences between protoscience and pseudoscience, especially as it relates to the development of Taoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some early Taoists (such as Tao Hong Jing) recorded botanical and mineral observations and experimented with smelting metals out of rocks. Those were protoscience activities (as were the developments of the compass & gunpowder). But much of Taoism was and is involved with divination (such as the I Ching and astrology), which is the attempt to correlate random acts with “cosmic truths.” That is pseudoscience (it’s presented as a functional system but isn’t).
    Thus the most useful parts of Taoism (trying to understand the natural world through careful observation and reproducible experiments) have been absorbed into science (botany, chemistry, physics). The least useful parts are still around. For a fun and fascinating peek at that world, check out the World’s Best Exorcist at http://taoistmasterblog.com (not my site, but I’ve found some interesting historical bits there).

  9. Atheistic_Theist

    Much proto science is very helpful, the scientific method did not first start at Greece after all. As for Pseudoscience, it is still around. I am sometimes amazed what people believe as scientific. Throughout all science we learn that the things accepted previously was… Bad science. A lot of Psychiatry and Psychology belongs in this group. And cancer in certain jobs is much more likely due to us not knowing our technology to the fullest. What is considered science has to be taken with a grain of salt as well, not saying science is bad, but often it gets read wrong. Like the old idea of meat spontaneously creates flies. Or the not too long idea of Cold Fusion which now practically means pseudoscience

  10. @ancientwaykevin,

    ” But much of Taoism was and is involved with divination (such as the I Ching and astrology), which is the attempt to correlate random acts with “cosmic truths.”

    The I Ching and astrology don’t try to correlate random acts with cosmic truths – they seek to identify cosmic truths in the light of ‘random’ acts. Actually they both work on the premise that absolutely nothing is random; that everything which happens is meaningful and can be observed as such. And depending upon individual skills, things can.

    Also, neither the I Ching or astrology are largely about ‘divination’ in any predictive sense. Both are about interpretation of ‘events’, circumstances, characters etc., in meaningful ways which throw light or provide insight onto what might otherwise be seen as meaningless.

    They are systems which have evolved over thousands of years and reflect the human desire to ‘understand’ this world and what is at work in it. They are aids to identifying deeper and more esoteric in this day and age, patterns of meaning and purpose – but very real patterns all the same.

  11. @Atheistic_Theist

    No system is perfect and science is particularly limited because it takes a mechanistic/materialist view of the world. There is no doubt such a narrow view has been and remains useful when one is seeking mechanistic answers but science cannot answer beyond its paradigm and therein lies its greatest weakness and the source of its capacity to harm.
    Biology and quantum physics are however two fields which, by necessity, are being pushed back to a more holistic and whole-istic view of life and may well be the aspects of science which drag the rest out of its ‘box.’
    Of one thing there is no doubt: the human capacity to question and to seek answers means that change and development are inevitable and systems which limit themselves to ‘small parts’ of a very ‘large picture’ as so much of science does today, will not endure.
    As the saying goes: ‘those who will the Fates guide; those who won’t the Fates drag.’

  12. Atheistic_Theist

    I actually disagree with you, I said that science has issues where belief comes before actual knowledge, but science can offer I think many reasons why we are here, and even believe there is scientific proof of morality, not as in acts but in actual science. i would argue that there is not so much a believing mind and a non believing one as many who believe hardly at all will accept facts that they believe without in depth research while any time it is an idea they disagree with people like to question where it came from.

    I merely meant that science offers much, but it would be a bad idea to accept anything without rigid testing, and those who believe in science more than other sources, I am one of these, should test those conclusions just as well. Something that guided me through science has always been the statement, Ice Cream does not cause shark attacks, as ice cream goes up at the same time as shark attacks bad science would say one caused the other when in fact they both happen in summer. Correlation does not mean causation.

    I think there are many types of minds but on this issue, I would say there is a questioning mind and a trusting one. An unbelieving mind can be trusting, while a questioning mind can still believe but always question such faith.

