The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature

It was all so clear to Galileo.  “Philosophy,” he tells us, “is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes (I mean the universe)… It is written in the language of mathematics, and the characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures.”[1] Who did the writing?  God, of course, who in Galileo’s mind is “a geometrician in his creative labours – he makes the world through and through a mathematical system.”[2]

In Galileo’s mind – and in the received wisdom of Western civilization ever since – the immutable Laws of Nature held the secret to how our universe works.  Galileo was one of the great thinkers who first began to put mathematical equations around these laws, but the notion of the fixed, eternal laws had been around in Western thought for a very long time.  We can trace it back to the Old Testament, where God declares himself as the great lawmaker, as in this passage from Jeremiah:

Fear ye not me? saith the LORD: will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?[3]

And there are many other places in the Old Testament with similar descriptions, such as in Psalm 148 where we’re told how “He hath made them fast for ever and ever; he hath given them a law which shall not be broken.”

God the lawgiver, who wrote the Laws of Nature – a hallowed Western tradition.

In fact, we can go back even further, to Babylonian times.  “There can be little doubt,” classical scholar Joseph Needham tells us, that the conception of a celestial lawgiver ‘legislating’ for non-human natural phenomena has its first origin among the Babylonians.”  The sun-god Marduk is pictured as the law-giver to the stars.  He it is ‘who prescribes the laws for (the star-gods) Anu, Enlil (and Ea), and who fixes their bounds’.  He it is who ‘maintains the stars in their paths’ by giving ‘commands’ and ‘decrees’.”[4]

So, the fixed Laws of Nature seem to have a long and unbroken tradition in Western thought, from polytheism, through monotheism, and all the way to our scientific world today.  Only one problem.  The Laws are incomplete.  Sure, they’re amazingly powerful at sending rockets to the Moon, seeing distant galaxies, determining molecular structures, and a whole host of other wonders that have built our modern world.  But let’s face it – the amount of stuff they can predict is swamped by what they can’t.   That fly buzzing around the room… which way is it going to turn next?  Will your boyfriend remember your birthday this year?  When will Greenland’s ice cover slide into the ocean?   Will you catch the flu this winter?

Physicists Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo Kadanoff capture this dichotomy well when they write:

One of the most striking aspects of physics is the simplicity of its laws.  The world is lawful, and the same basic laws hold everywhere.  Everything is simple, neat, and expressible in terms of everyday mathematics…

Everything is simple and neat – except, of course, the world.

Every place we look – outside the physics classroom – we see a world of amazing complexity… at all levels: huge mountain ranges, the delicate ridge on the surface of a sand dune, the salt spray coming off a wave, the interdependencies of financial markets, and the true ecologies formed by living things.  Each situation is highly organized and distinctive, with biological systems forming a limiting case of exceptional complexity.[5]

The natural world is exceptionally – and beautifully – more complex than the fixed laws of nature.

The Chinese had a name for this organized complexity: the li.  As I’ve described in an earlier post, the li of the Neo-Confucian philosophers is the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.

It’s a concept that we lack in our Western understanding, partly because we’re so fixated on Nature’s laws that we can’t even imagine there could be any other natural forces driving our universe.  But in recent decades, complexity theorists using advanced mathematics are beginning to come across the natural dynamic of the li that had been integral to a thousand years of classical Chinese thought.  They’re just not sure exactly what to call it.

The Chinese themselves had different words to distinguish “laws” from the principles of the Tao.  They used the word tse to mean a law imposed by men: “the laying down and following of written rules and lists of what may and may not be done, … going by the book.”[6]

For example, there are references in Chinese texts to “his words will be a rule for the empire”; “unvarying laws”; “a Customs tariff” – all using the Chinese word “tse[7].  By contrast – and here we get the full magnitude of the distinction – the Tao is viewed as “non-law”, as the opposite of tse.  The following comes from a Chinese classic of the 2nd century BCE, called the Huai Nan Tzu book:

The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously and secretly; it has no fixed shape; it follows no definite rules [wu-tse, literally “non-law”]; it is so great that you can never come to the end of it; it is so deep that you can never fathom it.[8]

