Chapter 11 – The End of Endless Possibilities:  Lao Tzu, Neils Bohr and Jerry Garcia

 Thirty spokes are united around the hub to make a wheel,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the carriage depends.
Clay is moulded to form a utensil,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the utensil depends.
Doors and windows are cut out to make a room,
But it is on its non-being that the utility of the room depends.
Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility

Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching talks to us about space – which is the emptiness between objects or between parts of a single object.  My initial thought was to play on the words of “Star Trek” and write about this space as the final frontier.  In my first 30 seconds of research, I found that had already been done – and quite well – by Amy Putkonen.  Therefore, I have taken a different approach.

I have chosen Wing-Tsit Chan’s rendition here because it concludes somewhat differently than many translations.  Others tell us “usefulness comes from what is not” (Stephen Mitchell) or “existence may be said to correspond to gain, but non-existence to use” (John Chalmers) or “emptiness is what we use” (J. H. McDonald), describing a state of being or passiveness.  Chan’s translation, though, directs us to act, to turn being into advantage and non-being into utility.

This very practical advice seems to square with the concept of the Tao that is presented by Lao Tzu.  The Tao’s presence is seen in the world through its manifestation which brings order to the primordial chaos.  In other words, the Tao is a utilitarian force which acts – through “non-action” (wu wei) – and allows us to exist in the universe as we know it.

In Chapter 42 we will hear that it was the Tao that produced the One, which produced the Two and then the Three and then the 10,000 things.  But what was there before the One?  There was the chaos of infinite possibilities.

Of course that is easy to say because it cannot be proven, so we should consider a more down to earth example.  Consider a thirsty person who has an empty cup.  With what could it be filled?  Perhaps sand or marbles or paint or eye of newt.  It would be more beneficial, of course, to fill it with water, even though doing so precludes the myriad of other choices.  When water is added, the space becomes an object; that object may be used to one’s advantage and the limitless possibilities of empty space  become utilitarian.

This is similar in many ways to some theories of how the quantum universe may work.  The so-called “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics was devised by Niels Bohr and some of his very impressive students (one of the most notable being Werner Heisenberg of the uncertainty principle fame*) in the mid-1920s.

Supposedly, Bohr was once engaged in a conversation with Albert Einstein and other physicists when Einstein repeated his famous saying that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Bohr responded, “Albert, don’t tell God what to do.”   That observation alone seems sufficient to give Bohr’s thoughts great credence, but I digress.

To greatly simplify the Copenhagen interpretation, it is said that quantum mechanics is concerned not with a concrete reality, but is a study of possibilities.  A particle such as an electron is not considered to actually exist as a particle at any point in space or time.  Rather, there is a wave function that expresses the probability that the electron may be found as a particle at each of an infinite number of points in space-time.  When there is an observation or a measurement or an interaction with some other wave or particle, the wave function is “collapsed” and the set of all the probabilities immediately and randomly assumes a single value.

In other words, an action of some type turns the infinite possibilities into the event that we know as reality in our universe.

This is certainly an inadequate simplification of even rudimentary concepts of quantum mechanics.  It is intended as merely an analogy.  If anyone reading this piece is interested in really learning about the subject in an understandable (utilitarian) form, I highly recommend the book Quantum Physics for Poets by Nobel laureate Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill.

Moving back from the quantum level to the macro level, there are nearly limitless things that I could do if I had not chosen to sit in front of a computer and type these words.  Fortunately, the universe as it has been formed and informed by the Tao, and as myriad waveforms may have collapsed, allows – in fact, demands – impermanence or change.  When the thirsty man drinks the water, the space and possibilities return to the cup.  When I feel I should be doing something different, I can quit typing.

I think I will do that, and “truck” on out of here to the tune of an old Grateful Dead song:

Like the doo-dah man
Once told me,
You got to play your hand.
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
If you don’t lay ‘ em down

                                   -Grateful Dead, “Truckin’

*  The uncertainty principle says that certain complementary principles of a particle, such as position and momentum cannot be known simultaneously.  There is a joke about Werner Heisenberg being pulled over for speeding.  The police officer asked, “Dr. Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?”  He replied, “No, but I do know exactly where I am.”


  1. The Heisenberg joke cracked me up. Really bad. Coffee almost came out of my nose… Hadn’t heard that one before!

    Odd, the effect this chapter seems to have. I too reached a point where I quit typing, deleted much of what I had written before, laid down the dime’s worth that was left and trucked on out of there.

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