Monday, September 24, 2007

Heavenly metaphors....   posted by Razib @ 9/24/2007 01:09:00 AM

I am now reading the translations of the basic writings of the Confucian Sage Xun Zi in my spare time. Like much of body of Chinese work on moral and political philosophy from this era the prose is allusive and often meanders from obscure analogy to opaque metaphor. But the passages from the chapter titled 'A Discussion of Heaven' are clear as day. An illustrative example:
You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason, I say. It is just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyway. The sun and moon undergo an eclipse and you try to save them; a drought occurs and you pray for rain; you consult the arts of divination before a decision on some important matter. But it is not as though you could hope to accomplish anything by such ceremonies. They are done merely for ornaments. Hence the gentleman regards them as ornaments, but the common people regard them as supernatural. He who considers them ornaments is fortunate; he who considers them supernatural is unfortunate.

Those familiar with Xun Zi would not be surprised by these sorts of comments. Of the early Confucians he was arguably the most rationally oriented as well as being thoroughly grounded in the empirical reality of the world. That should not be surprising since his life overlapped with the tumultuous period before the unification of China by the First Emperor. The nostalgia for the past and preoccupation with ancient exemplars which is a hallmark of Confucius' thought is understandable insofar as the halcyon Golden Age of the Zhou had only just passed. In contrast by Xun Zi's day such memories were very distant indeed, emulation of the past had to give some ground to compromise with the needs of the present so that one could live in the future where one could strive toward proper conduct.

That being said, I do think that Xun Zi's comments should help us put into perspective the conceit that we moderns have that all ideas which gush from our minds are new to the world. In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins' famously asserted that only with the emergence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionary change via natural selection could one be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In an act of historical psychoanalysis Dawkins offers that he believes that David Hume, who rejected God not because there was another explanation but simply because he did not find it be be any explanation at all, would have agreed with his assessment at the end of the day. Xun Zi expresses very Humean attitudes 2,000 years before Hume, and like the great Scottish philosopher he is content to observe that Heaven simply is. Instead of plumbing the ontological depths of the universe Xun Zi was rather more interested in the maintenance of a robust and stable social order which he noted was on the edge of collapse all around him. Faced with stress and uncertainty Xun Zi did not turn to the gods for salvation (and quite clearly he was skeptical of their very existence as personal entities), nor did he collapse in godless nihilism and give himself up to a life of Epicurean pleasure.

In The Geography of Thought the author argues that one major chasm which separates the Eastern and Western cognitive styles is that the former is less systematic, more open toward contradiction in the service of a pragmatic short term solution to a problem. In contrast, Westerners, exemplified by the Greeks, reveled in their exploration of the nooks and crannies of cognitive paradoxes as the sine qua non of the highest levels of reflective philosophy. Xun Zi's shallow naturalism, his punting of the mysteries of the origin of life and its ravishing diversity, may not be intellectual satisfying if the essence of thought is to assemble nature together at all its joints in a vast seamless arc, but it is a very conventional and common attitude among a wide range of people. In India the Carvaka movement promoted a materialistic philosophy which resembled Epicureanism. In the Greek world Epicureanism, Skepticism and Cynicism were all schools which exhibited naturalistic streaks. Their attempts, if made, to provide a grounding for the existence and dynamism of the world around us are rather laughable, though perhaps less so in an intellectual climate where some might have taken Hesiod's cosmogony seriously (see clarification). The purported systematic and idealistic bent of the Greeks when it came to the rationalization of atheism seems to be so much window dressing. At the end of the day it seems that they simply didn't believe, the gods were ludicrous, and if that was good enough for Hume and Xun Zi, it was good enough for them.

It may be that there are two sets of atheists in the world. One set of atheists is historically contingent and one set is not. The former may find Darwinian evolution, which draws in part from Paley's Argument for Design, a satisfying narrative for their thirst for why. Prior to Darwin these atheists might have had to quench their thirst for the why with some form of theism, not for them the dispassionate ignorance of Hume, they require some gnosis. The second set of atheists are ahistorical, not only do they not thirst overwhelmingly for the ultimate why, but their intuition as to the naturalistic nature of the universe mitigates any unease that their agnosticism might foster.1 This is where Xun Zi exhibits a lack of systematic thinking, he plainly asserts that there must be a cause for every effect, a point which to a typical teleological human would imply a world filled with bubbling godlings. But no, for Xun Zi there is only impersonal and unfathomable Heaven to which notables may make fictional sacrifices to maintain public order and satisfy the need for rites.
In The Blind Watchmaker Richard Dawkins comes close to giving his fellow countryman Charles Darwin credit for inventing the idea which slew God, as if atheism hinged upon the British imagination. These perceptions are confirmed in works such as God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization, which narrates the shift toward agnosticism on the part of British intellectuals in the 19th century concomitant with the rise of Darwinian theory, prefigured by the ideas of Hume and Edward Gibbon. But Xun Zi shows the Humean strain in Chinese thinking which existed long before the birth of Christ, an intellectual tradition which persisted across the centuries down to the early modern era and sparked Sinophilia on the part of free thinkers such as Voltaire. In A Farewell to Alms the economic historian Gregory Clark describes the massive gains in income to the masses over the last 200 years and the radical equalization of the social order. The middle class American consumer has nothing in common in their daily life with the marginally alive Chinese peasant of Xun Zi's day. On the other hand, the ruminations of the typical literary intellectual, the pundit caste given space on our op-ed pages, might be no better than the reflections of the ancient Chinese political philosophers, who played being both humanists and social scientists. While the great lift off in natural sciences has occurred only in the past few hundred years, perhaps the vast majority of the genuine original value from the humanities and philosophy was generated within the first few hundred years of the Iron Age?

1 - To be clear, these two sets of humans are atypical and narrow slices to begin with. Most people, I believe, do not need genuine explicit gnosis, rather they simply believe in an unreflective manner. In many ways the second set of atheists, who naturally have little intuitive belief in a supernatural order or a need for an ontological buoy in the universe, may have more in common with the typical human in their unreflectiveness. Where they differ is that their basal intuition is atypical; most humans intuitively grasp the likelihood of a supernatural order while some atheists do not.In contrast, a small minority of humans have deep and passionate fixations on the why questions. I would argue these are the most attracted toward philosophies which purport to explain it all via theology, scientism or mysticism. Their souls demand and account for why they exist to demand an account in the first place.