The Paradox of Wu-Wei

The Paradox of Wu-Wei

Edward Slingerland [5.2.14]

"One way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it's driven by this tension I call "the paradox of wu-wei." Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You've got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous? I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it's at the center of all their theorizing about other things. There are theories about human nature, there are theories about self-cultivation, there are theories about government. These are all ways of grappling with this central tension that's driving a lot of the theorizing."

EDWARD SLINGERLAND is Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and the author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of SpontaneityEdward Slingerland's Edge Bio Page


My training was fairly traditional. I got degrees in sinology, the study of Chinese language, and religious studies. I finished my dissertation, which was a fairly traditional, intellectual history of this concept of wu-wei, or effortless action in early China, and it got accepted by Oxford University Press. I was supposed to clean it up and turn it in, and then everything started to go sideways. The first job I had at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I was about to turn in the manuscript and a graduate student in a class I was teaching handed me this book and said, "You might be interested in this," and it was Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh, which had just come out. This book blew my mind. It immediately solved all of these problems I had with what I was doing.

I had this problem where I was arguing with all these different stories and different texts and saying they're all about wu-wei, they're all about effortless action, but many of the stories don't use the term wu-wei. So how can I say they're really talking about the same concept if they're not using the word? My only solution at that point was just to put the stories side by side and go, "Eh?" Reading about metaphor theory changed everything. The basic argument that Lakoff and Johnson lay out is that we're not disembodied minds floating around somewhere. We are embodied creatures. A lot of our cognition is arising from our embodied interactions with the world, pre-linguistic interactions with the world. And so we build up these basic patterns: walking down a path, dealing with objects, dealing with containers that then structure our abstract thinking. A lot of even very abstract philosophical language is relying on very basic bodily experiences.

What I saw right away was that all these stories that I had thought of as wu-wei stories shared a very small set of metaphors—things like pulling, going along with the flow, losing a sense of yourself. There was a family of "forgetting" metaphors that were about unselfconsciousness. There was a family of metaphors about lack of effort, where the world was doing the work and you just have to ride on that current. There weren't many of them, there's a set of maybe 15 metaphors that are in all these stories that I thought were wu-wei stories. Suddenly I had a really rigorous way of saying that this is how these stories fit together; they're connected by metaphor.

I was trained in a period of humanities that was very social constructivist, so post-modernism "we're products of culture and language all the way down." That made doing comparative work kind of hard because ancient Chinese is just a completely incommensurable thought world from our own. How do you study it? How do you say anything about it? How do you do cross-cultural work? The result, I think, in religious studies and Chinese studies, has been this endless butterfly collecting. So what we were trained to do was a very thick description of what we were studying, explore all the nuances of it, and that's the end of our job. We lay it out there. What can you say about it? We can't analyze it, we can't compare it to anything else. I think this has really led the humanities into a dead end, and it bothered me in grad school, but I didn't know what the alternatives were.

This embodied cognition movement that Lakoff and Johnson are a part of gave me an alternative. We're embodied creatures who are engaged with the world, we're designed by evolution. How can we know what an early Chinese text is talking about? Well, we can look at the metaphors. When Confucius talks about being pulled along by something, like being pulled by a horse, we know what that's like because we've been pulled along by something. So in a way, you can use your body and your embodied experience as a decoder key to understand the experiences of people in other cultures. Suddenly it gave us a very coherent, powerful methodology and a theoretical grounding for a cross-cultural comparative work, which has completely fallen out of fashion in the humanities.

I went back to the primary texts again. I didn't turn in the [original] manuscript. I rewrote the entire thing using metaphor theory and grounding it in the embodied cognition perspective, turned it in, and completely freaked out my colleagues. But it won a major award and that just set me down this path.

Then I got interested in reading more about embodied cognition in general. I wanted to know how metaphors work in our brain, so that got me into cognitive neuroscience. I wanted to know where the brain came from, why it's built the way it's built, so that got me into evolutionary psychology and I started reading the evolutionary psychology literature. I got farther and farther away from what I was trained in, but I saw how this could eventually get brought back to what I work on. The nice thing about tenure is once you get tenure you can do whatever you want. So around this time I got tenure for my relatively traditional work I had done in my field, and that allowed me to essentially drop out for five, six years and retrain myself in cognitive sciences, evolutionary theory, the philosophy of science.

