Ten-Thousand Things

Even with the knowledge of the origins of philosophy, it is easy to wonder whether or not science isn’t the natural successor of philosophy, thereby rendering philosophy redundant. If we’ve established that the figures we think of as philosophers were actually scientists, then science should be a sufficient outlet for human cognitive expansion, right? But, then, how does a scientist know that they are interpreting the data in an unbiased way? How can the scientist be sure that the findings are being ethically or accurately applied? How does a scientist know if something is true or not? And what about the many times in history when the knowledge of the scientist has outgrown the tools of science?

The argument, surely, is not that we must choose between science or philosophy. Philosophy and science both falter without the use of the other. Philosophy, left unchecked, becomes dogmatic religion, and science without philosophical introspection becomes the stuff of nightmares (consider sarin gas or the atomic bomb). So philosophy and science each interact with one another throughout the course of development of knowledge in all its forms. This is summed up very well by Russian philosopher and psychologist Alexander Pirkin in his work Dialectical Materialism.

Philosophy may be called the “science of sciences” probably in the sense that it is, in effect, the self-awareness of the sciences and the source from which all the sciences draw their world-view and methodological principles, which in the course of centuries have been honed down into concise forms. As a whole, philosophy and the sciences are equal partners assisting creative thought in its explorations to attain generalising truth. Philosophy does not replace the specialised sciences and does not command them, but it does arm them with general principles of theoretical thinking, with a method of cognition and world-view. In this sense scientific philosophy legitimately holds one of the key positions in the system of the sciences.

His point is extremely valuable and is its relevance can be seen in the historical conflict between philosophy and science epitomized in the Copernican Controversy. Furthermore, with this example, we can observe the way science and philosophy each rose to the fore and asserted power at various times.

For millennia the accepted understanding was that the Earth was the center of the universe, with all of the other celestial bodies orbiting us. It is important to remember that this view was absolutely based on the available facts of the day: the sun does appear to revolve around the Earth each day, and the Earth feels unmoving.

Interpreting that data naturally led to philosophical understandings about our universe and our place in it. Namely, the understanding that we are at the center because we are the most important thing in the universe. This scientific model of the world so intrinsically informed our philosophical understanding of ourselves that it was adopted as dogma by the Catholic Church.

By the 16th century, Copernicus was cobbling a theory of the universe that would identify Earth circling the Sun as all the other planets. Half a century later, Galileo Galilei sacrificed his freedom to support the Copernican view of the solar system when he published his observations made with a telescope. He had to make that sacrifice because by that point the Catholic Church had declared heretical any views which distinguished themselves from the geocentric model.

The philosophy of the Church was more important to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than the scientific data of that day, despite having attained that dogma through the science of its own time. But the Church, through the persistent relevance of scientific discovery, evolved its views and interpretations finally accepting the heliocentric model. In the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII declared in the Apostolic Exhortation Providentissimus Deus:

There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known”. If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.”

He went on further:

Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words or in the polemic discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being.

The Vatican now hosts the Vatican Observatory, established in 1891, the intent of which, as defined by Pope Leo XIII’s establishing document Motu Proprio, was to finally demonstrate that “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.”

Moving forward in time, the Church was forced to define Holy Scripture as infallible only as it pertains to spiritual truths, arguing that knowledge obtainable by reason rather than revelation was never the intended purview of the scriptures in the first place. Pope Saint John Paul II was so concerned with the history of Galileo that he directed a commission to study the issue that it may never occur again. In 1992, while closing the commission, he said:

In fact, the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world, the understanding of which is the competence of human experience and reasoning. There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition.

He continued later:

From the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. … It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them.

Truly philosophy is at its best with a little science (think Plato v Newton) and science is at its best with a little philosophy (think Einstein). When not encumbered with stigma or dogma, when acting according to the natural course of discovery, both science and philosophy rise to the fore when necessary and recede when not. Philosophical questions lead to a scientific process of discovery, which naturally leads back into the philosophical realm of application. This process really brings to mind the symbol par excellence of Taoism; the symbol of Yin and Yang, the nature of which is summed up perfectly by Joseph Campbell, a teacher and scholar in the 20th century whose primary work concerned myths and the psychological applications and interpretations thereof, and who did much of his teaching through story telling and lectures (Many of these have been recorded and are available for free online. Click for more):

