The Paradox of Wu-Wei

Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel Marginalia

By Andrew B. Irvine

Almost all the arts of life are enhanced when performed with unselfconscious spontaneity — think shooting hoops, playing a complicated musical passage, dining with friends. The moment we try not to try is often the moment performance collapses in a counterproductive muddle. This “paradox of wu-wei,” as Edward Slingerland calls it, can be explained as the goal of trying not to try. This ambitious book reprises much of the author’s previous work on classical Chinese philosophical cultivation of wu-wei (see his 2003 book, Effortless action) and broadens the scope of his previous engagement with cognitive science, particularly notions of embodied mind. Slingerland seeks to address a popular audience that is both fascinated and frustrated by the paradox of wu-wei, and thus far the book has received good press herehere, and here.

Slingerland defines wu-wei as the “dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.” Wu-wei harmoniously integrates body, emotions, and mind. It is related to, if not productive of, de — the charismatic power that draws allies and daunts adversaries. Slingerland expands on this basic definition throughout the book by commenting on classical texts, then turning to contemporary cognitive scientific parallels. The justification for doing so is that wu-wei is one metaphor for a concept that arises out of biologically based, embodied experience, and thus appears across cultures in many different, culturally-specific metaphors. Cognitive science, in Slingerland’s estimation, enables us to talk about wu-wei in more universal human terms, as it explains why the ideal of wu-wei is a transcultural and persistent feature of human experience.

This is not to say that the Chinese traditions offer nothing distinctive to our effort to understand the concept. Slingerland discusses wu-wei as a social and spiritual ideal, distinguishing it from recent studies of “flow” experiences. Those studies presume a characteristically Western individualism and stress a kind of competition with oneself as the key to flow. (See this popularization, for instance.)

By contrast, classic and contemporary accounts of wu-wei emphasize connection with even absorption into — “some larger, valued whole” such as classical Chinese philosophers called dao, “the way.” How do you try not to try? Slingerland broadly typifies programs aimed at cultivating ease with one’s position in the world: Confucians emphasize external ritual, while Daoists commend internal detachment.

But Slingerland rightly argues that the fascination with wu-wei is not an artifact of thoughtful Chinese culture only. A more basic problem of human biology and psychology is involved. Roughly speaking, the problem stems from our historically sudden adaptation to life in large-scale, agriculturally-based urban settlements. (Obviously, this did not occur only in China.) Performing the kinds of behaviors required for that kind of social interaction places a heavy load on nervous systems that evolved over millennia to an adaptive equilibrium suitable for small-scale hunter-gatherer bands.

“Small-scale” and “large-scale” here are ranges set largely by hard skills of the human brain, such as intuitive emotional response to situation, recognizing and remembering a certain number of faces, and alertness to uncooperative group members. In small-scale societies, where environmental pressures were more immediately biological, less culturally elaborated, the hard skills typically succeeded. The new large-scale societies made interaction with strangers more common and complicated the meaning of cooperation — now intuitive thinking could spoil the much-needed subtleties of reflective cognition.

In short, the paradox of wu-wei is a cost of civilizing ourselves. Social life always requires some overriding of evolutionarily tried and true — and thus largely automatic — thought processes (so-called “hot cognition”) by conscious, experimental deliberation (or “cold cognition”). But the cost of doing so is high. As Slingerland says, our “cold cognition has neither the strength nor the endurance to keep hot cognition in check 24/7.” But if, instead of just trying to keep the lid on, cold cognition found ways to channel hot into the service of culturally elaborated values, that would be a breakthrough toward effortless action in complex human conduct.

Indeed, conscious deliberation is an experiment in fitting the priming instincts with some teleology or other that turns them, we might say, toward self-transcendence. I admit Slingerland never says it quite this way. He often seems to say that wu-wei is about bypassing cold cognition altogether. If he means to say this, I wish he wouldn’t. Rather, the ideal of wu-wei is to render cold cognitive tasks as fluid as those more typical of hot cognition. Then Slingerland’s paradox — if it is a paradox — would be that this ideal in some ways demands we work at cross purposes with our biology. Wu-wei, if realizable at all, is so only rarely and fleetingly.

