Sunday, February 07, 2016

A comparison of Confucian-Daoist dichotomy with the Vaishnavaite-Shaivaite dichotomy : A paraview of Edward Slingerland's "Trying not to try"

The analogy of a chariot for the human mind: (Left) The charioteer in Plato's Phaedrus controlling the good and bad horses (Right) The chariot of Arjuna in Mahabharata, driven by Krishna

Chariot of the mind: 

Plato compares the human mind to a chariot. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato speaks of a person's intellect as a charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two horses. One of the horses is of a noble breed - representing the positive aspects of a passionate nature. The other horse represents irrational passions of the body that pull the chariot in the wrong direction. It is the job of the charioteer (the intellect) to perpetually control the chariot and guide it towards enlightenment. This distinction between the cold reasoning intellect (the charioteer) and the hot passions of the body (the horses) may be rooted in the biological nature of the human mind. There are separate neural circuits in the brain - basal ganglia and the limbic brain for fast responsive action (like the horses), and the cortical regions with the anterior cingulate cortex for providing reason and feedback (like the charioteer).

A very similar analogy of the mind as a chariot is present in the Katha Upanishad,  an ancient Indian philosophical text, but with some subtle and interesting differences. They illuminate the distinction between a Platonic worldview  and the Samkhya worldview. The Platonic and Samkhya systems greatly influenced the further philosophical development in the west and India respectively, so it is interesting to look at these differences. The Samkhya system divides the physical nature (Prakriti) into 5 layers of reality:

  1. Annamaya - the inanimate layer e.g, rocks
  2. Pranamaya - the layer of breath e.g, plants 
  3. Manomaya - the layer of mind or sensory-motor control e.g, animals
  4. Vijnanamaya - the layer of intellect or linguistic understanding e.g, human conversation
  5. Chinmaya - the layer of ego or historical self e.g, the memory of humans 
The suffix maya that is used for each of these layers denotes the fact that these layers are measurable and objective. One interesting consequence of the Samkhya system, that is of relevance to artificial intelligence (AI), is that if something is measurable and objective, it can be replicated in a computer.  However, it is not exactly equivalent to the modern reductionist view of the mind. Samkhya accommodates an aspect of mind called Purusha, that can be loosely translated as the experiencer or the unchanging self. This is considered to be beyond and separate from the 5 layers of nature (Prakriti). Unlike Prakriti, Purusha is considered immeasurable and unchangeable.  Many translators have used the word soul to refer to this, but as we have seen, many aspects of the Platonic soul are already described in the 5 layers above. So, the Purusha can be understood as a dramatically reduced  aspect of the soul, beyond all the realms of action, movement or change.

Katha Upanishad follows the lead from the Samkhya system and describes the chariot as follows: the unchanging self (Atman or Purusha) is the lord of the chariot. The intellect (Buddhi) - composed of linguistic understanding - is the charioteer holding the reins. The reins are the mind (Manah) - referring to the sensorimotor control in the brain. The horses are the senses (Indriya).  The paths ahead are the objects of the senses. It is the job of the intellect to drive the horses into the right path, such that the chariot is led to enlightenment.

A very interesting modification of this analogy of the chariot occurs in the parable of the Mahabharata war. In the epic of Mahabharata, the character of the hero Arjuna is a metaphor referring to the philosophical concept of the conscious mind. His chariot is driven by Krishna, who is not any ordinary charioteer. In fact, there are many characters in Mahabharata that are paragons of intellect - Vidura, Bhisma, Drona etc. Probably the best personification of intellect and wisdom in Mahabharata is Yudishtara - the elder brother of Arjuna. But the chariot of Arjuna is driven by none of them, but by Krishna - whose character is a metaphor to represent the cosmic order of the universe.
What does it mean to have one's intellect replaced by the cosmic order ?

 I think we can appreciate this analogy much better by looking northwards from India, and learning about the philosophical history of China.

