How to “positive”

If you’ve been following recent posts: the premise of “positive thinking” material is that our feelings and experience of reality reflect or mirror the quality of our thoughts.

If our thoughts are more positive then we feel better, and our reality changes accordingly.

The conventional view of life is the opposite: reality happens first and our thoughts and feelings react to this reality.

It’s not just a different sequence, it’s also much messier.

So for the sake of a cleaner and more meaningful view of life (not to mention happier), we can observe it from the standpoint of thoughts->feelings->reality.

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

But how? And why? And also what?

What is positive?

Looking closer at the positive thinking material, we might need to adjust our schema a little.

Because it turns out that our thoughts are also a reflection, in the same stream of causation as our subsequent feelings and reality.

You don’t control your thoughts directly, rather you receive them as a by-product of your focus or attention.

That’s why you can change the verbal content of your thoughts, yet still feel the same way about them and experience the same reality subsequently.

“I feel happy” can be just empty words.

There’s a potential disconnect between the verbal or sensory content of a thought and the… the… the what?

This is where things get slightly tricky.

Prior to our thoughts it’s very indistinct as to what is happening. It’s a non-physical realm and there’s nothing sensory or even conceptual to grab hold of.

So people who talk about this stuff are left trying to stick a label on it, a label that will never be entirely appropriate.

Positive thinking material tends to use words like “energy” and “vibration”. These are metaphoric labels drawn from a folk-level understanding of contemporary physics.

Traditional religion tended to use words like “spirit”, which is another metaphor drawn from a folk-level understanding of metaphysics and biology.

In either case, the label is used to designate an invisible something that exists prior to thought, and from which thoughts, feelings, and external reality come forth.

So we could say “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the Earth” with the old psalms.

But for many people these words have negative associations and are loaded with misunderstandings, social and familial baggage.

If you study theology you find out that words like “Lord” are also metaphors. Labels like “God” are attempts to designate something that transcends our language. Indeed, there are whole branches of theology and philosophy that discuss these issues.

Yet the pattern is there. It is a call for God to “renew the face of the Earth” through his spirit. It’s a call for one intangible thing to use another intangible thing to change reality for the better.

Terms like “energy” and “vibration” have their own baggage, but much much less than the traditional terms (for now).

You can find people explaining that what we call “God” is in fact “pure positive energy” or “the highest vibration”. We are (somehow) extensions of this energy. Yet we have the capacity to choose where to put our attention.

So within us is this pure positive energy, yet most of us spend our lives focusing on things that are less positive, or of a “lower vibration”.

Our thoughts, feelings, and reality are a reflection of this point of focus, and its positivity relative to the pure positive energy in us.

That might sound terrifyingly “New Age”, though technically I think it’s “New Thought”.

But the underlying pattern is basically the same as saying that the Holy Spirit now dwells within you, or that it is Christ who lives in you, or that you are remaining in God’s love, and all the associated observations and injunctions regarding what to think about, the movement of the will in God’s love, the fruits of the spirit, and so on.

What’s gone wrong?

There’s a line from Romans I really like:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What’s gone wrong is that we have lost our connection with our source, with God, and so we live our lives conforming to the pattern of the world.

In positive thinking terms, we have turned our focus to our reality, which is an inversion of the true order.

Our reality is supposed to be the last reflection of our point of focus, the “energy” we are focusing on prior to thought. If we start focusing on our reality, then we get stuck in a kind of feedback-loop.

This is conventionally clear in instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression. When people are depressed they often lack the energy, motivation or desire to engage in activities that would otherwise make them feel a bit happier. Over time, chronic anxiety and depression can lead people to empty their lives of any sources of relief or happiness.

People’s empty or narrow lives can then contribute to their anxiety and depression, since they’ve eliminated anything that might have offered hope or reprieve.

That’s what happens generally when we conform to the pattern of this world, or wrongly treat reality as the determinant of our thoughts and feelings.

How to “positive”

For me it seems clear that I can direct my attention or point of focus to something that feels more “positive”. It’s a very small, subtle mental change.

But what I tend to do instead is focus on my experience, falling back into that feedback loop which keeps me trapped thinking the same kinds of thoughts, having the same kinds of feelings, and the same kinds of experiences.

The solution seems to be firstly to recognise that I’m doing this. Second, to remind myself of the correct order:

Focus -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Reality

And not the other way around.

Finally, when I’m reminded of this, I feel a certain kind of detachment toward my reality.

