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Tao and Consciousness

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Since ancient times, western science has explored the natural world as something that can be measured, controlled and exploited.

The ancient Taoists observed nature though the lens of change, as something that is self-moving, and interconnected in a way that is beyond comprehension..

They observed how nature transformed and renewed itself, and used it as a philosophical model to understand the human journey.

While the West pursues a unified theory of forces or a way of reducing nature into strings, quarks or elemental building blocks, the ancient Taoists had already found this in Tao.

The force, or Yang and the field as Yin were variations of how Tao manifests and transforms life.

In fact, the binary code behind our technology today was actually inspired by the open and closed Yin and Yang lines of the Taoist I Ching, or book of changes.

The Problem of Consciousness

Western science has reached a strange crossroad with the problem of consciousness. It is called a problem because it remains a mystery to both neuroscientists and quantum physicists.

The physical sciences set out to describe why life behaves the way it does. Neuroscientists explore the brain and the inner world, while quantum physicists describe atoms and the outer world.

This compartmentalization is apparent in western medicine too, where the body is treated as separate parts. The Taoists viewed the body as a garden of Chi where life’s energy continuously flows through it.

The problem of consciousness first arose when classical physics transformed into quantum physics. Experiments revealed how the consciousness of the observer could not be separated from the results of what was measured.

Even while they devised complex experiments to ‘trick’ an answer that circumvented the necessity of an observer, the connection between observation and the result remained unchanged.

Quantum physics described a world that can exist in a superposition of all possibilities, until it is measured.

To make the situation even more bizarre, entanglement means that when observing a particle in one location, another that may even be light years away, changes its properties to match. Entanglement was referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’ and has been proven through experiments.

These findings led Einstein to declare “God does not play dice with the universe!” Even while he pioneered relativity, which changed time and space into something malleable, he didn’t like the lack of certainty that was emerging in the physical sciences.

Schrodinger’s Cat became the thought experiment that describes the uncertainty principle. Something can exist in multiple states at once – until it is measured.

The either/or outcome of whether the cat is alive or dead collapses from both possibilities when the door is opened. The answer can only be known when we see the cat for ourselves.

Consciousness and Artificial Intelligence

At the same time, work in the neurosciences has led to Chatbots and AI, which means we can create intelligence. However, even while AI can access an incredible amount of information or data, consciousness is still missing.

Consciousness is not intelligence and it is not computational.

To understand the interior world, neuroscientists describe consciousness in terms of neurons and physical aspects of the brain. But consciousness cannot be reduced to neural activity alone.

The interior approach recognizes consciousness as a specific viewpoint, that by its nature, excludes other viewpoints. Anyone who has chatted with one of the new AI chatbots will discover this limitation.

A philosophical revolution is emerging, and approaches the joining of consciousness with the physical world from different angles. Panpsychism suggests that all material, regardless of size, has some form of consciousness as a fundamental building block.

In the basic building blocks of leptons and quarks, scientists search for ways that more simple states of consciousness might build in complexity as systems merge.

New approaches, like many eastern philosophies, describe a mind-like aspect as being ubiquitous in all of reality. Other philosophers and scientists view consciousness like digestion. They see it as a natural outcome of intelligence, but intelligence and consciousness are not the same thing.

After centuries of exploration, we are able to describe the hardware, but not the software. Non-life becomes life when some spooky type of operating system spontaneously emerges.

Tao and Consciousness

The first chapter of the Tao te Ching solves the problem of consciousness by helping us separate it from intelligence: “The Tao that can be named is not the constant Tao.”

Any attempt to describe nature or Tao with intelligence – means that an awareness of Tao evaporates. To the ancient Taoist, the essence of consciousness is presence, participation and discovery.

Each time we think about consciousness, we make it an object of thought. Instead, we might embrace nature’s message of uncertainty to open to life’s deeper mysteries.

Choosing not to know reveals how the desire to know can actually limit our awareness of what is. Nature appears to keep its secrets hidden to our intelligence in the same way our dreams evaporate upon waking.

If we want to understand a tree, we need to feel its bark, and observe its own way of consciousness as it bends and grows in its own sense of time to harvest the sunlight.

We have no need to psycho-analyze the smell of a flower. Its sweet bouquet can return us to wonder where we can experience the joy of living.

To participate with nature, we invite it in without any sense of boundaries. Not knowing is a prerequisite for accessing this deeper connection.

The roundness of a stone can tell a story of the vast amount of time that has shaped it into what it has become.

When we respect and trust nature, we learn to respect and trust ourselves. We are that and that is us. There is no need to classify and reduce the experience into separate parts.

Up, down, the vicissitudes are the melody as our authenticity is shaped by the flow of change.

What makes consciousness different from intelligence is the story we make of our journey. We tend to compartmentalize each aspect of nature, but Taoism is the practice of removing these boundaries.

The difference between the western and Taoist view of consciousness is how we approach the question of living. Rather than seek answers, we live the question. We learn to embrace uncertainty as life’s gift to us. Doing so allows us to experience the joy of living and the freedom to remain free.

Uncertainty is like nature’s underwear. It giggles each time we look under its clothing to discover its secret.