I recently read a fantastic book by Prof. Edward Slingerland titled "Trying not to try", that narrates the various philosophical debates in ancient China. I will give a paraview of this book in my blog, connecting it with my perspectives as a computer scientist and as a person versed in Indian mythology.  I am also bringing some perspectives from Prof. Slingerland's excellent MOOC course "Ancient China meets modern science", which I am taking right now.

The central concept of Chinese philosophy is a mental state known as Wuwei (pronounced ooh-way) that can be loosely translated as "effortless ease". A related, but not completely identical idea is the mental state termed as "flow" by Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. A sportsperson or a musician is said to be in this state of flow when their conscious brain is switched off and their expert movements are achieved by completely unconscious control. In ancient China, the notion of wuwei went beyond physical expertise and denoted a type of mental and spiritual dexterity. Great philosophers like Confucius, Mencius and Zhuang Zi developed theories on how to achieve this wuwei state.  Unlike western (and to some extent, Indian) philosophy, wuwei brings the notion of salvation to the very present, and connects it to the success of both material and spiritual pursuits.

Why bother with comparative religion ?

I once listened to an interesting podcast on the role of synesthesia in different religious traditions. As often happens in the discussions of comparative religion, this discussion was limited to the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In the study of religion, discussions about how a religious observer experiences his spiritual life are grouped under the term phenomenology. Since the religious experience is inherently subjective, one can argue that it is beyond the ambit of science. This is probably true for theoretical topics such as theology and religious ontology, but phenomenology offers an interesting glimpse for science into the religious mind. Despite the obvious differences in religious ideology between the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism / Hinduism, the phenomenology of what is reported by the mystical people in these various religions are quite comparable. But mystics are a rare breed in any religious tradition. Most people are concerned with improving their lives in the here and the now. In this regard, of all the great religious traditions, I think the Chinese religions are the best in bringing mystical phenomenology and secular lives into a common analytical framework - through the notion of wuwei. Since China was not colonized to the same extent as other cultures such as India,  the study of Chinese religion is also relatively unimpeded by prejudice. 

Thus, in our modern age and era, it is illuminating to study what Chinese philosophers had to say to achieve a harmonious state of mind. In the fields of psychology, computer science and cognitive science, the shadows of Plato and Freud loom large in the subconscious of the researchers. Alternate  viewpoints from China or India may be considered as means to balancing this hidden bias. The analogy of a person's mind to the chariot is especially useful in developing computer software and cybernetic systems, as ultimately they are supposed to serve a human user (the lord of the chariot).

Hot and cold cognition in the human brain: 

The human mind is an engine that runs on at least two gears - hot and cold. This is probably the case for any complex system that has to operate in the real world, with strong constraints on the amount of time available to take any decision. Hot cognition is easier to understand. It is characterized by rapid instinctual reaction to a stimulus from the environment: to escape from danger, to seize an opportunity, to navigate through obstacles etc. Delay in response to such environmental stimulus will be a matter of life and death. Such instinctual response to the environment can be seen throughout the animal world. In humans as in other animals, this behavior is coordinated by the sub-cortical brain areas in the limbic system dealing with emotions and spatial memory. But despite this outward similarity, the human limbic brain is significantly advanced. In particular, it exploits the extra storage and computations in the cortical areas, which can be considered as offshoots of the limbic brain. In any case, hot cognition in both humans or animals is characterized by rapid response to stimulus.

In contrast, cold cognition may be a uniquely human trait. This is performed by slow and rational thinking, where all the alternative hypotheses are explored by the brain in order to take the optimal decision. Cold cognition is the reason why we have science and culture. But rational thinking is computationally expensive and needs a large window of time. Typically, it involves examining and overcoming our structural biases about the world, and this might generate emotional turmoil. At the least, cold cognition requires us to plan deeper into the future, than what can be immediately seen and felt by the senses.

