Imagine you are some kind of super-intelligent alien located on a planet way out in the furthest reaches of the galaxy. You are looking out through a high-powered telescope, and have found this little planet called Earth. Your civilization’s advanced technology allows you not only to see across the vast expanse of space, but also to look across time. Through your telescope, you witness the birth of the planet, and see its whole history play out in fast-forward.
As you watch, the approximately 4.5 billion years of the Earth’s history unfolds before your eyes. First, the planet is born in an explosive galactic collision. As the fiery, gaseous heap of stone gradually cools, microscopic prokaryotes emerge and develop into multicellular organisms. Gradually, more and more complex plant and animal life takes form and populates the planet, transforming its atmosphere. From way out in space, the details of these lifeforms can’t be made out too clearly. In a seeming blur, one species after another evolves, thrives for a time, and then recedes again. Life organizes and collapses and reorganizes over and over again in a fractal pattern of near-infinite complexity. You can see all of these countless living beings constantly killing and birthing each other, eating and defecating out one another, as one throbbing blob of biological matter and energy. Sometimes you think you can make out some kind of cosmic order in all of it—at other times, it just seems like random chaos.
Somewhere along the line, human beings become visible as part of this mass. At this resolution, individual people are impossible to make out, but humanity as a whole is clear, its collective bioenergetic presence writhing, contorting, and pulsating across the planet. Cities, states, and empires burst in and out of existence, now burning each other to the ground, now swallowing each other up. Occasionally, viruses (also part of the whole of life) or some other momentary blip wipes out large portions of the population in a flash. But humanity bounces back, growing even larger and more vibrant, as if driven by a higher — or perhaps a sinister — intelligence. As you watch, lifeforms, the atmosphere, the planet as a whole is transformed again and again in a sometimes interdependent and sometimes antagonistic dance alongside human life.
Let’s say you also have a transgalactic microphone that allows you to hear the babble of this human biomass, as it talks to itself incessantly. You hear the cries of pain of billions upon billions of its voices, a sound that is matched by the same volume of joyous laughter. The soft words of kindness spoken by mothers and lovers are blended together with the words of violence and hate hurled at enemies and combatants. And through it all, the constant drone of the questions that arise from humanity: What’s happening here? Who are we? What does this all mean?
And then, after all of this raucous hurly-burly—one might even say this Carnaval-like cacophony if one had read the previous posts in this series—you arrive at the present. You now take the opportunity to zoom your lens all the way to the limits of its power, right down to the level of an individual person. You carefully tune your microphone as well, in order to pick one voice out from the crowd. For just a moment, you decide to give this person your full attention, letting them occupy center stage in this epic cosmic drama. Straining your eyes and ears across the light-years, you listen intently. And, ringing out across the universe, you hear:
Listen up, people! All of reality is described in this book that was written 2000 years ago. This particular book contains the truth, and anyone who disagrees with it is wrong.
Wait, what? you ask yourself. Am I hearing this right? You tune your equipment and listen in again, this time letting your instruments focus on another person nearby. Again, you pick up words loud and clear:
No, you’re wrong! This is all really just the interplay of inert physical matter. This is plain as day to see, and anyone who disagrees with this is ignorant.
In disbelief, you readjust and pick out a third person, listening in one more time:
You’re both fools! Truth is merely a social construct, contingent on historical and cultural factors. Anyone who disagrees with this analysis is just being naïve.
Alas! you think to yourself, if only my equipment could broadcast and not just receive signals. If only I could reach these people across the galactic airwaves. I would tell them about all of the details of the combusting, writhing, frothing vibrancy I’ve witnessed throughout this planet’s history. I would communicate the infinite complexity I’ve seen in the processes of birthing, dying, becoming, and changing. I would share the sorrow and the beauty, the suffering and the redemption, I’ve witnessed throughout the story of the Earth.
Oh, well, you think to yourself, I guess they’re on their own. And you move your gaze to a different far-off corner of the galaxy.
In the weeks since I wrote the first two posts in this series on “meta approaches” to Asian medicine, I’ve heard feedback from a variety of people who fall across the traditionalist, modernist, and postmodernist epistemes or worldviews suggested in the parable above (see definitions in post #1). Some readers have pointed out that a specific detail about one or another thing I’ve said is incorrect. Many have felt I’ve overstated the differences between these three groups, or ignored the cases where they genuinely have gotten along with one another or produced true insights. Others have responded by doubling-down on their own native episteme, upset that I’m just not getting why their perspective is actually the right one.
Regardless of the particulars of their responses — more than a few of which have been perfectly valid critiques — many of the people who have written or commented to me have expressed unease about my three core arguments: abandoning the need to integrate these epistemes, letting them co-exist as incommensurable approaches, and allowing ourselves to productively oscillate between or among them. Whatever the specifics of their position may be, most seem to agree that this would be radically destabilizing.
Exactly what would be destabilized has varied — for some it’s their professional identity, for others their beliefs or values, and for still others it’s the integrations and syntheses they have worked so hard to build up. Some respondents have seen the potential for the destabilization of their very conception of self. As one emailer put it: “I don’t agree with the incommensurability [of the three epistemes], for if I did I would be suffering from a triple split personality.” Another person shared the reaction of a family member: “If I let myself think about that, the whole world that I based my life upon would fracture. I can’t go there.” Someone else wrote that “one first has to have a fully developed identity before one can disassociate from or transcend it, and I don’t see most humans fully developing [to that level].”
