I am the wilderness before the dawn

Eliminate learning so as to have no worries
Yes and no, how far apart are they?
Good and evil, how far apart are they?

What the sages fear,
I must not fear.
I am the wilderness before the dawn.

The multitude are busy and active…
I alone am bland,
As if I have not yet emerged into form.
Like an infant who has not yet smiled,
Lost, like one who has nowhere to return.

The multitudes all have too much;
I alone am deficient.
My mind is that of a fool,
Nebulous.

Worldly people are luminous;
I alone am dark.
Worldly people are clear-sighted;
I alone am dull,
I am calm like the sea,
Like the high winds I never stop.

The multitudes all have their use;
I alone am untamable like lowly material.
I alone am different from others.
For I treasure feeding on the Mother.

From Tao Te Ching 20.  Translation: Ellen M. Chen.

Wang Yang-ming and the democratization of sagehood

To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming

By Julia Ching

New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.

Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming.  Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned.  Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.  There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice.  He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.

It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment.  He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”

Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China.    This, in itself, makes it a good read.  But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty.  This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest.  Far from it.  Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.

It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing.  For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense.  As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.”  On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”

And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal.  Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us.  You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:

the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition.  It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…

Sounds great, but how do we get there?  Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences.  “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born.  To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.”  If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me.  I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”

But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered.  Far from it.  One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other.  In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”

As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[1]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.

By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us.  This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world.  For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.”  In his own words:

Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached [through] my humanity (jen).  Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.

At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature.  Ultimately, we’re all one and the same.  As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:

Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power;
Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao.
Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven:
I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things.
People talk endlessly about rites and music;
But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?

And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?


[1] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

Life as an ontological surprise

The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

By Hans Jonas

Evanston: Northwestern University Press.  1966/2001.

I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that our Western conceptualization of the universe could gain a lot from the Chinese Neo-Confucian view that sees reality arising from a confluence of li and ch’i, the organizing principles of nature (li) being applied to the raw energy/matter (ch’i).  In this approach, if you look at a candle, the ch’i comes and goes every moment in the substance of the wick, candle wax and oxygen burning up, but the form of the flame, the li, is what remains stable.

In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, a 20th century existential philosopher (a pupil of Martin Heidegger), never mentions Chinese thought, but his approach to matter and form resembles the Neo-Confucian approach so closely that it offers an example of how certain Western philosophical paths form a natural bridge to the Chinese tradition.

When considering life, as opposed to inanimate objects, Jonas tells us, “form becomes the essence, matter the accident.”  “In the realm of the lifeless,” he explains, form is no more than a changing composite state, an accident, of enduring matter.”  But when you look at “the living form,” the reverse holds true:

the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.

This approach to understanding life is fundamentally at odds with the Western dualistic and reductionist view, and so it’s not surprising that Jonas’ book, viewed as “the pivotal book of Jonas’s intellectual career,” spends much of its time attacking reductionism, tracing its ancient roots from Orphism all the way through to modern renderings such as August Weismann’s dualist distinction of germline from somatic cells and the Neoplatonism of some modern mathematicians.

Jonas offers a strikingly clear narrative of how  Greek Platonic dualism, which formed the ontological basis for Christian cosmology, set the groundwork for modern reductionism by draining the spirit out of the material world.  He explains how concentrating the sense of the sacred into the eternal realm left a “denuded substratum of all reality,” which is then viewed as a “field of inanimate masses and forces.”  And he emphasizes the central importance of this dynamics in the structure of Western thought, saying:

In more ways than one, the rise and long ascendancy of dualism are among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race.  What matters for our context is that, while it held sway, and in an otherwise varied career, dualism continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.

Jonas sees the crucial moment occurring in the seventeenth century.  Christian dualism had already “drain(ed) nature of her spiritual and vital attributes,” leaving “the new metaphysic of science” to seal the deal.    In company with many other historians of philosophy, Jonas sees Descartes as putting the final nail into nature’s vital parts, describing how “Descartes’ division of substance into res cogitans and res extensa… provided the metaphysical charter for a purely mechanistic and quantitative picture of the natural world.”

Other historians of philosophy have traced a similar path, but Jonas’ book really comes to life when he offers an alternative worldview, which is where he begins to sound intriguingly like a Neo-Confucianist.  Jonas describes life in almost poetic terms, describing how, “in living things, nature springs an ontological surprise,” where “systems of matter” no longer exist by the “mere concurrence of the forces that bind their parts together, but in virtue of themselves for the sake of themselves, and continually sustained by themselves.”

This interpretation of life as an emergent phenomenon is a philosophical forerunner of current views espoused by leading thinkers in biology and complexity theory, such as Stuart Kauffman, Evan Thompson and Ursula Goodenough, among others; and in fact it was Thompson’s book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, reviewed on this blog, that originally alerted me to Jonas’ writings.

As Thompson noted in his book, Jonas deserves credit for highlighting the “all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system.”  Most of us think of metabolism as something that happens when we eat, an important part of life but not exactly the foundational concept.  However, as Jonas argues:

The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself… the system itself is wholly and continuously a result of its metabolizing activity.

