Wiggles in the stream of time: li and ch’i.

Think of a candle burning over in the corner.  You look over five minutes later, and the same flame’s burning, just like before.  But wait a minute… what’s the same about it?  Every molecule that comprised the flame five minutes ago has now vanished into the atmosphere.  The flame you’re looking at now has nothing to do with the earlier flame.  And yet, it’s the same.  The molecules are different, but the organizing principles that came together to create the dynamics of the flame remain intact.

The candle’s flame constantly changes yet remains the same.

This distinction between principles and molecules is at the heart of the traditional Chinese concepts of li and ch’i.  It’s a distinction we hardly notice in the West, save for the occasional interesting paradox.  But I believe that the Chinese conception of the relationship between li and ch’i provides a bridge between the two disparate worlds of science and spirituality, and offers us a framework for a deeper understanding of new thinking in areas as far apart as neuroscience and developmental biology.

As I’ve described in earlier posts, the Neo-Confucian concept of li entails the principles of organization for everything in the universe.  But if they’re “principles of organization”, then what do they organize?  The answer is: ch’i.  Li and ch’i exist together.  One can’t exist without the other.  In the words of the Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi, “Throughout the universe there is no Ch’i without Li, nor is there any Li without Ch’i.”[1] It’s like the width and length of a rectangle: one depends on the other for its existence.  If the li are the organizing principles, ch’i is everything that is organized.

Ch’i (or qi as it’s sometimes spelled) is one of the most fundamental and well-known traditional Chinese concepts.  As described by anthropologist Bruce Trigger, it can be understood as “the formless but configuring primal energy present in everything that existed.”  Ch’i “was associated with wind, breath, life, vapors arising from cooked grain, the human spirit, strong emotions, and sexual arousal.”[2]

Ch’i contains “properties of both energy and matter”[3] and as such, it can be compared to the modern view of matter.  As we know, it was Albert Einstein who first linked energy and matter forever in our minds with his world-famous equation, e = mc2, or energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light.  And, in fact, some decades ago, Fritjof Capra noticed the similarity between the Neo-Confucian view of ch’i and the world of quantum physics, suggesting:

The Neo-Confucians developed a notion of ch’i which bears the most striking resemblance to the concept of the quantum field in modern physics.  Like the quantum field, ch’i is conceived as a tenuous and non-perceptible form of matter which is present throughout space and can condense into solid material objects.[4]

Why should we care about this similarity?  Because, by bringing a modern, scientific perspective to anchor one aspect of the li/ch’i relationship, it enables us to understand li further from a modern standpoint.  It allows us, in the twenty-first century, to look at statements made by Chu Hsi and his fellow Neo-Confucians from a thousand years ago and interpret them, not as mystical-sounding relics of a medieval age, but as a valid and potentially useful way to structure our thinking about the universe.

Here’s an example of what I mean: a quote from Chu Hsi describing the relationship between li and ch’i.  But in this example, I’ve substituted the modern term “principles of organization” for “li”, and “matter/energy” for “ch’i.”  Now, see if the old philosopher makes sense in thinking about our 21st century universe:

Before a thing exists, there first exist its principles of organization…  If there were no principles of organization, there would also be no Heaven and Earth, no human beings and no things…  There being these principles of organization, there is then matter/energy which flows into movement to produce the myriad things… Heaven and Earth came into existence because of these principles of organization and without it they could not have come into existence…[5]

This dynamic interplay between li and ch’i exists all around us and defines our reality, even though we barely recognize it in Western thought.

Your li is what you still have in common with yourself when you were a child.

Look at an old photograph of yourself when you were a little child.  You instantly recognize it as yourself.  But what’s remained the same?  Most of the cells that were in that child no longer exist in your body.  Even the cells that do remain, such as brain and muscle cells, have reconfigured their own internal contents, so that probably none of the molecules forming that child in the photograph are part of you now.  So what is it that forms the intimate connection between you and that child?  It’s the li that connects you.  The ch’i comes and goes, but the li remains stable: growing, evolving, but basing its growth on the same principles of organization of the child in the picture.