To be clear, my proposal is indeed intended to be destabilizing in precisely those ways. I am indeed inviting us to fracture our selves: not just to triple-split, but maybe even to shatter into a million disparate pieces. Indeed, one way my position could be summarized is that an overly ossified sense of self is the problem. The self-assuredness that one of these epistemes has enabled us to arrive at the truth, or the belief that the synthesis of two or three of these will someday enable us to do so, or even the very idea that there is an ultimate truth that one could someday arrive at in the first place, is the problem. The notion that any ultimate truth could actually be captured by any particular paradigm is very much the problem. The three partisans in the parable above are laughable caricatures precisely because they’re three puny “blind men” groping at a cosmos-sized elephant. They are each totally convinced that they’ve got the one solution to the mystery, complexity, and enormity of the whole of reality… and that they’re going to tell us all about it.
In fact, every one of the epistemes we’re discussing recognizes that reality simply cannot be fully understood in that way. Each acknowledges that a deep mystery lies at the very core of existence. Postmodernism wears its uncertainty principle on its sleeve, seeing all “facts” as contingent and relative, constantly changing in response to social and cultural forces. In traditionalist terms, at the bottom of every form of Asian medicine I know of is the Dao that can’t be spoken, the ineffability of the cosmic Being, the emptiness of all dharmas, and so forth. Even the hardest of sciences knows that, at the highest resolution, everything solid dissolves into quantum probabilities and paradoxes. Deep down, these epistemes know themselves to be nothing more than approximations —useful perhaps, but always temporary, unstable, and partial. Each warns against the hubris of reductionism and totalization.
In other words, it’s not the epistemes themselves that are to blame for the self-assuredness of the blind men. Rather, it’s the rigidity with which they adhere to their convictions, the arrogance with which they inflate their disciplines into totalizing explanatory frameworks. It’s the earnestness with which they tell themselves comforting mythologies, and the violence — metaphorical and, all too often, actual — with which they bludgeon dissenting voices to prevent being challenged by other equally mythological stories.
My proposal for a metamodern and metadisciplinary approach is also a proposal for a metamorphic approach. Meta meaning beyond, and morphe meaning shapes or forms. An approach beyond forms. An approach that doesn’t need to create and defend stable shapes. An approach that oscillates or bounces or flows from one perspective to another without seeking a stable position. Whether we move through these fluctuations with fluidity or with abruptness, with grace or with jerkiness, is not important. What matters is that we never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve discovered a final answer to what all of this really means, or how all of this really works, and that we thrive on the uncertainty.
To be clear, I am by no means arguing that different types of thought haven’t made contributions to human understanding. Each of the three epistemes is an exceedingly valuable lens that reveals much about the world, and to argue otherwise is patently ridiculous. If you think I am arguing that tradition or science or academic postmodernism are “wrong,” then you have misunderstood what I’m saying in these posts completely. It is, in fact, critical to my argument to recognize the truth-value of all three epistemes. Each is equally right within its own domain of expertise. But, it is equally critical to recognize that they are all incomplete in their understandings of the whole. They each grant us an accurate but partial view of reality, revealing some truths while obscuring others. It is also critical to my argument to accept their incommensurability: that they do not fit together like neatly aligning puzzle pieces, and that their synthesis is highly problematic. If you don’t agree with these basic premises, which were argued in more detail in the previous posts, then this final post probably won’t make much sense.
Moreover, agreeing with these premises doesn’t invalidate the innate human curiosity that makes us want to understand our place in the universe. Metamorphosis doesn’t invalidate seeking knowledge for practical purposes. However, it does involve realizing that we could spend our whole lives — or, indeed, millennia — trying to figure out reality, only to find that we simply will never be able to comprehend it in its totality. Metamorphosis accepts this as a built-in limitation of our human minds, and knows that every seemingly stable position we could possibly come up with could only ever be just another hypothesis. That any new model we could possibly ever produce would always continue to have uncertainty at its core. That no matter how much conceptual knowledge we ever compile, we’re always going to be trying to name the Dao that can’t be named.
Life-energy, electromagnetism, or social construct from early China? Some combination of the three? Or, just maybe, none of the above!
Celebrating both the inevitability and the futility of our quest for truth, a metamorphic approach allows us to dive into epistemes and disciplines, to milk them for all they’re worth, all the while knowing that none of them will ever be fully and totally right. It demands that the moment we find ourselves settled into any one particular way of thinking, we start challenging our own core tenets. As soon as we start to feel like “I’ve got it,” we start destabilizing that coziness by thinking about all the ways that we could be — must be—missing the bigger picture.
By eschewing fixed forms and static positions, we leave behind a rigid or one-dimensional sense of self and become shape-shifters. Treating our convictions as lightly as Carnaval masks may indeed initially feel threatening or uncomfortable, and perhaps there are good reasons that this approach is not for everyone. But, the feeling that your whole life will lose its meaning if your worldview is challenged can only be true if your have overly identified yourself with your thoughts, beliefs, and stories. In these three posts, I’m suggesting that rather than cracking under the pressure of confronting one another’s truths, we might instead find a way to to allow ourselves to metamorphose into new and unfamiliar selves with every new encounter.
Once we’ve unwrapped ourselves from our conceptual cocoons, we can start encountering former rivals across the seminar table with vulnerability and compassion rather than defensiveness and enmity. Rather than donning our disciplinary war-paint, we instead can look each other nakedly in the eyes as fellow human beings. Only then can we extend a hand and join together in solidarity as we all blindly feel our way around this elephant together.
Not too much later, you’re able to find those three Earthlings in your telescope again. Thanks to a recent update to your equipment, you now are able to broadcast a message to them from your vantage point way on the other side of the galaxy. You tune your signal, clear your throat, and then begin to beam your message down to Earth….
What will you say? Will you pick a side in their debate? Will you play the peacemaker, seeking a comfortable détente between them? Or, will you perhaps decide to leave the Dao unspoken after all, and just sit back and enjoy the cosmic show?