It feels like I’m taking my reality a little less seriously, a little less intently.

That’s because my focus has changed to something that is not yet reflected in my reality, but will be in time.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

I think that’s why there’s always an element of faith or trust required. Or perhaps just the realisation that you’re stuck in a feedback loop and would like it to change?


How do we know what is good?

Continuing the discussion with Matthew:

I think there’s much to be said about this “unknowable” good because when I’ve thought about how the natural law theorist might address the is/ought problem one manoeuvre might be to emphasize that “the good” is a metaphysical notion, and that whether we can fully understand or know “the good” and thus provide a rational justification for it, is an epistemological issue. In other words it may be a metaphysical fact that “the good” contains the moral/normative imperative within it (i.e. “is” implies “ought”) but the fact that we cannot “see” this, which is to say provide a rational justification for it (to satisfy the moral rationalists and the rest of the “orthodoxy”), is merely due to our own limitations. Perhaps you might have some thoughts about this idea or about the “appetite for unknowable good” as you put it.

I’m out of practice thinking about ethics, but I still want to see if I can clarify what appears to me to be a category error somewhere in our discussion.

The question “how do we know what is good?” can be viewed as an epistemological question, in the sense that “X is good” is a belief that asserts something about the way the world is.

The is-ought problem is an epistemological stance that says notions of “good” or “right” or “ought” etc., are not in fact about the way the world is. “X is good” is – from this point of view – a statement of value, not a statement of fact (hence the alternative term for the is-ought problem: the fact/value distinction).

Matthew has suggested that Natural Law might be treating “the good” as a metaphysical entity, that is, something that exists in its own right. Essentially, this would mean there is a particular kind of thing in the world called “good” and this good uniquely compels obligation. In other words, good is a fact that somehow carries value in it.

But I don’t think this is how Natural Law operates. I don’t think it depends on a metaphysical notion of good.

Instead, I would suggest that when Natural Law makes the claim that “X is good”, it is in fact making an anthropological claim. In fact when Natural Law asks “how do we know that X is good?”, it is still regarding this as an anthropological question, rather than an epistemological question.

If you look through Aquinas’ work (not a straightforward task) you’ll see that he does indeed regard these questions as the kinds of questions that can be answered in the context of human nature, by examining how human beings actually function.

I’m using the term anthropology a bit loosely, but that’s in part because “Ethics” has changed in meaning as well. I could call it Psychology (the logic of the soul) but that has many contemporary connotations as well.

Perhaps we could say that at the heart of the is-ought problem is whether we are looking at ethics as an anthropological phenomenon or ethics as an epistemological problem. The is-ought problem is itself an epistemological problem, and the relevance of it to ethics as an anthropological phenomenon is limited.In philosophy it is considered a cheap shot to point out that most moral skeptics live as though they were moral realists. That’s a fair objection in epistemological terms. Moral skeptics might happily admit they’re doomed to behave irrationally, perhaps out of cultural forces or mere pragmatism. But approaching ethics from an anthropological perspective resolves some of the tension: epistemology is not how people ‘do’ ethics after all. Here we can bring in Dtcwee’s observation:

thinkers from Aquinas to Hume studied how DOES reason decide what’s good rather than how SHOULD reason decide what’s good, and it’s only until later that ethics shifted towards the prescriptive and coercive.

I’m not sure of the exact time-frame, but that distinction between “how does” and “how should” is indeed what I’m trying to describe as the anthropology of ethics versus the epistemology of ethics. Though I think human beings have a real talent for prescription and coercion regardless of the ethical or philosophical paradigm!

Dharma and Natural Law

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Law of nature: buddha eat too much, buddha get fat.

In the usual broad strokes, and with unforgivable brevity stemming from a bad mood that is, let’s face it, probably intrinsic, let me kill two birds with one stone and reply to Dtcwee’s comment on the is-ought problem under the guise of presenting an esoteric observation from religious philosophy:

Dharma and Natural Law are basically the same thing.

But only basically, of course. If they were entirely the same thing it would be obvious to everyone. On the other hand, Natural Law alone is not obvious to many people, as evidenced by how people usually respond to my efforts to convey it.

[Either I’m really bad at communicating, or other people are really bad at understanding. Obviously I prefer the latter option, but there’s a third possibility: that the things I’m trying to communicate simply cannot be communicated easily.]

First let’s try to find some examples to cover the is-ought problem as requested.

Let’s say a friend says you ought to buy gold right now. You ask why. He replies “because the price is about to go up”. You reply “so what?” He explains that if you buy gold now, and the price then goes up, you’ll have made money easily.

So what?

Your friend, despite his misgivings, explains that money is not always easy to make, but in this case it will be quite easy to make quite a lot of money.

So what?

Your friend, now thinking you’re trolling him, nonetheless resolves himself to crush your whimsical spirit and proceeds thus: everyone – including you – needs money to live. Without money, you will waste away in poverty and deprivation.

So what?

Oh, so that’s how this is gonna go, is it? Okay, well, poverty and deprivation are horrible and humiliating and painful.

So what?

Well, your former friend says through gritted teeth, you should do whatever you can to avoid horrible, humiliating and painful circumstances.


Because they’re bad!


Well…nobody likes them!

So what?

So you should avoid things you don’t like.


Because….if you don’t, further bad things will happen to you.

So what?

So…eventually you’ll die and everyone will spit on your grave?

So what?

So, that’s a really bad thing to happen to you!


Because…everyone views it as a bad thing.

So what?

So you should too!


Because it’s normal.

So what?

Don’t you want to be normal?

Should I?

Look, we both know that you know all this. You do understand the value of money, and you will follow my advice to buy gold once this tedious argument is over, because you do want to avoid pain, suffering, and humiliation, don’t you?

Yes. But ought I?

Okay, I hope that wasn’t too painful to read, but if you look at it carefully (or maybe it’s obvious) you’ll see that every time the friend makes an ‘is’ statement – a statement about the way the world is – the other guy replies ‘so what?’. Every time the friend makes an ‘ought’ statement – should, ought, or ‘bad’ which implies ought – the reply is ‘why?’

The friend keeps trying to use ‘is’ statements to justify ‘ought’ statements, but he can never really convince the annoying moral skeptic that he ought to do anything.

The discourse does manage to trace the specific ‘ought’ of “you ought to invest in gold right at this moment” back to the more general underlying ‘ought’ of “you ought to act in a way that avoids future pain, suffering, humiliation, etc.”

But that’s as good as it gets for the friend. No matter what he says, he can’t explain to the skeptic why he ought to accept an ought. The skeptic isn’t even convinced by his own desires. He knows he wants to avoid pain, suffering, humiliation etc., but he also knows that he can turn his skepticism against his own wants and desires.

Just because I desire something doesn’t mean i ‘ought’ to do it. Why ought I follow my desires anyway?

There’s no real answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good or telling question. All it really shows is that if you choose pure skepticism as a starting point there’s nothing within the limits of skepticism that can take you out of it.

The rules of the game only work if you accept them. The rules do not countenance convincing unwilling people to play the game. Monopoly doesn’t have penalty cards for sullen turds who don’t want to play.  Sure you won’t win the game if you don’t care, but the whole point is that I don’t care, right?

This is actually a pretty good analogy for Natural Law and, while we’re at it, Divine Law and its Eastern counterpart of Dharma.

Dharma is prominent in all Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Its meaning varies in different contexts, but broadly accumulates around the concept of “cosmic law and order”.

What makes Dharma especially interesting is that in a Buddhist context the word takes on multiple meanings, from the aforementioned “law/order” to the teachings of the Buddha, to a philosophical term for phenomena generally.

This gives it allusions that are analogous to those implicit in Natural Law, once you understand that Nature really refers to essence, the metaphysical principle by which blank existence is informed in the creation of all things.

In other words, both Dharma and Natural Law take on the highest significance when they are viewed as reflections of ‘the way things are’ on the deepest level.

Better still, Dharma in a Buddhist context retains its significance despite the Buddhist emphasis on Sunyata or ’emptiness’ as the ultimate level of reality.  So the impression that Buddhism transcends rules and laws and phenomenal reality is belied not only by the continued recognition of Dharma as having some kind of relevance on a mundane level, but moreso on the depiction of the Buddha’s teaching itself as the Dharma.

Dharma dharma everywhere, nor anything permanent to cling to.

To my mind, this perspective of Dharma keeps morality in the right tone as a part of, firstly, the order of reality, and secondly the path to Enlightenment laid out by the Buddha and his followers.

In other words, it maintains a good balance between morality and metaphysics, a balance that is sometimes lost when we recognise the divine implications of the moral order, and (sometimes) ditch natural law in favour of the easier-to-grasp divine command theory.

I’m sure the same problem occurs in practice in Buddhism: perhaps people become fatalistic or moralistic with regard to Dharma and karmic bonds. In this case, the remedy to both is to remember the ‘order’ of which the law is only one aspect.

