When most people hear the term Daoism they probably think of one of the world’s great religions, though they likely remain vague regarding what Daoists actually believe. There is “the Dao”, some kind of ultimate metaphysical reality that stands for the Source of everything and with which we can somehow mystically unite so as to live more successful and happier lives. This is central to religious Daoism. Other beliefs typical of religion also find a home in religious Daoism, though as in most religions there are significant variations that make broad generalizations difficult. Among these are some kind of immortality for the individual, the deification of its founders, and various projects intended to materially improve one’s life. However, it is not our purpose here to explore the tenets of religious Daoism, but rather to make the case that philosophical Daoism is something else altogether.
We will begin with a discussion of what we take philosophical Daoism to actually be. The Fourth Century B.C. classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi will be our primary source. Ours will be but one possible reading and as such we will define it as a new philosophical Daoism.
Next, we will consider in detail how this philosophy can make those aforementioned philosophical contributions that may help us avoid destroying ourselves while enabling our own flourishing in joy whatever the outcome.
There is the question of hope. But philosophical Daoism offers no hope, if by hope we mean a belief in and need for the probable success of an endeavor. Rather, it suggests a perspective that creates a joyful freedom from all hope in a seemingly hopeless world. This is a hope that is also a non-hope, a hope dependent on nothing. The need for successful outcomes need not burden us when all can be envisioned as well and affirmable whatever happens. In this way we can engage in what often seems a hopeless battle while retaining our joy and positive outlook.
There are also aspects of the underlying assumptions of the environmental movement, especially as seen in Deep Ecology, that can be further reinforced and clarified through the insights of philosophical Daoism. Among these are a transcendence of speciesism and the realization of the inherent sanctity of all things. Philosophical Daoism can also help to provide an ethical rationale for the moral argument that naturally motivates environmental activism.
This is the purpose of this present work. The impending environmental apocalypse, or its possible partially averted half-sister, is well enough documented that we need not dwell on the need for radical environmental action. We assume an informed reader in this regard. What this work intends to present are the very real contributions that a new philosophical Daoism can make in providing a philosophical foundation for the perspectival transformation that turning around humanity’s flight to the cliff will necessarily require. These insights are neither complicated nor profound. Nor are they particularly new. Yet their simplicity can be deceptive if taken as merely ideas. Ideas are necessary, but unless and until they contribute to genuine transformative perspectival paradigm shifts, their value is limited.
All those who have stood up, all those who even now genuinely fight for environmental justice—how do they do it? How is it that they do not despair? What is the source of their hope? Some have put aside all hope; they do what they must because it’s the right thing to do. The unlikelihood of success does not stand in their way. Others genuinely believe that humanity will wake up, that a new globally aware consciousness will emerge. However they do it, we laud their efforts and wish to join their ranks. Yet, how many of us lack the courage to enter this tunnel with no promise of proverbial light to give hope to our endeavor? How many of us see no good reason to piss against the tide? Perhaps it would be best to let nature take its course, perverted as it has become in its creation of us.
All this hand-wringing, all this doomsday predicting, does have a purpose beyond the mere pleasure of reveling in pessimism and despair. Humanity is facing a critical moment where only a transformative leap in consciousness can secure its future as a flourishing species in a mutually nurturing environment. And for that we will require new perspectives on who we are and what is our place in this incomprehensible universe. To this, a new philosophical Daoism, I believe, has some significant contributions to make.
[I apologize for having duplicated a segment in the previous post. Below, I have omitted a further litany of the dire environmental threats we face.]
. . . . The great climatic snowball is already unstoppably careening down a very steep slope.
But wait; cannot our genius overcome even this? Of course. All we need is some good geo-engineering. Some have proposed filling the skies with hoses that pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This will dramatically cool the planet and treat us to beautiful red skies. Others have proposed shooting ceramic discs into orbit. Others suggest throwing sea water into the air. These and other similar ideas are frighteningly feasible. What could possibly go wrong? In the case of the use of sulfur dioxide, there would likely be an amplification of the already significant problem of acid rain which not only corrodes our precious monuments but also destroys plant and animal life, both aquatic and terrestrial. The acidification of the oceans is understood to have contributed significantly to massive coral bleaching in the world’s tropical seas, and with the death of the coral reefs comes the extinction of untold species of fish and other marine creatures, not to mention the heightened vulnerability of the coastlines they protect. What else could go wrong if any of these proposals were put to effect? We really don’t know. That was the problem with the wonders of the industrial age. And that’s the point.
Too much has already been lost. Too much more must inevitably follow in its wake. So, yes, there is reason for great pessimism and even despair. But there is also reason for hope. Perhaps we can avert some of the worst consequences of our reckless past. Perhaps we can truly awaken in this critical hour and collectively rise up to turn the tide and take back the power from those whose only motivation seems to be greed.
Our speciesism—our belief that the value of humanity surpassingly transcends the value of all other species—has its roots in our individual egoism. Those of us who have the power to change this apparently ineluctable trajectory toward the death of the biosphere are precisely the ones who profit from it most. We care enough to say we care, but not enough to act. We are actually doing quite well. Others, both now and even more so in the future, will have to reap what we sow.
There is reason for great pessimism. Turning the tide on our ceaseless sprawl, resource consumption and degradation of the environment seems an impossible task. There seem to be no genuine levers, political or social, upon which we can grasp to break this incredible momentum toward the abyss. And indeed, this too seems perfectly natural; isn’t this the way of all life? Do not all lifeforms similarly expand and flourish until another checks their path or their resources run dry? Though the belief that the arctic dwelling lemmings commit mass-suicide in times of over population has been largely debunked, still the mass migrations that lead to their inexplicable leaping from cliffs are consequent to their inability to curb their own reproductive success. For that they need predators like stoats, foxes and raptors, but their numbers frequently do not meet the demand. Might it not be that the great success of the human species will require a similar external break? Can only an environmental apocalypse curb the human “success”?