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This understanding of the paradox of wu-wei begs another question from an evolutionary perspective: why has wu-wei persisted as an ideal if in actuality it is so elusive and delicate? The answer is that a person “in” wu-wei acts so effortlessly that there is virtually no room left to doubt that she is not just highly skilled but exceptionally integrated, both in herself and into “some larger, valued whole.” For the reasons to do with civilizing human societies I sketched above, we want to believe that people with prized social skills are not just virtuosi of their craft but are virtuous in their character, their very being. We want to feel we can entrust ourselves to them. Hence, the apparently effortless actor manifests de, that charismatic power to fascinate and terrify. He embodies perfection.

Such a person, Slingerland stresses, seems to be “someone who is truly committed to the values of his society [and] has completely downloaded them into his embodied mind.” But we should also stress how such persons also seem to transcend normal human capability. They may flame out — or get taken out — under pressure from ordinary social selection mechanisms that don’t accommodate costly paradoxes. In such cases the ideal of wu-weipersists less because it serves a social end as because it has intrinsic religious power.

But Slingerland won’t go all the way there with me. For in the end, he wants to reduce the paradox of wu-wei to the problem of the limitations of hot and cold cognitive computational capacity. So his question comes down to asking for a cost-benefit analysis: is trying not to try worth it? He answers with a circumspect “yes.” The sages of Chinese civilization and the qualified success of various civilizations in human history attest that “it must be possible to skirt the paradox in practice.” The multiple Chinese strategies are a sign of a paradox resistant to solution but, more importantly for Slingerland, they represent different ways in which the underlying cognitive problem may be eased in response to factors of temperament and age, social situation and cultural moment.

In any case, Slingerland clearly believes that giving up altogether on the curious effort to achieve wu-wei and attain de is the worst “solution.” Those ideals are for him “central to human flourishing and cooperation,” and more valuable than almost anything offered by modern western philosophy precisely because they suggest methods to train embodied minds (which, pace Descartes and company, we should accept that we are). All this, for Slingerland, the reductive light of evolutionary cognitive science renders clear as can possibly be.

In his 2008 book, What Science Offers the Humanities, Slingerland forcefully defends the essential explanatory value of reductionism. Slingerland also makes a convincing distinction between “good” and “bad” forms of reduction. Bad reduction would eliminate the explanatory value of higher levels by explaining their apparent causal power as nothing more than an effect of lower level processes. Good reduction would integrate different levels of explanation in a consilient hierarchy of knowledge. In that hierarchy, higher levels are grounded in lower, and lower levels take priority in relation to higher, but there is no denial that higher levels affect reality.

Slingerland does not keep to his good reductionism. His ultimate defense of the humanities rests not on the claim that they provide access to realities imperceptible by sciences seeking lower level explanations. Rather, he contends that the phenomena addressed by the humanities are actually illusory, and yet we cannot seem to function without them. Since it is so difficult to rid ourselves of the propensity to take the illusions for reality, we might as well treat them as real:

We will apparently always see meaning in our actions — populating our world with “angry” seas, “welcoming” harbors — and other human beings as unique agents worthy of respect and dignity, and distinct from objects in some way that is hard to explain in the absence of soul-talk, but nonetheless very real for us. … For better or worse, though, we are apparently designed to be irresistibly vulnerable to this illusion — in this respect, Appearance is Reality for us human beings.

But not really real. Seemingly in two minds about his own argument, Slingerland proposes that what science offers is to explain the humanities and their subject matters by identifying the lower level causes that are their real determinants. Moreover, by real determination Slingerland evidently means determinism. Thus, human agency (not to mention that of many other organisms) is ultimately explained away because, being determined by lower level causes that do not exert agency, we cannot “really” exert agency either. Slingerland’s reductive explanation proves reductionist in the bad sense.

I appreciate Slingerland’s insistence on the virtues of reductive explanation. I get his frustration with indiscriminate humanistic rejection of reduction. Perhaps, in the scholarly circles in which he runs, the dismissal of reduction as necessarily bad is a continuation of a modern day Confucian prejudice that science turns the ideally cultivated person into a tool of technique (see Analects 2.12).

But I think he could also do better with his ideas about causal relation. In “bad” reductionism, causes are external to their effects: causes just are what they are, independent of their effects; effects, though, are entirely internally related to their causes: their nature can be understood exhaustively in terms of prior, lower entities. Put another way, we could say that causes have “own-being,” while effects (viewed in relation to their causes) have none — their being is entirely “on loan” from the causes. Science, then, pays the loan back through explanatory reduction. This is key to the modern, mechanistic view that the books of the cosmos must be balanced.

