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The Taoist Story Teller and Culture: Do We Still Need Truth, Reality, and/or God?

Paul Grobstein's picture

The 2009 Metanexus meeting, plane rides to/from Phoenix reading Raymond Smullyan's The Tao is Silent and Ann Harrington's The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, conversations last week with Bharath Vallabha (see Truth and Power in Education), Alice Lesnick, and Ben Olshin, and discussions in our K-12 summer institutes  all seem to bear on the above question(s), and suggest an interesting approach to them.

Ann Harrington notes appropriately that a problem with contemporary medicine is that it fails to provide people with a sense of meaning for what ails them.  I'm not a great sympathizer with the practices of contemporary medicine, but this particular critique seems to me to be less about medicine, and more about some broader issues not unrelated to the questions do we need Truth, Reality, or God?.  Where do we expect meaning to come from?  Where should we look for it? Rather than indicting contemporary medicine for its failure to provide a sense of meaning one might alternatively congratulate it for declining to do that, and hence for encouraging people to develop the skill of making meaning for themselves.  The latter is a position that Raymond Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist might well not only recognize but endorse for him/herself.  

One might develop the same argument about Truth, Reality, and God, that each of them is a way of providing people with a sense of meaning, of locating who they are and what they do in a broader context.  One's life acquires meaning if it is dedicated to the pursuit of Truth, or of Reality, or of God.  One may not know exactly how to get any of these places, and may not even expect actually to do so, but one at least has a motivation for living, some sense of direction, and some standard by which to evaluate progress.  Yes, Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist might say, that's all very nice but I doubt there is actually any such thing as Truth or Reality or God, and think you'd be better off starting without any of them and seeing where one can get from there.

Whether one would be "better off" starting there is an interesting question, but there's an important prior question that needs to be answered first: is there actually a place there from which one could in principle start?  With no Truth or Reality or God, would there be any motivation for living, any sense of direction, any way to evaluate progress?  There's no problem at all about motivation, Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist might say: I'm hungry so I look for food; I'm lonely so I look for companionship; I'm bored so I look for something new. And yesterday I found  food (companionship, an interesting thing) near a particular large rock, so I'll look there first, and if I don't find it/them there I'll look somewhere else.  Notice  there's also no problem about direction; I go in a direction that reflects my past experience.  And the more I look, the easier I usually find it to get things I'm looking for, so there's no problem about evaluating progress either.

Yes, you might say, but what about community, about caring for other people, about morality?  No problem here either, Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist would probably say: I like other people, like it when they like me, and act out of those motivations as well as my other ones.  Some people I get along with, others I don't, but we all interact with one another.  Trees seem to get along fine without morality.  What do I need it for?

That, it seems to me, is getting interesting.  Maybe one actually could live, or at least start, without Truth, Reality, or God?  Maybe we actually have within us (in what I would call the "cognitive unconscious') a fully functional set of motivations/directions/mechanisms for evaluation and so don't actually need anything "out there" (Truth, Reality, or God)?

Yeah, but, you might say, it doesn't "feel" that way to me.  Sometimes I feel "empty," other times I feel "motivated" by something larger than myself, and sometimes I even have an "oceanic feeling," a sense of actually being connected to things larger than myself.  And, in any case, if there isn't Truth or Reality or God how would I decide what to do when I'm both hungry AND looking for companionship and can't look for both in the same place at the same time?  And how could I trust that other people understand what I'm looking for and will help rather than get in the way?

A tree would, I think be totally unmoved by such questions.  My guess is that it doesn't expect anyone to understand its wants or to help with them, doesn't experience conflicts between acting out of different needs, and doesn't in fact "feel" things at all.  And I suspect that Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist would hear the questions but smile politely and say they are based on misunderstandings of how things are: of course I feel these things but I don't see the problem.  They (and I) are all part of the Tao, which is everything that is and all that is.  And that's enough "meaning" for me.  Stop thinking about how to live life and just live it.

It would seem both the tree and Smullyan's hypothetical Taoist are helpful up to a point in thinking about our questions but if we're going to take feeling seriously, we need someone else to talk with.  So let's imagine ... a Taoist Plus, not an alternative to the Taoist but rather a character who recognizes the Taoist position and is willing to build on it, to add something that will allow us to give more credence to, and interrogate, feelings.  For the Taoist Plus, living life is not quite enough; there is the feeling of "something more" that needs to be taken seriously.  