I spent a lot to time going to conferences that were not my usual conferences. I was in LA at the time, at USC, so I'd go up to UCLA to the BEC [Behavior, Evolution and Cognition] Talk series and learn a lot of interesting things. I found that to get a sense of a new field, you can't just plunge into it. You need to actually go to a conference and talk to people and find out what the fault lines are, who disagrees with whom, what are the big factions, and the only way to find that out is to go talk to people. So I would be the weird guy on the periphery who would invite himself along to lunch. People would go off to talk and I'd say, "Hey, can I come?" They were like, "All right. Who's this weird Chinese [studies] guy? We'll let him come along." A lot of these guys are now my collaborators and good colleagues.

It was a strange five years, like going back to school again. But it led to this book, What Science Offers the Humanities, that I wrote about my journey to my tribe—what I learned on my exotic trip and why we should care about it. It actually indirectly led to my new job at UBC, University of British Columbia, because my connection with the people in Psychology there is one of the things that made that job happen. My research chair there is explicitly about serving as a bridge between people in the humanities and people in the sciences. Now we have this group called HECC—Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture—that's explicitly a place to bring scientists and humanity scholars together. In particular, I've now been arguing that the way that integration has been pitched to humanities people has been not very effective. Calls for consilience or vertical integration have tended to come from scientists, scientists telling humanities people, "This is why you need what we have. It'll help you do your job better." The problem is some of these people just don't really know what it is humanities people do. They don't really understand what our concerns are.

What I argue is that the reason we tend to think of the sciences and humanities as two separate things is rooted in mind-body dualism. It's very clear in German. In German the humanities are called the Geisteswissenschaften., “the knowledges of the Geist,” which is the mysterious ghost that inhabits our bodies, and then the sciences or natural sciences are Naturwissenschaften, so they look at dumb nature. We do have this sense of which the humanities study the mysterious movements of the human mind, and science studies the body, and those are two separate projects.

I think the power of the embodied cognition movement and getting out of dualism as a model for the way we think is to say, "No, all these levels are interrelated." So they're different levels, and you don't want to use physics to talk about art when that's completely ridiculous. It's also true that you wouldn't use physics to talk about organic chemistry. Organic chemists at some level will say, "Yeah, our stuff comes out of physics, but we have our new emergent levels of explanation and new entities we talk about that we need to do our work." The same is true of the humanities. So we have new concepts. We have new explanatory principles emerging at higher levels of explanation, but they should all be seen as grounded in the lower levels, and that's where you have the bridge for helpful communication to happen. But it's got to be two ways, and there's got to be a recognition that when it comes to scientifically studying human phenomena, you need to have humanities expertise helping you out. The failure to do that often leads to some really silly looking work, and it turns off humanities scholars.

After proselytizing to my humanities colleagues, I've now been proselytizing to scientists and going to psychologists and saying, "Hey, you want to study religion? You want to study the self? You want to study any of these things, you actually need to talk to humanities scholars for a variety of reasons."

One of them is just getting beyond the WEIRD problem, right? 90 something percent of social psychology and research is done on university undergraduates in North America. My colleagues at UBC, Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan and Steve Heine, published a big piece in BBS [Behavioral and Brain Sciences] three years ago or so, called "The Weirdest People in the World?" They laid out the evidence for, first of all, the fact that psychology and research is overwhelmingly based on North America undergraduates—usually psychology majors—and they are, it turns out, the WEIRDest subgroup of the WEIRDest subgroup of the WEIRDest people who have ever lived on the planet. In some cases that may not matter, but if you're making claims about universal human cognition, that might be a problem. WEIRD stands for [Western], Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.

It really is a pattern of life. If you think about why university undergraduates are so WEIRD: they leave home, they're living in these dorms with a lot of other people their own age, they're disconnected from their families, they're disconnected from productive work. People never lived like that before—taken out of their natural community frameworks, and it changes human cognition in very basic ways. So one of the things we've been trying to do is get scientists to start taking culture seriously. The fact that we're not just Pleistocene brains who happen to have a little bit of culture thrown on, but that human culture plays this very profound role in shaping our cognition and our genes as well.

