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From “Transcendental Chaos” to Mind-Matter Split -- The mind/matter issue in Eastern philosophical perspective(2)
By Sherwin Lu
2019-04-01 08:48:25

This article was first posted on this website on 2011-11-12 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(2-4) Infinite potentialities“: A thought experiment”, etc.

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


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a series of postings by the author discussing the philosophical mind/matter issue in semi-popular style. 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.
The Mind/Matter Issue in Eastern Philosophical Perspective (1) : MindMatter-as-One:Ontology and Epistemology


2-1 A Thought Experiment

(Translation of classic quotations by this author, if not otherwise indicated)

Now, to make more imaginable the “total of infinite potential possibilities”, let us have a thought experiment --

First imagine a polyhedron, the simplest ones being a tetrahedron or a pentahedron such as a pyramid. We can imagine a more complicated one with any great number of edges, angles and faces, of which none is congruent with any others, and with the inside partly empty and partly full – filled with numerous beams of all different shapes and sizes, asymmetrically crossing one another and connecting between all the edges, angles and faces in all directions, leaving numerous irregularly shaped vacant spaces in between. If we imagine this polyhedron to be as huge as possible or infinitely huge, then it can represent the infinite total of all cosmic existence, with the infinite number of edges, angles, and faces in all different shapes and sizes and the asymmetrical complicatedness of the inside beam structure symbolizing its “infinite potential possibilities”.

Now suppose the “mind” that is observing this “total of infinite potential possibilities” is a fixed point inside this infinitely huge “polyhedron” and it observes only in one fixed direction. This qualification of the observing mind symbolizes its finiteness in two ways: First, it is only a finite part of this infinite total that it is observing (If it observes from outside the “polyhedron”, it becomes the omnipotent “God”; but as the polyhedron is supposed to be “infinitely huge”, there should be no “outside”). Secondly, the fixedness of its location and orientation symbolizes the finiteness of its cognitive structure, capacity and performance.

Now further imagine that there are infinitely many observers at the infinitely many points inside this “polyhedron” simultaneously observing it in infinitely many directions. Then we can assume that the appearances of this “polyhedron”, in the “eyes” of these infinitely many observers are all infinitely different.

If any of the above observers is a human being, we can call what he observes by the term “Human-Perceived World” (In conventional philosophical discourse it is termed “the objective world” supposed to be independent of human consciousness but obviously not). Meanwhile, what all other non-human observers have observed, separately and totally, is beyond human perception but is truly a kind of “objective existence” independent of human consciousness. Humans can be vaguely aware of these infinite potentialities, or the total cosmic chaos, which we can call by the term “the Transcendental Chaos”, meaning a chaos that transcends human cognition and the Human-Perceived World, i.e., the “ultimate objective existence”.

It is worth note here that the “Human-Perceived World” is only one of the infinitely many possible worlds unfolding out of the “Transcendental Chaos”, i.e., a particular presentation of the latter revealed through the function of the finite human cognitive structure. Their relationship is that between the particular and the general, the same as, to use a classic Chinese metaphor, between a white horse and a horse in general – the former IS and IS NOT the latter at the same time.

Laozi described the origin of the world as follows: “There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself, born before Heaven-and-Earth. [It is]silent and boundless, standing alone without change, yet pervading all without fail. It may be regarded as the Mother of the world. I do not know its name; I style it ’Tao’ [Dao]…” (Dao De Jing, 38, Trans. by Charles Muller.) We can say that the above-discussed “Transcendental Chaos” that embraces all existence is the same thing as the “Something” Laozi named as “Dao”, or as Wu Ji (无极, Beyond-Ultimate), another special term in Chinese philosophy (as in “无极而太极(Tai Ji)” -- “From Beyond-Ultimate emerges the Ultimate”). And the “Human-Perceived World” is the same thing as Tai Ji, or as the “one” in “From the Dao emerges one. From one emerge two…” (Dao De Jing, 42.)

2-2 The Indescribable Transcendental Chaos

As said above, the Transcendental Chaos is the same thing as the Dao. The word “Dao” () in Chinese has several meanings, one of which is “way”, or ”route”, or ”approach”, all related to dynamic actions of walking, moving, handling, etc. The phrase “emerge from” in “From the Dao emerges one” indicates both that “Dao” refers to the origin of the world and that the Dao is dynamic in nature – it is the way or the state of movements or changes of all things including mind and matter. In a word, The Dao as the origin of the world is not a kind of material substance, not a tangible something, but a state, a mode.

What kind of a mode is the Dao, then? Laozi said: “The tao [Dao] that can be told is not the eternal Tao [Dao].” ((Dao De Jing, 1, Trans. by Stephen Mitchell.) This means that the Dao cannot be described in definite terms by any conscious being which itself is a finite offspring and a tiny part of the unfolding of the Dao. To borrow a metaphor from Buddhist scripture, which compares the use of language to describe the ultimate intangibility () of all existence to the use of a finger to point at the moon (《指月录》), we can compare the Dao to the moon and any description in language to the finger. This implies that any discourse about the origin of the world, naming it as “matter”, or “idea” or any other things denoting the human “mind”, or “God” or some other “objective spirit”, or the “Dao”, or “Beyond-Ultimate”, or ultimate “intangibility”, or the “total of infinite potential possibilities”, or any other ways of saying it – any such discourse can only be regarded as a more or less close approximation at best. In this sense, we can say that the Dao as the origin of the world is a “Transcendental Chaos” that we humans can never thoroughly comprehend and exactly describe.

