Sunday, May 6, 2012

Analects of Kung Si Hsiang

(Note: The following text is not my transliteration. It is a document I found in my files from nearly a decade ago, with no attribution. Moreover, I have attempted to track down the two characters, Kung Si-hsiang and Liang Tou-nao, but without success. This leads me to conclude that the story is a fictional work, but intriguing nonetheless, especially for its keen insight and eloquent exposition. If any reader does happen to be aware of the work's origin, I would be most appreciative to be notified.)

The Great Sage Kung Si-hsiang was out and about in her garden one early morning with her favorite young protégée, Liang Tou-nao. After watching a small army of ants go about their business, the young woman suddenly asked, "What, I wonder, is the meaning in our lives?"

Well, that question is posed to Great Sage Kung by every person who seeks wisdom from her. Such people want to be handed a belief, some comforting temple bauble gotten cheap and carried away in the pocket of their minds to be later taken out when needed to bolster one's existential angst or to impress other, even greater, fools.

Usually, Great Sage Kung responded to those seekers with some metaphorical phrase that has a profound ring, but which is vague to the extent of being void of sense altogether. Often, the hidden and uncomplimentary message to the inquirer was "If you have to ask, then you are incapable of understanding the answer." or simply "Such a stupid question is quite in character for you." Such messages are, of course, never frankly stated, but rather are heavily veiled in ironic or even self-contradictory parables or in terse assertions that seem as pithy kernels of true understanding, but which always evaporate completely when clear thought is applied to them.

But Liang, in her usual way, was not asking to be handed an answer as talismans are handed out at the temple. Rather, she was taking the first step in her own search for understanding, so Kung gave a sincere response.

Kung: "The meaning of life? Well, I've never given it any serious thought. Why should our lives have any particular meaning?"

Liang: "Well, these ants that I see are so busy and earnest, each driven to do what it's doing. Their actions have results that are beneficial to them and to their collective. The overall effect of their behavior is that the colony survives, grows and creates new colonies in other places. The ants and their colony both seem to have purpose, but there is no meaning to the life of an ant beyond the effect of its behavior, because its behavior is simply that of a machine. It merely reacts according to its rather complex, but fixed, nature."

Kung: "Well, that seems to be true as you've said it."

Liang: "When I see the ants, I am reminded of people. Especially in the city, we scurry about, following common paths, driven by natures that are largely similar. As individuals and as society, the effects and purposes of our activity seem quite the same as those of the ants, especially when viewed by some distant entity in the same way as I am viewing these ants."

Kung: "Yes, I would say so."

Liang: "But people are different from the ants, aren't we? Our individual behavior is greatly more complex. Our actions result from the interplay of countless competing motivations, and we are capable of understanding and manipulating our own motivations and those of our fellows. We are capable of deciding what to do or what to not do. Also, we are aware of our own existence."

Kung: "Well, it's hard to not agree. Looking at the details, there is a lot more going on with people than with ants."

Liang: "Not only can we model the real world and describe it to others, we are also capable of imagining things that are not real. We can postulate things that are intangible. We can abstract concepts. We understand good and bad. We are even capable of believing things that can be demonstrated as false and basing our actions on those beliefs. Our minds are rich and boundless. We are free. We each have a soul. We are quite special in this way, a unique phenomenon in the universe."

Kung: "So it seems, indeed."

Liang: "Because we are aware of ourselves and free to decide and to believe and to act according to our will, it is essential to know the meaning of life. There must be a grand scheme, an immutable definition of good and bad by which we can exercise our freedom of thought and action and fulfill a higher purpose, a destiny even."

Kung: "It is certainly easy and appealing to think in that direction."

Liang: "But then, what of these amazing abilities of ours? To begin with, our ability to imagine is good in that it allows us to consider the future with more flexibility and increases our chances of finding a solution to a problem. The bad side of that coin is that it allows us to not only consider false and unreal ideas, but, combined with that complex soup of motivations that we call personality, it allows us to accept untruths and make them part of our understanding and beliefs."

Kung: "That cannot be doubted by any reasonable mind."

Liang: "Also, looked at in a practical light, our unique mental powers give us the advantage of a better ability to make predictions about events in the world we live in, thus giving us unprecedented power to control that world and alter it. However, that may increase our ability to survive or it may reduce it. Indeed, these great mental powers make us quite capable of exterminating not only ourselves as a species, but most other life on the planet as well. I have to wonder whether any ability so dangerous can really be considered an advantage, to say nothing of a source of pride. The ants, at least, without any concept of self or higher purpose, are not dangerous to themselves or the ecosystems in which they participate."

Kung: "I can see wisdom in that thought."

Liang: "A sense is growing within me that this concept that life must have some higher meaning that is above nature, is a false concept, like so many of our other self-centric concepts, including 'mind', 'free will', 'Good and Bad', and even our most treasured concept of 'self'. These are actually no more than useless, delusionary abstractions to which we assign great, but undeserved, importance out of some dysfunctional need to feel good about ourselves. Such thinking is surely a tortuous path leading to a dead end that is charmingly disguised as a goal."

Kung: "Let's sit here by the stream for a while, and watch the clear water flow over the rocks."