That something more is what I would call "story," a broader context within which life is not only lived but acquires additional "meaning" by virtue of being compared to other imaginable lives.  Stories can help us to conceive and act in alternative ways when we want both food and companionship, and, by sharing stories with others, we can add to our ability to predict whether they will help us or get in our way as well as further expand our alternatives.  Perhaps most importantly, stories open up whole new worlds of motivation, of progress, of evaluation, of possibility generally.  Stories are what we experience supplemented by the sense we make of what we experience; they both give "meaning," and provide a way to explore change.  So let's give the Taoist Plus a more specific name: the Taoist Story Teller.

And let's ask the Taoist Story Teller to consider our questions: do we need  Truth, Reality, or God?  "It depends," I'm pretty sure he'd say, "They're all stories, valuable if they can help us conceive and act, individually and collectively, in alternative ways and problematic if they lessen our ability to do so.  The important thing to bear in mind is that all stories, Truth, Reality, and God included, are part of the Tao, not alternatives to it.  A little reflecting on one's feelings and a little story telling based on that that can be a good thing, but don't get carried away with it."

Taoists can be a little cryptic and the Taoist Story Teller is no exception, so let me gloss this a little bit.  What I'm hearing is the suggestion that Truth, Reality, and God exist insofar as we create them to give ourselves additional incentive to explore alternative ways of being.  They are not "out there" but in here, and it is up to us to decide how useful they are, individually and collectively.  

Does this make sense?  What about the feelings of "emptiness" as opposed to being motivated by and even in touch with something "larger than oneself"?  Could those happen without something Truth, Reality, or God actually being out there?  Yes, from what we are coming to understand about the brain, I think they can indeed.  One way to think about them is based on knowing that the brain can be likened to a society of diverse members together with a story teller that tries to make sense of them.  When the community is more or less in agreement, one can feel not only whole but in possession of an understanding that goes beyond the "self" (ie what one is conscious of, the story teller's story of who one is).  When there are conflicts between parts of the brain, in contrast, one feels varying degrees of limitedness and discomfort, up to and including emptiness.

There is, though, an issue here deeper than whether Truth, Reality, and God and one's senses related to something out there could actually all be "in here."  The deeper issue is, at its core, existential.  Supposing I go along with the Taoist Story Teller and accept that my understanding of what is "out there," with or without Truth, Reality, and God is created "in here," that its my story and might be otherwise.  At that point, I'm confronted with the problem that I am, in a deep sense, alone, that I have nothing to rely on but my cognitive unconscious and my story telling abilities.  How am I to proceed, in the absence of any way to know whether that is enough for me to get along in the world?

"Suck it up," the Taoist Story Teller might reply, "that's the way life is.  Congratulations, you're beginning to understand the Tao and, with it, the human condition.

Ouch, you might say, that is not only cryptic but also harsh, unfeeling, and neglecting entirely the existence and benefits of human community.  I don't want to proceed on my own and don't have to.  I can and do make common cause with others, get support from them and provide support to them, in ways that not only give greater meaning to all our lives but get more things done by providing better motivation, direction, and standards against which to measure progress.

Hmmmm, now I think we're getting to the heart of the matter. For the Taoist Story Teller, Truth, Reality, and God are all stories "in here,"  stories subject to revision based on their usefulness.  But they are, in addition  group stories, social stories that may contribute to bringing communities together around common tasks.  So the question do we still need Truth, Reality, and/or God has an important social dimension as well as an individual one.  Individuals (at least Taoists and Taoist Story Tellers) may be able to get along without presuming Truth, Reality, or God "out there" but what about groups of individuals, societies, cultures?  And individuals who want to participate in them?  Maybe these would be better off with Truth, Reality, and/or God as a starting point?  Maybe they actually need one or another of them?  

That's an interesting idea, and I can think of a lot of reasons why it might be so.  If we know there is something out there that is common to all of us, that would give us a reason to form communities and work together.  And it would probably be easier for me to get someone's help with any particular thing  I want help with if I argue that the project has something to do with something out there that we agree about rather than with some story I've made up.  Most importantly, if we don't agree about what's out there, what's to keep us all from just going off in our own different directions?

On the other hand, there are some pretty serious problems associated with communities based on a shared perception of what's out there.  Different communities with different shared perceptions of what's out there tend not to work well together, and sometimes even try to destroy one another.  And individuals within communities who question the validity of the communities' shared perceptions of what's out there often find themselves marginalized or even ostracized by others in the community.  

Could communities, like individuals, get along without agreements about Truth, Reality, God, or other things out there?  My guess is that the Toaist Story Teller would say yes, that what holds for the brain community that constitutes individuals holds for individuals in social communities as well.  We don't need something out there to motivate communities any more than we need something out there to motivate ourselves.  Rather than agreeing on common principles to create communities of individuals we could instead simply rely on our existing motivations, on our experiences, and on our abilities to conceive alternatives via stories.

