I translate lines 3 and 12 in Chapter 57 as Use non-responsibility when seeking all under heaven, and I am without responsibility and the people thrive themselves.
I know that suggesting a virtue of non-responsibility flies in the face of common sense. Like free will, explicit or implied, being responsible is a virtue highly valued by society, so it’s not surprising that we hold very narrow views on this. I’ve written much on free will: See Mind in Body in Mind in Body and Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?. These tie in with the whole notion of responsibility.
By definition (1), being responsible essentially implies you respond to circumstances in a thoughtful, informed, and deliberate way. That sounds great, doesn’t it? If only it was actually possible! Research reported in Science News, Brain cells know which way you’ll bet, tells another story. It hammers another nail in the coffin of free choice, responsibility, and control.
Excerpts from the Science News article
Researchers enlisted eight people undergoing experimental therapy to alleviate severe depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder that involved implanting electrodes deep into the brain.
During surgery, the electrodes eavesdropped on the behavior of individual nerve cells in an otherwise unreachable area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Other places in the brain feed lots of diverse signals to the nucleus accumbens: Information about a person’s emotions, memories and more sophisticated reasoning — key ingredients for decision making — all flow into this area.
While in the operating room, participants played a simplified version of the card game “War,” in which two players each receive a card, and the higher card wins. Participants saw a video screen with their card face up next to a face-down opponent’s card. After a short wait, the players pushed one of two buttons to bet either $5 or $20 that they’d beat their opponent. Finally, the face-down card was flipped over, and the participants saw the results of their wager.
Meanwhile, researchers detected 19 nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens that seemed to be involved in the betting. Electrical signals from these cells predicted whether a person would bet high or low. Most surprisingly, this nerve cell pattern was evident about 2.8 seconds before a player pushed a button — a delay so long that it’s “unheard of in neuroscience,” Patel said.
These nerve cells receive information from other brain systems and call the shots fast, before the rest of the brain catches up, Patel said. “The brain is presumably calculating these things before you’re conscious of it.”
This research shows that rather than being the principle actor in control and consciously deciding our choices, we actually are observing what happens after the fact. This has to be terribly humbling for any proud “I” (ego) to accept. Therefore, we probably won’t because “I” wants to be responsible and in control. Even more, “I” also needs everyone else to be responsible. Indeed, civilized society requires us to believe in a responsible “I”, along with a belief (2) in some godlike authority to hold us to account. No wonder chapter 71 says, Realizing I don’t know is better, not knowing this knowing is disease. In other words, knowing your belief is true is a disease. Wow!
A more realistic way to see the thinking aspect of human consciousness is that our awareness is an observer after the fact. It is safe to witness what is happening moment by moment. Problems only arise when our brain’s mirror neurons project our own needs and fears onto our observations. The downside of this is how we trap ourselves in the ensuing judgments we make and carry in memory throughout life.
Much of our difficulty in life comes from how we respond to stimuli. Buddha’s Second Truth summarizes the effect: “The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain”.
Be involved using non-responsibility
Initially, any advocacy for non-responsibility evokes fears of either withdrawing from life or wreaking social chaos. In fact, both fears are unfounded. The benefit of non-responsibility is in how it places more time and space between the stimulus of circumstance and desire (3). It is a continuous ‘count to ten’ before reacting to events approach. After all, instinct will push a response eventually. Non-responsibility is otherwise known as ‘wei wu’. As the first two lines of chapter 63 says…
The “involved” of chapter 63 and “responsibility” of chapter 57 are synonym-like variations of the character 事 (shì = matter; affair; trouble; work; responsibility; involvement; serve; be engaged in). Doing (为) mostly amounts to reacting to stimuli. An urgent sense of involvement and responsibility quickly blows reactions out of proportion to reality. Anything that can put time and space between stimuli and reaction reduces stress and danger.
Using non-responsibility helps avoid the chaos of over-reaction by keeping awareness present rather than caught up in the dramas of the past or future. Chapter 8 advises, In action, satisfactory is time. Chapter 6 pulls in the ‘big picture’ that is essential in order to give one’s life enough time to flow naturally.
The valley’s spirit never dies; this is called the profound female.
Of the profound female entrance; this is called the origin of the universe.
Continuous, like it exists; in usefulness, not diligent.
Any sense of eternity we can muster helps avoid deluding ourselves into thinking we or others are in control of life. Such delusions are not helpful in the long-term. Alas, we seem to take to heart only what we are willing and ready to hear. Even then, chapter 70 hints at the difficulty we face, Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do. Under heaven none can know, none can do.
Free Will vs. Determinism
All discussions of free will that I’ve encountered bounce between some version of free will vs. determinism. As this post’s graphic above shows, compatibilism strives to bridge the gap between free will and determinism… yet fails in my view. This worn out debate stems from archaic points of view: the Christian concept of predestination, the theological paradox of free will, and Newtonian physics. In contrast, biological need addresses this issue of choice perfectly, if you can accept the fact that we are like any other animal.
Humans have ‘big’ brains, dogs have ‘big’ noses, eagles have ‘big’ eyes, and so on. Yet, we all do what we do driven by the needs or fears we feel at the moment. Humans have long displayed an aversion to seeing themselves as integral to nature. A species-centric ego drives us to see ourselves as ‘superior’ and make up stories — beliefs — to prove it. An especially interesting thing about belief is that believing a belief proves its veracity in the mind of the believer. No wonder beliefs are so hard to shake! I see this as the consequence of our cognitive disconnect from nature. Feeling separate, we compensate by binding ourselves to a belief. The more faithfully we believe it, the truer it feels and the more we can experience reconnection — religion! Note: religion = religare (“to reconnect,”) from the Latin: prefix re “again” + ligare “bind, connect”. (See Are you out of touch with nature? and Science, Religion, Truth)
As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. Or, as I might put it, we can do what we feel a need to do; we can’t choose what need to feel. Need and fear are the bottom lines in all animals, including humans.
Responsibility noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being responsible.
2. an instance of being responsible: The responsibility for this mess is yours!
3. a particular burden of obligation upon one who is responsible: the responsibilities of authority.
4. a person or thing for which one is responsible: A child is a responsibility to its parents.
5. reliability or dependability, especially in meeting debts or payments.
1. answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management (often followed by to or for ): He is responsible to the president for his decisions.
2. involving accountability or responsibility: a responsible position.
3. chargeable with being the author, cause, or occasion of something (usually followed by for ): Termites were responsible for the damage.
4. having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action: The defendant is not responsible for his actions.
5. able to discharge obligations or pay debts.
1590–1600; < Latin respons ( us ) ( see response) + -ible
1. an answer or reply, as in words or in some action.
2. Biology . any behavior of a living organism that results from an external or internal stimulus.
(3) Desire is simply the blending of visceral need + thought. All living things experience need. This and its partner fear are the motive forces that drive survival. See How the Hoodwink Hooks and Two Paths for a few more angles on this.