  13. @atheistic_theist,

    Perhaps I should explain. My only opposition to science is where it claims to have the only answers or the only way of finding answers. I have great respect for the scientific methodology and its achievements within the limitations of its paradigm. I take the same view of religion.
    Both are systems which are limited by their mindset but which, each in their own way, offer valuable insight and some answers and many more potential answers as a result.
    You say it would be a bad idea to accept anything without rigid testing and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. But I suspect you mean rigid testing as defined by the current scientific materialistic and mechanistic mindset and I would say that while that can work in some instances, it cannot work in all.
    The fact that a materialistic, mechanistic mindset cannot adequately ‘test’ everything is a reality and to dismiss things which do not fit into that narrow belief system is not only unwise, it is irresponsible.
    And I don’t agree with you that there are ‘two’ approaches on this issue – that of questioning and that of trusting. I question everything and the only ‘trust’ I exercise is in a belief that one needs to keep an open mind and that more often than not, everything works as it should. Life is a process, not an absolute. I have no faith either. I take what is of value from religion, just as I take what is of value from science, but I am an acolyte of neither.
    What I believe is sourced in a process of discovery and change where one applies common sense, logic, reason and personal experience to the ‘pot’ and arrives at conclusions which may be temporary or may be permanent.
    The world and everything in it has more ‘grey’ than ‘black or white’ and both the religious and the scientific systems think in terms of absolutes and are therefore found wanting as the source of many answers.

  14. Earnest

    I entertain myself by anthropomorphizing random objects around me.

  15. @ Earnest,
    That could be very interesting and would certainly keep you occupied.

  16. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Earnest, clearly you need a job making Disney films. 😉

  17. Rosross,
    I think that I understand where you are coming from on your patterns.
    I see the death of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the same day and on the fourth of July and in the year 1826 (the 50th anniversary of the USA) not as a coincidence but as a pattern. I was heard from a murder detective that when something unusual comes up in a story once that is a coincidence but when it happens more than once then you have a pattern. I am not a murder detective but i think there is a certain amount of sense to that.
    Well EVEN if it is recognized as not a coincidence but a pattern what the hell does it prove? My answer to that is look when I hear to people speaking a language that I do not understand I do not have a clue what the meaning is of what they are saying. But I can still recognize that they are speaking in patterns.
    Now with trillions of actions and events taking place every second some patterns are going to emerge randomly. I get that. But to then say that all patterns are just meaningless arrangements which only have meaning in our imaginations seems to be to be idiot science. But forgive me I am an artist not a scientist so I am not qualified to give a peer review of science
    because I have not done the leg work and therefore do not meet the prerequisites.
    Well if the death of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the same day on the 4th of July 1826 was not just an accidental random event that would seem to have some implications.
    What I find disturbing about this event is that if it were not seem as random it could easily be construed to mean that the USA is superior to all the other countries on the planet. I do not think that is the case by any means but McCain would certainly use to his advantage.
    Of course one could say that this history has been distorted and that things really did not happen this way. I guess that means a person would then have to believe in at least one vast conspiracy in early American history other than the conspiracy to overthrow the acting government at the time.

  18. @Corporal,

    I am not sure I understand where you are coming from in regard to patterns. I don’t recall mentioning patterns.

    In terms of your example of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams dying on the same day being seen as a pattern, I would say, if I were discussing patterns which we are now, that this is not a pattern. I would have thought one needed more than ‘two’ for a pattern And the murder detective I suspect would not see a pattern in two examples but would require more. It is certainly a synchronicity or a coincidence but not a pattern to my mind.

    I don’t think two examples prove anything. But if you had three, four, five or more than you are looking at some sort of pattern which could or might give you insight into understanding what is happening. This is clearly of life and death importance for the detective but on most other counts, an interesting curiosity for some of us and valuable professional information for others.

    And yes, language does have patterns, or rather structures with many commonalities across cultures and time.

    As to something emerging randomly, one could argue that randomness, like miracles, is a judgement based on a lack of understanding and knowledge. I am not saying it is necessarily but it certainly could be. There is so much pattern, structure, purpose and order in this world that I lean toward believing that everything is part of a pattern, or system, or structure and that nothing is truly random – there are no mistakes in essence. This cannot be proven but then neither can the opposite view so we get to choose what makes sense.

    I am not a scientist either but it is a system which interests me along with many others.

