Much has been made lately of China's imminent transition from a resource to be exploited by extra-national creative forces to a technologically mature locus for indigenous intellectual innovation.
Though an exiting prospect, there may be considerably more to the story. Current events may be but harbingers of a far more provocative issue: can the breadth of ingenuity brought to the received knowledge of the West by the Chinese profoundly alter our consensual reality?
Culturally China is well prepared to assimilate Western intellectual pursuits. The country has had several periods of cultural efflorescence equaling those summits achieved by Aegean and European civilizations. The Han, the Tang, and the Southern Song Dynasties come immediately to mind.
Thus, the current transformation is not the introduction of the unfamiliar to an historically unsophisticated culture. Rather, we are witnessing the re-emergence of a profound and productive concern with the arts and sciences that has permeated and defined the Chinese culture for millennia. (The first Chinese university predated its European counterpart by one thousand years.)
It may appear easy, therefore, to anticipate the impact such intellectual and creative growth will have on the global historical continuum. The impulse is to presume a linear development: progressive, evolutionary changes to the arts and sciences as they flourish in Asia's fertile ground.
Such a presumption lacks vision.
Oft overlooked or unappreciated, it is the context, the intellectual environment that determines the nature of change. It is context that informs issues regarding the magnitude of the Chinese creative impact upon the consensual reality.
Is the Chinese creative milieu more likely to induce incremental change or paradigmatic change?
In their book "The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece" Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin confront the question of why the ancient Greek approach to discovering the fundamental structure of reality differed so radically from their contemporaries in China.
Without delving into an academic justification of my perspective, suffice it to say the Greeks presumed a concrete, unvarying fundament while the Chinese experience led them to assert the opposite.
The Greeks were a people of faith. They were committed to a belief in a physical truth underlying the ambiguous world of the senses. The Chinese did not and do not share this commitment to a truth validating their own perceptions.
The "Way" referred to by Lloyd and Sivin refers to the teachings of Laotse, author of the 2,500 year-old book of wisdom, the "Tao Te Ching" (pronounced and frequently spelled Dao De Jing) that forms the basis of Taoism (Daoism). Its first sentence cautions: "The way that can be spoken of is not the way."
To understand the relevance of this sentence to the issue of China's impact upon our consensual reality, consider the work of Albert Einstein.
Prior to Einstein Western civilization was committed to a belief in the absolute truth of the geometry of Euclid as descriptive of nature's fundament. (Euclid lived in Greece approximately the same time Laotse was writing in China.)
Had the geometry of Euclid described an absolute truth, a structure that could not change, Einstein's theories would be untenable.
Considering Euclid described nature's fundamental structures as including circles, triangles and squares, it would be fair to say Einstein was thinking outside the box when he created his theories of curved space. Culturally, the Chinese do not acknowledge the existence of a box outside of which one might think.
The truth of Euclidean geometry (the box) is paradigmatic, not absolute. Though many now hold Einstein's description of reality to be true, could we be making the same mistake made by subsequent generations that continued to cling to Euclid's geometric presumptions?
More to the point, were the Greeks correct in their supposition of an invariant substrate, or were the Chinese in their assumption of an infinitely variable fundament?
If the Chinese are correct then what better medium for paradigmatic change then an environment containing 1.3 billion minds unburdened by the assumption of an invariant substrate, a box outside of which one cannot venture?
Will such radical changes to the consensual reality occur in the short term or the long? Questions such as this are irrelevant to paradigmatic change.
Brilliant, innovative ideas are like shooting stars; they appear randomly. If such events are one-in-a-million occurrences, the odds of their manifesting in China must be multiplied by 1,300.
R.H. Joseph is a longtime employee of the News Daily. His column appears on Wednesdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 252, or by e-mail at email@example.com.