The way of nature is a way in which dark and light interplay. So there are two principles which combine in various modulations to constitute the world and its way. And these principles, respectively, are the Yang and the Yin. And these two words, Yang and Yin, in their origin, referred to the sunny and shady side of a stream. The Yang is the sunny side, and the Yin is the shady side. Now what is the situation on the sunny side? It is light, it is hot, and the heat of the sun is dry. In the shade you have the earth. It is cold without the sun on it. It is moist — the sun doesn’t dry up the waters. And it is cold. Moist/cold and hot/dry in counter-action. Earth and Sun, and they are associated respectively with the feminine and the masculine principles. And with the passive and the active principles. Now, there’s no moral verdict here. One is not better or stronger than the other. They are the two principles on which the world rests: Light and Dark.

Laozi, the father of Taoism, taught that natural laws exist and the secret to happiness is to align ourselves to those laws effortlessly through the practice of wu wei, typically translated as non-action. He taught the formula by which this occurs in the following way:

One forms Two, Two form Five, Five form Ten-Thousand Things.

Articulating that formula with more cognates:

The Tao forms Yin and Yang, Yin and Yang form Wu Xing, Wu Xing form Wan.

Translation is an art, not a science, largely because of things like idioms. Two such are Wu Xing and Wan. The first refers to the five elements of Chinese philosophy. A full description of the many implications of Wu Xing is not possible within this post, however, it behooves you to research it further. It describes the way of the world, the way seasons give way to seasons, and the way life begets life. In Chinese, wan, or ten-thousand things, is an idiom which means an infinite number of things, or everything. To have a library with books on ten-thousand things in Chinese is to have a library with books on everything. Because of the difficulty of translating concepts like that, Taoist ideas tend to be reduced to superficial sophisms in the West. One might think that Laozi was reciting an incorrect mathematical formula when really he was intending to convey something immanently more significant. When one observes the symbol of Yin and Yang, one is supposed to see the formula for life. One is supposed to remember the fundamental idea that happiness is achieved by observing and living according to the natural order of the world. One can imagine that if he had today’s terminology and general scientific knowledge, he would have said something more like this:

The natural order is based on the polarity of atoms, this polarity causes those atoms to form molecules, those molecules form everything in the world.

Then again, he may have reminded us, if we supposed to update his language, that the Tao which can be named is not the true Tao.

Nevertheless, in the same way that is important not to misunderstand Yin and Yang as good and evil, or the formula for ten-thousand things as math, the Western mind mustn’t be content with understanding wu wei as simple non-action. In its essence, wu wei, is the method by which one achieves one’s goals effortlessly having already been properly aligned with the natural order of things.

The way a rock may disperse a boulder over time through erosion, without applying force, by simply remaining true to its own nature, so we may also achieve our goals without exerting force by ensuring that they are rightly ordered. We merely rest in the water between the sunny and shady side of the river, we find ourselves moved quite effortlessly downstream toward our goal, so to speak.

When science and philosophy are in the practice of wu wei they rightly align and compliment one another and form two halves of the same process, naturally delivering knowledge through the stream of time. One might suppose philosophy to be Yin and science to be Yang. Each of them retains a portion of the other. Each of them effortlessly rises and recedes as compelled by necessity. And often they are pointing us in the same direction, even if they appear upon first inspection to be using vastly different language. In another of his stories, Campbell bridges the chasm between the historical understanding of Yin and Yang and the modern understanding of science.

There’s the circle and here are these two strange little forms which look as though they were moving against each other. And they are moving against each other. Let’s just think what these three situations represent. There’s the light, that’s energy — in Einstein’s terminology E. This is dark, that’s mass — in Einstein’s terminology M. This is movement — in Einstein’s terminology C. You know the formula E = mc2? That’s the formula for splitting and bursting atoms. C is the speed of light — it’s movement. Energy, mass and movement. They have been reduced here to a geometrical formula. In Einstein we have an algebraic formula. You can use Einstein’s formula for splitting atoms, but you can’t use it for solving your marriage problems. This can be used for solving marriage problems, political problems, or anything else.

We must remember to let science and philosophy do their own jobs, but Yin and Yang are a great way to remember how important science and philosophy are for one another. Moving forward, there won’t be further emphasis on the relevance of philosophy, but it was important to establish it from the outset. In the next post, we’ll see how philosophy has expressed itself in various branches according to the questions each are answering.


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