In any real world situation, the human mind is constantly confronted by a choice - whether to rely on hot cognition or cold cognition, to take decision. Most often, this question is not felt consciously, and  is resolved using the cheaper computational apparatus of hot cognition. But in other times, the conflict appears centerpiece in our conscious mind and plays out as a battle.

Should I eat this ice-cream, or should I stick to my diet ?
Should I steal this money, or should I return it ?
Should I prepare for my exams, or should I watch a movie ?
Should I donate money to this charitable cause, or should I keep it for myself ?  

We speak of this conflict as between the heart and the mind, or between the body and the mind, or between emotions and the reason, or between the horses and the charioteer. Resolving these conflicts in favor of cold cognition is not easy, and requires computational resources. Psychologists term this as cognitive overload or ego depletion. Each person has a limited reservoir of mental capacity for voting in favor of cold cognition, and if this reservoir is depleted, will make cognitive mistakes. The structure of the brain responsible for this cognitive control is the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a dismal view of human condition that is torn between this eternal battle between the hot and cold cognitions, which he termed as the id and the super-ego. He wrote that culture and civilization condemns humans to be eternally in this state of Unbehagen (queasy, like a bad stomach upset). Freud moaned that if only the reins of civilization were torn apart, human passions would run loose like free horses and engage as they please in rape and murder. This pessimistic (and frankly, ridiculous) view of human cognition has led to several crappy psychiatric treatments, as well as some dodgy speculation in cognitive and political sciences.

This is where ancient Chinese philosophy may serve as an effective antidote. Like Freud, the sage Confucius realized that there is a battle in the human mind between cold and hot cognition. However, he thought that this battle can be resolved happily. Similar to how a rock is carved into a statue or how a block of wood is carved into a musical instrument, Confucius considered that it is possible to carve the hot cognition into complete alignment with the aims of civilization. With sufficient training, he considered that a person will become naturally and effortlessly good: perfectly dextrous, perfectly compassionate and perfectly courageous. This is a glorious and optimistic vision of human nature, even though it realizes its inherent limitations. I think the Confucian worldview has more support from objective evidence than the Freudian worldview. People don't become rapists and murderers overnight if the lights of civilization get turned off. In fact, during natural catastrophes and disasters, people overwhelmingly help each other and get together as a society. Confucius would reason that this happens because of continuous training of the human hot cognition by living in a civilized society. He valued the importance of daily rituals that show propriety and kindness. He valued a holistic education - that not only teaches students to be effective craftsmen or soldiers, but also instills in them a love for civilization and culture. Thus, arts, sports and music were considered an important part of Confucian education. When the society and culture are organized such that the daily lives of its inhabitants are bathed in a language of rituals, Confucius argued that human virtues such as compassion and courage will be downloaded into the hot cognition, as effortless to perform by a person as an expert musician playing an instrument. This effortless ease is known in Chinese as wuwei.

Wuwei and the paradox of flow:

But is it really possible to achieve a state of wuwei by rigorous training ? Before we look at the broader philosophical definition on goodness and wisdom, we can analyze how the state of wuwei is achieved by sportsmen and athletes.  Every athlete wants to be in the zone and does his best to maintain this zone. But as any athlete can tell, this is not easy. In particular, thinking consciously about how one is playing is disastrous for performance. For example, in tennis, consciously observing the bodily movements of limbs is a recipé for missing the ball. So, a good coach of tennis will desist from commenting on the specific bodily movements of the player, but will give suggestions on how to improve the focus on the game.

In a similar manner, thinking consciously about wuwei will prevent the person from achieving it. In this manner, it is similar to other human unknowns such as how to fall asleep or how to impress a romantic partner. Any conscious artifice or trick will ruin the goal, especially if the person at the other end becomes aware of the trick. When we evaluate the virtue of a compassionate act or that of an artistic performance, we will be displeased if we know that this act is framed or set up as a plot. In Nicomachean ethics, Aristotle says that unlike a craft, a virtue is to be evaluated not just by the final object that is produced,  but by the intrinsic process that produced it. Thus, to be virtuous, a person has to be inherently good and not just fake it. In this regard, wuwei is particularly interesting because the performer and the evaluator are one and the same person. One cannot fool one's own consciousness.

Due to the central nature of wuwei, all Chinese thinkers have grappled with the problem of how to get into this state without consciously trying to get there. The answer of Confucius was to mould the subconscious of the mind, through daily rituals and habit, as well as through signs and symbols that lurk in the environment. But the problem is that these rituals and signs will force the person to be self-conscious, to be aware that he is trying to get into wuwei. This is similar to how a person can ruin a date by reminding the partner ostentatiously, and through every sign and action, that it is a date. This a paradox that cannot be resolved.  Other Chinese thinkers, known as Daoists, took the directly opposing position from Confucius, saying that one should not try at all and just go with the "flow". They systematically went about deconstructing the cultural artifice that Confucius upheld.

Confucian-Daoist dichotomy:

Three laughers at the tiger ravine: Hui Yuan, Tao Yuanming and Lu Xiujing realize that spiritual purity cannot be measured by artificial boundaries

To a novice, Daoist philosophy sounds like environmentalism or nature religion. The book of "Dao di Ching" extolls the virtue of the "uncarved block". It uses a mythological character - the old master (Lao Zi) to contrast the message of the well known master Confucius. The Daoists argued that, by propping up artifice and cultural rigidity, Confucians are doing everything possible to prevent people from getting into the natural state of wuwei. At the core of the debate between the Confucians and Daoists is the very nature of the human childhood: is this something that is inherently good or bad ? Is it something that needs to be preserved or is it something that needs to be sublimated by culture ? Confucians would argue that the wild nature of man, as present in his childhood, is something sub-human. They wanted to refine this nature through the tools of culture. Daoists would argue that this core human nature is the very best that there is. Their mission was to rediscover this original purity by taking apart the artificial notions of cultural rigidity.

Who is correct here ?

This is a debate that is not resolved to this day. During the European renaissance, this debate played out between Hume and Rousseau. The ideals of romanticism not only gave us great works of philosophy, but also great works of art and music. Poets like Yeats and Wordsworth would not have existed without this shift to romanticism in art. In the United States, this debate was spearheaded by figures no less than Thoreau and Emerson.  These debates reverberated throughout the world: Gandhi was deeply inspired by the romanticists and his philosophy was essentially a call to return the world to its original state of harmony with nature. But the romanticists did not win the debate conclusively.

Today, one of the sharpest voices trying to undermine romanticists is that of the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. His tome "Better angels of our nature" is essentially a war cry against romanticism. This book argues through myriad figures and numbers that there is nothing to be salvaged in the wild state of nature and that all human good is a product of an organized civilizational state.  Confucius would approve of Pinker, although their philosophical outlooks are not exactly identical. Notably, Confucius would scoff at the reductionist Freudian mindset that does not find value in hot cognition (or in ancient ritual, for that matter). But what they both share is a disapproval of human childhood. Pinker spends considerable amount of time in his book, arguing how human children are riddled with jealousy and mean behavior. He is following in the foot steps of Jean Piaget, who argued that children do not have a theory of mind in their early years and cannot understand the notions of compassion. However, Piaget may not have the last word. The more recent scientific work on child psychology, described by Alison Gopnik in her brilliant book "The philosophical baby", argues that children have innate compassionate behavior, and that in some ways, their consciousness is superior to that of the adults. Daoists would approve of this research.

Essentially, all philosophical debate can be understood as a dialectic between structuralists and deconstructionists. The structuralists want to build an artifice of civilization and the deconstructionists want to dismantle this and return the society to a state of childhood. In western philosophy, the earliest such dialectic was between Aristotle upholding the structuralist position and Diogenes deconstructing it.

