Re-Iterative Existence

Chaos/Order from the Taoist perspective

The dualism of Chaos/Order in the Western existentialist paradigm is hurting humans and the natural world alike. In contrast to this is the ancient Taoist view of a unified polarity. This is my response to the @tribesteemup bi-weekly question: Do you believe that there is inherent order in nature or is it all chaos and chance?


I have to admit that I’m somewhat fascinated with the whole topic of Chaos/Order, as I feel it gets to the very core of what drives human endeavour. This idea has haunted humanity across all cultures past and present (and probably future also), and inspires art, literature, the sense of the sacred, religion, and the entire endeavour of civilisation.

This polarity can be seen in the cradle of civilisation in both the Mesopotamian and Nile Valley. The ancient Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh has the hero-king of the city standing in contrast to the ‘wild man’ Enkidu. In ancient Egypt, the ‘black land’ of the Nile (Khemet) represents cosmic Order, while he ‘red land’ of the desert (Desheret) is the embodiment of Chaos. Even in Ancient Greece, the Olympian deities represent aspects of civilised humanity, while the Titans whom they overthrew were barbaric savages who had no place in the civilised world. I believe these help form the root of the Western Judaeo-Christian obsession with Good/Evil dualism.

Underneath us are the nothings
Underneath them is a void
Beyond that void is a place
Where figments from bad dreams are banished
Childhood nightmares all come seeking
And adult logic nearly vanished
— The Church

My fascination with ancient Chinese philosophy and Taoism in particular would be obvious to anyone that’s following my blog, and I touched briefly on similar ideas in a previous article where I link the idea of linguistics and language as a tool humans developed to help bring Order to Chaos. In Language Is Chaos I argue that it has had the reverse effect.

Taoism as an epistemology fascinates me as it can be counter-intuitive in its wisdom, and stands remarkably different to the Western paradigm in which I (and probably many of you reading this) have been conditioned. The main thing about it is it’s emphasis on empiricism and the natural world as an exemplar for personal and social behaviour.

Taoism (or more specifically it’s antecedent philosophical movement) was not the only influential school of thought in ancient China however; Confucianism — the school of thought inspired by the teachings of Confucius — also vied for the minds of Chinese people and for the patronage of the royal court.

These two schools tackled the notion of Chaos/Order in different ways. In one, the natural order is ‘chaotic’ but seen as desirable because it is the way of nature; in the other the chaos of nature is seen as needing to be ordered by the endeavours of human civilisation: culture, morals, ethics, and laws.

The Taoist philosophers who wrote and compiled the Huáinánzǐ (a text from the beginning of the Han Dynasty, 2nd Century BCE) saw Heaven & Earth as unified — this text does not suggest dualism at all, as do many (if not all) Taoist and pre-Taoist texts. It is possibly the earliest example at a philosophical ‘unified theory’ as such.

Reality is not guided by a Being with a mind and intention. Reality ‘dao-es’ spontaneously but, in doing so, it displays patterns and purposes. If humans also act spontaneously (i.e. in wùwèi), they will be directed by “the dào of heaven and earth” and live in harmony and with an efficacy that fulfils their lives. When humans fall away from this normative natural process and allow rationality or passion to displace spontaneity, disruption and destruction follow.

Ronnie L. Littlejohn, “Chinese Philosophy: An Introduction”, pp.27‒28.

Chaos is the space that only Order can exist in. To get rid of Chaos altogether is to prevent change and transformation from occurring, and without change there is no Order.

Before I close the curtain 
fate uncertain 
spirit to the dark
Endlessly apart
— The Dear Hunter

Chaos ≠ Dis-Order

混沌 Hùndùn is the undifferentiated state that the Taoists saw as the primal state of perfection. The word is comprised of two characters that denote confusion and turbidity.

有物混成先天地生。 Yǒu wù hùn chéng xiān Tiān-Dì shēng

There is something [that is a] muddled accomplishment prior to Heaven & Earth being born.

Tao Te Ching, verse 25 (my translation)

To the Taoists, nature is undifferentiated; it is chaotic. As an undifferentiated state, there is constant change and transformation occurring as ‘all of creation’ (萬物 wànwù, the “10,000 things”) dance between the polarities of non-existence/existence. The Order that emerges spontaneously from this continual change is what they referred to as the 道 Dáo.

Therefore to impose a human sense of order onto the natural world was seen as a break in the natural order of things. The metaphor often used was humans trying to straighten the curved lines of the natural world.