Both Laozi and Zhuangzi tell us that Heaven is inhumane. This, too, is the View from Dao. We are not the center of the Universe; God doesn’t have his eye on us; the Earth convulses without regard to what ‘harm’ it might do; we are not special. But we are, of course, special—to ourselves; just as all other things are special to themselves within the range of their instincts and awareness. This too is affirmable. We have every right and reason to care about and for ourselves, for this is what it is for us to be. For humanity, human needs come first, just as a lion’s comes before those of a wildebeest and the wildebeest’s before those of the lion.
So, let us then despair. For these natural impulses have merged with our collective dysfunctionality and threaten to drive us to extinction well before our time. And if not that, they threaten to condemn us to a world without birdsong and clear open skies. Like mold on an orange, we cannot stop until we’ve covered the earth and eaten it all. Or can we?
Nothing that humanity has thus far done to slow its destruction of the environment has even begun to stem that tide. Our use of fossil fuels is warming the planet, so we erect some solar panels and clamor for the oil and gas beneath the melting ice. Against great odds we spare the spotted owl, while as many as 200 species pass into eternal extinction each and every day. Today we top 5.5 billion and will likely reach 8 billion by 2020. That’s 100 million more mouths to feed, bodies to house and keep warm, and consumer expectations to meet—every single year. Ah, growth!—the great engine that keeps the economic wheels a-turning. Though an estimated 1 billion people depend on seafood for their everyday protein intake, the total world fishery is expected to completely collapse into unsustainability by 2048. One in five people does not have safe potable water. And it’s getting scarcer. We genetically modify our foods, test them in the environment and declare them safe decades before we could possibly know. The oceans are filled with our plastics, the sky, rivers and earth with our toxins. Yet hope dawns eternal; or is it just apathy?
Contrary to recent reports, Planet Earth is doing just fine. True, her incredible fecundity has created a species so successful in its own right that it threatens to destroy both itself and the entire biosphere that she has wrought. But this too shall pass. Ages come. Ages go. Species arise, then disappear. Life has arisen and may again be no more. Many shout that we must save the Planet. But Mother Earth cannot be saved; she has never needed saving. She will shrug off whatever comes her way, whether asteroids or the misbegotten antics of a pesky lifeform. But she will of course die as will the star in which she basks and the Universe in which she resides. This is the way of things, the great inevitability, the endless transformation that pervades apparent reality.
This is something of the View from Dao, a broader perspective that moves beyond a parochial, human-centered view to one that opens itself to a more realistic perspective on the nature of things. It is also an openness to Openness, for it does not and cannot provide us with answers to our existential hunger for surety. At best we can only surrender in thankfulness and trust.
I’ve started a new writing project in which I hope to show how philosophical Daoism can help provide some philosophical underpinnings for the environmental movement, especially as seen in Deep Ecology. The working title is: AS THE COOKIE CRUMBLES: Sustaining Hope in a Hopeless World.
I expect to post portions of my progress here.
This “poem” from my fictional sage Chen Jen might be a good front piece:
Fix what is broken
though it will surely break again.
Heal what is sick though it will die in the end.
Do all that you must yet remain always at rest.
Whenever I discuss one of Ziporyn’s books I must begin by admitting that I haven’t understood the half of it. This is especially sad in this instance since this particular work seems to have only one idea to expound upon, albeit in many different ways. This is omnicentrism as found in Tiantai Buddhism.
What is omnicentrism? It is the understanding that every “coherence”, every idea about anything—“right or wrong”—, implies, contains and depends upon every other possible coherence of which it must remain incoherent. Every single thing is the center of Everything. But this means that everything is a Non-Exclusive Center—there are infinite centers. It also means that every coherence is “constitutively impossible” in that as a Local Coherence it must assume of itself that it is coherent, which it cannot possible be given its subsumption within Global Incoherence. This is the best I can do, or at least all I will attempt to speak of Ziporyn’s thesis. Instead, I’d like to make some more general observations about his project.
Ziporyn attributes his interest in omnicentrism to Zhuangzi, which makes it of special interest to me. Indeed, there is much here that helps to understand Zhuangzi’s “equalizing of things and our theories about them” and how he can justifiably advocate for his point of view that holds that all points of view are equally affirmable.
Though generally careful to avoid his own advocacy, Ziporyn does, I believe, think that this understanding can have a very real and practical transformative effect in our interface with ourselves and the world. The “transformative recontextualization” that an understanding of omnicentrism implies can change our being in the world for the better. This is also at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project as I understand it.
I would compare Ziporyn’s thought projects to those of the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers (whom I have admittedly not read in depth—they also being beyond my limited powers of concentration and intellect, and their having admittedly religious agendas). There are two ways of coming to understand them—one can be very, very smart or one can experience that of which they speak. They take reason to the very frontiers where Zhuangzi suggests the mind rest and accept that it can go no further. And this is where that scary thing called mysticism must step in.
What is especially noteworthy about this particular thought project is that it bravely constructs a new “thought experiment”, what Ziporyn calls Neo-Tiantai. By his own admission, it’s not Buddhism (thankfully), and it’s not strictly scholarship (also thankfully), and it’s not strictly speaking philosophy (at least, I assume, in the estimation of professional philosophers). This is what I try to do with Zhuangzi, though admittedly not really up to the task. Zhuangzi, however, at my reading, already does most of the work himself—there’s really nothing religiously contentful to pare away.