Natural law is, after all, the law implicit in the created order, where law is etymologically “something laid down and fixed”, without necessarily conveying the juridical or punitive aspects of law.

Natural law is, as NL theorists never tire of saying, more analogous to “the laws of physics” than to the justice system.

But as with the monopoly example, Natural Law and Dharma are really both the rules of the game. The difference is that you can’t help but play, like it or not.

Some people like to gloat that religious morality or religion itself is a self-interested prospect: that people only follow it because they want to avoid suffering or pursue happiness. That is, of course, the underlying mechanism of the whole game.

And while that might leave religion incapable of convincing the utter skeptic, don’t forget that skepticism itself is a choice, one that cannot be compelled on its own terms either.

Metaphysics, creativity, and the tyranny of conventions

Does metaphysics undermine creativity?

I’ve noticed that I can easily get engrossed in a novel which, if I had to write it, would bore me to tears. Even LotR, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about hobbits, elves, magic rings etc., with the degree of interest required to motivate actual writing.

Nonetheless I gave fiction another go last night, and decided to focus on a positive motive – a kind of “write something that interests or excites you”. Translating this into: what is something that I would find truly awe-some?

What came to mind was the idea of contingency/emptiness, the ontological shallowness of creation. Ok cool, I’ll just write a story about that…

In principle, it’s hard or perhaps impossible to write about things we don’t care about or think important. On the level of metaphysics, the significance of the ontological gap between necessity and contingency kinda dampens down the significance of everything on the ‘contingent’ side. It’s just hard to get excited about imaginary objects when you know we are all already, in a sense, imaginary objects.

So what I tried instead was to put contingency into a story, by having a character who finds an object that allows him to pass “backstage” so to speak, and enters a kind of happy void he can sit in for as long as he likes.  This is appealing in a “ring of invisibility” kind of way because it feeds my melancholic desire to be able to just disappear and relax whenever I want to. It offers a sense of ideal freedom, but it also combines it with the ontological significance of contingency/emptiness.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at face value I can say “yeah that would be pretty cool”.

Forget about conventions, for now.

Last night I also spent some time thinking about the stylistic obstacles to writing fiction. Basically, whenever I try to write down an idea in narrative form, my brain kicks into “narrative fiction 101” mode and tries to force me to follow what I assume is a fairly basic and cliche stylistic model. Yet I know from writing non-fiction that the supposed conventions of the genre fill me with unspeakable dismay and that the quickest way to kill my motivation is to approach it with a formulaic mindset.

The vague and semi-conscious conventions of fiction turn writing into a clumsy, awkward chore.  So why bother with them? In my non-fiction I have no trouble side-stepping these “rules”. I’ve learned to follow the winding path of my inspiration wherever it leads. Why not do the same with fiction, and just write the parts I’m inspired to write, even if it seems incomplete along the way?

Besides, I’ve often found in non-fiction that after producing fifteen hundred words of inspired ideas and enthused analysis, it’s easy to tack on a brief introduction or explanatory notes to help the unfamiliar reader find his or her bearings. But if I had to start with the introduction or explanation, I would never start at all.

If you’re the kind of writer who feels his way along, then you have to start with the parts that feel interesting, exciting, or awe-some, and leave the drudgery to later – often much later when you know what is really going on.

I’m hoping this approach will also work for fiction if I combine it with the awe-some element described above – homing in on truly motivating ideas while side-stepping the major sources of friction and drudgery.

The true men of old

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For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.


4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

Stoicism and the Dao

More from Frede:

This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate. So the whole focus of one’s life now is on one’s inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.

There are certain parallels to the Zhuangzi:

Before long Tsze-lâi fell ill, and lay gasping at the point of death, while his wife and children stood around him wailing. Tsze-lî went to ask for him, and said to them, ‘Hush! Get out of the way! Do not disturb him as he is passing through his change.’ Then, leaning against the door, he said (to the dying man), ‘Great indeed is the Creator! What will He now make you to become? Where will He take you to? Will He make you the liver of a rat, or the arm of an insect? Tsze-lâi replied, ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, south, or north, he simply follows the command. The Yin and Yang are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death, and I do not quietly submit to them, I shall be obstinate and rebellious. There is the great Mass (of nature);– I find the support of my body in it; my life is spent in toil on it; my old age seeks ease on it; at death I find rest on it:– what has made my life a good will make my death also a good.

