The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

For millennia, the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were undecipherable to the modern world.  Then Napoleon’s troops discovered the famous Rosetta Stone in 1799, with an ancient proclamation in three languages, one of which was Greek and another hieroglyphs.  After some years of intensive work, the hieroglyphs were finally deciphered.  The awesome – and previously unknowable – world of ancient Egyptian thought had opened up to modern minds.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

The chasm that currently exists between spirituality and science is a little like the gap between hieroglyphs and European languages before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.  From the perspective of our scientific world, spirituality remains mysterious, alluring, but ultimately unknowable.  However, I believe that the traditional Chinese conception of the li – the organizing principles underlying every aspect of the universe – offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of mathematics and science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

In western thought, the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam or Judaism are often viewed as the only spiritual alternative to scientific materialism.  With their dualistic worldview, positing an intangible dimension of God and immortal souls, they are incommensurable with scientific thought: ultimately, one can never be measured in terms of the other.  Many people, rejecting dualism but sensing something greater than reductionist science allows, seek non-traditional explanations, which are frequently dismissed by science as incoherent.

In contrast to these approaches, the perspective of the li offers a coherent, non-dualistic mode of understanding how the natural world can be at the same time tangible and mysterious, how our lives can be both flesh and blood and spiritually meaningful.

The Neo-Confucian approach to the li and modern scientific thought both start out from the same place.  They both posit a material universe explainable on its own terms, without having to come up with a supernatural Creator.  The greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi, was very clear about this, as we can see from the following excerpt:

The blue sky is called heaven; it revolves continuously and spreads out in all directions.  It is now sometimes said that there is up there a person who judges all evil actions; this assuredly is wrong.  But to say that there is no ordering (principle) would be equally wrong.[1]

Both Neo-Confucian and scientific thought look at how energy and matter interact in order to understand how nature is organized.  But from that same starting place, they follow two different directions.  Science looks for measurable laws that are held to be universally true, and technological advances have permitted science to find these laws in ever smaller units.   Neo-Confucianism, by contrast, looked for organizing principles, regardless of whether they were measurable or not.  With this approach, it perceived the very thing that science has eliminated from its purview: the boundless spirit pervading the natural universe.  This is best seen in another excerpt from Chu Hsi’s teachings, where the master responds to a reductionist-leaning pupil:

Fu Shun-Kung asked about the Five Sacrifices, saying that he supposed they were simply a duty; a manifestation of great respect; it was not necessary (to believe that) any spirit was present.  (The philosopher) answered: ‘(No spirit, say you?)  Speak of the mysterious perfection of the ten thousand things and you have spoken of the Spirit.  Heaven and earth and all that is therein – all is Spirit![2]

Natural laws lead us to hard science.  The li leads us to a spiritual understanding of the world.  One key to the difference between “natural laws” and the “li” is the concept of measurability.  Natural laws must, by definition, be measurable in order to be counted as laws.  The li, on the other hand, exist in an infinite array through time and space and can never be completely measured.  For this reason, natural law works well with what we can measure, such as molecules, spectrums of light, acceleration of gravity, etc.  But it struggles when we try to use it to understand things we can’t measure: feelings, ecological systems, evolutionary processes, consciousness.  The li, by contrast, makes no distinction between what you can and what you can’t measure.  To understand the li requires a different approach – it requires integration.

Leading thinkers in complexity science find themselves at the boundary where natural laws meet the li, and struggle to communicate this thought within the limitations of our Western scientific terminology.  Here is how J.A. Scott Kelso, a neuroscientist who applies complexity theory to the dynamics of the brain, describes his view of what lies beyond the boundaries of conventional physics:

… my answer to the question, is life based on the laws of physics? is yes, with the proviso that we accept that the laws of physics are not fixed in stone, but are open to elaboration.  It makes no sense to talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.  As I stressed earlier, it will be just as fundamental to discover the new laws and principles that govern the complex behavior of living things at the many levels they can be observed… At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods.[3]

Kelso is describing the li.  The key to understanding what I mean is that “the li” is both a scientific and a spiritual term.  It’s a term that covers equally well findings of modern complexity theory and traditional Chinese philosophy.  The reason this can occur is that complexity science and the spirituality of Chinese thought are interconnected.  Rather than describing different dimensions, they’re using different approaches to understand the same underlying reality.

