I mentioned last Friday night that one might have different tools in one’s philosophical toolbox, different lenses on reality. Tonight I’d like to be a bit more specific about one set of lenses.
I have always been particularly amenable to Buddhism and Taoism and they carry a particular notion of anti-realism that appeals to me. Both are skeptical of time and self as they are currently constructed in Western Christianity. (We will see later that they are not incompatible with historical Christianity, but more of that later.) Lest I misrepresent those traditions in any way, let me speak of my understanding as the “holistic perspective.”
The Tao Te Ching begins with these wonderful words. “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. The way that can be named is not the eternal way.” The classic, the written authority on the way of the universe (Tao Te Ching means “the classic on the way and virtue.”) begins by saying that that way cannot be expressed in words. The holistic perspective recognizes that any summary of the whole universe must be less than the universe itself. Any model misrepresents the entirety in a fundamental way. It’s not an argument against models, but a recognition that models must be flawed.
No such thing as an objective standpoint exists – the observer is always intimately tied to the thing observed. In the case of the universe, the observer (in the act of observing) is a piece of the thing being observed. I want to talk about how the holistic perspective plays out with regard to ideas of time and self.
With regard to time, the holistic perspective fails to privilege the now over then. Despite the warnings of theologians like al-Ghazzali and philosophers like Hume, Western thought has become irrevocably tied to notions of causality and sequence. This causes that. All my talk of agents motivating action in the world is deeply tied into a very Aristotelian notion of causal chains. Taoists, on the other hand, have viewed reality as a river, in which the interaction of bed and water shapes reality. Never does one cause the other, rather the harmony of the two persists dynamically. Who can say if the bed yielded (settling) or the river advanced (erosion)? Likewise in human events, we have a set course that incorporates our actions as much as anyone else’s. It may be possible to step out of the harmony of the Way, but that stepping out is always balanced by an equal and opposite reaction elsewhere.
Some have compared this to the difference between statics and dynamics in physics. Western philosophy corresponds to statics – wherein you list the particles and forces in sequence. Eastern philosophy corresponds to dynamics – wherein you note the fields in play, the flux through given areas or the change in force, rather than the force itself. That’s a hideous oversimplification, but perhaps it gets at the idea of a holistic perspective in which one never speaks of things independently, but always in relationship with other things.
A static perspective can be very useful. It’s amenable to reductionism and math in a way that holistic perspectives are not. On the other hand, it runs the risk of isolating things in an unrealistic manner. Hopefully the idea of a lone human – with no companions from birth to death – horrifies you. Humans as we know them exist in communication with others. We have no way of knowing whether a lone human could reason as the very act of communication requires interaction. We could make no statements about feeling or compassion or conscience without some relational context. Mind you, I’m not entirely convinced the context needs to be human; I’m open to Divine or non-human sentience of some sort. Nonetheless, context is required to make sense of the human. And yet, it’s very popular to think of humans as discrete bags of flesh and water, genetic individuals, or subsisting minds.
Trained as a scientist, I’m unwilling to give up my static view. This accounts for my unit based thinking about atoms and agents. I’m also unwilling, however, to totalize either picture of reality. At some level, I think we must always be conscious of the relational nature of “individuals” and “events.” So, I’m willing to use particular reductionist and static models knowing they are only models. I feel it necessary to keep the dynamic holistic models around as well. Those models do not have merit simply because they are other – their merit has to be proved in itself.
In the case of causation, this does not seem a problem to me at all. We can start with the Humean critique that, just because you see one thing before another, it doesn’t mean that the first caused the second. There are no deductive (logically certain) arguments from sequence to causation (though there are a few lovely “appeals to best explanation” and likelihood arguments). We know that the observed sequence of events is partially dependent upon reference frame (relativity) and the correlation does not entail causation (probability). At the same time, it is possible to note aggregate properties of groups. From isotopic halftimes (the amount of time necessary for half a population of radioactive atoms to decay) to temperature (the summed kinetic energy of particles in a system) we see many examples of relational knowledge even in physics. Similarly, psychologists can predict some forms of group behavior even when they can’t say which individual will start the chain of events. Economics and evolutionary biology make such claims as well. Dynamic models have proven themselves in science and need to be treated seriously in theology as well.
My favorite example is that of the wheel. Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching speaks of the axle-hole as the most important part of the wheel. It’s not the objects, the spokes and the rim, that make it functional, but the way they leave a gap in the middle. Societies have similar gracious emptinesses, as do humans.
More to say than I thought. I’ll have to return to this topic tomorrow. To come: time vs. eternity, self vs. no-self, dynamic Christianity.