Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review of Raymond Smullyan's The Tao Is Silent

About a year ago I read the experimental philosophy of “The Mind’s I” and enjoyed it so much that I decided to follow up with some of its selected authors, and Raymond Smullyan was a first stop. To be honest, at the start of The Tao Is Silent, I wasn’t sure if Smullyan was a joke or not. No doubt, as a mathematician he’s clearly a genius, but the tenor of the book seemed so blithe that I didn’t know how seriously he expected his readers to take him. I’m still not entirely sure he doesn’t think Taoism is completely hilarious as a philosophy of non-philosophy and an absurd parody of religion. The book is full of existential riddles, punchlines, and paradoxes that stretch the mind and loosen our grip on our stubborn biases about what life is, who we are, who god is, and what the ‘answers’ to our problems are. After getting used to his style, I realized that Smullyan is smiling straight through the confused questioning of humanity, and asking his readers to breathe for moment, and think in a purer air before working towards answers. At the end of the book, I was pretty sure he was legit as a thinker and philosopher, even though I never successfully determined which parts were sarcastic and which were completely sober. As far as the latter, probably none were entirely so.

His treatment of Taoism is less like a lesson than a game. Smullyan unasks more questions than he answers, but I think that is EXACTLY his point, and the point of Taoism. It is a perfect demonstration of the unraveling of tangled logic. In the style of Alice In Wonderland, he helps us see what fools we become when dogmatism creeps into ethics, religion, philosophy, politics, education, etc.  He uses Taoism to illustrate that we know more than we think [sic], and that the good is often much nearer to us than social reform theories might lead us to believe. He wants us to believe that we do what we do because it’s who we are and we can’t help it. Except when we can. Yeah, it gets tricky, but Smullyan is not interested in resolving contradictions for anyone. He loves it this way, and he makes me think that he loves it this way because he loves life, and life is this way. Matter of fact, he seems completely satisfied with apparent contradictions, believing that there may or may not be an explanation after all. “I wish to accept all religions, even though they contradict each other...pick the finest veins, and synthesize them as well as I can.”

I thought at first that he was an absolute pacifist, and possibly an absurdist, but I think he’s simply interested in breaking down illogic and dispelling presumption before proposing a solution. He quotes George Berkeley’s criticism of philosophers, “They first raise a dust, and then complain they cannot see.” Of course, Smullyan would be the one to play games and antagonize others in the dust storm before helping to clear people’s view, yet even that may be a very strategic move in motivating people to sit still long enough for their confusions to settle so he can help. It’s no jest to say that this is one of the most playful books from a very serious thinker that I have read in a long time, and it almost threw me completely, as it may others. One could very nearly miss the real gold here.

Smullyan is an optimist. It is evident he believes that people will be more effective if they are happy in life, and they will be more happy if they believe in themselves and do what comes natural (and that paradoxically includes what often appears to be ‘going against nature’). It is very Buddhist in that it attempts to go beyond mere right thinking and right action, to reestablishing right view. “When the wrong man does the right thing, it usually turns out wrong.” Taoism, he says, may not always change the practical lifestyle of some, but they may now live “with less fear and anxiety.” There is no coercion in Taoism. “The whole idea of Taoistic politics is that the sage-ruler influences the people to voluntarily do that which is good for them.”

Again, the real gem here is the permission to release our death-grip on sanity and logic, and to simply live with the confidence that the mechanism of our body and the world is rolling in the right direction somehow. This confidence in ourselves, and a simple acceptance of and joy in existence, is what Smullyan thinks will right most wrongs—wrongs which accumulate into the only real ‘evil’: suffering. He willingly accepts that this is a form of mysticism, stating that “metaphysics is the necessary ripening process of the human race to prepare it for mysticism.”

And what mysticism doesn’t cover, a buoyant absurdity does. “Someone asked a Zen-Master, ‘What is the ultimate nature of reality?’ The Master replied, ‘Ask the post over there.’ The man responded: ‘Master, I don’t understand!’ The master said, ‘Neither do I.’”

 My favorite chapters, and well worth an isolated read by curious people, are:

Is God a Taoist?
An imaginary Zen story.

The Evening Cool.

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