Monday, June 18, 2012

The Human Fractal and the Tao (Updated)

I have written previously that the Tao Te Ching, for the most part, appears to me to be an ancient recognition   of the Human Fractal.  I say "for the most part" because there are passages in the Tao Te Ching that do not seem to belong to it, and there is the fact that the Tao Te Ching became the basis for a religion, Taoism, which strikes me as four square against the philosophy of the Tao.

But let me start by summarizing what I've come to call the "Human Fractal."  People don't experience life, they interpret it.  Specifically, human beings make decisions by comparing what they observe to what they expect and reacting to the emotion caused by the difference between what was observed and what was expected.  When things go as expected, a positive emotion arises.  When they don't, a negative emotion arises.  This is a form of positive feedback, i.e., self-reinforcing behavior that would tend to drive people to one extreme or the other without hysteresis, which works to prevent you rapidly changing states.  That is, hysteresis predisposes you to remain in your current state unless what you observe is too much different than what you expected.  The Human Fractal is applied at all levels of abstraction, from a purely physical sensation (e.g., reacting to reaching the first floor when you expected one more step down) to very abstract things like trading stocks and bonds on secondary markets (e.g., manias and panics).  At higher levels of abstraction, i.e., almost anything beyond the physical, hysteresis manifests itself as what have become known as cognitive biases, for example.

Those who understand the Human Fractal recognize that you can use it to control human action by (1) defining expectations (e.g., through societal values, which are normative) and (2) shaping observations (e.g., through propaganda).

The Tao Te Ching understands the Human Fractal for what it is and offers a path away from it.  More specifically, the Tao Te Ching offers a path to stop interpreting life through the lens of the Human Fractal and to start actually experiencing it.

The Tao Te Ching starts out by recognizing that it is man's desire to control his world that opens him up to being controlled.  Human beings are driven to create the illusion of their control over their environment by creating a division and picking a side.  Doing so yields the comfort of certainty and apparent free will.  Chapter 1 of the Tao identifies humanity's desire to name things and, therefore, control them:
The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. 
The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things. 
Free from desire, you realize the mystery. Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations. 
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. 
Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.
Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching continues by noting that a person's desire to exercise control over the world leaves him open to being controlled by his expectations:
When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad. 
Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other. 
Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn't possess, acts but doesn't expect. When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever.
If you eliminate your expectations, which you created by creating false divisions, you cannot be controlled by those expectations.  Chapter 3 gives concrete examples of how this individual weakness manifests itself within the collective of society :
If you overesteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal.  
The Master leads by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know. 
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.
To "lose everything they know, everything they desire" is to become free of the Human Fractal, which "creates confusion in those who think they know" because they can only control others through the Human Fractal.  But to remain free of the Human Fractal requires resisting the temptation to boil things down to two choices and pick one.  Indeed, as Chapter 5 explains:
The Tao doesn't take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. The Master doesn't take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners. 
The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet infinitely capable. The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand.
Hold on to the center.
Some might argue that refusing to make a distinction between good and evil renders the Tao immoral, but I'd argue that it recognizes morality as a human construct that obscures reality (as it must in order to control people with it).  

Chapters 8 and 9 shift away from encouraging people to let go of expectations and begin to focus on the comparison function of the Human Fractal and changing it.  For example, Chapter 9 says:
Fill your bowl to the brimand it will spill.  Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.  Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.  The only path to serenity.
The Tao Te Ching continues in a similar manner through Chapter 16.

Anyway, this gives you a sense of how I find the Human Fractal in the Tao Te Ching.

A full translation of the Tao Te Ching may be found here.  Reading through it for the purpose of this post, I found Chapters 13, 19, 20, 22 and 29 to resonate.  The Mitchell translation, which I link to, is not my favorite, but his approach highlighted for me the "out of place" chapters that seem tacked on to and inconsistent with the foundational material.  See, for example, Chapter 65, which Mitchell seems to translate as "keep the people stupid so you can make them do what you want."  There are other translations that make Chapter 65 consistent with the earlier stuff, though.  I prefer to think of Chapter 65 as saying that people should be taught to question and not given "answers," which imply truth (and its opposite).