But can we find the complete answer by blanket judgements to one side or the other ? After all, achieving harmony with nature or achieving a state of wuwei are inherently paradoxical quests. The interesting thing about ancient China was that the philosophical innovations rubbed off from one side of the debate to the other, producing an enriching dialectic of thoughts. An important philosopher that refined the Confucian strategy was Mencius, who argued that people have natural sprouts in their soul that can be cultivated into full-scaled virtues. He used the analogy of a farmer cultivating rice sprouts - planting them at the right spot with adequate water and sunlight, but then waiting patiently for them to grow fully. In this way, he accommodated the Daoist argument that human nature is inherently good, but still argued for the centrality of Confucian ritual and learning. Another important philosopher on the Daoist side of the debate is Zhuang Zi, who deconstructed the very romanticist attitude of the early Daoists. He argued that trying to consciously go towards a primitive mode of living is as foolish as consciously following the Confucian ritual: neither would bestow wuwei on the person. Echoes of this debate later reverberated between the zen Buddhists in Japan.

The reason why ancient China achieved such a fruitful philosophical exchange was that neither side of the debate was oblivious to the essential paradox at the heart of wuwei. They saw the value of engaging the other side in the debate. Many Chinese philosophers had close friends who believed in other philosophical paths, but with whom they conversed regularly. This debate continued to flourish   when Buddhism was embraced in China. One of the best examples of this philosophical fluidity between various schools is the story of the three laughers at the tiger ravine.

I am not sure if we have such relaxed attitudes today, even in our scientific communities, about respecting alternate viewpoints and holding philosophical exchange. The western religions have historically suppressed alternate viewpoints. Modern scientific method has weekend these prejudices, but did not abolish them completely. As I argued earlier in my blog, we are often quite reckless in how we think using negation. This thinking is particularly problematic when dealing with topics of an inherently paradoxical nature. In the following, I will present how a philosophical debate quite similar in nature to Confucian-Daoist dichotomy was conducted within Indian culture, which used different strategies to dealing with the paradox.

The duality of Vishnu and Shiva:

Indian culture and religion ultimately stem from the philosophy of Samkhya, which  posits a duality between nature (Prakriti) and the experiencing self (Purusha). It argues how any duality that we observe in whichever situation of life ultimately stems from that root duality.  As I explained in the begining, nature (Prakriti) can be observed in 5 layers, with the higher layers dealing with subtle concepts like intelligence, memory and ego. All of this is considered to be within the realm of objective measurement. In fact, the word Samkhya refers to enumeration. Everything in nature (Prakriti) can be numbered and measured. The residual beyond measurement is called Purusha, and it is described as unchanging, eternal and unmovable.  In contrast, nature (Prakriti) is ever dynamic and metamorphizing between different forms. The mechanics through which different objects in nature transmute from one form to another is given by the 3 Gunas (qualities): Satvik (self reflection or renunciation) Rajas (aggression or growing) and Tamas (inertia or destruction). I described them in greater detail in an earlier blog.

On the topic of human culture and civilization, the gunas of Rajas and Tamas are relevant, which are symbolized at their subtlest level by the deities Vishnu and Shiva respectively. In the Samkhya system, the deities are entirely naturalistic (belonging to Prakriti), and can be loosely understood as programs running on a cosmic computer. Of these two deities, Vishnu preserves culture and Shiva destroys it. Thus, they split very neatly into the Confucian and Daoist camps. Indeed,  Vaishavaites who worship Vishnu extoll the values of culture, where as Shaivaites who worship Shiva deconstruct the value of culture. From a historical and anthropological point of view,  Vaishnavaites had been the most resistant groups in India to changing cultural norms and practices. Many powerful Indian kingdoms followed in the Vaishnavaite mould and aimed to establish order in accordance with civilizational norms. In contrast, Shaivaites were often ascetics and revolutionaries, residing in the wilderness and in the margins of the society. The most extreme Shaivaites are known as Tantrics or Aghoris, who reside in burial mounds and eat rotten flesh. They do this in order to deconstruct their mental constructs  of society and nature. They are India's counterparts to Zhuang Zi's howling sages of the mountains.

