Emulating the root [by way] of bringing to rest the stem and branches

by Chimezie Ogbuji

Wang Bi (226 – 249 AD) attempted to provide a one sentence summary of the 81 chapters of the Laozi ( The Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue ), written in the 6th century BC:

Emulating the root [by way] of bringing to rest the stem and branches

This is a bold thing to attempt for any piece of literature, much less one of the most translated of all. However, I think it is a very thoughtful analogy. He elaborates on this sentence in his commentary on the following line from chapter 16.416.5 of the Laozi. The original text and his commentary (immediately following) are below:

Generally speaking, while [all things] are of unending diversity, each one of them returns to its [common] root. [Their] reverting to [their] roots means stillness.

The ‘root’ is the beginning. [That is], each one of them relates back to that which began it. Once they revert to [their] roots, then they [reach] stillness.

This reading brings to mind this picture I took from the roots of a big tree, looking up at its branches.

It also brings to mind the general thrust of modern quantum physics and the ongoing search [ Large Hadron Collider purpose (Wikipedia) ]:

concerning the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary objects, the deep structure of space and time, and in particular the intersection of quantum mechanics and general relativity

ALICE magnet with the doors open

Many of the experiments being run in the Large Hadron Collider seek to answer these questions by investigating (and attempting to replicate) conditions as they existed shortly after the Big Bang (the mother of all roots). Two and a half millennia later, we still seek to emulating the root.

Who's Gonna Take The Weight?

As for the second point, I say what our faith says, and the truth of the matter. At a certain time a motion begins which is not precipitated by another motion and this occurs in this very manner: that there has been eternally a first mover, although there was not eternally a first moved; but at a certain time the first moved began, and then motion began.
—Albert of Saxony, Questions on the Physics (Questiones et decisiones physicales insignum virorum). Uche Ogbuji's translation. Latin original as follows:

Quantum ad secundum, dico quod secundum fidem nostram et rei veritatem. Aliquando incepit motus quem non precessit aliquis motus et hoc per istum modum quod eternaliter fuit primum motor, licet no eternaliter fuerit primum mobile; sed aliquando inceperit, et tunc incepit motus.

For some reason I've been sparring with the notion of the Prime Mover a lot this year.  In my poems and other writings I've taken on the idea playfully, angrily, and sometimes in sheer bafflement. The idea comes from the tortured efforts to reconcile Platonism and Aristotelianism, received by medieval scholars with such reverence once re-discovered in contact with the Islamic civilizations, with Christian dogma. I think this struggle still dominates modern science and philosophy, though no serious enquirer outside the Bible Belt, except maybe Peter Geach, would dare plead directly to Christian principles in such discussion, and not many would directly invoke Aristotle. Despite this coyness a great deal of thinking behind Western civilization is bogged down in two theoretic systems which seem to betray utter ignorance of the natural world.

Daniel Huntington—Philosophy and Christian Art

Albert of Saxony was one of those medieval natural philosophers instrumental in marrying Aristotle with St. Augustine; I believe I ran into his quote at the library of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and I managed to dig it up again in God and reason in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant.  As I've grown older I've become very sympathetic with Epicurianism, respectful of Sophism and hostile towards Socratism, the great enemy of both.  Unfortunately Socratism won out in post-Classical times, with its insistence on impossible absolutes and false humility in style. I won't go so far as to claim that looking back more to Epicurus (who in turn looked back to Democritus, subject of savage attacks by Plato) would have prevented the religious distortions, cultural chauvanism and geopolitical distortion that characterize the West's material triumphs, but I do think Platonism served as a heavy, clumsy stick swung wildly about the world by Europe.
I must admit that it was not Plato and Aristotle who gave the Europeans that chilling formula "dico quod fidem nostram et rei veritatem", "according to faith and the truth of the matter," which so polluted Medieval natural philosophy with divinity studies.  Ibn Rushd ("Averroës" in the West) had already compiled a herculean defence of Aristotle against some agents of Islamic dogma, having to cover much the same ground as Christians did centuries later. Since they were getting their Aristotle from the schools of Ibn Rushd, the Christian philosophers had to deal not only with the Greek, but also with the brilliant (though fundamentally flawed) elucidations of the Spanish Moor. In the end they pretty much just cut Ibn Rushd out with the neat scalpel of church dogma. Back to superstition square one. The dogma of six-day creation sixteen hundred years before the great flood could not withstand the empirical idea from the natural world that nothing suggests any beginning to the chain of causality. Things are in motion because things have always been in motion. The church needed to silence this heresy to make room for Yahweh and they did so with the garrotte rather than with fair debate.
The lasting effects of this strangulating threat occurred to me once again a few days ago when listening to Kool and the Gang's soaring, aching composition, "Who's Gonna Take the Weight." What lyrics there are to this song are eye opening:

People! The world today is in a very difficult situation,
And we all know it because we're the ones who created it;
We're gonna have to be the ones to clean it up;
We're gonna have to learn to live together 
And love each other.
Because I believe one day someone or something
Is gonna wanna judge 
Who's creating all this corruption and death and pollution,
All these difficult situations on earth.

