The dominant religion of those living centuries from now will likely be pantheistic, because pantheism best reconciles atheism and theism and thus also our rational and irrational sides. But pantheism is actually an ancient form of religion, as exemplified by Daoism, a religion that seems understood best in relation to Confucianism. Confucius was a humanist who believed that peace can be obtained by cultivating our personal qualities. Confucianism is thus similar to ancient Greek virtue theory. But instead of “virtue,” the supreme value for Confucius is ren, a kind of love and respect for human nature. How is ren cultivated? By modifying our behaviour according to rules that allow us to express our desires within moral limits.
By contrast, Daoism is meta-ethical. Instead of engaging in debates about which social conventions best express our nature, Daoists say we should appreciate that human beings are part of much larger systems, subject to their own rhythms. There are the vast cycles of the cosmos, as explained by scientists, as well as the ineffable way of the whole of being. According to the Daoist meta-ethical perspective, the problem with Confucian humanism is that by focusing on the individual and on society, this humanism separates us from the rest of nature. Our moral rules may have the laudable purpose of helping us find peace, but Confucius offers a council of despair, the ego’s desperate strategy of dealing only with the symptoms of inner and social discord. The root of the problems of suffering and of evil is the dualism that walls us off from nature. When we lose sight of the larger dao, or ways, we live out of alignment with the wholes of which we’re parts. For example, we have excess desires which can’t be fulfilled, because they’re born of myopia. Daoism’s overall solution is wu wei, the paradoxical action without intention, a sort of simple, spontaneous, and natural going with the flow of things. Forrest Gump and the Dude from The Big Lebowski exemplify this sort of unexpected sage who lives in harmony with the world largely because he doesn’t overthink or become preoccupied with the arbitrary rules of social games.
Pantheism and Aesthetics
My main interests in Daoism are twofold. First, there’s the question of pantheism that arises from the unification of human and natural ways. Second, there’s the issue of wu wei. Beginning with pantheism, then, Daoist monism collapses the distinction between artificial rules and natural regularities, and thus both naturalizes us and humanizes the world. The big question is this: What are natural regularities, the nomic relations or patterns that are the facts of which natural laws speak? By calling these regularities ways, the Daoist compares, say, a star’s orbit to the path you might take while walking through a forest. But can something be a path if it has no destination? Suppose you start walking along a sidewalk, but the sidewalk goes on forever. Are you still on a path? Is this infinite “route” to nowhere a way at all? As we first come to understand them, paths and ways are teleological because they’re our artifacts. We bushwhack through the forest and lay down pavement to produce unmistakable pathways. So even when there’s only natural order there’s the appearance of intelligent design which invites us to engage in anthropocentric projection. Thus, it’s because there are cycles in nature, finite and contingent patterns with beginnings, middles, and ends, that we can compare natural regularities generally to ways or paths down which things journey. And where there’s the appearance of intelligent design, there’s the extended anthropocentric metaphor: not only are there ways throughout the universe, but there are natural functions, systems or mechanisms that can go right or wrong, in or out of harmony with each other. In this way, we can compare any natural system to an artifact that works according to a purpose.