This is different to the idea of 亂 luàn, which is something more like dis-order. It is a different state altogether. Taoists considered what human society and civilisation tend to do is impose luàn by means of seeking to differentiate or “straighten the curved lines”; naming and categorising things is imposing human-perceived laws and values onto nature — in other words, culture and science.

The project of Taoism at large was to “return” to the natural state of things, and to use nature itself as the exemplar of all human behaviour and endeavours. Nature’s inherent way of operating is to “return”, as it states in the Tao Te Ching:

反者道之動; fǎn zhě dào zhī dòng

Return is the Dao’s movement.

Tao Te Ching, verse 40 (my translation)

We can see this when we observe what happens to ‘civilisation’ when left unattended by humans — how weeds start pushing up through cracks in the pavements, and how man-made structures are eventually reclaimed by the jungle if left untended and unoccupied. Even in the Renaissance art of Florence, one finds the imagery of forests and the wilderness representing Chaos, while the City-State represents Order.

This used to be real estate,
Now it's only fields and trees.
Where, where is the town,
Now, it's nothing but flowers.
— Talking Heads

Confucianism shared a similar view. Hùndùn is still acknowledged as the beginning of life; however it is the duty of humanity (as agents of Heaven) to bring order to this chaos. Humans achieve this through culture and civilisation (and thus also language). Human virtues revolve around ‘taming the chaos of nature’, using science and ritual to make sense of the mess of existence.

In Confucian thought, luàn is what happens when society/culture goes wrong, and the rituals and laws are ignored. Cultural and scientific education raises humans out of chaotic savagery, and into the order of evolved human civilisation. The dis-ordered state of luàn requires constant attention and intervention; thus there is always a need for education, laws, and government.

The order of the universe

Those who share this worldview really need all things placed into neat little categories and boxes. To them, everything has to be either black or white, right or wrong. They have no patience or capacity for nuance or ‘shades of grey’.

And yet, nature itself is not like this. Quantum physics for example shows us that something can exist either as a wave or a particle, two very different existential states. What appears as a straight line we now observe as being other than; to the naked eye the earth appears flat, and yet with a higher perspective we can observe its curvature. Thanks to computing technology that can cope with reiterative equations mapping out fractal geometry, we have discovered that what appears ‘chaotic’ to the naked eye has an implicit Order.

The Tàijí diagram can be seen as a very early fractal. Fitting that it was adopted by later Taoists to represent their philosophy, which at heart saw attempting to define and talk about the Dào as a human attempt to impose Order on that which was actually Chaos.

道可道非常道。 Dào kě dào, fēi cháng dào

The Dào that can be spoken of, is not the perpetual Dào.

Tao Te Ching, verse 1, (my translation)

In the context of this image, Luàn is the state where the S-curve loses its yīn-suppleness and becomes firm, a straight line. When this happen, yīn and yáng lose their inter-dependence and inter-relationship; they can no longer mutually influence or transform into each other.

In short, they separate. Death ensues, life is no longer viable, and it cannot continue.

Should we try and separate the implicit Chaos-within-Order-within-Chaos that is hùndùn, then we destroy the very nature of the universe itself. Nothing will live, flourish, or thrive. Change and transformation are halted.

This is the danger of trying to impose Order on the natural and human world — this was the message of the early Taoists, as exemplified in texts such as the Tao Te Ching. Having a non-interventionist approach to existence allows anything to emerge spontaneously. When something emerges spontaneously — naturally — then it has a greater chance of thriving and succeeding. This goes for human society and civilisation as it does for nature.

The current obsession with fixing everything is an example of the mindset that sees Chaos as dis-order, failing to see the implicit Order that exists within it, and failing to trust that things will settle and work themselves out as and when they need to. The sooner we accept both of these as an essential part of existence itself, the sooner we can begin to heal the deep divisions between humanity and the natural world.

While the Taoist philosophy is certainly not without flaws, it does offer a way out of the mess we find ourselves in the present day. It provides a possibility of hope.

It's just another lot of cop-outs
They're saying nothing
Power tripping egos, yet there's no change
Oh yeah, it's chaos from the top down
— Stereophonics

Further reading

Cleary, Thomas (trans.), 2003, The Taoist Classics: Volume One, Shambhala, Boston

Girardot, N. J. “Chaotic ‘Order’ (Hun-Tun) and Benevolent ‘Disorder’ (Luan) in the ‘Chuang Tzu.’” Philosophy East and West, vol. 28, no. 3, 1978, pp. 299–321. JSTOR

Kosko, Bart, 1994, Fuzzy Thinking: the New Science of Fuzzy Logic, Flamingo, London

Pregadio, Fabrizio (ed.), 2008, The Encyclopaedia of Taoism, Routledge, Oxon



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