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.
To be sure, these anthropomorphisms may not be rationally justified; David Hume, for example, would hold out dao as “occult qualities,” as unobservable aspects of causality. We observe regularity, not purpose or harmony. But the point is that for Daoism the metaphor of the natural way is aesthetically or metaphysically significant, where metaphysics is mythology (cryptic fiction) for intellectuals. According to the Anthropic Principle, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that nature is an ordered, rational place, since without that order life couldn’t have evolved to be surprised. But this misses the point: we should be nonplussed to find both natural order and us. We can imagine the alternative of endless chaos or nothingness, a void with no emergent patterns nor any rhyme or reason. According to quantum mechanics, chaos is unstable and it self-organizes, producing order as a matter of probability, but this presupposes the laws of probability. In any case, all patterns and cycles in nature are surprising because they have the appearance of being plotted just in so far as they’re finite and contingent: there’s a wide variety of particulars in the world that regularly come and go, suggesting a hidden narrative and intention rather than just an impersonal absence of order. Assuming there’s no God as a matter of fact, because there’s no rational basis for theism, we must leave aside theology as a pseudoscience and honour that appearance of meaning throughout nature merely with an aesthetic appreciation. We can thus deal with myths as pure fictions, as artworks made up of words and ideas.
So whereas dispassionate, scientific theories clearly have their utility, myth-making becomes viable too, not as a mode of inquiry that tells us the facts, but as an aesthetic mode of appraisal that can nevertheless be as objective (cold and detached) as rational explanation. We can note that nature is full of systems, mechanisms, rhythms, cycles, and processes that are comprehensible not just because they can be quantified and instrumentally explained, but because they have the appearance of being works of art. That is, the fact that natural things are structured leaves them open to us recognizing their beauty and harmony, or their grotesqueness and tragicomedy. Whether natural processes really are artworks, according to science, is irrelevant. All aesthetics needs is the phenomenology, the structured content of perceptions. By “structure,” I mean something that has distinguishable features. For example, the thing may have a shape and a size, in which case it’s spatially finite, or more to the point of Daoism, the thing may come and go in time. In short, all things, as limited individuals or processes in the field of becoming, called maya in the Hindu Upanishads, are subject to aesthetic interpretation. Dao, or ways, are just temporally-defined things in that teleological, metaphorical sense.
The transcendental explanation of natural order is that we put the order there in our act of understanding the prehumanized flux of experience. Thus, the appearance of natural order is aesthetically interpretable because we literally create an artwork whenever we perceive something, just by processing the information in our brain and thinking about how to conceptualize the sensation. But this isn’t the Daoist perspective. Daoism says there are larger ways that transcend ours. This makes aesthetics a transhuman mode of interpretation. The objective things in themselves become potential subjects of storytelling and of aesthetic criticism, which means their beauty or hideousness is no longer merely apparent. The nonhuman dao are objectively things that are eerily similar to the functional artifacts we create, and that’s surprising, especially since there’s no intelligent Creator of all things! Moreover, Daoism says that that similarity isn’t accidental. Leaving aside theism, the point is that we create artifacts, because we’re made of star dust, because we’re part of systems that arrange themselves into aesthetically interpretable forms. We’re not the only creators on the scene, since even though there’s no God in the heavens nature creates itself and thus us as well.
In so far as natural things and the whole of existence have dao, we find we’re one with the cosmos because much of our humanness was already present throughout nature before life came along. Both Confucianism and Kant’s transcendentalism, then, become forms of humanistic egoism. Contrary to Kant, we don’t arrange the world when there’s no God, because our miniscule species isn’t the source of finite being. Rather, we create our personal and cultural ways, our artificial worlds, because we’re natural creations and nature was busy creating long before our evolution. Our social conventions are indirectly produced by a world that follows its own laws, and the two kinds of law are comparable in that either can be aesthetically esteemed or condemned, because they’re made by the artistic processes of complexification and evolution. As Plato said, particulars live up to universal Forms, more or less, and the source of Forms is the Good. At a minimum, this means that one kind of normative evaluation, the aesthetic, gets at part of objective reality, at a way things are regardless of what we do or say. Again, according to Daoism, there would be natural paths and thus purposes even without life, although this says little, because the great dao necessitates the emergence of life, since that dao encompasses all ways in what amounts to a grand story.