‘Here now is a great founder, casting his metal. If the metal were to leap up (in the pot), and say, “I must be made into a (sword like the) Mo-yeh,” the great founder would be sure to regard it as uncanny. So, again, when a form is being fashioned in the mould of the womb, if it were to say, “I must become a man; I must become a man,” the Creator would be sure to regard it as uncanny. When we once understand that heaven and earth are a great melting-pot, and the Creator a great founder, where can we have to go to that shall not be right for us? We are born as from a quiet sleep, and we die to a calm awaking.’

To be honest, I really dislike these sections of the Zhuangzi. Guo Xiang, the fourth century Neo-Daoist interpreter and compiler of the Zhuangzi, argued that beings were ‘self-generated’. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Guo takes issue with the view that the key to unlocking the mystery of Dao lies in the concept of wu, nothingness. This is because nothingness remains an abstraction, a negation signifying “nonbeing” or what being is not in Wang Bi’s interpretation, and as such cannot bring about creation. So defined, wu and the category of beings (you) are mutually exclusive; as Guo plainly states, “It is not only that wu cannot change into being but also that being cannot change into nonbeing [in this abstract sense] (commentary to Zhuangzi 22). The appeal to a divine creator should indeed be rejected, but this does not entail a nihilistic absence. Having disposed of these options, what does Guo Xiang have to offer in their place? He writes, “Because wu [by definition] is not being, it cannot produce being. Prior to the coming to be of being, it cannot produce other beings. In that case, then, who or what brought about the birth of being? [The answer can only be that] beings are spontaneously self-generated”


At the most basic ontological level, prior to the birth of the myriad beings, being is “so of itself,” which implies that being exists eternally. In Guo’s own words, “Generally, we may know the causes of certain things and affairs near to us. But tracing their origin to the ultimate end, we find that without any cause, they of themselves come to be what they are. Being so of themselves, we can no longer question the reason or cause of their being, but should accept them as they are”

This is in contrast to Wang Bi, who developed a form of ‘First Cause’ argument:

Like He Yan, Wang Bi focuses on the concept of “nothingness” (wu) in his explication of Dao. Indeed, as Wang states explicitly, “Dao” is but “the designation of wu,” a symbol of the basis of all beings and functions (commentary to Lunyu 7.6). Contrary to He Yan, however, Wang Bi does not regard the argument from Dao’s completeness to be able to explain fully the mystery of Dao. This is because it fails to resolve the problem of infinite regress. If the chain of beings were to be traced to a specific agent or entity, the origin of the latter must itself be questioned. What gives rise to the category of beings thus cannot be a being, no matter how powerful or fecund, with or without differentiated features. This does not necessarily invalidate the yin-yang cosmological theory, which does yield important insight into the workings of nature and society. Nevertheless, it cannot lay bare the highest Daoist truth, with which the sages of old were principally concerned. To bring to light the mysterious and profound, reflection must venture beyond what may be called the ontology of substance to discern the logic of wu.

‘Wu’ is not simply ‘nothing’, since it is designated by ‘Dao’, everything that is said of Dao must apply to wu. Rather, ‘nothingness’ in dichotomy with ‘you’ as ‘being’, encompasses the ontological distinction between the ‘ten thousand things’ or created beings including humans, and the invisible, intangible, mysterious ‘thing’ that we can hardly call a ‘thing’ since it differs so substantially. Wang Bi admits that in its apparent emptiness, we could pretend the Dao does not exist at all…were it not for the evidence of its effects.

One wishes to say that it does not exist? [The fact still remains] that the entities are based on it for their completion. One wants to say it exists? [The fact still remains] that it does not show its form. That is why [the text] says: “shape of the shapeless, appearance of the no-thing.”
– Rudolf Wagner, A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing

For Wang Bi, the ’emptiness’ of the Dao is its power. To follow the Dao is to embody its emptiness in our lives. This is achieved by getting rid of desires and private interests, including the desire for virtue, which turns out to be a fruitless chasing after the appearance, rather than the source, of virtue. Being free from desires and aversions based in private interests allows one, like water, to adopt the lowliest position without contention.

That the supple overcomes the hard and the soft the violently rigid is known to everyone in All Under Heaven, but no one is able to put [this] to practice. That is why in the statements of the Sage, “[Only] he who takes on himself the humiliation of the state I call the lord of the altars of the nation; [only] he who takes upon himself the misfortune of the state I call the king of All Under Heaven” straight words seem paradoxical.