Saturday, June 23, 2012

Attempting to Understand the Zhuangzi

     I've read about 1.5 chapters of the Zhuangzi. I've found it very difficult to understand.  I have understood some things but I suspect I am missing much of the point.  So far I've gleaned:

1. Chapter 1 is an examination of perspective.  There is a huge bird/fish.  The bird is referred to as the roc. in the translation I have.  It can turn from a bird to a fish of enormous proportions.  The chapter reminds me of some of the themes in the story by Voltaire called Micromegas -- an extraterrestial in this story has 73 senses.

2.  It is evident from the examples given in the chapter that we should consider that our notions of the universe depend on our scale and our nature.  The universe itself has a nature which we are not necessarily  constructed to understand, if indeed the whole notion of understanding can be applied to the universe at all.  From the Tao perspective, "understanding" is always relative to interest and language, leaving reality itself mysterious and in the background.  Hence we have the beautiful emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on the background.

3.  What is one to think of all this from an evolutionary perspective? When it comes to physics we can think of ourselves as constructing models of the universe that make good predictions with no necessary reference to reality -- Stephen Hawking takes this view.  I'm wrestling with how this logic fairs in evolution.  In evolution, our sense organs need to have some access to the world outside or our sense organs will not produce an adaptive advantage.  The theory itself seems to assume the Cartesian nightmare of life being but a dream is false.  Physics just constructs models.  Does evolution therefore have a metaphysical component that physics does not?  It assumes that our nervous system must have arisen from processes that can be understood by science.  A real external world must be exerting pressure on the nervous system.  Predators and nutrients really exist -- they must exist for evolution to make sense as a theory.  Thus, on a preliminary analysis evolution is more metaphysical than physics.  I envision a response that evolution is just a prediction making theory and its ontology is just as subject to positivistic criticism as the theories of physics.  If you think you can clarify this issue for me I would appreciate it.

3.  The evolutionary perspective, if accepted, seems to suggest that our minds and logic are of some use and not entirely untrustworthy as one gets from the early part of the Zhuangzi.  The Tao Te Ching has this as an undercurrent as well, but its emphasis is on the peaceful, soft life of the sage, not on logic chopping. 

4.  Certainly there is no reason to assume that our senses and mind can tell us about the fundamental nature of reality, since this understanding is probably not of evolutionary advantage.

5.  On the other hand, we seem to be able to comprehend things much larger than ourselves, so I'm not entirely convinced by the argument of the Zhuangzi in chapter 1.

6.   It's true that the sense organs we have may not capture many things about the universe, but if evolutinary theory is to be accepted, our sense organs provide us at least some access to reality -- the access necessary for us to have survived to this point.

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