As said above, the Dao of the Transcendental Chaos represents infinite potentialities. The unfolding of all physical and chemical phenomena, of life and consciousness, non-human and human, all the revelations in the Human-Perceived World and those in non-human “eyes”, if any, are all manifestations of potential possibilities represented by the Dao; but these manifestations do not exhaust the infinite possibilities. One might think that defining the Dao as infinite possibilities is the same as saying “This is possible”, ”That is possible”, and ”Nothing is impossible”, or amounts to having said nothing at all. That is true, as the Dao IS beyond words to begin with.

2-3 Coming about of the Human-Perceived World

The “one” in “From the Dao emerges one” indicates the intermediate or transitory state between chaos and a distinct world, that is half-consciously sensed by pre-Pangu (see 1-2) humans or by an infant with no conscious awareness of the distinction between “self” and ”non-self” or between the metaphorical “heaven and earth” (in the Pangu mythology) – a world that is almost formless, borderless, undifferentiated and thus indescribable. By saying “almost indescribable” is meant that only very little can be said about it, i.e., that “self” and ”non-self” are barely being distinguished or almost still an undifferentiated “one”-ness. But since something, however little, is “told” here, about this transitory state, it is then no longer the “eternal Dao”. This “something” marks the distinction between the “one” and the Dao as the totally transcendent Chaos. Although this “one” is not yet the world that grown-ups usually see, it is the dawning of the “Human-Perceived World”.

     Another way of describing the origin of the Human-Perceived World is the above-quoted “From Beyond-Ultimate emerges the Ultimate”. The wording “Beyond-Ultimate” (The original Chinese Wu Ji literally means “no ultimate”) indicates the result of reverse deduction from what is perceived as “the Ultimate” and, therefore, epitomizes, perhaps even better than the word “Dao”, the formless, borderless, undifferentiated and indescribable state which lies beyond the human recognized Ultimate. The Chinese word “极” (Ji) in “太极” (Tai Ji) and “无极” (Wu Ji) literally means “top”, “pole” or ”ultimate” etc. In the human system of concepts there are a lot of “poles” such as monopole, dipole, three-pole…, multipole. The Book of Change says: “Changes start from the Ultimate, from which come the two opposites, from which then the four phases, from which again the eight trigrams” (易有太极,是生两仪,两仪生四象,四象生八卦。《易经 • 系辞上》). Here the two opposites can be represented by the twin terms Yin and Yang, which both are always on the rise or decline alternately. Hence the four phases: Rising Yang (with Yin declining), Top Yang (with Yin starting to rise), Rising Yin (with Yang declining), and Top Yin (with Yang starting to rise).
     Yin and Yang can actually represent myriads of things or all the opposites that make up the numberless things on numberless levels of existence. A pair of opposites appears as two poles. Between two opposite poles there must be the “middle”, which constitutes the third “pole”. Between either of the first two and the third, there comes the fourth, and the fifth, etc. till infinity. Hence “From the Dao emerges One. From One emerge Two. From Two emerge Three. From Three emerge all things. All carry the opposites Yin and Yang, approaching harmony through moderation.” (Dao De Jing, 42.) 

     In Chinese tradition there is also the theory of “five elements” (五行), which actually represent each of the four phases as parts plus the whole cycle of rise and decline of Yin and Yang. So, they are actually five “poles”.

     The above process is one of differentiation. Its opposite is integration. Integration and differentiation make up another kind of Yin-Yang contrast, or opposite poles. Differentiation can lead to an infinite number of poles with none claimable as the “ultimate”, while continual integration must end in the final oneness, the single “pole” – Tai Ji or “the Ultimate”.

     Then if we ask where comes the Ultimate, naturally it is not answerable or describable since it involves something beyond the Ultimate. That is why some people call it Wu Ji, literally “no ultimate”, or not describable in terms of “Ji” or “ultimacy”, and why this author simply calls it “Beyond-Ultimate”.