There are many myths and stories in Indian culture that elaborate on this dichotomy. But the interesting thing is that the mythologies of Vishnu and Shiva are deeply interwoven with each other. So neither the Vaishnavaite nor the Shaivaite tradition stands on its own, and needs to evoke mythological imagery from the other camps to tell the stories. For example, Vishnu carries a conch shell that symbolizes the wild nature of wind (an attribute of Shiva). Shiva has a son who is the leader of the solar deities (which include Vishnu). So when mythography encodes a cryptic tale of how to achieve a mystical state of mind, it invokes the attributes of both Vishnu and Shiva. This corresponds to the paradoxical nature of these mental states, which cannot be achieved by trying consciously. Sometimes, one has to follow rules and norms. Sometimes, one has to deconstruct them.

This philosophical dialectic on the values of ritual and norms stems from an even earlier period in India. The first division was between the Brahmanas (who praised the Vedic ritual) and the Shramanas (who deconstructed the ritual). The religions of Buddhism and Jainism sprung from the Shramana tradition. Shaivaite and Tantric asceticism also stem from the Shramana tradition. But the interesting thing with  each of these religions is that, once they start to gain a significant number of followers, they had to seriously engage with the opposing philosophical positions. For example, Buddhism split into various camps based on how the ritual was valued. Even as the religions split and multiplied, the mythographical imagery developed by these schools was frequently borrowed by the other camps. As Confucius would argue, this mythographical imagery is like an environmental backdrop that helps the subconscious to be drawn into a state of wuwei. Unlike dry logic that suffers from limitations of expressibility in dealing with paradoxical concepts, mythography provides a cultural language to reason between them.

We can consider the analogy of the chariot to the human mind in a similar manner. Here, the symbol of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu - the preserver of cosmic order) is used to express the state of effortless ease that is achieved by a person while doing an action. During the Mahabharata war, Krishna instructs Arjuna on how to achieve this effortless ease while performing difficult tasks - these instructions were written down into an independent sacred text known as the "Bhagavad Gita". Krishna asks Arjuna to not consciously desire the fruit of any labor, but to follow a path of desire-less action. If his actions are in accordance with the cosmic order (termed as Rta in India, or as Dao in China), he would succeed.

This message from the Gita is referred to in the book of Edward Slingerland, but unfortunately it is mentioned as a Daoist message. I think it is more in line with Confucius, as is most of the Vaishnavaite mythology. One important point of comparison between Vaishnavaite and Confucian ritual is the nature of timing for the ritual.  Similar to the Vaishnavaites, Confucians had specific rituals for the various seasons as well as for astronomical events (alignment of stars and planets). But unlike the Vaishnavaites, they did not have rituals corresponding to the time of day. In ancient India, the sunrise and sunset were central to the anchoring of the ritual, where the people were instructed to salute the Sun. The outer sun is considered a manifestation of the inner sun, and the supreme head of all these solar deities is Vishnu. Thus, it is natural for Vishnu to retain the role of the preserver for  ritual and culture.

In contrast, Shiva descends from the wild deities of wind (Rudra), who destroy culture and civilization. Shiva is termed as the destroyer of the three cities: the physical world,  the mental world and the sensory world. An important form of Shiva is Pashupathi - the lord of animals, which shows the sacred symbolism of the primitive aspect of nature. Like the Lao Zi, Shiva was also termed as the ancient one. In all these aspects, the mythography of Shiva aligns well with the Daoists.  The abode of Shiva is considered to be the Manasa Sarovar lake, which resides in western Tibet. This leaves open the tantalizing possibility that both the Daoists and Shaivaites have a common cultural point of origin. In any case, exploring this common philosophical bent may help deconstruct the worldview that we now take for granted, but which mostly excludes Indian and Chinese philosophy.

Manasa Sarovar lake: The abode of Shiva