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June 23, 2017

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Chinese minds move away from conservatism toward antifragility

Browsing through my library during the holidays, I came across a book on comparative Western and Chinese philosophy that had an old saying: "Every Chinese person is a Confucian when everything is going well; he is a Taoist when things are falling apart; and he is a Buddhist as he approaches death."

Chinese culture is like ancient pyramids of different worldviews built over one another.

The earliest was animism, where one believed in different gods; the Book of Changes taught two sides to every story; Confucianism was about knowledge of self; Taoism about following the natural Way; Legalism about ruthless pragmatism and order; Buddhism about letting it go.

In the 20th century, China imported Western influences from Marxism to science and technology.

It is commonly believed that the Chinese think very differently from Westerners.

Western minds are considered logical and scientific, whereas the Chinese mind is supposed to be elliptical, contextual and therefore relational. One possible reason is the ideogrammatic nature of the Chinese language, based on pictures rather than alphabets, which positions everything in relation to everything else.

The Chinese word for crisis is both risk and opportunity; for contradiction, an impenetrable shield facing an unstoppable spear.

Chinese thinking tends to sees things within systemic context and history, probably because the fount of Chinese philosophy is the I Ching or the Book of Changes, circa 1049 B.C., which is essentially dialectic in tradition, seeing the world as emerging from the conflict, synthesis and evolution from contradictory opposites.

Western science and intellectual tradition stem primarily from Greek Aristotelian logic, which is reductionist and linear, reducing complex ideas into simple theories and principles that could deduce, explain and predict the future.

Aristotelian logic prevailed in the West, until the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) developed dialectics based upon the concept that everything is composed of contradictions, with gradual changes becoming crises.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) built on Hegelian dialectics into historical change through class struggle and dialectic materialism, whereas Mao Zedong fused Marxism into Chinese agrarian reality to form a theory of revolutionary knowledge through practice.

In the 20th century, natural science, such as physics, mathematics and biology began to evolve away from the social sciences, particularly economics.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition of linear, logical thinking continued to dominate in social science, through philosophers such as Karl Popper, who rejected the vagueness of dialectics.

On the other hand, quantum physics, quantum mathematics, biology and information theory began to evolve into binary worldviews whereby change in nature evolved through the synthesis or erosion of opposites.

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