    As to the deaths of Jefferson and Adams on July 4, there are a multitude of answers one could offer as to the why of it – or it could simply be coincidence. Although I don’t understand why, if the event were not random, it could be construed to mean the USA is superior to all other countries since such ‘events’ occur in all other countries. You lost me there. And I am not sure who McKain is and therefore don’t understand the reference.

    As to what it might mean in terms of American history, I have read a great deal of American history but certainly do not have the knowledge to make any sort of assessment either on random or non-random counts.

  19. @atheistic_theist,

    This discussion is sourced in differing opinions. Can science really offer reasons as to why we are here? If so I would like to read them. My impression is that science is excellent at mechanistic explanations based on the material but not much good at anything else. Science is brilliant at observing effects and putting that knowledge to practical use, but on many counts it still does not know Why or How something happens.

    Within its limited paradigm science in the main performs brilliantly but the very limitations, and sometimes, arrogance when it comes to nature, has led and no doubt will lead again, to dangerous if not deadly mistakes. But don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and value the best that science can be – I just see it as one system of belief which offers some answers about us and our world.

    Don’t you think people should question everything? Questioning is actually the source of the scientific method and its foundation, if not raison d’etre! If we stop asking questions and just accept what we are told then we are putting enormous faith in the opinions of others and a particular system. Putting absolute faith in science is as dangerous as putting it in religion.

    I agree that science offers much but science has its own levels of ignorance and can also mislead. The scientific ‘testing’ system is brilliant on some counts and useless on others. And because it is carried out by human beings and part of an entrenched system, it is also at times, deeply flawed.

    And I think it is a bit of a leap to say there are two kinds of minds on this issue. Human beings are much too complex for that and humans have the capacity to hold too conflicting beliefs at one and the same time. Life is a mixture of grey, black and white.

  20. Sorry I misunderstood what you were getting at. I guess I was reading you with some of my own preconceived notions. Anyways since you do not know who McCain is I guess that is why you can not relate this example to the intelligent design debate. I have only read one book which defended intelligent design there was one point in the book that made sense to me.
    It has been years since I read the book by a self professed catholic who
    is a professor of biology at some university in Pennsylvania if I remember correctly. He made a case study of malaria and sickle cell anemia. He showed how there have been adaptations and counter adaptations at far far faster pace than one could expect by random chance. Perhaps he cherry picked his evidence. None the less it struck a cord with me because
    I could relate that to history.
    It is also my understanding that this intuitive perception of chance also played a role in the development of Islam. It is my understanding that Mohammad had at least some if not all of his pronouncements while having epaletic fits. Yet his pronouncements were not only pertinent to the subject at hand they were also brilliantly poetic. That is why many Muslims believe that the source of the Quran is not Mohammad but a non human source. I can relate to that intuitive understanding of chance.
    Whether or not the source of the Quran is something other than Mohammad is a separate question from should we follow its teachings.
    In the end I should really know better than to defend intellegent design because it seems that the intelligence does not want to be discovered
    outside of the autistic community in any case. But for some reason that I myself can not understand I think that it is important to do so.

  21. Rosross,
    To clarify something, If John Adams had died on 1 Sep. 1809 and Thomas Jefferson had died on 1 Sep. 1813 that would be a coincidence.
    If Both had died on 1 Sept. 1814 that would be a remarkable coincidence.
    If both had died on July 4th 1820 it would have been an incredible event.
    But both of them dying on the 4th of July 1826 makes it evidence of non human intervention in human affairs in my book. Of course someone could say that I am unbalanced about this. If you have more examples of this kind of thing I would love to hear them.

  22. @Corporal,

    I am opting out of Sabio’s blog. But your comments are interesting. I am presuming that your name links to your blog and will answer you there.

  23. Rosross,
    No my link goes to someone that I share an important political viewpoint with. You can raise the subject there though. I do not think that he will mind

  24. Atheistic_Theist

    All I can say is that I agree with you on most points and I think you misunderstood the point of my post. I am saying science does not have all the answers, and that without an open mind both science and religion fall flat. You need both in my opinion. As far as science proves morality, it is the world around us and the study of in many ways, I always looked at it as Religion is philosophizing about Gods intent, while science is studying Gods craft. You need both in many ways…

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