SCIENCE AND THE RELIGIOUS MIND

This is a “review” of a book I have not read. It is more a visceral response to the genre than a comment on this particular manifestation. The book is Livia Kohn’s latest, Science and the Dao. Here is a quote from the release blurb from Three Pines Press: “Science and the Dao presents a comprehensive examination of core Daoist facets from the point of view of modern science. Exploring its cosmology, physiology, psychology, cultivation, and visions of immortality in the light of astrophysics, particle physics, paleoanthropology, behavioral kinesiology, cell biology, and more, the book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices, thereby making them more accessible to modern people.”

It’s natural to wish to demonstrate the compatibility and overlap of one’s beliefs with the findings of science; one would hope that they do in fact overlap. It is the deep and likely unexamined motivation that underlies this universal need to prove the validity of religious belief that interests us. “[T]he book enhances the credibility of traditional Daoist ideas and practices.” This need for “credibility” is perfectly legitimate within the context of religious Daoism. Ironically, science and religion, not to mention atheism, have a great deal in common when it comes to requiring “proofs” for their claims. All belief in “truth”, scientific or otherwise, ultimately depends on proof, imagined or “demonstrated”.

The permutations of this religious dependence on proof are many. Here it uses science to give “credibility” to something so incredible as immortality. Testimony of personal transformation is a common example. Supposed miracles work. Hyper-charismatic gurus do the trick. Pronouncements about being the “oldest”, “purest”, “richest”, “biggest”, “best”, “fastest growing”—all attempt to give credence to belief and subtly evince a dependence on “truth”.

Zhuangzian “Daoism”, on the other hand, neither seeks nor requires any proofs, for it does not depend on anything being “true”. There being nothing to believe, there is nothing to prove. This is at the very heart of Zhuangzi’s vision. It reveals a radically different fork in the road, and this fork is not one that “modern people” are inclined to take. The religious mind is the default coping mechanism through which human beings typically respond to their irremediable existential dangle. Belief in immortality can be most comforting. Who are we to abuse them of their chosen dao?

Is philosophical Daoism therefore “better”? It is for those who cannot believe, but not for those who can. It too is just another dao, albeit one that sees Dao not as “the Dao”, a metaphysical Something, but as the imagined confluence of all daos. The point of this “review” is not to prove that philosophical Daoism is better than religious Daoism, but simply to remind the reader that they are not at this level the same, though as human coping mechanisms they most certainly are. The real question is which one most authentically harmonizes with the human experience of adriftedness and cluelessness.

2 thoughts on “SCIENCE AND THE RELIGIOUS MIND”

  1. Great to see such respect for research and scholarship maintained in this informative and intelligent article about a book which the author has never read!
    Really a call for genuine applause should be given to the author who obviously has a fantastically open and clever mind, as well as surely a very deep understanding of Daoism and the linguistic tradition surrounding it.
    Livia Kohn, a Daoist researcher who for many years has been tremendously influential in both the western and Chinese discourse on Zhuangzi, of course must be discredited at an “enabler” for Daoist religious types, who obviously also know considerably less about Daoism than the esteemed author Scott p Bradley.

    1. Thank you for your response. Should you wish for further fuel to fire the engines of your outrage, I would suggest you read my review of Kohn’s “Zhuangzi: Text and Context” and her translation of Bo Wang’s “Zhuangzi” either on this website or on Amazon.

      With regard to scholarship, I have a high regard for it and the scholars who produce it. I would have nothing to study without it. However, if scholarship has as its goal an honest appraisal of the intended meaning of its objects of study, then I would suggest that when it comes to Zhuangzi Livia Kohn fails miserably. This is because she apparently feels obliged to fit him into her larger view of Daoism generally.

      How would Zhuangzi respond to her representations of his philosophy? I think he would say, “Sorry, you don’t get it, but that’s okay.” This is for the very reason I believe her desire to make Daoism “credible” misses the point of Zhuangzi. She is not obliged to have her own opinions overturned by Zhuangzi, but I think it unfortunate that she does not let him speak.

      It is true that I am in no way a scholar, and I recognize that Livia Kohn is a scholar of some repute. I do not, however, typically bow to authority of any stripe. I am simply someone who comes to Zhuangzi with a view to putting that philosophy to the test, thinking that it can’t be understood without real engagement.

      If it is wrong to criticize the opinion of others, then I am guilty. If, however, it is possible to both criticize the opinions of others and still respect their right to hold the opinion they do, then there is at least some room for doubt as to the depth of my culpability.

      Finally, since Livia Kohn is not only a scholar of Daoism, but also a practitioner, I would hope that she would meet any criticism as Daoism teaches us to do. Who is there to be upset? My comments, therefore, should not bother her in the least, not just because I am a nobody, but also because there is no place for them to lodge. As regards your own obvious offense at my remarks, I would only suggest that it offers you a wonderful opportunity to explore your own motivations.

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