However, without abandoning a naturalistic understanding of the world to which we belong, we might hearken back to Aristotle’s rather richer analysis of causation. Aristotle investigated not only mechanical or “efficient” causation (in which the natural sciences specialize so productively) to explain how things become what they are, but also formal and final causation.

To begin with, we might question the assumption that lower level causes operate only as efficient causes and indeed are the only efficient causes. As a natural entity, a human being is of course composed of many lower level material components, none of which is itself a human being. But those material components are not all that is required for there to be a human being. For one thing, the components need to combine in a human form. Now note that each component is not “mere” matter. Each comes with its own form — no component is without complex organization of its own — and as such the components also exert some formal causation upon the human being, contributing formal constraints on what a human being is in terms of structure and function. Still, the human form is a formal cause in its own right, even so constrained from within.

That’s not to say that somewhere in God’s workshop we would find a set of timeless blueprints for making human being. It is to say, however, that human being is a form of actuality with its own integrity — human beings can and do actually exist.

Thus, understanding what it is to be a human being will be (and has already been) illuminated by reductive explanations focused on efficient causation, but such explanations cannot exhaust understanding of what a human being is. So the important reason why the humanities will endure is not because they deal with illusions which we cannot do without and thus might as well treat as de facto reality. Rather, it is because the humanities (and the sciences!) are distinctive contributions to a reality that flows in part from the nature of the human form of being. That form enables efficient causation at its own level and, then (of course in continuity with other, lower causes), in constituting what philosopher Edmund Husserl called the lifeworld characteristic of human being.

Further, doubtless at the level of the lifeworld, and arguably at lower levels, causes are not only externally but also internally related to their effects, in at least some respects. Then, causes are not just what they are. Causation is not just the actualization of some pre-given potential. Rather, causation is the coming into being of a relationship that enriches both cause and effect.

An old proverb, “the son is father to the man,” illustrates the point: Of course sons are caused by fathers. They owe their being to their forebears in an obvious and important sense through procreation. Also, in growing up, the son is father to the man: through his experience and activity he is a sort of procreator of the man he is becoming. And, in a third sense, the son is father to the man, the man who fathered him: the son’s existence alters the activity and experience of his father, so that the father becomes someone other than who he would have been without his son.

Here is a conception of causation in which causes do not decide effects deterministically. In this view, causes cannot do that, because they themselves are not fully determinate, are not “just what they are,” apart from and until the effect makes its own contribution to the relationship. In this view, causal determination is not only about closing down options. It is also about opening up possibilities. And what that offers (although I can’t defend it here) is the possibility of a modest sense of final causation, of value-seeking behavior — even purposive agency — that can free Slingerland’s account of explanation from the lure of “bad,” that is, deterministic reductionism.

I am not talking about humans being completely and utterly free from the constraints of natural, material existence. I don’t believe that we are so free. However, in the right environments humans can be free enough to weigh and select from among differently valuable yet equally real possibilities for their lives. Nor am I talking about value here as referring to some set of timeless and transcendent purposes. But if human beings are free enough to strive to live in better and worse ways, as I have just contended, then their striving is not necessarily devoid of purpose. Striving may be a kind of vague exuberance that serendipitously discovers something valuable to it and, latching on, is filled in with the in situ specifics of that value. Fulfilment can be valuable without having to be forever. Consider the humble situation of a pea plant climbing a trellis, or the Indian independence movement’s surging self-discovery in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

Slingerland seems to suppose that self-causation requires a dualistic and supernaturalistic view of human beings that is flatly incompatible with science. He is frustrated with a view that is largely ignorant of the abundant evidence that we are thoroughly embodied. However, he seems to have deprived himself of certain alternatives. It is hard to avoid bad reductionism when you start with a reduced conception of causation in the first place. Slingerland approvingly quotes the Italian philosopher, Giulio Giorello, “Yes, we have a soul, but it is made up of tiny robots.” “[W]hat we need to add,” he comments, is that:

… we are robots designed to be constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves and other conspecifics as robots — or, for that matter, to really believe that we live in a robotic world — since our theory of mind module seems to be overactive, causing us to project agency into the world at large as well as onto other “agents.”

Slingerland assumes that “lower” levels of reality are both ontologically and explanatorily more basic than “higher” levels. But we might argue, instead, that all levels are ontologically on par, so explanation can go “up,” “down,” and presumably in other directions, too. Such a version of explanation is vulnerable to misapplication. There is no question about that. But it is not the baseless “projection” of agency dismissed by Slingerland.

