A key character in chapter 57 (事 shì) can translate as responsibility. As such, lines 3 and 12 in Chapter 57 read as Use non-responsibility when seeking all under heaven and I am without responsibility and the people thrive themselves.
Suggesting a virtue of non-responsibility defies common sense and seems to threaten the very fabric of society. Like free will, being responsible is a virtue highly prized in civilization. I’ve written a good deal on free will, which ties right in with the notion of responsibility (see Mind in Body in Mind in Body, p.7 and Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?, p.587).
By definition (1), being responsible means you respond to circumstances in a thoughtful and deliberate way. That sounds great. Now, only if it were actually possible! Research reported in Science News, Brain cells know which way you’ll bet, tells the deeper story. (Google [Single-Neuron Responses Patel].)
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 people, rather than being in control and consciously deciding their choices, are actually observing what happens after the fact. This is difficult for a proud “I” (ego) to accept. We want to be responsible and in control… and we certainly insist on others being so as well. Indeed, society requires us to believe in a responsible “I”.
In fact, human cognitive awareness is just an observer after the fact. We witness what is happening moment by moment. Problems only arise when we project, via the brain’s mirror neurons, our own needs and fears onto our observations. That ensnares us in the ensuing judgments we make and often continue to carry as baggage throughout life.
UPDATE 2020: I now realize that our sense of responsibility is an emergent property (see p.121) arising from the survival instinct common to all animals. Only in humans is this also a belief. To the extent we are unable to realize this survival urge within ourselves, we compensate for this by projecting a demand onto others to be responsible. We unconsciously feel if they are responsible, we will benefit and prosper. Guilt, shame and blame are the emotional results of the ‘responsibility instinct’ influencing thought and any attendant belief in free will (2).
Be involved using non-responsibility
Initially, an advocacy for non-responsibility likely evokes fears of either withdrawal from life or inflicting havoc on society. In fact, both fears are unfounded. The benefit of non-responsibility is in how it places more time and space between the stimulus of situation and our desire for a particular outcome (3). It is a continuous ‘count to ten’ before reacting to events approach. After all, instinct will force a response eventually. Non-responsibility is otherwise known as wei wu. As the first two lines of chapter 63 says…
Do without doing, ( 为 无 为 wei wu wei)
Be involved without being involved. (事 无 事 shi wu shi)
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). Do/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. As chapter 16 hints,
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
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 offers the big cosmic picture that can help 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. Alas, we only take to heart what we are ready and willing 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 the graphic 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 are able to 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 been adverse to seeing themselves so integral to nature. A species-centric ego drives us to see ourselves as superior and to create 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 connecting 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?, p.50 and Science, Religion, Truth, p.136)
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.
(2) For more on guilt and blame, see Guilt, Shame and the Name Game, p.287. For more on free will and belief, see Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?, p.587; The Truth About Lies, p.189 and Are You A Beliefaholic?, p.76.
(3) Desire is simply the blending of instinctive animal need + human thought. All living things experience need. This and its partner fear are the motive forces that drive survival. See also How the Hoodwink Hooks, p.100 and Two Paths, p.252.
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