Our framework we work with is sometimes called Dual Inheritance Theory: we are the product of our genes, so we have information passed down through genes, but we're the product of our culture, too, and there are very powerful cultural evolutionary processes that can come up with solutions to problems that no single generation can figure out, no single person can figure out. What we are as people is the integration of those two streams of information. You have to take the culture side seriously, which is not always done in some of the early consilience approaches.

We're trying to get psychologists and other scientists to take culture seriously. We're trying to get them to realize that they actually have a whole amazing subject pool available that they've never thought about, which is dead people. Historians study dead people, right? We study them through these traces: archeological traces, textual traces. You can't do some things with these subjects. You can't do controlled experiments, you can't run an fMRI on them, but you can do lots of things. And there are a lot of them—people have been dying for a long time. And they're very diverse—people have been dying all over the world. You can work with ancient Chinese subjects. You can work with early Egyptian subjects. You don't need human subject approval; you don't have to pay them—they're free. So I'm trying to get people interested in human cognition to see that we have a lot to learn from the traces of past cognition. Luther Martin at [University of] Vermont has called this "data from dead minds." We have these records of dead minds and we can learn a lot about them. Trying to get scientists to take seriously humanistic expertise in terms of our ability to unlock that data is a whole new exciting data set for people. The people living today are only a small fraction of the people who have ever lived, and we don’t even study a small fraction of that fraction, which just study this little weird part of that fraction.

Our major research initiative right now is one that I'm a P.I. on. It's this six-year, three million dollar project from the Canadian government to study the evolution of religion and morality. It's explicitly founded on an atheistic framework.  We have two basic questions we want to answer, and we think the answers are connected. One is why are humans religious? From a biological perspective, it seems odd, because you would think that organisms that went to the mountain and sacrificed, who burned their food for non-existent entities, who spent 30% of gross natural product (early China), got buried in the ground with dead people, right, you would think that organisms that didn't waste all that time and energy and resources would outcompete ones that did, but that's not what we see. One of the puzzles is just why do people believe in stuff that doesn't exist?

The other puzzle is that, human beings, for most of our evolutionary history we've lived in relatively small groups, hunter-gatherer bands, much like our primate relatives. Around 10,000 years ago, we start coming together into these big agricultural communities where we're having to interact with strangers all the time. We have a really good story about how small scale interaction and cooperation works. So in kin selection, you cooperate with people who share your genes and reciprocal altruism. You cooperate with people you can keep track of and monitor, at least through reputation, whether or not they're reliable. Those mechanisms can't get you beyond a certain number, and so there's something else going on when people start living in a city and interacting with strangers all the time.

We think that those two puzzles are connected. We think the reason that religion has survived and actually changed in a predictable way has to do with the role it plays in tying human groups together.

Our basic hypothesis is religion arises out of a byproduct, so Pascal Boyer style cognitive mistakes. We have theory of mind that we evolved for social cognition, but it overfires, and so things happen and we think that there's a reason for it. There's a storm and we think that it must be some intentional being who's behind the storm. We've got to figure out why they're angry at us. That's a mistake. So you get basic religious cognition as an over firing of stuff that evolved for other reasons. That gives you a small scale society religion. So miscellaneous supernatural beings. Probably gives you afterlife beliefs. But what it doesn't get you is what you see in what Ara [Norenzayan] calls "big god religions." These are religions where you've got a morally concerned high god. You've got supernatural surveillance. The high god can see you, not only everywhere but often can see into you and see your motives, not just your behavior. You have all sorts of costly displays and practices that tie people together. You've got ritual practices where people sing and march in unity and do all sorts of ecstatic practices together that bind them.

This is a package. You have moral realism, so you get the idea that the normative values of our tribe don't just happen to be something we like, but they're God's will or they're the law of karma, or they're somehow grounded in the reality of the world. This a very powerful set of cultural practices, and once they evolve, once they arise, they allow groups to coordinate in a very powerful way and outcompete other groups. It's kind of a byproduct combined with cultural group selection story.

