Sunday 9 March 2008

Tai Chi and reality

This afternoon I went to a talk by a Tai Chi teacher. It was billed as philosophical, but it was not philosophical in any western sense, nor even in many of the eastern senses. The teacher’s central claim was that there was something beyond plus and minus, beyond yin and yang, which he had discovered. He did not say, but I think he was implying, that we could discover it too.

I do not accept his claim, or at least I do not feel inclined to search for this thing myself. If this thing beyond is a state of the person (and I am deliberately not saying whether we should break that down into a state or mind and/or a state of body), its realisation will be in the form of a disposition of molecules and the route to it will be some form of conduct, whether actions or inaction. That much, we can leave to the scientists to explain. If we are asked to see it in non-scientific terms as part of the route to it, that is just practical psychology. If we are asked to see it in non-scientific terms because that is the best way in which its nature can be conveyed, that is not problematic either. When we are invited to picture elementary particles and their interactions in a given way, we are invited to think of them in a way which does not correspond very closely to the way they actually are, but that does not matter.

Can we go further? Could this thing beyond be a reality that was beyond the reach of science? The teacher obviously thought that it was. In a discussion afterwards, someone asked me whether I rejected the claims made because they were not scientific. I saw that my criticism should not be put in those terms. I am happy to say that the beauty of a Mozart symphony is real, meaning the beauty itself, not the brain states which hearing the symphony induces, even though the beauty as such is not the sort of thing in which scientists would traffic. My criticism is that the thing of which the teacher spoke could not have even that sort of reality. The beauty of a work of art depends on its having a certain articulation. That of which the teacher spoke was without form, and void.

That leaves the reality of myth. The characters and other elements in myths, including many religions, are real for the believer. But I do not think that the teacher could lay claim to that kind of reality for the thing about which he spoke. The reason is that he started by describing, or failing to describe, the thing directly. Myths start as stories, characters in a world. Only in later generations do we analyse them and explain what they are really about. A story cannot have the real presence of a myth if it was deliberately constructed from the beginning as a way to give substance to something of uncertain status, or at least it cannot have that real presence for anyone who is aware that it was constructed for that purpose. A decoded myth is no longer a myth, but a metaphor.