And he's gonna wanna know:
Who's gonna take the weight?

So the world is screwed up, and we're the ones who have to sort it out, but why? Not because it's our world to sort out, but because it's a world belonging to some Daddy Abstract hanging out in the sky who's going to come along some day to judge what we've done. What's the point of so much soul if all were doing is renting it, anyway?
Under the Aristotelian shadow of Ptolemy both Islamic and Christian natural philosophers wound themselves into ridiculous contortions until Copernicus and Galileo. The primum mobile, the first or empyrean sphere was equated to utter goodness in gratification of Christian doctrine and was accounted by Sacro Bosco in his seminal De Sphaera the only sphere of "motus rationalis" (i.e. rational motion by which they meant the rotation any idiot can see by observing the sun) and then by complete hocus-pocus the idea came about that all other spheres were of "motus irrationalis sive sensualis" ("irrational or sensual motion"; take that, Aristotle!). So now suddenly the church had not only the keys to goodness, but also to reason. How convenient!


Sadly, I'll close with one of the more lurid illustrations I've seen of how all this nonsense addled even the most brilliant minds in the West. "Good-friday, 1613, Riding Westward"
by John Donne is a poem of his usual technical virtuosity, but is full of the sloppy, slavish sentiments that leave me so scornful.

LET man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this, 
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ; 
And as the other spheres, by being grown 
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ; 
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit 
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.

This is about the half-way point of the poem, and marks the heave of theme from a philosophical to a devotional bent. The church was all about facilitating such arcs, and The Dean of St. Pauls well illustrates how they got their wish for so long. I like to think the 21th century will mark another turning point in which we throw all that twaddle into the vaults of history, and actually look upon the universe with our own eyes. I personally have no truck with waiting out to determine Who's Gonna Take the Weight.

So Sad: LHC Scientists are Unable to Create (Mini) Black Holes on Earth

At least not yet

CMS Black Hole The Compact Muon Solenoid seen under construction in late 2008. Wikimedia Commons

Physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider report that after a series of tests, they have not seen any mini black holes, to the chagrin of string theorists and the relief of disaster theorists.

[Ars Technica]

It seems a bit cynical to label people (such as myself) who are concerned about the consequences of theoretical physicists trying to mess with powerful forces they don't understand as 'disaster theorists'. It is one of the hallmarks of western science to seek to confuse the line between productive scientific discovery and hubris (in the Greek tragedy sense). I often wonder what the difference between religion and theoretical physics is (no offense to either) given how much each relies on faith and very minimal experiential evidence to so vehemently demonstrate the answer to the Jeopardy question 42.

But seriously, this LHC business reminds me of the words of the character Victor Frankenstein:

You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.

Some Words about Meditation (The Matrix Analogy)

I've found this spot near shaker lakes where I can do my Tai Chi Wu forms. it is isolated from people, virtually untouched wooded parks. We seem to have quite a lot of those in the greater Cleveland area and I'm coming to appreciate them. This one is perfect because it is overlooking open water right below where the sun sets (as you can see in the picture) and all the best Tai Chi (QiQong) practitioners I have had suggest doing it outside. So, I did at 9am this morning because I needed to make some decisions and noticed my thoughts were getting cloudy and overrun with emotion.

Tai Chi, the philosophy underlying it, and meditation used to be just anecdotally interesting to me (some time in University of Illinois during a Non-western Literature class, I was introduced to the poetry of Lei Tzu and became interested) and then recently my hypertension has gotten to the point where it needs to be managed by medication and I have some difficulty doing so because I believe (at a purely intuitive level) much of high blood pressure (mine at least) has to do with the cumulative effect of living in an industrialized, modern society. Everything is fast paced, on the go. There is always some (mostly material) milestone we are always chasing.


