08/15/2011 06:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

West Meets East: Confucius and Bertrund Russell

The English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) describes the outlook of the mature intellectual -- from his point of view, an atheist, staring into the void -- as "heroic fatalism." The void, so described, is not the Buddhist Void (sunyata), but the void created by the intellectual knowledge humanity has acquired through empirical observation of ourselves, the world around us and ultimately the cosmos stretching into infinity both as macrocosm and microcosm.

Why heroic fatalism? Because our knowledge of ourselves and the world, measured and established by the standards of analytic philosophy, not religious belief, has done little to substantiate alternative realities, metaphysical planes, an altered consciousness or a host of varieties on the theme of a substratum of "God" at work in the universe.

Instead, measured by empirical standards, we face what seems only the bleakest of ends. Our sun is destined to die and with it the earth will freeze and life will cease to exist. Not a particularly optimistic stance for our future!

If we attribute any significance to human existence, significance in the "larger scheme of things," then surely any thoughtful person will consider for a moment that all accomplishments of humankind are destined to cease to exist by the simple physical reality of the evolving nature of the cosmos. This perspective is analytic philosophy in company with an empirical world view.

So why heroic fatalism? For Russell it is an act of human courage to face such odds with certain knowledge of the demise of all we know. Yet we get up each morning, we read the newspaper, have our coffee and go about our lives. To Russell, such actions are not simply courageous, but heroic!

And what would Confucius say?

I asked this very issue of Okada Takehiko, scholar of Confucianism, in my interviews with him some years ago, recorded in my book, "The Confucian Way of Contemplation, Okada Takehiko and the Tradition of Quiet-Sitting" (1988). His answer has not left me in the intervening years.

Okada responded by quoting Confucius when asked about death. Confucius said that we do not know life, how can we know death (Analects XI:11) That Okada took this particular passage from the Confucian Analects as his response to my question about a radical atheist construction of the meaning of the world and humanity in the 20th century is a fascinating exegetical interpretation and adaptation to a contemporary concern.

The meaning that Okada sought from Confucius suggests the capacity of the Confucian tradition to address issues of modernity, not unlike every other major religious tradition. As old as are the roots of religious traditions, there is a voice that resonates to our most pressing contemporary concerns!

Some will say such a voice is irrelevant today, that religion only ever sought to answer questions not yet addressed by the "certain knowledge" of empiricism. As such, so some will argue, the time of religion is passed. But religious traditions will respond by suggesting that whatever the issue, there is a response in the foundation of the tradition, because the tradition represents something that is in itself without temporal or spatial limitations.

Thus, to the heroic fatalism of Bertrand Russell, there is not a religious tradition that does not have a response to the radical atheism it represents. And even with all their differences in theology and ontology, there is still the sense in which a religious tradition, be it Christian, Buddhist or Confucian, will come back and challenge Russell's most basic assumption that the universe is meaningless.

As the great Hegel scholar W. T. Stace (1886-1967) said, a religion can deal with any theology, any cosmology, any biology, any geology -- what it cannot deal with is a world and a universe without meaning and purpose.

The challenge of a Russell is met then by an argument almost universally held by all religious traditions for purpose in life and in the world and universe we know. Teleology, even Confucian teleology, takes the place of meaninglessness, of a world conceived through random and capricious acts and catalysts.

And to Okada's response: Why is Confucius' statement of the importance of life over the question of death an answer to Russell's heroic fatalism?

Confucius suggests that we do not yet know the meaning of life, and thus we hold open the possibility of greater knowledge, of limitless if not infinite knowledge. We do not yet know enough to say that the world is without purpose, that it is merely random and capricious. The only thing that is random and capricious is a conclusion suggesting such a state!

Foundational to Okada's argument is the opening passage of the Analects where Confucius says, "To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learned," reminding ourselves that, for Confucius, learning must never cease.

While some religious traditions draw closure upon truth claims from closure upon learning, with Confucius there remains an openness that discourages the absolute claims of a religious fundamentalism. Ironically, Russell's challenge of heroic fatalism is met by Confucius' emphasis upon the continuous and open nature of learning. Could this Confucian perspective on learning be the reason for Russell's great admiration of Chinese thought after his visit to China in the early 20th century?