In Praise of Purposelessness

Kenneth Leong
3 min readFeb 11, 2024

In his book, “A River Out of Eden,” British biologist Richard Dawkins said, “Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

I posted this quote in my Taoist group on Facebook. I think it is a good elucidation of chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching. It reads, “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” This is closely associated with the Taoist concept of “Wu-Wei.” Literally, Wu-Wei means doing nothing. But it means much more than that. Chapter 37 of the Tao Te Ching says, “The Way is ever without action, yet nothing is left undone.” Thus, we may interpret Wu-Wei as action without a stated goal or explicit purpose.

A member from my Taoist group responded to Richard Dawkin’s statement and said that it is “stupid” to say that nature is purposeless.

There is a Chinese proverb which may shed light on the notion of Wu-Wei. It says, “When one plants flowers with care, they may not bloom; when one plants willows without care, they may grow into shade.” This saying conveys the idea that sometimes things happen unexpectedly, spontaneously or effortlessly, and outcomes may not always align with the effort or intention put into them.

Thus, I don’t think that being purposeless is necessarily “stupid.” We can view nature’s purposelessness as a reflection of its great wisdom and creativity. Have you looked at how little children play? When they play, they simply play. They don’t play with a certain purpose or end result in mind. Their play is an end in itself. It is not a means to get to somewhere else. It is the same with how some of the great arts were created. The artists did not have a specific purpose in mind. They were just playing. A good example is the Lantingji Xu (Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion). arguably the greatest piece of calligraphy written by Wang Xizhi. As the story goes, Wang was half-drunk while writing it. The next day, when he was all sober, he could not replicate the writing. Culture Keys gave the following account:

Wang Xizhi, along with 41 other scholars, gathered in the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human