These kinds of theories are not new. Anyone who does religious studies knows about Durkheim's functionalist theory of religion. There's actually an early Chinese thinker who had an early functionalist view of religion about social solidarities. These ideas have been around for 2000 years. What's new is we're trying to formulate this as a hypothesis and a set of sub-hypotheses that can actually be tested against data and tested against a massive variety of data. We've got an ethnographic-experimental team, they're doing experimental games all over the world. We're not just studying WEIRD people—we're going to the field and studying small scale societies all over the world. We're doing laboratory experiments, we're doing neuroimaging experiments, we're doing ecologically valid field projects. We've got people going out to fire-walking ceremonies—Dimitris Xygalatas did a study of fire walking practices in southern Spain, wiring people up with heart monitors and getting some real data about what's going on, both in the participants and the observers when people are practicing rituals like this. So all sorts of contemporary data. Then we've got a historical team that's looking at this "data from dead minds." We're looking at textual records, we're looking at archeological records. We're constructing a massive database in collaboration with some people at Oxford and UConn of cultural histories so that we can actually test theories about cultural change in a rigorous way because we'll have data we can actually run analyses on.

The way this would work with the historical database is, so, we're actually coding the Maya, that's one of our priority areas. So you have a theory that you can't get beyond a certain community size unless you have cohesion created by human sacrifice or this type of ritual practice or this other thing. People have theories like this, right? Or, you've got to have certain ecological conditions. Typically when people make claims like this, they then pull out a couple examples. They say, "Oh, the Maya did it, and here's another example I know of."  It's completely ad hoc. They're often relying on data that they don't understand themselves very well because they're not experts in ancient Mayan or whatever other examples we're using.

What the database is going to allow us to do is get beyond ad hoc claims and actually have a complete record of certain parts of the world where we can say, "If that's the case let's run a regression analysis and see if it really is the case that group size tracks this other thing." We can track religions over time, so we can actually track a religion that had a certain type of sacrifice and then they drop it or they move to something else. What does that do to group size? What does it do to warfare variables? Is it in response to increased warfare? We're gathering data on all sorts of social complexity and political variables. The idea is that it's a way to get beyond "Just So" stories. I mean, people have a theory about history and they trot out a couple of cherry picked examples and that's their claim. We can actually now mathematically, statistically, test claims because we'll have a complete data set in certain parts of the world.

"Just So" stories come from the human desire to explain things. A "Just So" story, looked at in a positive way, is a hypothesis that doesn't have data to test it yet. So you have to have "Just So" stories. You have to have these sorts of claims in order to generate hypotheses. But it's going to remain a "Just So" story unless you can formulate it in a way where it's actually testable empirically. That's what we're trying to do. We really haven't had the tools to take theories like Durkheim's or theories like Xunzi's and test them empirically, but we now do, so we have ways of testing it with contemporary subjects and testing it against the historical record.

If you have a claim: I have a "Just So" story that human sacrifice is the origin of people's belief in a high god, and you can't get high gods unless there's some kind of primal act of sacrifice, and that's where people get the idea of a high god. We'll have a database that will have complete records of the religious systems around the world. You can actually look and see if that's true. We'll say, "No, actually in 80 percent of these societies, you get high gods without any kind of human sacrifice." Or maybe it is the case that human sacrifice really closely tracks the presence of high gods. We have claims about supernatural surveillance, that you can't get beyond a certain group size unless you have gods who are watching and who punish you. We're going to now have data on that. This starts with a "Just So" story, so you know, watchful gods, punishing gods are necessary to get people to behave.

There were early Chinese theories about this. There was an early Chinese thinker, Mozi, who said—there's a bit of atheism among the elites in his time, people questioning the existence of supernatural beings—"You can't do that. If people don't believe in ghosts and spirits they're going to go crazy. You need ghosts and spirits as this invisible, omnipresent police force to keep people in line." But again, it's a "Just So" story he's telling. Well, this has its function. We'll now have data from all over the world that's correlated with population size and all sorts of political socioeconomic variables, and we're going to be able to see if it is the case that you need to have surveilling, morally concerned gods to get beyond a certain group size? Is that true all over the world? Is it only true in certain sorts of ecological situations?

The second part of our hypothesis about this, we think this package of stuff—the surveillance, moral high gods, all of these things—is necessary to get a certain level of cooperation off the ground. And once you get it, groups that have it expand at the cost of other groups. Once you get a moral religion and big god religion, you start going out. A nice design feature of a big god religion is that you proselytize, and you police your in-group people, so these are the religions that have spread.

The religions that have all the characteristics we're talking about are not that common historically. We tend to think of them as the default in religion now because they've been wildly successful—they've spread all over the world. But we also think that some parts of the world figured out a way to start to have secular institutions take over some of the work of religion.

We think in societies where you have strong secular institutions, you have a good police force that you can trust, you have basic medical care, some of the work that religion traditionally did gets offloaded onto secular institutions, and we have some good data that they have some more psychological effects. Ara Norenzayan has found that priming people with words like "courts" or "police," so secular institutional primes, has the same effect on their enhanced cooperation as reminding them of God or using religion primes.

What's happened in the modern West is you've got the work that used to be done by religion now being done in large part by secular institutions. Now that selection pressure has been taken off religions and they can start evolving in all these weird ways, so you can get Unitarians, right? Kind of like, "Oh, whatever you believe is cool." You get more loving gods.

One of the things we want to look at historically is to see if we can demonstrate a relationship between failed institutions or lack of institutions and punishing gods. We think that gods have to be angry and punishing to do their work, and you don't start to get happy loving gods until you're materially secure. One of the ways we're going to look at this is look at sermons all over the US. We've got a database of sermons. We know when they were preached and where. We know the zip codes. By using the zip codes we can get information on things like crime rates and poverty rates, and we want to see if there's going to be a correlation. We have now very powerful text analytic programs that can churn through the text of these sermons and see if God is being characterized as angry or loving, and we're going to predict that in places with reduced material security, God is going to get angrier. And ideally we'll see a pattern where as things get better, God becomes more loving and accepting.

David Sloan Wilson is very prescient in this way, a lot of these ideas came from David. One of the advances will be, in the case of Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson has some historical case examples, but again he has cherry picked them because he has no systematic way to look at the historical record. One of the things we'll be able to do is take some of David's theories and actually test them rigorously against the historical record.

Consilience fails when you adopt the, maybe call it the "shake 'n bake" method. There's an institute at my university that adopts this strategy, which I think is terrible, which is take a bunch of people from different disciplines, throw them together, give them some food and somehow something is going to emerge from this. The way we're doing it at UBC is problem-based consilience. We bring together people who all care about the same issue, you know, "what's the role of religion in human cooperation?" Coming from different disciplines and they want to answer more or less the same questions. They just have different tools. And if you give people a shared problem, it's a much more productive interaction. But to turn then to how you get humanities people involved, so talking about Chinese studies, because I wan to talk to my China people about why they should get into this stuff, you have to show humanities scholars how taking consilience seriously and adopting some understandings and even methods from the sciences are going to help them do things they're already doing and help them answer questions they already have.

One example is in my field is, there's been a big debate about holism in early China. There's a claim that the Chinese are holistic in a variety of ways. One of the ways is mind-body dualism. There's a claim that the Chinese completely lack any concept of mind-body dualism; that's a Western idea, it comes from Descartes or Plato. The Chinese don't have it, they're holistic. This is something we've been debating for decades, centuries actually in some cases. And it doesn't go anywhere because the people who are arguing that the Chinese are holistic have some passages they can trot out that look like they don't have mind-body dualism. People, like myself, who have been defending the idea that they have some kind of mind-body dualism, we can trot out some other passages. And it goes around in circles like this and this is how it's been going.

If you break out of that—just the texts themselves—and start to try to put the text in the bigger embodied cognition perspective, you've got evidence from cognitive science that some kind of mind-body dualism is a human universal. We've got Paul Bloom's work, all the stuff he talks about in Descartes' Babies. It emerges very early in children cross culturally, not just WEIRD children, not just children in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but children in the Amazon. We understand how it works neurologically now, why we have theory of mind. We understand the selection pressures that would have given us theory of mind. We understand something about the genetic basis of theory of mind.

So there's a lot of evidence that some kind of mind-body dualism, not Cartesian, but sloppy mind-body dualism, is just a natural outcome of the way the human brain is put together. That really changes the hermeneutic or interpretive balance in a field because every one of the arguments about holism, lack of holism in early China, is typically a social constructivist. So they think there's no way you can get out of the text and have any kind of evidence that would matter. But if you take the stuff seriously now the burden of proof has radically shifted. These Chinese people are Homo sapiens; they have the same brains that we have more or less; they interacted with a physical world that was very similar. The default assumption should be, if this is a human universal, they should have had it, too. Now the burden of proof shifts to people who really want to demonstrate that they didn't have it.

