Tao Living

Tao and Knowledge

by Derek Lin

Sooner or later, a student of authentic Tao philosophy will come across something that may seem puzzling: Lao Tzu does not appear to be pro-knowledge at all. Indeed, in Tao Te Ching we can find quite a few references to the idea that knowledge isn't so great. This may be difficult for us to understand, because in our modern world we can easily see the stupendous results that knowledge has achieved for humanity. We all know the platitude that knowledge is power, so how can it be a bad thing?

Chapter 19 of Tao Te Ching starts with the following:

Discontinue sagacity, discard knowledge
The people benefit a hundred-fold

Chapter 20 starts similarly:

Cease learning, no more worries

And of course chapter 48 starts with the well known assertion that knowledge and Tao are not necessarily the same path:

Pursue learning, daily increase
Practice Tao, daily decrease

What is going on here? Can it be that the Tao Te Ching is wrong? Knowledge in this context means logic or science, which is nothing but a tool. We can use this tool for good or evil, but the tool itself is neutral. Why does Lao Tzu present knowledge as something contrary to the Tao?

In order to come to grips with this, the first thing we must realize is that Lao Tzu's real message isn't so much that knowledge is bad, but that it is limited. One of the most remarkable things about Lao Tzu is his ability to see the limits of knowledge clearly. Through his writings, he is telling us that there's a lot more to existence than academic learning, logic, and the products of technology.

But even this realization may be difficult to grasp. After all, we only need to look around to see all the fantastic scenarios that knowledge has made possible, with much more to come. You and I exchange thoughts and ideas regardless of physical distance through the unprecedented Internet; we travel the world in cars, ships, planes, and other conveyances at speeds once thought impossible; scientists have just mapped the human DNA, with all the mind-boggling implications yet to be realized. Knowledge does not seem limited at all. If anything, all the evidence available to us suggests there's not a whole lot beyond its power.

So what exactly is this limitation referred to again and again in Tao Te Ching? Lao Tzu does have a point, and the best way to illustrate it is with an analogy from a rather surprising source. You may know of Michael Crichton as the author of Jurassic Park and the creator of ER, but you probably didn't know that his personal philosophy is heavily influenced by Tao philosophies, and he has come up with a great way to explain Lao Tzu's otherwise puzzling stance against knowledge - an explanation that is at once simple and profound.

Crichton is one of those rare individuals who excel in many areas of life. He supported himself through college by writing novels under a pseudonym. Not too many people can do that! His academic skills and scholarship are impeccable. At the same time, his creativity and imagination go far beyond the mundane. His works other than Jurassic Park and ER have become cornerstones of pop culture: The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, The Great Train Robbery, Disclosure, Rising Sun… the list goes on. His readers have long known that he always gets the science right while entertaining us with breathtaking inventiveness.

When I stumbled upon his exposition of Taoism in his autobiographical book Travels, immediately I knew he would have something significant to say. Here is a man who knows exactly whereof he speaks, someone whose views are carefully thought out, rigorous in reasoning and yet not necessarily bound by conventions. When someone extraordinary like this explains his personal views, you want to pay close attention.

Crichton likens science to a tailor, and life to a man named George. The tailor's job is to take measurements and make clothes. He is extremely good at what he does. He can take just a few measurements of George with a great degree of accuracy, and from these measurements calculate other dimensions with confidence. From these measurements and calculations he is able to create a suit and make sure it fits perfectly. In fact he is so proficient at this that, once he has George's measurements on file, from that point on he can make other suits of whatever style George may want and they, too, will fit George perfectly.

The above is synonymous with all the great achievements of science, which is all about the study of physical phenomena (measurements) and the creation of technology that leverage such knowledge (suits).

Now we would like to get to know George better, so we ask the tailor to describe him. The tailor looks at his notes and answers with complete certainty: "George is a 44-medium."

"Is that all you can tell us?" We find the tailor's answer rather unsatisfactory.

"Of course not," the tailor may be irritated that we assume he knows so little. "George's neck size is 17 and the best slacks for him are 36-38."

"That's great, but what kind of a person is he? What are his likes and dislikes? What are his dreams and aspirations? What are his hopes and fears?"

"He… look, you're asking the wrong guy, pal."

Bingo. We're asking the wrong guy.

There is no doubt that science is a powerful tool. But is it always the right tool for everything? What the tailor (scientist) can tell us is undoubtedly accurate, provable and useful for the purpose of making clothes (technology), and we are duly impressed by the fit and comfort that result from such accuracy. But you see the point Crichton is trying to make: the facts at the tailor's command are not necessarily the most significant or even the most interesting ones about George. To really understand George (life), we need to seek the answers to our deepest questions elsewhere.

It's obvious when we look at it this way. We as human beings are not satisfied just as consumers of the products of science. When we're done using computers, making cellular phone calls, eating TV dinner, and listening to crystal-clear music from a stereo system… we're still left with a deep yearning in the heart. Is this all there is to life? What is the meaning of existence? Where did I, this strange self-aware entity, come from anyway? Where will I go after I die, if anywhere?

Continuing with the analogy, we would say that if you want to know George, you can either interact with him and learn from your experience, or find his friends, those who have had in-depth interactions with him, and ask them questions.

Translation: in order for us to understand life, the universe, and existence, the best way is for us to live, observe, and learn. Our primary means would be direct experience and intuition. It can also help tremendously for us to learn from others who have already gained some insights (George's friends, so to speak), and so we seek out sages, old souls, and books of wisdom.

It's obvious, and yet it is not. For instance, atheists may maintain that you come from nothingness and will return to oblivion when you die. Whatever special meanings you see in the universe are merely delusions. Self-awareness is no more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy induced by complex electrochemical interactions in the brain. You are no more than your physical body, which is mostly water plus some minerals and a bit of protoplasmic jelly.

Dr. Isaac Asimov, prior to his passing, had written vehemently against works like The Tao of Physics that attempted to draw a connection between Taoist concepts and new findings in physics, such as quantum mechanics interpretations. Asimov was particularly incensed about the reliance on intuition in spiritualism, and wrote scathing remarks challenging mystics to utilize their intuitive powers to divine the nature of yet undiscovered sub-atomic particles.

As incredibly intelligent as Asimov was, he made a glaring error here. Now that you have made your way through this article, you can see exactly where he fell flat on his face. The good doctor was in effect challenging us to find out George's measurements by guessing, or by asking his friends who know George's temperaments well but have no knowledge of the tailoring arts. When you look at it that way, you can see Dr. Asimov's challenge is absurd.

When an atheist seeks meaning and spiritual fulfillment in scientific discoveries, he is likewise barking up the wrong tree. One can probably figure out many things about George from detailed measurements, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. Without interacting with him or asking questions about his personality, you can still find out facts like his home address, his vocation, his medical history, the names of his family members and many other bits of information, simply by probing his records. But when all is said and done, you still don't really know George the person any better than when you started.

Of course, this is not a problem if you aren't really interested in getting to know George. That is the basis of the atheist perspective in regards to all things metaphysical - they are predisposed to believe that there is nothing to know, or nothing worth knowing, so why even bother trying to figure it out? The fundamental difference between that view and ours is that we are not quite as convinced. We sense that there may be answers to our innermost questions, and we choose the appropriate tool, our intuitive mind, to help us explore them.

There is a real danger in getting mired in too many factoids about George. You begin to imagine that you know him well when you don't really know him at all. All you have is a bunch of data that, in the end, don't add up to a hill of beans. Not only are they useless in your quest to understand George, they may even get in the way. That is why Lao Tzu advocates stripping away complexities and distinctions so you can get closer to the essence of it all.

It should make a great deal more sense now why Tao philosophy puts the emphasis on wisdom over knowledge, and intuition over logic. We should respect the awesome power of knowledge and logic, no doubt about that, but at the same time maintain a realistic view of where the domain of that power lies, and where it does not.

Now that you are armed with this new insight, look at Tao Te Ching again and I think you will see it differently. The seemingly anti-knowledge stance turns out to be much more than meets the eyes. Isn't it interesting how something that starts out being so puzzling has, in the time that it took you to read this, somehow transformed into such simplistic yet profound wisdom?