The same concept of li can be applied to current studies of consciousness.  Some researchers have tried to place consciousness in a specific place in the human brain, such as the thalamus.  But the most sophisticated neuroscientific theories of consciousness look to the li, rather than the ch’i, for the true basis.  This is how two of the foremost neuroscientists in the area describe the li of consciousness:

Many neuroscientists have emphasized particular neural structures whose activity correlates with conscious experience… but it is a mistake to expect that pinpointing particular locations in the brain or understanding intrinsic properties of particular neurons will, in itself, explain why their activity does or does not contribute to conscious experience…

A dynamic core [of consciousness] is … a process, not a thing or a place, and it is defined in terms of neural interactions, rather than in terms of specific neural location, connectivity, or activity…   the core may change in composition over time… the same group of neurons may sometimes be part of the dynamic core and underlie conscious experience, but at other times may not be part of it and thus be involved in unconscious processes.[6]

Similarly, when studying the mystery of how genes express themselves in different ways and at different times in a fetus and in a growing infant (what’s known as “ontogeny”), some of the more advanced biologists in the field emphasize the li as all-important:

One of the continuing enigmas in biology is how genes contribute to the process of embryonic development whereby a coherent, functional organism of specific type is produced.  How are the developmental pathways stabilized and spatially organized to yield a sea urchin or a lily or a giraffe? … It is not genes that generate this coherence, for they can only function within the living cell, where their activities are highly sensitive to context.  The answer has to lie in principles of dynamic organization that are still far from clear, but that involve emergent properties that resolve the extreme complexity of gene and cellular activities into robust patterns of coherent order.  These are the principles of organization of the living state.[7]

The implications of the li even go beyond the applied sciences, encompassing the very nature of reality: who we are and how we exist in the world.  As biologist Carl Woese has written:

Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow – patterns in an energy flow… It is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not materialistically, as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organization.

This picture of living creatures, as patterns of organization rather than collections of molecules, applies not only to bees and bacteria, butterflies and rain forests, but also to sand dunes and snowflakes, thunderstorms and hurricanes.  The nonliving universe is as diverse and as dynamic as the living universe, and is also dominated by patterns of organization that are not yet understood.[8]

But since everyone reading this is a human being, it’s not surprising that we care most about how this notion of li applies to us.  And things get very personal when we think of ourselves in terms of the li.  Here’s how philosopher Alan Watts describes the application of the li to our own existence:

A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event…   We are temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milk… It goes out as gas and excrement – also as semen, babies, talk, politics, war, poetry and music.’”[9]

We are “temporarily identifiable wiggles” in time.

So if I’m a “temporarily identifiable wiggle”, then what about my sense of self?  Well, the implications are far-reaching.  The Buddhist view of the impermanence of things can begin to be seen in the context of Western science.  The Zen tradition of the dissolution of the self perhaps isn’t such a paradox, after all.  In fact, the following words of Japanese Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, seem to flow directly out of the logic of neuroscience and biology when we see that he’s talking about the self in terms of the li:

…this present I is an unceasing stream of consciousness.  Yet, taken momentarily at a given time, we grasp the stream of consciousness as a fixed thing and call it I.

We are as selves quite like the flame of a candle…  What we call I is similar to the flame.  Although both body and mind are an unceasing flow, since they preserve what seems to be a constant form we refer to them as I.  Actually there is no I existing as some substantial things; there is only the ceaseless flow…

We live within the flow of impermanence, maintaining a temporary form similar to an eddy in the flow of a river.[10]

In our Western mindset, we assume an unbridgeable separation between the rigorous world of science, and the mysterious yet squishy world of spirituality.  But I hope I’ve shown that the traditional Chinese notion of the li – the organizing principles of the universe – allows us to translate one form of cognition into the other, offering us insights into both realities along the way: a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone.


Note: This is the third 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] Cited in Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press. It should be noted that, although Schwartz describes ch’i as containing properties of both energy and matter, he points out that “it never becomes anything like the matter of Newton” because it contains spiritual as well as physical properties.  I would suggest that, perhaps, at least in Neo-Confucian thought, the spiritual properties of the ch’i may arise from its inherent li.

[4] Capra, F. (1975/1999). The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[5] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L., and Bodde, D. (1942). “The Philosophy of Chu Hsi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 7(1), 1-51, and Yu, D. (1980). “The Conceptions of Self in Whitehead and Chu Hsi.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 7(1980), 153-173.

[6] Edelman, G. M., and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, New York: Basic Books, 18-19 & 144.

[7] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books, 61-2.

[8] Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, pp. 173-186.

[9] Quoted in Margulis, L., and Sagan, D. (1995/2000). What Is Life?, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[10] Uchiyama, K. (2004). Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.


1 Comment

  1. Ina Marx said,

    October 7, 2013 at 7:43 am

    This is the best lovable reading material of all of this year! my humble and sincere thanks for your wholesome presentation. A journey that i needed more than food, today. Blessings to us.. that you are who you are. Ina Marx

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