The other way in which engaging with science helps on this particular issue is, I've been trying to pioneer these new approaches to studying texts. So instead of just picking passages that happen to support your position, we did a study where we actually pulled out every single passage. The nice thing is that the early China stuff is all online and searchable. It's all in electronic form. We pulled out every single passage that had the word "xin" in it, which if anything means "mind," it's this word. It literally refers to the heart, sometimes translated as heart-mind. We pulled out every passage that had this word in it, and then we had teams of coders who were applying our hypothesis go and code how "xin" was being characterized in the passage.We developed this website where they'd click on radio buttons.

So this is adopting methods from the sciences. Coders who were blind to the hypothesis, we've measured inter-coder reliability measures, so we saw how much they agreed about the characters of "xin," which was surprisingly high. Then we did the statistical analysis. We can say, "Hey, look, there's a trend. " One of the things we found is that by the end of the period we're looking at a full ten percent of the times that "xin" is being used in a sentence, it's being contrasted with the body. So that suggests that there's something very different about the "xin," and then we did a test of other organs. So the holistic claim is the "xin" is just an organ in the body, just like your liver or your lung. So we looked at liver and lung, and you don't see the same pattern with liver and lung. So there's something about the way "xin" is appearing.

In the latest phase, we're actually switching to automated techniques, so we have now a massive corpus. It's got six million Chinese characters in it. It's all of the received texts from the earliest period up through the Han Dynasty, up until about 200 to 300 AD. We're looking at things like collocation rates. So if we are churning our way through the text and we run into "xin," how far do we have to go before we hit a body word? And then with other organs? You'd run into one of the other organ terms. How far do you have to go until you get to one of the body terms?

We have a huge variety of genres, so we've got philosophical texts, we've got medical texts, we've got histories. Some of these texts are histories, some of them are poetry. It’s too much for human coders to go through.

These were written originally on bamboo, the earliest texts were written on bamboo. Some of the texts in our corpus are actually archeological texts, so there's texts we dug up and they have the bamboo strips and you can clean them up, and there's characters on them, and read them. It's amazing. One of the most exciting things that has happened in my field is this discovery of these new archeological texts. Some of them are versions of received text but very different versions. Some of them are texts that we knew about from bibliographies, but they've been lost. We never had them. And then some of them are just completely new texts we'd never heard of. We don't know what they are. And what's exciting about it is these are straight from the ground. We dug them up. We know more or less when the tomb was sealed.

This Guodian find is one of the more interesting ones. We know they were sealed around 300 BC. So no one had seen these texts. It was discovered in '95, when the tomb was discovered. The texts were published in '98, and no one had seen these texts since 300 BC. So no editors have messed with them, no one's been changing words around. It's challenging to figure them out, because this was before the script was unified in 221, so it's a different form of Chinese script, and there're debates about how to understand the characters. Some of the strips are broken off and we’re missing parts. The way the texts work is they're written on bamboo and then they're tied together and then you roll them up. That's how they were stored. When they opened the tomb, the string degenerated a long time ago, and it was actually filled with water, too, so you've got this pile of sticks lying around covered in mud. You've got to clean them up, and then you've got to figure out which ones go together, using clues like their length or how they're beveled on the ends or if the handwriting looks like it's the same. Then you've got to figure out what order they should go in. It's like putting together this massive jigsaw puzzle. It's very exciting.

We've got a new version of the Tao Te Ching, this Daoist [Taoist] text very popular in the West, the Laozi. We have a new version of it that's very different from the received version. We have a couple texts that look like they’re from a lost school of Confucianism. The two main schools of Confucianism that survived the Warring States were the strong "human nature is good" claim and the strong "human nature is bad" claim, these extreme positions that were staked out. There's some hints that there was a school in the middle that was saying, "Well, we've got good features and bad features we need to train." We think we've discovered texts from this lost school. It's the most exciting thing that's happened in my field in a really long time.

