Science or divination? How an ancient system of Chinese thought may hold answers in our age of uncertainty

Andrew Sheng says where modern economic models based on linear thinking have fallen short, the more fluid Chinese approach to decision-making can be instructive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 11:54am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 6:31pm

We live in an age of science and technology so, strictly speaking, science should be able to forecast the future and help us make decisions better. But, in this age of uncertainty, the best economic models did not predict the global financial crisis.

How did the ancients attempt to make better decisions? They relied on history and experience, or oracles, astrology or mumbo jumbo. You make decisions on the basis of information you have, and without information, you consult someone or something you believe in.

Most people think Chinese philosophy began with Confucius, about 2,500 years ago, but his school became famous because it compiled the existing ancient books into the Five Classics, of which the I Ching (or Book of Change) is one.

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My own view is that the I Ching deserves to be considered a book of early Chinese science, rather than divination. The I Ching comprises two books, an earlier classic dated to roughly 1,000BC, and an interpretive text written some 500 years later. The earlier classic comprises the eight trigrams, attributed to Fuxi, the hero of a Chinese creation myth, and the 64 hexagrams, reputedly invented by Duke Zhou, one of the founders of the Zhou dynasty. In simple terms, the eight trigrams stand for eight possible situations, from good to bad; the 64 hexagrams for 64 possible predictive outcomes. The later text is attributed to Confucius and his disciples, which helps to interpret what the hexagrams mean. To use the I Ching for divination or decisions, you randomly choose a hexagram and then consult the I Ching for what it means.

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Herein lies a fundamental difference in decision-making between Western science and the Chinese approach to life.

Science developed in the West partly because of the alphabetic language, which means you can define words and meaning much more precisely, since the English language comprises over a million words. The Chinese language, on the other hand, is basically ideogrammatic and phonetic. Most people can read basic Chinese with about 2,000-3,000 characters. There are about 50,000 characters in total. Given limited sounds, tones and characters, the Chinese language is not as precise as English. A single character can have different meanings and sounds, so Chinese words and phrases can only be understood in context.

The imprecision inherent in the Chinese language means conceptual thinking is more organic and fluid, and subject to interpretation

Western science, following the Aristotelian logic, is essentially reductionist and linear, seeking cause and effect. The language enables conceptualisation to be precise and the logic flow to be consistent. The imprecision inherent in the Chinese language means conceptual thinking is more organic and fluid, and subject to interpretation, including guessing.

In other words, while communication in the natural sciences, such as that between two machines, can be precise, communication between two people carries a huge amount of uncertainty.

Modern economics deals with this problem by assuming perfect information, which actually assumed away uncertainty. Economic models based on perfect information and rational players gave rise to precise or “optimal”, first-best outcomes. The first-best ideal is then thought to be a natural outcome.

Real life is not so simple. The eight trigrams mean that in binary good-and-bad or black-and-white terms, there are eight possible outcomes in any decision: good, bad and six mixtures of good/bad. The 64 hexagrams make life even more complicated. By definition, any fundamentalist view of life is more likely to be wrong, because life is mostly shades of grey.

Without understanding these fundamental differences in language, context and decision-making under uncertainty, it would be difficult to bridge the yawning gap between both sides of the Pacific. It also means that the Chinese approach to economics and geopolitics is quite different from what is more commonly interpreted outside China.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective