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MindMatter-as-One: Ontology and Epistemology -- The mind/matter issue in Eastern philosophical perspective (1)
By Sherwin Lu
2019-03-16 09:07:12


This article was first posted on this website on 
2011-08-09 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a section of the author’s new book 
DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, §I-1(1) Transcending mind-matter split.

DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISM: One with real Chinese characteristics 
(Table of contents)


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a series of postings by the author discussing the philosophical mind/matter issue in semipopular language. This series is actually a combined and restructured translation by the author himself of his two earlier essays (2006, 2007) formerly written in Chinese on the same subject. As the language is not very formal on the whole, those readers who are not used to formal philosophy should not be scared away by a few unavoidable special terms. And what is more important, this discussion provides a metaphysical basis for an accurate comprehension of the author’s and, more extensively, of the New Legalist’s discussions on political, economic and cultural matters.


1-1 Relative Selfhood of Human Individuals, Groups and All Beings
Somebody tried to defend egocentrism in a philosophical way by saying that the world order is based on all things, human beings included, each holding onto their selfhood. We might first ask, then: Is there a “selfhood” in all beings? The answer is: “Yes” and “No”. This is not sophistry but dialectic. Here is the explanation:
         Intangibility of All Beings

All things that are being sensed by a person, including that person himself and other human beings, ARE existing for that person at this very moment, but not existing for other persons, nor to that person at other moments. People may label this proposition as “idealism”, because, they may argue, so long as something (e.g., a plane that has just winged through the sky) was sensed by others or by any person at any other moment, even if it is not being sensed by any body at this moment, it is already proved to be existing. But this argument cannot stand, because, even if a person A is seeing the supposedly “same” plane at this moment that another person B saw at a previous moment, what A is seeing and what B saw are not exactly the same thing; this is because:

1) As some philosopher has said before, no one can ever step into one same river twice, meaning that everything, such as rivers and planes, is undergoing changes at every moment, i.e., in an ever-going process of matter/energy exchanges with its environment.

2) The structure of consciousness of the person, or of any other conscious being, including both the physical cognitive and the social ideological structure, is, just like a river, undergoing changes at every moment, i.e., in an ever-going process of matter/energy/information exchanges with its environment. That is to say, the seemingly “same” person does not have the absolutely same structure of consciousness at different moments. Therefore, what a person perceives at different moments cannot be absolutely the same. This truth is still valid even if we choose not to care about such minute differences so long as they do not affect our daily life.

3) No two things are exactly the same, nor two human beings with exactly the same structure of consciousness, not to say conscious beings belonging to different species (animals or any other unknown species). Therefore, the worlds perceived by different conscious beings are never exactly the same. This is easily comprehensible if we compare in imagination the different worlds in the consciousness of color-blind and normal persons, or the worlds of sounds heard respectively by blind human beings and by bats, or the worlds of scents smelled respectively by dogs with stronger olfactory capacity and by human beings, and the quantum appearing as particle and as wave when observed through different apparatuses, etc.

All this points to one truth: The world perceived by different beings or by a same being at different times are always different, varying with the varied structures of perception they have. Or, the things as perceived by a specific perceiver at a specific moment exists only for that perceiver of that moment; they do not exist for all others beings – that is to say, their existence is only relatively valid. This is termed “intangibility” (or nothing to hold onto, ”无可执着”, “”) in Buddhist terms. In the final analysis, nothing is tangible, neither matter nor mind.

 Relativity of Selfhood: Hold on while Ready to Relinquish

Is this relativism, then? Yes, or no. If one stops here, saying nothing more, it might be relativism. Take for instance one kind of understanding of Buddhism. According to it, since nothing can be held onto, it makes no sense to be concerned about human living conditions, about social injustices in this world. What needs to be done is only for each to achieve spiritual self-relief from all the sufferings in this life by obtaining awareness of the intangibility of everything through contemplation behind closed doors. This understanding brushes away the necessity of confronting squarely the human living conditions in this world under the pretext of the relativity of all existence. In this sense, it might be called “relativism”. But believers of this “relativism” are not able to put it into consistent practice. While in appearance he does not hold onto anything, in fact there are at least two things they cannot relinquish, that is, they have to hold onto, not excepting the most ascetic Buddhists: 1) they have to eat something when hungry and find some place to lie on safely when sleepy, because, if they relinquish food and a safe place, they would not be able to stay alive and continue practicing what they believe in. 2) They might relinquish everything else, i.e., they would resist all other natural desires but, to accomplish this, they have to make a conscientious effort to hold onto their belief. That means they have something spiritual to “hold onto” as well.