This is during the Warring States period. China is fragmented into these little statelets, and they're all fighting viciously with each other and they're getting swallowed up one by one by the big shark that's coming in from the West, the state of Qin that ends up unifying China. And rulers were basically running think tanks where they were bringing people in and saying, "Tell me what I can do to change my state so that I can defend myself against these people who are going to try to kill me." So on the parts of the rulers, they were desperate to get new ideas, and you have these philosophers traveling from state to state peddling their ideas and saying, "You know, don't listen to the Confucians. You got to do this." It was a very vibrant period in Chinese philosophy. It was very interesting. And now we're discovering new stuff about it.

This was roughly 600 to 221 BC. So in 221, the state of Qin unifies China and it's the first time what we think of as China is politically unified. It's a very exciting period, and now we have a new glimpse into it from these texts. There are new texts that are coming out, too. We have this Guodian find, then we've got the Shanghai strips, which just appeared on the black market in Hong Kong, no one knows where they came from. They were even bought by the Shanghai Museum, and we think they're from near Guodian, the other find, but they were grave robbed. Somebody robbed the grave, took the gold and valuable stuff, and then tried to sell off these strips. These are, again, a combination of stuff we already knew about but new versions of them and then completely new texts that we don’t know how to characterize.

There are books on the Warring States and what the debates were and what the stakes were and various theories about why the schools that won out won, and why the schools that didn't died.

For instance, there was the Mohist School, I've mentioned Mozi. They were the earliest—that we know of—consequentialists. They were utilitarian consequentialists. They were arguing that the whole problem with the Warring States is favoritism, tribalism, and so what you needed to do is rationally see that if everyone treated everyone else impartially, we'd be able to get cooperation working better. They had this very rationalist consequentialist model of reality, and they were quite successful. They were much more organized than the Confucians, and they actually organized themselves into quasi-military type structures where they had leaders and people in chains of command. They were also pacifists of a kind, so they were against offensive warfare, and they put their money where their mouth was, or their bodies where their mouth was. They became experts in defensive fortifications and defensive military techniques, and when they heard that a state was going to be attacked, they would send their people there to help protect the state, to try to tamp down aggressive warfare.

They were a very interesting group, and then all of a sudden they just die out. China gets unified, and then you don't hear anything more from them. We wouldn't even know about them, except the Mohist texts got preserved in the Daoist canon, which is very weird. They got preserved in this whole other collection. We wouldn't have even known about it. And the most plausible reason why is that when the first emperor of Qin took over, the idea of having highly organized bands of people running around who were experts in defensive warfare didn't seem very appealing to him.

I think the most plausible story is he systematically hunted them down and wiped them out and destroyed every copy of the text he could get his hands on. He won out, he tried to get rid of Confucianism—there was a burning of the Confucian books and apparently Confucian scholars got buried alive with their texts. But those slipped through and actually made a comeback.

How does this inform China today? China today is a weird situation because all of this stuff—Confucianism, for instance—was part of the feudal past that had to get swept away. During the Cultural Revolution, it was like the first emperor of Qin all over again. Confucian texts were burned. Confucian scholars were sent down to the countryside. Anyone who had traditional learning was viewed as suspect. But there's been this weird shift in the last six, seven years where suddenly the Chinese government is embracing Confucianism as somehow Chinese and they're trying to build this patriotic movement around Confucianism. They have these Confucius Institutes, the Chinese language training schools that they're putting all over the world, that's the Confucius Institute. He is like Goethe. It's like the Goethe Institute for the German government. He represents what Chinese cultural identity is.

It's partly a response to the fact that it's an admission, we're not really Maoists anymore. We're not really doing the whole Communism thing anymore. So then what are we doing? Did the West win? Are we just converting to capitalism and admitting that actually the West was right all along? That's not acceptable. China's got to be different. Partly it's saying, "Okay, what our identity is, is Confucian," which is different in important ways from Western society. The other thing that's going on is conveniently their interpretation of Confucianism as authority-based harmony. You've got to emphasize harmony over rights. Human rights are not part of Confucianism is the claim, and so, "Why don't we value human rights? It's not part of our cultural tradition. And when you talk to us about human rights, you're trying to impose Judeo-Christian ideas on us, and we're not like that. We're Confucian."

