Thursday, August 29, 2013

Epistemological Nihilism: Practical Taoism

The cost of certainty outweighs the cost of uncertainty.

When we are certain, we filter out contrary information, often without being aware of it. This is covered extensively in the study of cognitive and social bias. It is rarely conscious, which makes it all the more dangerous.

When we are aware of our uncertainty, we may become overburdened by cognitive dissonance. This can lead to haphazard decision making, since it doesn't matter anyway.

Of the two, the latter is both the more honest, and also a better representation of the case. However, there is a better option.

This is to begin framing everything in your life not in degrees of certainty, but rather, in degrees of uncertainty. To what extent are you uncertain of a given thing? This may seem like an arbitrary semantic distinction. However, like most reframing tricks, the change of perspective makes all the difference, even though nothing has actually changed.

However, all the people in the world that live their lives in shades of certainty may see you as an Eeyore. They might even call you a nihilist.

That's alright though. This stance of epistemological nihilism is one of the many unspoken undercurrents of Taoism. Various passages of Chuang-Tzu's famous text deal with the subject, but the meaning is easily lost or misconstrued, because the Taoist approach itself recognizes only degrees of uncertainty. Consider the story of the Useless Tree,
Hui Tzu said to Chuang, “I have a big tree, the kind they call a “stinktree.” The trunk is so distorted, so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you cannot cut them up in any way that makes sense.”
“There it stands beside the road. No carpenter will even look at it. Such is your teaching – big and useless.”
Chuang Tzu replied, “Have you ever watched the wildcat crouching, watching his prey. The prey leaps this way, and that way, high and low, and at last lands in the trap. And have you seen the Yak? Great as a thundercloud, he stands in his might. Big? Sure, but he can’t catch mice!”
“So for your big tree, no use? Then plant it in the wasteland, in emptiness. Walk idly around it, rest under its shadow. No axe or bill prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down.”
“Useless? You should worry!”
This seems to pertain to use rather than certainty, but as with the dialogues of Socrates, it is through the demonstration of what we think we know that the everyday is made absurd. Similarly, the useless is made ideal. 

The following passage is possibly a more 'traditionally Taoist' take on this subject, 
How can Dao be obscured so that there should be a distinction of true and false? How can speech be so obscured that there should be a distinction of right and wrong? Where can you go and find Dao not to exist? Where can you go and find that words cannot be proved? Dao is obscured by our inadequate understanding, and words are obscured by flowery expressions. Hence the affirmations and denials of the Confucian and Motsean [Mohist] schools, each denying what the other affirms and affirming what the other denies. Each denying what the other affirms and affirming what the other denies brings us only into confusion.

There is nothing which is not this; there is nothing which is not that. What cannot be seen by that (the other person) can be known by myself. Hence I say, this emanates from that; that also derives from this. This is the theory of the interdependence of this and that (co-relativity of standards).
Nevertheless, life arises from death, and vice versa. Possibility arises from impossibility, and vice versa. Affirmation is based upon denial, and vice versa. Which being the case, the true sage rejects all distinctions and takes his refuge in . . . [the Dao]. For one may base it on this, yet this is also that and that is also this. This also has its "right" and "wrong", and thatalso has its "right" and "wrong." Does then the distinction between this and that really exist or not? When this (subjective) and that (objective) are both without their correlates, that is the very "Axis of Dao." And when that Axis passes through the center at which all Infinities converge, affirmations and denials alike blend into the infinite One . . . . 

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