Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More on Purpose

Scott Bradley

Is it intrinsically misguided to begin our attempts to understand this apparent universe by suspending our human wishes for how we would like it to be? I don't think so. Nor did Zhuangzi. And it is this, I believe, that makes his philosophy so profoundly relevant to our thinking two and a half millennia later.

There are those who believe that such an approach is misguided, of course. The human being wishes purpose, meaning, moral law, eternal life; ergo the universe provides all these things. One argument runs that, since we require them just as fish require water, for them not to be provided would be equivalent to there being fish flopping all about waterless. My understanding of logic is insufficient to identify how such reasoning is specious, but it somehow seems self-evidently so. Or we can look at history — Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler all observed the universe not on subjective human terms but objectively, and consequentially paid the price for telling humanity that its self-centered point of view was fantasy.

Fundamental to Daoism is the understanding that the universe spontaneously arises. It just happens. Although this does not obviate meaning, purpose and moral law, it does not guarantee them either. But without guarantees, they are relativized; we can make them up, we can even believe they have an unknown guarantor, but we cannot assign them the status of Truth.

Zhuangzian 'Daoism' is thus quite sympathetic to modern science; only it avoids the reductionist trap of believing this guarantees Truth, which is simply replacing one fantasy with another.

The desire to provide humanity with transcendental purpose is near ubiquitous in religious philosophy. I have mentioned previously a hanging adorning a wall here on the ranch that purports to quote the Dalai Lama as to "the true meaning of life". This is "doing good", a nice sentiment, but absolute rubbish from a Daoist (and possibly Buddhist) point of view.

What is almost unique to philosophical Daoism (and was lost to religious Daoism) is a refusal to interpret the world in human terms. It's not about us. Humanity is not special; it is one thing among infinite others, and all of them of equal value. To my thinking, this understanding is not intended as a missionary commission to go about slicing open humanity's numerous self-involved cocoons, but rather as a path for those who already find those cocoons untenable.

To say that humanity is not special is, paradoxically, to liberate us from the narrow to the vast, just as a movement out of the insularity of ego into unity is liberating, despite the apparent loss of a fixed identity.

Go to your nearest new age bookshop and you will find throughout representations of paths to find your "true purpose". Choose one if you wish and are able; but if you do not and are not, you might consider a way without belief.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are unmoderated, so you can write whatever you want.