I was never consciously aware of this state of mind. The idea of the Matrix (the movie plot) is where I was first able to concretely able to articulate it. The mind state of just being plugged in, living out a meaningless life (because the life is basically software simulating modern industrialized society in order to preoccupy our minds as our bodies are being used as an energy source unwittingly). Back around the time called 'The Warring States period' (about 600 years before Before Christ) there was a flourish of philosophical literature in Ancient China about the same idea and practitioners of meditation honed their art by making a science of describing the mental process of unleashing yourself from the mundane (they even actually called it 'the Matrix' which makes me wonder if that is where the Wachowski brothers got the idea or at least the term ). They formulated the state of hurried mind, overrun with the 'ten thousand things' as they called them. If you pay attention to how people obsessively text, chase polls, plug into the 24 hour news cycle you might see a pattern of society consumed by self-indulgence, accelerated chatter, and enslaved by technology. Even me, I'm guilty of obsessively scanning Facebook, posting short nothings about something I saw or reading about some other nothing someone else saw or heard about. Reminds me of when I used to play Counter Strike.

The basic idea of the particular kind of philosophy of meditation that I've been studying is to stop thinking (rather than to focus on a particular thing on its own). I told this to my son once, and he didn't understand what it meant to 'stop thinking'. Sounds impossible, right? It isn't. When you are able to become aware of this 'matrix' state of mind and pay attention to your breathing, you can *maneuver* your thought process until it comes to stop completely. There is a specific way you are supposed to breath. I'm not as good as describing it as the people who became practitioners of this, but - as I understand it - you breath like a fetus does; so the air goes to your lower abdomen and not your chest. You breath slowly, with your tongue in a special way (at the roof of your mouth) and your head suspends like you are a marionette and there is a string attached to the top of your head up to the ceiling. When you control the breathing and it is soft in that way, you start to 'turn the light around' - i.e., turn the focus of your perception on to yourself and your thoughts - by becoming aware of your thoughts, where they come from, and what they are - dismissing them one at a time as you do so.

You continue to extinguish your thoughts by becoming aware of them until you are no longer thinking and everything you do is done from pure intuition rather than from your 'conscious' mind, the one that is like Neo before he realized he was just plugged in. From what I understand, there are ways you can empirically verify you are in this state by seeing if you have a buoyant (intoxicated) feeling. Similar - in some sense - to how you might feel if you were hyperventilating and your pores are wide open (or you are on a narcotic or some other illegal drug). The other effect (and this is *my* conjecture) is that you aren't anxious and cease to remain a slave to the gossipy, text messaging, twittering state of mind that modern day society wires us to have (a sort of *de facto* Matrix).

Usually, when I have done it properly, my blood pressure easy drops from 140 over 90, to 110 over 70. I have to measure my BP periodically to determine if the water pill (essentially) I take is working and don't need to try something else (in some ways, my friend who is a Physician has told me, Hypertension is a Syndrome in the sense that it's etiology is not fully understood).

Tai Chi is the perfect calisthenic exercise for me because it is a completely coordinated physical exercise engineered to maintain a meditative state of mind, while strengthening and stretching the body, providing all the benefits you would get from a similar calisthenic exercise: Yoga. This might sound naive, but I'm confident if I am diligent in Tai Chi, meditation, physical activity, disciplined etc. I might get to the point where I don't need to take a water pill to manage my particular chronic disease. So, I have a legitimate motivation, despite the fact that I get the idea that my family members - who are devout Christians in the same evangelic manner that many First, Second generation Nigerians are - often subtly suggest that I'm spiritually 'lost' and obsessed with Chinese culture and in desperate need for 'God to take over my life and for me to give myself to Christ', etc. I have this conversation with people who love me frequently and more often than I can count. I'm always polite and never try to dig to deep into it, because to explain takes too long. But I wanted to try to explain it here for a change.

Meditation has changed my life and *my* testimony (I use the word in the same evangelic sense as they) is how I've been able to maintain after having to bury children after unspeakable tragedy (so much so that I have yet to talk about it on a blog where my brother and I write a ridiculous amount about alot of things). It is something you can't explain but can only experience. But meditation, and my interest in the writings during the period of the warring states period also has to do with the similarities between the times we live in and the times the authors and practitioners lived in. There is alot of chaos, confusion, false ideology and vast power struggles; some visible, most not. The philosophy underlying the calisthenic exercise of Tai Chi was born in a time of chaos when people were trying to understand how a people living subject to violent forces were able to maintain an ethos that made sense, gave them tools to live healthy, gave them a moral framework that required some amount of spiritual discipline, and steeled them against turbulent times.