The Nature of Tragedy
Now, in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Iris Murdoch discusses the nature of tragedy and she points out that “Real life is not tragic. In saying this one means that the extreme horrors of real life cannot be expressed in art…Art offers some consolation, some sense, some form whereas the most dreadful ills of human life allow of none. Auschwitz is not a tragedy” (93). As she explains,
The tragic art form is rare because it is difficult to keep attention focused on the truth without the author slipping into an easier sentimental, abstract, melodramatic (and so on) mode. In the truthful vision evil is justly judged and misery candidly surveyed. The language which can achieve this is a high poetic language. Tragedy is a paradoxical art because to succeed it must really upset us while exhibiting, but not as mere consolation, some orderly and comprehensive vista of evil and catastrophe. Death threatens the ego’s dream of eternal life and happiness and power. Tragedy, like religion, must break the ego, destroying the illusory whole of the unified self. (104)
Unlike ordinary works of art, which reassure us with illusions, the medium of tragedy must match its message so that a tragic artwork should be a broken whole, threatening the ego with this omen. Thus, she says, tragedy founders on the nature of art. “Art cannot help changing what it professes to display into something different. It magically charms reality, nature, into a formal semblance. Hell itself it turns to favour and to prettiness” (122). Not only, then, are natural processes not tragic, Murdoch implies, but there are hardly any tragic works at all, because tragedy is paradoxical.
Before I respond to her analysis, let’s consider the meaning of tragedy. Murdoch quotes Schopenhauer as saying, “The true sense of tragedy is in the deeper insight that it is not his own individual sins that the hero atones for but original sin, i.e. the crime of existence itself.” As Murdoch says, this original sin is shown in the way ordinary people come together “to a point where they knowingly and inevitably damage each other and cause the innocent to suffer, a point where evil seems inevitable, necessary, even a kind of duty” (101). This kind of evil was demonstrated by the Milgram experiments and by the Nazi ranks.
Strictly speaking, Murdoch is correct: “tragedy” refers primarily to the narrow art form of the dramatic composition that deals with somber themes. But from the Daoist perspective, this narrow definition presupposes dualistic humanism. Art is not something we create from nothing; we create because we’re created by creative processes, and our ways are one with nature’s. Sure, our art tends to offer consolation and we can’t say that mindless nature consoles, without unduly anthropomorphizing the world. Thus, nature doesn’t produce human art (except through us). But because all our endeavours are versions of larger, nonhuman processes, according to Daoist pantheism, human art must be only a type of cosmic art. We should then consider not just the prospect of alien art, but the impersonal art that surrounds our planet. Why should we say that the universe is filled with art and not just with facts? Because natural facts are creations: they’re finite and contingent; they come into being and pass away, abetted by innumerable causes and circumstances; nature is neither living nor inert, but undead. This is the key point of pantheism. The universe keeps creating itself, creation is the essence of art, and so aesthetic judgments of everything are forced upon us.
Is it wiser to submit or to rebel?
Broadly speaking, then, is nature tragic? The question gets at my second concern with Daoism, which is the prescription of wu wei. Daoists think that wisdom amounts to a surrender to natural ways for the sake of the part’s harmony with the whole. This is, of course, directly opposed to Gnosticism, existentialism, and all ascetic forms of spirituality which prescribe detachment and rebellion against what’s felt to be the world’s wrongness, what Schopenhaurer calls original sin. If nature is tragic, frankly Satanic rebellion is morally superior to abandoning our sense of revulsion at what the world has wrought and at its monstrous manner of creation. If nature’s impersonality is the original sin, the root of all suffering and absurdity, then surrender to instinct and to the flow of larger processes is complicity in that sin, whereas existential revolt attests to the fact that someone somewhere condemns the whole work as fundamentally sad.
But is nature a sad place? That is, should the dao of nature cause us sorrow, above all else, so that we should resent the call for surrender to worldly ways, just as the Jews in the Nazi prison camps resented the kapos for double-crossing them? If there’s any truth in tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth, that’s because Shakespeare was merely a messenger who wrote about dire natural processes. The reason evil comes to seem “inevitable, necessary, even a kind of duty” is because we’re able to dehumanize ourselves and go with the flow of impersonal nature. The world lacks a conscience, destroying what it creates to make room for something else, due merely to the circumstances rather than to some benevolent ideal. And when we surrender to instinct, we become animals, machines that follow the codes of our programming like molecules or the wind or the rain. We leave our artificial worlds and follow natural laws that are fit for the wilderness. And what are those laws in the biological sphere? Not every biological event is evil, but on the whole the adventure of life on this planet is sublime mainly because it should cause our hearts to burst with sorrow. There’s heroism throughout the animal kingdom and also cooperation and altruism, but the whole organic spectacle is absurd and the nobility of animals’ struggles to survive has value only because all life is doomed. Were, instead, all creatures immortal, we’d be victims of another kind of absurdity, since then we’d suffer the living death of heaven.
In our case, the most natural form of behaviour isn’t humble selflessness, but gamesmanship in the dominance hierarchies that accrue around us like spider webs around spiders. The more we interact, the more we’re forced to compromise for the greater good, and thus the weaker among us tend to give way to the strong so that the group can benefit from the elites’ greater ability to keep order. These power relationships are perfectly natural; they’re fruits of natural dao, the universal structure of large groups of social animals. I repeat, the ways of the dominance hierarchy are not the arbitrary conventions prescribed by Confucians, but precisely some larger dao that govern most social species. Thus, surrender to natural dao means surrender to your natural station in the power hierarchy, and for most people that means submission to their masters. The natural inequality between people is itself a grotesque state of affairs, the result of an absurd lottery that rewards and punishes on the grounds of genetic variety and environmental circumstance.
For example, there are hormonal and other neurological differences between the human genders that affect our thinking, and feminism is an artificial revolt against natural inequalities, motivated by the supernatural fantasy of egalitarianism. This isn’t to say that men naturally overpower women in all respects. In some species the females dominate, and in ours females may outperform men in some important areas. The point is that, for evolutionary reasons, the genes tend to divide the workload in sexually reproductive species, so that the genders are innately unequal, meaning that the males will be better at some tasks while the females will dominate in others. Wu wei, the return to nature so that we don’t waste effort in fruitless resistance to the world’s norms, means going with the flow of those biological differences, whatever they happen to be.
Is that submission wise? Well, if wisdom is a matter of pragmatism, then perhaps wu wei is wise, since existential rebellion is likely futile and indeed itself a case of tragic heroism, at best. Wu wei is supposed to be selfless and thus effortless action, the kind performed by someone who’s sacrificed her ego to let the greater dao flow through her. But utility needn’t be the ultimate ideal; in fact, pragmatism is for philistines. If we’re thinking in Daoist terms, about the marvelous ways of all things, the regularities that order the universe, we’re thinking not just of objective facts but of created works. Most of these works are effects of natural forces, initial conditions, limits imposed by related systems, and so on, so that nature is hardly filled with art that has the same purpose as human art. Nevertheless, the universe is a giant art gallery and when we appreciate the limits and dependencies of things, the structures that individuate them, we’re bound to think of them aesthetically. That is, we’ll think of what it means to be such and such a created work. Is the work beautiful or grotesque in certain respects? Is there a narrative that best situates the work in some larger scheme, such as in the great dao?
Two facts would be central to that narrative which should inform our aesthetic criticism of natural creativity. First, there is no living, intelligent artist responsible for anything in the universe, except in the special case of an organism that imitates and improves on nature’s creativity. Pantheists are atheists. Second, everything in the cosmos passes away. When the universe ends, whether in a heat death, big crunch, big rip, or some other catastrophe, the great dao’s destination will have been reached. Everything will have journeyed along their paths, nudging their neighbours along to that final death of all creativity. Together, I think these facts make the universe an immensely tragic work of art. The tragic flaw at the heart of all creativity is nature’s undeadness, the fact that there’s nobody home to reverse the downward slide of the great dao. Pantheism is thus the subversive inner truth of theism, that which remains after we’ve disposed of the dross of our more infantile anthropomorphisms. (Transhumanists envision a more uplifting scenario in which we intelligent beings are the universe’s minds, and we’re destined to become gods capable of perfecting nature. This is another speculative myth, but it is indeed an encouraging one.)
Moreover, just as we pity children as they scribble on paper with their crayons, or we condemn beavers for cutting down forests to construct their rude dams, so too we must be appalled by the mindlessness or mere “instinctiveness” of nature’s artistry. However far beyond our comprehension quantum mechanics may be, the motions of atoms are more like the child’s crude wielding of the crayon than like a masterful painter’s handling of the brush. The reason evil becomes a duty is that the artist responsible for the universe is an undead monster: things are finite and so they pass away, because that monster is fickle, choosing no favourites and wiping the board clean like a child who loves to play, but is never satisfied because she has no ideals in mind, no goal to reach; ordinary people are easily corrupted, because we too are fundamentally undead in so far as we’re natural beings, and so we too are all monsters. We’re petty, self-deluded, and selfish animals even as we distract ourselves with supernatural fantasies in which virtue triumphs. And the punishment for nature’s tragic flaw and original sin is the death which, as Iris Murdoch elsewhere points out, is part of every tragedy. That is, there’s the finiteness of all things and what seems like the inevitable end of the universe in the distant future. The narrative implicit in this performance work, which is the universe’s unfolding, is thus a tragic one. (Granted, the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics complicates this, but either the universes would be connected, in which cases there would be laws of the whole multiverse, which would raise the question of the fate of that whole, or there would be no connection between them in which case the narrative implicit in each universe’s unfolding would stand as a separate artwork.)
Is existential resistance selfish?
In summary, then, I think Daoism is a form of pantheism which interprets natural processes as being teleological, as being more or less in harmony according to some purpose or higher good. The only justifiable sense in which nature generally is filled with purpose is the aesthetic one, in which case all creative acts with limited results can be praised or condemned in those normative terms. Although there are surely comedic interpretations of natural processes, including the existential kind represented well by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and there’s also natural tragicomedy, the overall tale of our universe appears to be woeful. If this is right, wu wei, the surrender to greater norms, is far from the noblest course of action. As it stands, then, Daoism strikes me as incoherent. If we accept my aesthetic construal of its pantheism, we should leave aside the ethical principle of wu wei in favour of some kind of resistance to those norms.
You might be thinking that any such resistance would surely be egoistic and thus not particularly ethical. How arrogant must you be to stand up to the whole of which you’re a part and to denounce that whole in the way Job condemned his God? Indeed, mustn’t you thereby condemn yourself, including your standard of right and wrong, in which case your denunciation nullifies itself? I agree there are some paradoxes here, but they’re resolved when we compare the matter to the misanthrope’s self-loathing. If a person is repulsed by people in general, she would indeed reach the height of arrogance to make an exception of herself. So the misanthrope who has personal integrity must loathe herself as well. Does this mean she deprives herself of any reason for making those negative judgments? Not really, because these aren’t rational judgments in the first place. A misanthrope doesn’t draw up a flowchart that catalogues everyone’s deficiencies, only to calculate the wrongs done in contradistinction to the rights. No, we’re talking here about feelings of resentment, of disgust, disappointment, disenchantment, and so forth. These are emotional reactions that flow from a personal character, formed by experience and codified by a dark worldview. So whatever the misanthrope observes that’s disgusting duly disgusts her, regardless of whether she’s looking outside or within herself. This is a matter of causality, not of logic. For example, Job’s criticism of God could include his shame at being reduced to such a pitiful state by the Almighty, the point being that Job would feel God is to blame.
So the point of resisting rather than submitting to natural impulses is to struggle to create something unnatural. If undead nature is monstrous, then unnatural, disharmonious pockets of the universe aren’t simply parts of the whole; they’re antithetical and potentially heroic for going against the poisonous flow of natural dao. Indeed, the artificial worlds we create, on which the Confucian focuses, may imitate grand natural patterns of creativity, but they’re also glaringly anomalous. After all, we are intelligent creators compared to the natural forces and many of the conventions governing our social games are relatively freely chosen. As I argue elsewhere, we reverse the given facts by using our values and ideals as blueprints to guide our technological and cultural transformations and enchantments of the wilderness that would otherwise confront us with the horror of our greater homelessness. When we resist the tragic course of nature, we may copy natural ways by nevertheless trying to create something, but our goal as a species should be to tell a new story, to stand as a mystifying singularity in the natural plenum, as our alpha and omega, as the beginning and end of history. Our lives will then be stories within the greater, inhuman story; our narratives will feature characters that cast accusatory sideways glances at the rotting corpse of the great tao, and that disassociate themselves from that monstrosity as much as possible. This ideal of moksha, of liberation from the realm of impermanent things, is of course the goal of most religions. The pantheistic version recasts supernatural escape as existential rebellion, as creative resistance to the greater horror and tragedy playing out all around us.
But is this resistance selfish? Must we be ignorant of the ego’s smallness to conceive of such a misadventure? Certainly, there’s no implication that an existential hero can engage only in selfish actions, meaning those that benefit just herself and her kin. On the contrary, selfishness is natural, which is to say biologically well-established, so self-sacrifice is already rather ghostly in its uncanny reversal of the natural tide. The point of this objection which should be granted, though, is that, short of the transhumanist’s dream coming true, existential rebellion is likely as foolish as selfishness. The genes make foolish puppets of hedonists and the tide will likely overwhelm the walls around our unnatural sanctuaries. Our artistic protests will be forgotten long before the universe has finished its slow march to nowhere at the end of time. So we’ll imitate not only nature’s creativity, but the greater tragedy as well. Still, we’ll have improved upon the whole work, however brief may be our digression.