To be fair, Slingerland refines his dismissal, to say that such projection, while not utterly baseless, is exclusively based in (which is to say, caused by) quirks of our species’ adaptation to evolutionary pressures. “The world is reasonable —,” he writes, just “not in the sort of transcendent, absolute sense that Camus rightly dismisses as wishful consolation, but in an eminently embodied, anthropocentric sense. The process of evolution ensures that there is a tight fit between our values and desires and the structure of the world in which we have developed.”

In the end, then, it is not Slingerland’s praise of reductive explanation that I find objectionable. It is the anthropocentrism underneath it, which he illegitimately infers from reason’s being an embodied capability, that strikes me as terribly wrong. Finding reasonability in the world depends on our striving, our projection, but our projections are not baseless, nor even based solely in ourselves as uniquely human. In the introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s On The Soul , Joe Sachs says it beautifully:

To the simple and unsophisticated among us, or perhaps to all of us at unguarded moments, there is a certain comfort in the fact that we share the world with so many varieties of beings that are so much like ourselves. To commune with nature means to recognize something in ourselves by its reflection in something outside us. We do this when we stare into a fire, when we listen to waves breaking on a shore, or when we drink in with our eyes any unspoiled formation of the earth. The peacefulness that comes when such things absorb us is a way of being at home, of discovering that we have a place. But the same sort of peaceful rest is enhanced by the still greater kinship we feel in being among plants and trees, and especially in undemanding encounters with animals. They recall us to what we are; they remind us that we have souls.

To be reminded that we have souls does not mean clinging to belief in supernatural soul-stuff. Sach’s illustration shows something much easier: “If a bird lands on a branch near us and cocks its head in our direction, chances are we will smile and say ‘hello.’” Sachs observes that the sweet friendliness of such meetings is sometimes dismissed as anthropomorphism and sometimes approved as empathy. Yet neither description seems right, he says, for both imply that “I already know what I am”; they differ as to whether it is legitimate to ascribe that same self-knowledge to the other, but neither suggests doubt that, “I already know what I am.”

Sachs helps us see what an imposition this presumption of self-knowledge is upon the meaning such encounters may generate of their own accord. By saying “hello,” we happily acknowledge that we don’t know just how to determine the fellow before us. We open up to a possibility of dialogue, and of self-discovery. “This is not an occasion of certainty or clarity, of deduction or hypothesis, but of an obscure inner accord,” Sachs writes. “In it, inner and outer are not the severed distinct halves of a mind-body problem, but intertwined aspects of a single recognition.”

What has all this to do with the apparent paradox of wu-wei? In the first place, I think we need to shift the locus of that paradox from its anthropocentric placement in Slingerland toward greater ecological appreciation of wu-wei as a problem of ongoing attunement in a dynamic environment. (This is wrapped up with my thoughts about final causation being reflected in active search for serendipity — call it receptiveness to dao.) The problem, then, is not completely reducible to whether to pursue an “internalist” or an “externalist” program to manage psychological strain occasioned by civilized life. If I’m onto something about final causation, then we might consider replacing these programs with, say, an “implicit” program of cultivating improvement of the self’s role in an environment and an “explicit” program of appreciation for the roles others, especially nonhuman and nonliving others, play — sometimes apparently effortlessly. Or we might try terms like “incipient” and … perhaps “percipient”? An “incipient” program would focus on the stirrings of attunement in and around oneself, those “strivings” for fulfilment. The “percipient” program would dwell on ways in which the world is already, as it is, harmonious and transparent to itself. Frankly, percipience is more like a mystical apprehension than a cultivation program. It’s an ideal of an awakened universe wherein all things move together in creative mutual transformation. Nevertheless, at the root of all these notional programs is a solid sense, transcending human cognitive structure, that the internal is not separate from the external, but wants the external, and vice versa.

Of course, nature can go on without us. Rather paradoxically, it’s we who may require she do so. It’s this that is the real paradox of wu-wei. Even if we exempt ourselves from nature’s process, we are subjects of natural processes. We are elements in the effortless action of the world, no matter how hard we make it on others, how difficult for ourselves. Then if humanity will form a more harmonious triad with heaven and earth, it is upon that basis that we may hope to do so.

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