Philosopher Alan Watts explains further how this relates to the li: “But though the Tao is wu-tse (non-law), it has an order or pattern which can be recognized clearly but not defined by the book because it has too many dimensions and too many variables.  This kind of order is the principle of li.”[9]

Joseph Needham clarifies the difference between “law” and “li” by contrasting our Western notion of “natural laws” as extrinsic, as opposed to the li which are intrinsic:

…[Li] is…in effect a Great Pattern in which all lesser patterns are included, and the ‘laws’ which are involved in it are intrinsic to these patterns, whatever their degree of complexity, not extrinsic to them, and dominating them, as the laws of human society constrain individual men.[10]

The Chinese saw an intrinsic relationship between all things in the universe.

To try to get at what Needham is saying, let’s think about the Western concept of law.  What are essential elements of a law?  First, you need a law-maker – somebody who creates the law.  Then, you need a target – some group who must obey the law.  And finally, you need power – some agent to enforce the law.  Needham’s point is that none of those three elements exist within the concept of “li”.

This highlights a fundamental difference between Western mental constructs of the universe, with an external Lawmaker appointing order to the natural world and enforcing it, and the Chinese construct, where order arises from the intrinsic relationship between things in the universe: the li.  In the words of Wang Pi, who wrote a famous commentary on the I Ching in the 2nd century AD:

… divine law has no sanctions.  We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they do not swerve from their course.[11]

What Wang Pi is describing, nearly two thousand years ago, is the same dynamic being discovered by Western complexity theorists and systems biologists in recent decades, as they investigate the principles of self-organization in the natural world.  Here’s biologist Brian Goodwin describing the notion of “order for free”:

… much (and perhaps most) of the order that we see in living nature is an expression of properties intrinsic to complex dynamic systems organized by simple rules of interaction among large numbers of elements.[12]

Sounds similar to old Wang Pi?  I propose that these similarities are not just superficial – they are describing fundamentally the same dynamic, one in the language of the Tao, the other in the language of 21st century science.

The implications of this are enormous.  Most of us have spent our lives under the impression that there’s a huge chasm dividing scientific truths from spiritual truths.  The principles of the Tao have always seemed a long way from Newton and Einstein.  And yet, if Wang Pi and Brian Goodwin are describing the same thing, then there’s a continuum that exists between experiencing the mysterious Tao in the natural world and the cold, hard logic of scientific inquiry.  They’re not two different dimensions at all.

And if that’s the case, then it suggests that perhaps our Western culture has a lot to learn from more than two millennia of the Chinese thought tradition.  I’m not just talking about “spiritual learnings” seen as separate from our everyday, scientific approach to the world.  I’m suggesting that our scientific conceptions of the world, the framework within which we envisage reality, may be enhanced, even transformed, by the application of ancient Chinese thought traditions.

And it all begins with accepting the notion that our universe isn’t just driven by our so-called laws of nature, but also by the dynamics of the li.


Note: This is the second in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Livio, M. (2009). Is God a Mathematician?, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Burtt, E. A. (1924/2003). The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, New York: Dover Publications, p. 82.

[3] Jeremiah 5:22 (King James Version).

[4] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 533.

[5] Goldenfeld, N., and Kadanoff, L. P. (1999). “Simple Lessons from Complexity.” Science, 284(2 April 1999), 87-89.

[6] Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way, New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 45-6.

[7] Needham, J. (1951). “Human Laws and Laws of Nature in China and the West (II): Chinese Civilization and the Laws of Nature” Journal of the History of Ideas. City, pp. 211-12.  In addition to tse, another important Chinese term for the body of law is fa, which is the word used for the rule-oriented philosophical group called the Legalists who were frequently in direct opposition to the Confucians in ancient Chinese history.

[8] Quoted by Watts, op. cit.

[9] Watts op. cit.

[10] Needham (1951) op. cit., pp. 220-21

[11] Cited by Needham (1951), op. cit., p.213.

[12] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001) How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 186.  In this passage, Goodwin is describing the work of theoretical biologist and complex systems theorist Stuart Kauffman.


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