So, the conclusion is: No living person can really relinquish everything or have nothing to hold onto. What one can do is to follow the natural course of things (随缘), that is, trying to hold onto something while always ready to relinquish (执而不着). To be specific --

1) One needs to follow the natural inclinations inside oneself. Take food when hungry; lie down when sleepy; give as much help to others when needed as one is willing and able to. Sympathy is also a natural endowment to everybody, or to the majority of human beings at least. They cannot bear hunger and cannot bear seeing others suffering from hunger. It is not true that everybody is an “economic man” pursuing maximum self-interest and regarding all his help to others as a means to the end of facilitating his own interests, as alleged by those apologists of capitalism. The majority of people are neither 100% egoists nor 100% altruists, but more or less balanced-interest seekers, who would hold onto their own proper positions while willing to give up some of their own interests for the sake of others if necessary.

2) One needs to follow the natural course of things outside oneself, which means one should not push things against their natural course of development, be it for one’s own or for others’ benefit. This does not contradict taking the initiative or making proper self-assertion to follow one’s own inclination, so long as the inside inclination agrees with the natural course of outside things in general.

In a word, asserting oneself in a proper degree while not pushing too far – this should be the right approach. The demarcation line between “proper” and ”too far” can be found through and only through ever on-going interactions between oneself and others, between oneself and the environment, and between the egoist self and the altruist self. The word “one” here represents either a human individual or a group of people. The necessity of ever on-going interactions presupposes the relative existence of many a “self” on all social levels, i.e., individuals and groups. And this makes a clean break with relativism.

In other words, we should acknowledge on the one hand the relative existence of all “self” entities (not only individual but also group entities – family, nation, race; village, town, county, city, province, state, country; association, trade union, party, religious denomination; etc.) and on the other acknowledge the absolute intangibility of everything, including all “self” entities. In another word, we should acknowledge that each and every such entity needs to assert a proper will of his/its own in pursuit of certain basic satisfactions but at the same time should not force his/its own improper will on others but instead needs to give up his/its improper desires to accommodate the proper needs of others. As a matter of fact, the majority of human beings are potentially able to recognize the two sides of the truth and act accordingly.

If the majority do not properly assert themselves, they would inevitably follow a minority of selfishly ambitious others and suffer from the misery of being enslaved. Meanwhile, if one refuses to give up what improper desires he should relinquish, the natural law of all-round interactions among all things would force him to. Reasonable self-assertion means freedom; so does voluntary relinquishment; but forced relinquishment would bring about misery of another kind.

If all individual or group entities each hold onto themselves as atomistic beings without acknowledging the intangibility of all things and the necessity of following the natural course of things to accommodate each other through repeated interactions between themselves and others on all different social and existential levels, then the majority will become alienated from one another and leave room for the politically and economically privileged few to play “divide and rule” and dominate over all others for ever. Meanwhile, if the majority of individuals and groups believe in monolithic collectivism without acknowledging the relative selfhood of each of them and the reasonableness for each to assert him/itself in a proper degree, thus leaving their fate totally in the hands of a few self-styled “representative of collective interests”, then the latter few would inevitably lord it over all others or even act as self-seekers. Both of the above extremes are causes of all injustices and miseries in the world.
Two Extremes, One Result

In the Chinese tradition, there was a tendency to deny the majority the need for proper self-assertion, resulting in the polarization between the most wealthy, powerful and dignified at one extreme and the poor, powerless and undignified at the other.

Meanwhile, modern Western mainstream ideology advocates atomistic individualism and pushes for maximization of self-interest with no regard for others’ interests except as a means to the end of promoting one’s own. This atomistic individualism ignores the basic fact that the mutual accommodation between all individual and group entities and between man and the environment through ever-ongoing interactions is the objective definer of their respective nature, the irresistible external regulator of their desires and behaviors, and the existential source of their power, a fact independent of the will of any “self”. Disregard of this fact has led to the same result of polarization between the most wealthy, powerful, and dignified at one extreme and the poor, powerless and undignified at the other.

The revelation about the two sides of everything – the relative selfhood and the relatedness to everything else – and about the consequences of ignoring either side does not only tally with facts from history and reality but agrees as well with the doctrine of the mean in Chinese thought tradition and with dialectical thinking in classical German tradition. Philosophically speaking, a public awareness of this truth is a prerequisite in the way of thinking for bringing about a free, equal, democratic, harmonious and peaceful new world.

The application of this philosophical outlook on “selfhood” to the transformation of the society into an ideal one will be discussed in two steps (in forthcoming installments of the series).