Do communities based on shared beliefs in external things actually have "better motivation, direction, and standards against which to measure progress"?  Given the relative absence of communities of Taoist Story Tellers in both the present and recorded human history, one might conclude that, in some sense, they do.  On the other hand, cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is ongoing.  Could we conceive a culture of Taoist Story Tellers and, by doing so, contribute to bringing it into being?  It would involve valuing each other not for our similarities but rather for our differences and the ways those open up for all of us, both individually and collectively, new alternative ways of being.  And it would encourage the continuing creation and recreation of meaning, both individual and collective.  That has, for me at least, a certain appeal. We can all use a broader context, but there are, it seems to me, some real benefits to having it come from the inside and be revisable, rather than from the outside and be fixed/eternal.


Bharath Vallabha's picture

tao and truth

Paul, thank you for a very thought provoking post. I agree with you that Truth, Reality and God (TRG) are hopeless if they are meant to be set in stone things which we are supposed to simply follow. On this picture, life is like one of those color within the line exercises; we discover what TRG are and then basically spend our life trying to make it fit what TRG tell us. On this picture, living basically means consulting the rule book and doing what it says. No doubt this is a very prevelent view of TRG, but one which I think is not satisfying. Adhering to TRG in this sense makes life boring and frustrating (since one is always not quite being true to TRG), and it makes interactions with others violent and negative (since one wants to make others abide by one’s view of TRG).

It seems to me that what you decry as Truth is what I meant by TRUTH. Every argument you give against Truth here is I think addressed to Truth conceived as TRUTH; it is truth as something dead, frozen, limiting and constraining; a single snap shot of the world from a given perspective which is presumed to be the overall picture of reality. I agree whole-heartedly with you that nothing which is meant to play this policing role in our lives is needed. It doesn’t matter what hallowed history an idea has or how many people believe it or how fantastic it sometimes makes us feel or what fears of meaninglessness it might save us from – we should abandon any idea when we become more concerned with its preservation instead of our own transformation. And I see your post as showing that it is better to embrace the unknown and the formless instead of embracing a known form out of fear or habit.

I am inclined to think, and am staring to believe, that what you mean by the Tao is what I mean by Truth. In what you seek to let go of, I see nothing of what I cherish as Truth and God. And in what you seek to embrace as openness to stories, I see what resonates with me as the openness to the Truth. The other day I said to you that I have a hard time saying the words “there is no truth” because that felt to me like giving up the core of what I hold dear. Now I feel this less so, since perhaps you and I have not been meaning the same thing by Truth. I can now say, even happily say, “there is no Truth”. And I feel some freedom in not feeling beholden to just the word “Truth” or even the historical positions of realism and theism. For what I think of as the Truth is beyond words and arguments and traditions, and cannot be pinned down long enough to structure one’s life unreflectively around it.

Paul Grobstein's picture


There is indeed "freedom in not feeling beholden": the freedom to make use of everything one has rather than having to suppress some parts in favor of others.  Its the flip side of existential angst and of "abject relativism", the space opened by refusing to settle for either "TRUTH" or "truth," by acknowledging that we can, individually and collectively, satisfyingly get it "less wrong" by embracing "the unknown and the formless instead of embracing a known form."  And by making productive use of conflict among humans just as we do conflict within ourselves and between ourselves and the non-human world.  

"I think a classroom functions best when  ... when everyone in the conversation shares the aim of finding what they all can endorse together while acknowledging and developing the many perspectives each person brings to the conversation."  Maybe this is also true of cultures and of interpersonal relations generally?  

RecycleJack Marine's picture

The truth about teaching

I couldn't possibly read all that Paul posted in preparation for tomorrow's lecture. but as I completed halfway down the long essay, I wanted to say that for me, teachjing is the truth and that I haven't yet found my reality. "One may not know exactly how to get any of these places, and may not even expect actually to do so, but one at least has a motivation for living, some sense of direction, and some standard by which to evaluate progress." So Paul has summed it up in a nutshell for now, but teaching is an ongoing hike through the unknown- for me. I am sure that students have come to undferstand my path and some have joined with me in understanding. But mostly, it's been a lonely journey that I hope will lead me to truth and reality, or maybe reality and truth.

Five minutes later...and I read all that Paul wrote. Someone please bring me into the Taoist fold, because I am of the persuasion of not knowing this way. However, I do agree with Paul, albeit what I actually understand and what I think I understand of the human condition..."We can all use a broader context, but there are, it seems to me, some real benefits to having it come from the inside and be revisable, rather than from the outside and be fixed/eternal."

All quotes are from Paul Grobstein's writings.

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