There are profound implications to this.  Complexity science leads us into a world where some conventional scientific preconceptions have to be reconsidered.  As we explore that world, we are fortunate to have generations of sophisticated thinkers from traditional Chinese philosophy to help us map out the way.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

For example, the conventional scientific approach to the world is predicated on the notions of prediction, power and control: the ability to predict natural phenomena gives us power and consequently control over those phenomena.  In contrast to this, a scientific approach that acknowledges the li – the complexity arising from self-organization and emergent states of living organisms – leads to the realization that the conventional level of prediction, power and control are impossible.    Instead, acknowledgement of the li leads towards a sense of participation rather than power, encouraging harmony within a process rather than attempting to impose control.  This is how biologist Brian Goodwin describes this realization:

A new frontier is now opening for our culture, a frontier where science will continue to be relevant, but in a radically altered form.  Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[4]

The “participatory worldview” Goodwin describes raises another key principle arising from the li: the interactivity inherent in our relationship with both ourselves and the world around us.  We are inseparable from the natural world: what we do to it has implications that inextricably pull us back in.  And we’re equally inseparable from ourselves: we are constantly creating and re-creating ourselves whether we know it or not.  As physiology researcher Peter Macklem puts it: “Who is our artist?  We sculpt ourselves.”[5]

A full understanding of this dynamic interactivity has the potential to take us to places that are considered “mystical” in Western traditions, but mainstream in the traditional Chinese philosophy of the li.  In a famous document known as the Western Inscription, one of the founders of Neo-Confucian thought, Chang Tsai, took this participatory worldview to its ultimate logic with a vision of our cosmic inseparability from the natural world:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.  What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[6]

Chang Tsai is not alone in his vision; in fact, he’s part of a long tradition of Chinese thought.  Over a thousand years earlier, the ancient philosopher Mencius noted that “One who fully explores his heart/mind will understand his own nature, and one who understands his own nature will thereby understand Heaven.”[7]

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

What do they mean?  These statements begin to make sense when you think about them in terms of the li – nature’s organizing principles.  Modern scientific research is beginning to identify self-organized dynamics within each of the trillions of cells in our body that are similar to those that form ecological communities – even communities as large as the entire natural world.[8] Biologists are increasingly discovering close parallels between the organized behavior of social insects such as ants or bees and the neuronal interactions of our brains.[9] Kelso touches on this dynamic when he notes that “a remarkable, possibly quite profound, connection seems to exist among physical, biological, and psychological phenomena.”[10]

If the li that comprise our own existence share their dynamics with the li all around us in the natural world, then this might explain the feeling of awe and oneness we sometimes experience as we observe our universe.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough gives a sense of this bridge between science and the sacred:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[11]

In fact, some studies have identified similar patterns of self-organization in both music and the human brain, offering us a hint that our esthetic sense is intimately connected with the universal patterns of the li that Chang Tsai described.[12] The modern Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield expresses the sense of spiritual awakening that can arise from this realization:

From an awakened perspective, life is a play of patterns, the patterns of trees, the movement of the stars, the patterns of the seasons and the patterns of human life in every form…  These basic patterns, these stories, the universal archetypes through which all life appears, can be seen and heard when we are still, centered, and awakened… Our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists…  All things are all a part of ourselves, and yet somehow we are none of them and beyond them.[13]

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

How far we’ve come (while remaining commensurable with scientific thought) from the reductionist thinking that’s typically associated with conventional science, an approach that can be epitomized in this observation by Nobel laureate physicist and reductionist spokesman Steven Weinberg: ‘I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.’[14] In contrast, here are some thoughts of Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi on the experience of touching the li of Nature:

Spring colors in the West Garden beckoning,
I rushed up there in straw sandals.
A thousand blossoms and ten thousand buds in red and purple:
Who knows the creative mind of Heaven and Earth?[15]


Note: This is the fourth 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 by Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

[3] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[4] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001).  How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Macklem, P. T. (2008). “Emergent phenomena and the secrets of life.” Journal of Applied Physiology(104), 1844-1846.

[6] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Cited by Slingerland, E. (2003). Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] See, for example, Lovelock, J. (1979/2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] See, for example, Couzin, I. D. (2008). “Collective cognition in animal groups.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 36-43; Wilson, D. S., and Wilson, E. O. (2007). “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4: December 2007), 327-348; Ward, A. J. W. et. al. (2008). “Quorum decision-making facilitates information transfer in fish shoals.” PNAS, 105(19), 6948-6953.

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

[11] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

[12] Wu, D., Li, C.-Y., and Yao, D.-Z. (2009). “Scale-Free Music of the Brain.” PLoS ONE, 4(6:June 2009), e5915.

[13] Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, New York: Bantam Books.

[14] Quoted by Horgan, J. (2003). Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, New York: Mariner Books.

[15] Quoted by Ching, J., op. cit.



  1. Jessie said,

    June 14, 2010 at 9:04 am

    very positive feedback for your children

  2. March 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    […] I was researching further, I came across this idea (on the blog Liology, which is pretty cool but I honestly haven’t investigated very fully): “Biologists are […]

  3. Harold Rhenisch said,

    January 26, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Fantastic material. This is precisely what I’ve been looking for as I build on the Goethean tradition. Thanks for taking the time to write this out so thoroughly. I used to sit under a sumac tree in the desert starlight while the wind blew through the peaches nearby and the water disappeared into the bed of a dry creek and talk deep into the night with my friend Wayne, as we found the Tao together in the stars. Well, you had to be there, and this is almost as good. Blessings.

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