1-2 MindMatter-as-One Ontology:

Negation of ego-centrism of human individuals, groups, nations and species

Infinite Number of Possible Worlds

The above passage discussed the relativity of selfhood of all beings in one sense, i.e., being existent for the perceiver at a given moment only, but the discussion has not exhausted the subject yet. People might ask: Does that mean that, without the consciousness of human beings, the world we now perceive does not exist at all? The answer is again “Yes” and “No”.

“Yes”. As all human beings have some roughly similar physical cognitive structure, the material world they perceive is more or less the same. In this sense, all that they commonly perceive can be said to exist for human beings in general, even if not or not perfectly for some individuals, such as retarded persons.

What normal persons commonly perceive, however, are still NOT perfectly the same in all minute details, even though people may just ignore such trivial differences so long as their social intercourse and daily life together are not much affected. In this sense, there is “No” selfsame material world existing for ALL human beings at all.

As to human perception of the social world, the result is even more complicated, because the cognitive structures of their social consciousness are all much affected by the different social situations they are in or their different social statuses. Things perceived in different or even mutually opposed ideological perspectives (an important aspect of human cognitive structure) would certainly turn out to be different, even so different as black and white. Even for those in the same social status with similar perceptive structure, their perceptions of social phenomena, while having certain major commonness, are still varied in some minor details. What is commonly perceived by people sharing a specific perspective can be regarded as existing for these people but not for others with different perspectives. This is what is meant by saying that social being determines social consciousness. The “being” here does not only refer to what is there, or more exactly, what is potentially there (see explanation further below), as object(s) of perception but also to the specific ideological structure of the perceiver and the related social position he is in.

What we discussed above is the material\social world that is commonly regarded as existing by human beings in general. Now, we may ask: Does this world also exist for non-human beings such as animals, plants, inorganic beings, and extraterrestrial beings? As to the world in the eyes of animals, by presuming that there should be some commonness between higher animals and human beings in their perceptive structure, we may perhaps say that there IS a common world existing for them. But, this common world is definitely not all the same as the one perceived by humans in general. And it might not exist at all for insects, plants, microorganisms, etc. As to the extraterrestrial world in the “eyes” of possible outer-space conscious beings, it is utterly beyond our human imagination. 

But among reports on astronauts’ outer-space experiences, there was one saying: “Astronauts in orbit often encounter all kinds of weird things, such as hearing mysterious sounds, seeing phantoms, or even entering a different space.” For instances, more than one of them saw with the naked eye what can be seen only when near enough to the planet Earth: houses, docks, highways, automobiles, etc.; Some people saw ice blocks floating over clouds; huge human-like form with head and legs and wearing an overcoat, altogether as long as 100–200 kilometers; or heard dogs barking, kids crying or musical melodies lingering; or an astronaut may suddenly feel as if some invisible man was staring sadly at his back while murmuring something; or as if he himself was striding on a certain planet, crossing valleys and abysses; or as if he himself had been transformed into a dinosaur, able to describe his own claws, scales, finger webs and huge nails and feeling the scutella on his back standing up. (“Astronauts’ Paranormal Experiences in Outer Space: Being Transformed into a Dinosaur”,Trans. fromBeijing Science & Technology Newspaper, Sept. 22, 2005,.北京科技报, 2005922日“宇航员在太空中的灵异事件:曾经变成了恐龙”.

Scientists’ explanation of all this is: These are most likely illusions resulting from the unusual external impact on astronauts of zero gravity, intense radiation and magnetic field. That is to say, their perceptive structures were drastically altered by influences from the environment and so were their perceptions of the outer space. It is obvious that, if there exist extraterrestrial beings with physiological structures very much different from that of human beings, their perceptions of the outer space must also be as much different. In other words, THE outer space as perceived by humans most probably does NOT, or not nearly perfectly, exist for extraterrestrial beings.

The above paragraphs show that perceptions of the world, out space or the universe in the “eyes” of different conscious beings are more or less different. Therefore, there does NOT exist an absolutely objective world, outer space or universe that is independent of consciousness. We might say that what exists is only “a total of infinite potential possibilities”. Such “possibilities” show up as ever-changing forms of existence, or all different “possible worlds”, under the perceptive “lenses” of all potentially possible conscious beings with more or less different but all finite cognitive structures. If stated in terms of mind-matter relationship, each and every such “possible world” is the unity of mind, i.e., a specific form of finitely structured consciousness (e.g., that of a human being), and matter, i.e., whatever of the total of all potentially possible forms of existence comes under its specific “lens”. Such a specific world is merely a “contingent” and “far from complete” sketch and definition of the total of all potential possibilities by a specific conscious being –“contingent” on the specific attributes of the latter’s cognitive structure and “far from complete” because of its finiteness. Perhaps it can be put this way: Mind is the performance of matter and matter is what the mind “chooses to reveal”, so to speak. So, in the final analysis, mind IS matter and matter IS mind: They are One and the same.

The rigid split of existence into mind and matter is the result of human consciousness holding onto itself and all that it is conscious of as absolutely separable, tangible and real. But if one insists on the conception of a purely objective world that is independent of any human individual’s consciousness, that should be the total of the above-said infinite number of possible worlds, or “a world of infinite possibilities”, that is, the world of chaos before its separation into heaven and earth by Pangu (盘古) in Chinese mythology. The world in human eyes, that is, the world after Pangu, is only one of the infinite possibilities. The mythological split into heaven and earth actually symbolizes the separation between “self” and “non-self”, between mind and matter that happens in every human individual’s consciousness during his infancy.

What is said above constitutes a unitary ontology based on mind-matter unity, as was suggested by a reading of Buddhist literature.
Delusiveness and Harmfulness of Ego-Centrism on All Levels

In the view of this ontology, egocentrism on all levels of social existence -- from that of the human individual through all its extended forms such as parochial mentalities centering round one’s own family, clan, local community, nation, race, class, sect, or any other special group, and, finally, species (that is, anthropocentrism) – all these mental attitudes are based on an illusory perception of reality and have no ground to stand on. But the unbridled indulgence of human desires and passions being rampant throughout the world today and all the social injustices, sufferings, disasters, chaos and threatening perils following from it are, philosophically speaking, rooted in the above wrong perception and attitude, as is typically embodied in Western capitalism, in its individualist-liberalist political-economic theories, currents of thought and institutions. How, then, can mankind resist, contain and stop the rampancy of egocentrism in all the above forms so that the world can be a little safer? This will be touched upon in the following passage.

1-3 MindMatter-As-One Epistemology:

Metaphysical basis for social theories

Now about the relativity of all beings in the second sense, that is, relative to the different levels of human cognitive structure. The hierarchical nature of human cognitive structure stems from the finiteness and gradualness of development of human cognitive capacity.
Perception of the physical world

First imagine the humans of high antiquity before they started to use language and abstract concepts. At that time their cognitive and communication capacity was little higher than that of the most intelligent animals: What they perceived was only a very small world reached by direct observation only, being unaware of anything beyond. This is the primary level of human cognition.

Later, they learned to use language as a tool to conceptualize and present what they observed for communication, through which they compared their individual observations and constructed a common world on their shared perceptions for better coordination in daily life.

Apart from that, the use of language and concepts helps humans to imagine, describe and communicate about things beyond the directly observed world. Both description and communication involves imagination. And imagination still involves both the simultaneous function of sense organs and the formerly observed images obtained on the primary level as basic reference. This three-in-one combination of (1) former direct observations, (2) presentations through language-borne concepts and (3) the continued working of sense organs in organizing the above into a whole constitute the second level of human cognition. Hence, human perception of the world on this level is a partly extended and partly altered version of the one obtained on the primary level.

Still later, humans learned to use mechanical instruments for observation such as telescopes and microscopes. All such instruments are in fact “extensions” of human sense organs and become part of human cognitive structure. “Extensions” are obviously much affected by but not totally the same as the sense organs per se. Hence, on the one hand, the “observation” structure of the extensions leaves much impact on human perceptions of the “expanding” world, while on the other human perception of the world obtained on the previous two levels combined also leaves significant impact on that of the further extended world. In other words, this third level of human cognition is an even more complicated combination of five:

(1) Function of human sense organs;
(2) Primary direct observations;
(3) Language-borne conceptual presentations;
(4) Second-level perception of the world;
(5) Function of observation instruments.

…So on and so forth. With ever-broadening and ever-deepening of the language-borne concept system and ever-improving observation instruments and techniques, human perception of the world also keeps broadening and deepening, advancing from lower to higher levels…It is not possible nor necessary to go into all the details here, but the above discussion leads naturally to the following assumption about the modern concepts of 4-dimensional, or 10-dimensional, or even 26-dimensional spaces: They might be seen as the revelations of the world of infinite potentialities on many times-extended levels of human cognitive structure. These revelations, however, still show traces of human direct observation on the primary level (“space”) and of language-borne conceptualization on the second level that is still based on primary direct observation (“dimension”). Obviously, the finite primary structure of human cognition and man’s much restricted primary direct observation are always playing a primary role in any extended exploration and perception of the world.
Perception of the social world

The above analysis of the hierarchical nature of human consciousness structure in perceiving the physical world also applies in essence to the perception of social phenomena, although the demarcation between the different levels in social consciousness structure is less apparent and less definable as the former because of several reasons to be discussed below. Human perception of the social world and that of the physical world are both primarily founded on direct observations through the sense organs and advanced in breadth and depth through a cognitive structure that consists of a number of successive levels. Here are the major similarities and differences between the two:

        (1) While direct perception is of primary significance for both, direct experience and observation of micro-social day-to-day human communications and interactions on the primary cognitive level (within the limited range of families, workplaces, local professional or trade circles, grassroots political or religious groups of limited size, etc.) has a still greater bearing on higher-level macro-social perception for the following reasons:

a) Social consciousness involves more emotional impact.

b) Social consciousness involves the so-called sixth, or intuitive, sense.

c) Just as deeper insights into physical phenomena on higher levels is made possible through interactions between human intelligence and physical matters, truthful understanding of human social relations has to start from live inter-person face-to-face contact on the primary level.

.d) Macro-social perception involves even more abstract concepts and is consequently more susceptible to social status-related emotive misrepresentations and more dependent on primary direct experience and observation on the primary level as basic reference.

(2) While tools for viewing and knowing the physical world such as language, instruments and logic, with their special properties and functions, play a pivotal role in the extension of the cognitive structure from primary to higher levels, those for understanding the social world are similar in some ways and not in others:

a) The latter is even more dependent on language-borne abstract concepts and reasoning while less on instruments and laboratory experiments. And the logic for reasoning about physical and social matters might not be all the same.

b) Besides, while less dependent on laboratory instruments, social knowledge benefits much more from transportation and communication and media tools for ever-broadening vision, ever-accelerating accumulation and ever-deepening insight. The upgrading of these tools in their properties and functions – how far they can extend people’s “eyesight” – has been facilitating that of human social perception structure from primary to higher levels, directly through geological mobility and indirectly through political, economic and cultural associations and activities on all social-geographical levels.

This upgrading, however, can never cancel out the primary importance of direct observations and experiences obtained on the primary level. For instance, people’s perceptions of the mayor of a local town or city and that of the head of one’s own nation, or of another nation, or of the U.N. incorporate quite different proportions of direct observation, intuition, personal emotion, and reasoning in abstract terms based on indirectly-obtained language-borne information from multiple sources. Generally speaking, The more remote the geographical and social distance, the less impact from direct observation, intuition, personal experience and emotion and the more reliance on reasoning, imagination, assumption, hearsay, or deceptive information or ideology such as those produced by big money media today.

In a word, the hierarchical nature of social perception based on geographical extension is both similar to and different from that of perception of the physical world based on improvement of observation technology. But an understanding of the latter is very helpful to that of the former. And an understanding of the hierarchical nature of the physical and psychological structure for social perception is key to a truthful understanding of human society and human mind itself.
Break away from Mechanistic Mind-Matter Split Philosophy

To sum up, the above-discussed ontology and epistemology based on mind-matter unity as an integral whole are different from materialism, dialectical or not, and idealism both based on mind-matter split or inability to comprehend the ultimate reality of “infinite potential possibilities”, and, therefore, are able to provide the philosophical rationale for truthful, effective, and beneficial social theories, i.e., theories making a clean break from both atomistic-individualist and monolithic-collectivist worldviews and methodologies, theories for promoting a new social order founded on dynamic interactions and mutual adjustments between myriads of individuals and social groups of all sorts on all social levels of a local community, a nation, and the world.

Take the currently hot topic of electoral democracy for instance. The fashionable general elections on such macro-social levels as far beyond the cognitive reach of most individual citizens are easily manipulated by big money-backed politicians and media who are dependent on and bent on defending capital’s universal domination of labor on micro-social levels. They are only examples of a democracy of more or less deceptive nature (so far as their results are concerned at least). In the above-discussed ontological and epistemological perspective, however, a truthful democratic social order should start from economic-political democracy based on capital-labor equality in workplaces on the micro-social level and then extend the result to higher levels to form a hierarchy of elected popular representatives and government officials, those on each higher level being elected by those on lower levels and those on the lowest level directly and separately elected by voters in constituencies of limited sizes. 

The above is only one example. The significance of this new ontology and epistemology is not thus limited, of course.
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