Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Ever since James Lovelock conceived of his Gaia theory — that the planet is one self-regulating organism, which the Anthropocene Age of human dominance is destabilizing — the world has been looking for a philosophy that fits this dawning realization.
The human-centered materialist progress of Enlightenment rationality opened up the space of personal autonomy and freedom from necessity as never before. But it also ravaged nature as a resource to feed industrialized desire and fragmented human communities through the cult of the individual.
To mend that breach with nature and others, what departure will take us in another direction? Won’t algorithms spun from the same philosophical thread lock us even more so into the same trajectory encoded into artificial intelligence, the step function of our next leap forward?
It is this doubt about where we are headed that has prompted a look back at other philosophical dispositions eclipsed by Western modernity to plumb alternative futures.
In Noema this week, Bing Song reports on the views expressed at a fascinating series of seminars sponsored by the Berggruen Institute’s China Center titled “Intelligence and Wisdom: AI Meets Chinese Philosophers.” Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist scholars gathered in Beijing to consider what the residual echoes of these cosmological outlooks might offer the unfolding times ahead.
Among the most significant differences between the Western and Eastern thought that Song points out is precisely the non-human centered worldview of the latter:
Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism all subscribe to the notion of non-anthropocentrism. In classical Chinese thinking, the typical construct for understanding the relationship among humans, nature and society is the so-called trinity of heaven, earth and man. This notion was derived from one of the most ancient Chinese classics — “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” — which is the intellectual fountain for the most influential schools of thought in China, including Confucianism and Daoism.
Heaven, earth and man, along with the associated yin and yang forces, were viewed as the most basic constituents of the universe, within which nature evolves, human beings prosper and societies develop. Within this construct, human beings are inherently part of and bound up with nature. Human beings can only flourish and be sustained if they follow the laws of nature and achieve a unity of nature and man.
Mankind, in between heaven and earth, is endowed with a unique ability to learn from nature, take action to further the causes of the flourishing and sustainability of heaven and earth and propagate the “dao” or “way.”
Dao, she goes on to explain, “is immanent in heaven, earth and man, which are mutually embedded and constitutive and should move in harmony. Zhuangzi, a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BCE, further reinforced the notion of the unity of nature and man. He advocated that heaven, earth and man were born together and that the universe and man were one.”
Specifically on AI, Song finds many Chinese thinkers wary that this innovation is a rupture with the natural order. At the same time, she notes that Eastern traditions recognize that “human beings have always lived with other forms of existence that may be more capable in some ways than we are. In Daoist teaching, where immortals abound, AI or digital beings could be just another form of super-being. Some Confucian and Daoist scholars have started thinking about incorporating AI into the ethical order of the ecosystem by potentially viewing AIs as companions or friends.”
She also muses that since classical Chinese thought sees the flux of change as a constant that can’t be reified into a static state of “being,” the disruptions of AI appear less existentially threatening than they do to doomsayers elsewhere.
All these splendid ancient truths would seem to offer the very philosophical departure called for today. When I put that proposition to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in Noema, his reply was sharp: “In the abstract, yes, we can say that the spirit of Daoism approximates this new consciousness. But in reality, the Eastern mind has been colonized by the instrumental reason of Western Enlightenment, which became globally dominant in recent centuries. Paradoxically, at the very moment the truth of the old Asian worldview shows its plausibility anew, it has been lost where it originated.”
Ironically, for all the new Cold War rancor between the U.S. and China these days, and despite shallow rhetoric by Xi Jinping about a return to traditional values, these geopolitical rivals remain bound by accelerated competition within the frame of Western modernization. The main agent that imported and sustains that model is the Communist Party of China with its roots in Marxist ideology. The one-party system meets singularity.
I raised Sloterdijk’s observation with the Chinese thinker Yuk Hui, who argues in Noema for what he calls a plural “cosmotechnics” in which China could take a different path to the technological future rooted in its ancient cosmologies rather than, as he put it, “converging teleologically toward a quintessentially Western singularity.”
So, I asked, “What would a Chinese cosmotechnics look like? For now, its main manifestations seem to be CRISPR babies and the surveillance state.”
It is not just about whether China can develop a better algorithm for its social credit system or whether it can develop better 5G technology — both contribute to the mono-technological culture of the present. The more fundamental question is how a cosmotechnics rooted in Chinese thought could develop an entirely new framework for what has been understood in the West as scientific “progress.”
Some have quipped that what I am speaking about is Daoist robots or organic AI … that sounds really exotic. But on the other hand, we can understand these quips as invitations to reflect on how non-European thought can intervene in the technological acceleration that we have today and change course. Will rethinking and rearticulating the concept of technology allow us to develop a new direction? This does not necessarily mean more advanced technologies but discovering and inventing both new epistemologies and epistemes as a response to the crisis of the Anthropocene, not least climate change.
These, for sure, seem the right questions as Western modernity is finally learning in its own way what the ancients in Asia (and the pre-Socratic West) long ago understood. Yet, as long as the modern East, China in particular, remains in thrall to the paradigm of Western thought it has adopted through accelerated competition, it will remain a stranger to its own civilizational wisdom.