As I've gotten better in understanding how to adapt to change, doing the fetal, meditative breathing thing, and become more intuitive about the Tai Chi core forms, I've been trying to find local places where I can practice the 'right way'. So, I found this spot that is perfect for it. I think I'm going to go back frequently.


I just recently read a very insightful article on the philsophy of Transhumanism. Kuro5hin had never been on my Blog radar, but will be from now on as I find the posts there insightful and well developed. It's an interesting take on the role of humans in civilized society that critisizes our complete dependency on governing bodies to fullfil our basic needs in life. I would even extend that critisizm to include the various social customs, rules, and regulations (emphasized in some cultures and not in others) that redirect us from discovering our basic, collective needs, most of which are almost always completely removed from the "superficial demands created by modern civilization," as well as make much simplier metrics to our progress.

I recognize the motivation behind such a philosophy, but I disagree with the suggested solution:
whole-hearted embracement of technological advancement. I think as humans in a society that seems increasingly more like organized chaos than ever before, the proper remedy (from an anthropological perspective) is simplifying our goals, needs, perceptions, motivations, and interactions. When you get down the essense of the human condition, our needs have never really advanced beyond Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (and probably never will) and the frantic, anxious nature of how the average person (especially those in metropolitan societies) lives life is evidence of a disconnect from a simpler, more fundamental lifestyle.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia


...I've stood at Auschwitz, where millions were massacred. Then I read about in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands are dying in the Sudan.... ...I look at civilizations that have collapsed: Rome, Greece, China, the Aztecs, the Mayas. And then I look around at our pretensions and our beliefs -- that we are somehow permanent -- and I am reminded that it is the quality of leaders, the courage of a people, the ability to solve problems that enables us to continue for one more year, and then one more year, until our children and our grandchildren have had this freedom, this safety, this health and this prosperity.....

Newt Gingrich on "This I believe" (All Things Considered)

I've long since come to believe that Newt Gingrich as virulent reagent was never more than political affectation. No one ever doubted he was brilliant, but since his tumble from political grace, he has surprised me with an unexpected level of discernment and sensibility in his commentary. Yesterday's audio file on NPR takes the cake for me, though. He brought me up full short. I heard the creed of a man who is genuinely concerned for his civilization, and considers solutions based in humanity and humility, rather than bluster and belligerence. Apparently Gingrich extemporized the entire comment, and I was impressed by its coherence, but much more so by its tenor.

It's too bad that Gingrich decided against such equanimity at the time he was in a position to actually make a difference. Then again, if he had done at that time, his colleagues would likely never have allowed him to ascend to such a position. Such is realpolitik today, and especially so in the cartoon halls of American government.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia


"Aestheticae"—Peter Saint-André

Peter's centerpiece is a very rich quote from Alexander Baumgarten. Do certainly read Peter's entry in its entirety, but two thoughts struck me upon reading it. First a reaction to Baumgarten.

The Greek philosophers and the Church fathers have already carefully distinguished between things perceived [ αισθητα ] and things known [ νοητα ]. It is entirely evident that they did not equate things known with things of sense, since they honored with this name things also removed from sense (therefore, images). Therefore, things known are to be known by the superior faculty as the object of logic; things perceived are to be known by the inferior faculty, as the object of the science of perception, or aesthetic [ aestheticae ].

Dangerous for me to be second-guessing such a figure, but this seems rather pat. The Greeks are too often used as faceless symbols of steely rationality, and this doesn't do them any service. Clearly "The Greek philosophers" here is code for Aristotle-and-not-blinking-Plato (oversimplifying for my part), and although I'm probably more of an Aristotelian myself (I'd guess most classicist computer scientists are), I shrink in horror from the characterization of Idea [ Ιδέα ] as medium of an inferior faculty. And of course even within νοητα there is the spill-over of dianoia [ Διάνοια ], which is in effect a marker between the perceived and the known. Yes, yes, in Plato's discourse, the perception was a matter of empirical judgment belief rather than sensory response (i.e. relating to episteme rather than techne), but I think the point remains that noos is not so easy to pin down.

Also, a reaction to Peter.

[It] is arguable how much logic has truly contributed to the clarifcation of human concepts (personally I think we are more indebted to the agonistic pursuits of scientists than to the armchair theorizing of philosophers and logicians)

I don't know whether the "agonistic" there is meant restrictively, but I think a large proportion of scientific pursuits are not agonistic, and isn't theoretical science as important as experimental science? Applying logic, mathematical induction and yes, even philosophy to abstract models from the comfort of the armchair or bicycle, is, I think essential to efficient construction of experimentation.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia