Chapter 25: Imagining Mystery
“There is something
that contains everything.
Before heaven and earth
Oh, it is still, unbodied,
all on its own, unchanging,
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
One of the great and grounding questions of philosophy—great precisely because it is among those most likely to naturally occur to a child—was first explicitly asked by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
The Daoist (and Buddhist) answer is as simple as it is off-putting: There isn’t.
Or rather, the problem lies not in the world, but in the mindset that generates the question. The line the mind draws between being and non-being, form and emptiness, something and nothing is a function of our thinking, not a feature of our world. The blatant contradictions the text throws at us—the Way here is said to be both still and ever-moving—are not propositions whose truth or falsity we are meant to assess, but monkey wrenches aimed at wrecking our monkey minds.
“Monkey mind” is a phrase you hear a lot in spirituality circles. It’s an intuitive metaphor everyone can connect with: most of the time a raucous band of thoughts are bouncing around our heads, causing a commotion and trying to disrupt our plans.
But there’s a deeper sense in which it’s apt. Let’s tweak Leibniz’s question: “Why is there something called thinking in the human mind rather than no thinking?” If it’s true that, as is the case for all sentient beings, the primary driver of our cognition was survival, then it means that our basic relation to the world is binary: fight or flight, live or die. What if this same black and white bio-logic were so powerful that it extended into the higher reaches of our cognition, such that “logic” and its basic rules, such as the law of non-contradiction, were rooted in our mortality? This would not mean that logic is arbitrary—only that its scope is limited, its truth conditional, its attempts to grasp the entire order of things in concepts folly.
But you must be careful. You might conclude from the above that we are just freaks of nature, evolutionary accidents, confused animals. You might conclude that there is no Dao, no Logos, no Natural Law, no sacred order of things. That is the position of what has been called the neo-Darwinian view of the world, a thoroughgoing materialistic dogma, any deviation from which is dismissed as “woo.”
In the 1980s, physicist, Manhattan Project member, and inventor of the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” John Wheeler saw things differently. According to his theory, laid out in the paper “Its from Bits,” “every item of the physical world has at bottom…an immamerial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-and-no questions….; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”
Our strange brains are not oddballs in an otherwise even universe. The universe, in this view, is fundamentally odd. Or rather, it is the odd oscillation between even and odd, yes and no, being and non-being, something and nothing. Mind monkeys through the cosmos as much as through our heads. The truly odd thing—and the true confusion—is that we have built our modern civilization on the assumption that existence is even.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”