There's a kind of sinister side to it where it's being used to justify authoritarianism.  But it's being revived; people are studying Confucianism again. Students are actually getting interested in traditional Chinese thought in a way that seems bizarre to me.

I lived in Taiwan in the 1980s, and people would say, "Well, what are you doing here?" and I'd say, "I'm studying classical Chinese and learning early Chinese philosophy." And they looked at me as if I was a freak. It's like I said I was studying papyrus making or something. They just didn't understand. They were studying science and economics and modern stuff. But they also want to carve out their own identity, they don’t just want to be the West, so I think a lot of this recent revival of Chinese thought is coming from this question of, What is China? Is it just the West? Or is it something different? And the answer that they’ve come up with is that they are different, and Confucianism is the key to that. So the government is putting a lot of money behind things like conferences on Confucianism and the 21st Century, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

In a lot of my recent work I've been arguing that these early Chinese models of ethical reasoning, ethical training are psychologically much more, from a modern perspective, more plausible than some modern Western ideas. In some ways I'm arguing that the early Chinese got some stuff right that we got wrong in the Western philosophical tradition. They like to hear that. And I believe this is true. They were very sophisticated moral psychologists, and they've got some insights into the way that we reason about morality and the way we train people that I think are a really important corrective to the way we've been thinking about ethics in the West.

But on the other hand I am a critic of certain aspects of the modern Chinese state, and I also worry about the rate of development. I was there in the 80s in mainland China, and going from Taiwan to mainland China was like going in a time machine. Taiwan was relatively modernized. I don't know how I got to Hong Kong, but I took a boat up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Canton, to Guangzhou. It was an overnight boat, and I got out in the morning and it was like I'd gone back in time 100 years; there were no cars, no motorcycles, everyone was riding bikes. It was an unbelievable change. Now I go back to Guangzhou and there's these superhighways and these huge buildings, and it all happened—well, that was not that long ago. So the rate of change is wild. It's just incomprehensible. I just wonder about how sustainable it is, because it's creating a lot of wealth inequality and a lot of dislocation.

I still have my area that is my specialty and now I'm going to bring these new tools to bear on that specialty. A good example is that Effortless Action book back in 2003 that was my transformed dissertation. I have an argument there that one way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it's driven by this tension I call "the paradox of wu-wei." Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You've got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous?

So, I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it's at the center of all their theorizing about other things. Their theories about human nature, their theories about self-cultivation, their theories about government—these are all ways of grappling with this central tension that's driving a lot of the theorizing. That claim got criticized, so my former advisor wrote a very scathing critique of it. A lot of people didn't buy this claim that, first of all, it's really a paradox, and second of all that it really has any kind of central prominence in early Chinese thought.

One of the things I've been able to do to with the new knowledge I've gained from the sciences is come back to this, revisit this topic again, and say, look, from a cognitive neuroscientific perspective, we actually understand why this is a paradox, why using cognitive control to shut down cognitive control is tricky—it's inherently tricky. We have a lot of evidence from social psychology and sports science and other areas that show that in fact effortless, spontaneous action is very desirable, because hot cognition is very powerful. Work on the power of the unconscious, the adaptive unconscious. We also, from an evolutionary perspective, have an understanding of why the fact that the paradox is a paradox is why it gets focused on.

Essentially in our theories about where large scale societies come from, the crucial role is played by trust and commitment. It's really crucial, if we're going to cooperate I've got to believe that you're committed to this religion or belief system that we are sharing and not just in it for your own good. There're lots of ways I can assess your commitment. One of them is whether or not you're being spontaneous. If I see evidence of cognitive control in you, I start to think that maybe something's going on, because when we're being conscious and using cognitive control, we're often doing it to deceive or lie or figure out what's best for us. The Chinese believe when you're in wu-wei, you have this power called "de." It's like a charismatic virtue. People like you, people trust you. I'm arguing that we can understand this from a naturalistic perspective as the attractiveness someone who is spontaneous kicks off, and for very good game theoretical reasons. Basically you can relate it directly to evolutionary concerns about cooperation.

So, I've got all these new bits of evidence and new tools that I can bring from evolutionary studies, from cognitive science, from social psychology to then revisit this argument that I made much earlier. My argument has changed in various ways, but I think it's much richer, and I've got a whole lot more backing for the claim now.