2-4 Origin of Mind-Matter Split

Within the Human-Perceived World, with the awakening of human self-consciousness, there appeared the differentiation between “self” (“subjective consciousness”) and the “non-self” world (“objective existence”), or between Mind and Matter, that is “…from One emerge Two…” which is the primary distinction between Yin and Yang. Then, as a result of the “division of work” between the different parts of human cognitive structure and also due to the limitedness of their functions (e.g., seeing things with shapes and colors but not the shapeless and colorless air while smelling some scents though invisible and intangible, seeing near things but not those too distant nor those in the microcosmic world, hearing some sounds though invisible and intangible but not many others, etc.), the “non-self world” appears under the “lens” of the consciousness of “self” as a huge assembly of all different shapes, colors, sounds, scents that humans can see, hear, smell and even feel or imagine. And also because of the need for survival and of the gradualness of human cognitive development, the non-self world, both physical and spiritual, is further differentiated in human consciousness with all different definitions and descriptions. Thus, the non-self world becomes an aggregation of an ever-increasing number of ever-increasingly complicated things. Both the appearance of these numerous things (generally called “matter”, including non-self spiritual phenomena) and the working of the consciousness of the “self” (called “mind”, as the function of some “matter” structure) , if looked at as one single process, embodies the unfolding of the Dao, Therefore, finally speaking, mind and matter are one and the same as a manifestation of the Dao, with no distinction between a “primary” and a “secondary”.

2-5 Intangibility of the Human-Perceived World

What was said above basically means that the Human-Perceived World, with all its kaleidoscopic appearances as far as human cognition can reach, is but an ever-changing manifestation of the Dao of the Transcendental Chaos, or the varying result of ever going on interaction between ever-changing mind and matter. Hence, finally speaking, nothing is real; or, there is only relative reality about everything. This is what “All things are unreal” (诸法空相) means in Buddhist scripture. What we see are only their appearances, behind which is that Chaos capable of all possibilities.

Since nothing is real, there should be “neither arising nor ceasing” (不生不灭) of anything and, hence, no such issue as whether mind gives rise to matter, or matter to mind, or which is primary and which secondary, nor the issue about the ultimate origin of the world/universe/cosmos that we know of, except to say that neither mind nor matter but the “infinite total of potentialities” of the Transcendental Chaos is the “primary” origin of all existence. The “God” in Western religion, as an “objective spirit” transcending the human world, is actually a personification, a human-shaped symbol, of this “Transcendental Chaos”. It is an expedient way of presentation for people lacking the ability to think in abstract terms. But, as whatever is presented in words or images can never represent the Dao perfectly, which means that there must be loopholes in it. If people take it literally without discrimination, it will inevitably lead to superstitious belief. If it does not matter much for average people to be a little blind in their belief, a superstitious intelligentsia would definitely bring great harm to the society.

2-6 Limitedness of Human Knowledge

The limitedness of human knowledge has two meanings: 1) As the Human-Perceived World is intangible and the Transcendental Chaos as its origin is beyond human cognition, the world/universe/cosmos, ultimately speaking, is unknowable. 2) What we humans suppose we know about the world is always limited in scope and validity (only relatively valid, or truthful). Though there might be elements of truth in the infinitely ever-evolving human knowledge about the world, so long as human cognitive structure is limited in any sense, the absolute, or ultimate, truth about all existence is beyond human reach.

On the other hand, the ultimate incomprehensibility does not imply that we humans cannot and need not gain some knowledge about the world around us. First, man has to have some understanding about his environment and about himself for survival and for physical and spiritual wellbeing. His instinct and ability for survival are part of the unfolding of the Dao (of the Transcendental Chaos). Secondly, humans are able to know somewhat about the Human-Perceived World, because the latter is by definition the total of what humans can perceive at a specific point of time. As a matter of fact, not only humans but all animals and plants and even inorganic matter have some sensitiveness and responsiveness (of varying degrees) to the environment. This shows that all things in the world are closely related to each other as one single ever on-going holistic process.

As said further above, the relation between the Human-Perceived World and the Transcendental Chaos is that between a particular and the general. As the general always resides in all particulars and all particulars contain elements of the general, knowledge of the Human-Perceived World, though only relatively truthful, also contains some understanding of the Transcendental Chaos. The continuously accumulated knowledge of such relative truths can be looked at as an ever-extending “finger” pointing to an understanding of the Dao that is beyond reach (something like the moon). This metaphor serves very well as a graphic and accurate portrayal of the relation between limited human knowledge of the world and the ultimate incomprehensibility.

Humans’ ability, though limited, to know and predict about happenings in the world has induced in the human mind a false sense of reality about everything around. This false consciousness of “realness” about all things on one hand and the actual intangibility, or ultimate nothingness, of everything on the other make up a pair of opposites as the Yin and Yang aspects of the Human-Perceived World. It reflects the deep-rooted tension underlying human existence. The way towards human freedom lies, philosophically speaking, in commanding the limited fragments of knowledge about the myriad of apparently “real” things with the supreme wisdom in truthfully understanding the ultimate unreality of all being.

However, it is necessary here to mention some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the Buddhist idea about the unreality of all things – it should not be interpreted as a denial of our human existence (relative to our consciousness, though), denial of our desire for a happy life, or denial of the relative existence of all things that bear on human life. Nor should it be interpreted as nihilism or escapism, i.e., to escape from the secular world and cling instead to any visions that appear in other altered states of consciousness but are no less unreal than the world we see every day. Contrarily, the purpose of pointing out the ultimate unreality of all things perceived by human beings is to help people see human life, the society and the world as they are, so as for everyone to live an easy and happy life. See below for further explanations.
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