This is the crucial differences, Jonas explains, between a living system and a machine, and underlines the inadequacy of any scientific approach that views living organisms as just very complicated “machines” – the core metaphor of the reductionist view.  “It is inappropriate,” Jonas tells us, “to liken the organism to a machine,” and here’s why:

[M]etabolism is more than a method of power generation, or, food is more than fuel: in addition to, and more basic than, providing kinetic energy for the running of the machine … its role is to build up originally and replace continually the very parts of the machine.  Metabolism thus is the constant becoming of the machine itself – and this becoming itself is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no analogue in the world of machines…

Following on the implications of this, Jonas concludes that “the organism must appear as a function of metabolism rather than metabolism as a function of the organism.”  Which takes us back to the li and ch’i of Neo-Confucianism.  Metabolism can be viewed as a process of changing the organization of matter, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, breaking apart the prior organization and reorganizing the molecules into a form that optimizes and becomes the organism, on a continuous, dynamic basis.  Viewed in this way, it’s the li, the organizing principles, that define the organism, and the matter/energy, the ch’i, is merely the raw material being used to maintain the li.  Or, to put it in Jonas’ words, the organism is a function of metabolism.

Jonas then ventures deeper into the implications of this reversal of traditional Western priorities.  He shows how the existence of an organism leads to the emergence of teleology, an underlying sense of purpose.  Traditional Western scientists steer clear of notions of teleology, fearing that it smacks either of Aristotle or Christian theology.  But in fact, as Jonas makes clear, teleology is the logical result of the unique dynamics of living systems:

But there is always the purposiveness of organism as such and its concern in living: effective already in all vegetative tendency, awakening to primordial awareness in the dim reflexes, the responding irritability of lowly organisms; more so in urge and effort and anguish of animal life endowed with motility and sense-organs; reaching self-transparency in consciousness, will and thought of man: all these being inward aspects of the teleological side in the nature of ‘matter.’

Because of this universal characteristic of teleology in life, Jonas concludes that “life can be known only by life.”  “We poor mortals” have an advantage, Jonas tells us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over the Neoplatonic God existing as an eternal, never-changing idea of perfection:

Happening to be living material things ourselves, we have in our self-experience, as it were, peepholes into the inwardness of substance, thereby having an idea (or the possibility of having an idea) not only of how reality is spread and interacts in extensity, but of how it is to be real and to act and to be acted upon.

This has profound implications for what it means to “know something.”  Knowledge of any living system can never be a purely abstract conception.  True knowledge involves an integration of our minds and bodies, our conceptual and our animate consciousness.  Not surprisingly, alien as this view is to Western thought, the Chinese long ago had a word for it: tiren.  In another review on this blog, I’ve quoted Chinese scholar Donald Munro on the meaning of this word:

Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience…  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

For Western reductionist thinkers, life might indeed be, in Jonas’s words, an ontological surprise.  But I have a feeling that, for Chinese Neo-Confucianists, Jonas’ discussion of “the phenomenon of life” would be no surprise at all.  For them, the surprise would be the reductionist view of the world that only measures the ch’i, remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that the li even exists.

China’s greatest gift to the world: its philosophy.

A Chinese Ethics for the New Century

By Donald J. Munro

Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.  2005.

With all the noise about how China is rapidly becoming a global superpower of the 21st century, it’s ironic that one of China’s greatest contributions to the human race has been utterly ignored.  I’m referring to the values and philosophical constructs of traditional Chinese thought, from their first flowering with the names of Lao-Tzu and Confucius, to their great fruition in the Neo-Confucian system of Chu Hsi in the 11th century.

Donald Munro, a highly regarded authority on Chinese culture, is trying to change all that.  In his book, A Chinese Ethics for the New Century, Munro collects some lectures and other essays around a central theme: that traditional Chinese thought is consistent with some of the most recent findings in modern science about the human condition, and that our modern world can learn a lot from millennia of accumulated Chinese cultural wisdom.

Munro briefly reviews some of the findings of modern evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, and relates these to central themes in Chinese philosophy, identifying the principle of an innate human sense of morality as the most important of these linkages.  In recent decades, many empirical studies of human behavior have converged on the theory that, back in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days, humans evolved an instinctual set of social responses encompassing what we call empathy, altruism and a sense of fairness.[1] This is a radical change from traditional Western thought, which posits a natural state for humans that, in the infamous words of Hobbes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In the received Western tradition, we humans are saved from this horrible fate either by the imposition of Christian values or by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps through the development of social institutions that control our violent nature.

In contrast to the Western view, as Munro points out, these recent scientific findings are more consistent with the dominant traditional Chinese view of human nature, which is expressed most powerfully in the teachings of Mencius (c. 372 – 289 BCE).  Mencius is famous for arguing that humans are naturally good and that when we act badly, it’s because of external factors that have caused damage to our original nature.  He gives an example of a person seeing an infant falling into a well, when no-one else is around, whose immediate instinct would be to rescue the child from drowning.  In Mencius’ words:

This reaction would not arise because this person wanted to get into the good graces of the child’s parents, nor because of a desire to be praised by their fellow villagers or friends, nor because they were loath to get a bad reputation [for not having helped].  From this it can be seen that a person lacking the heart of compassion is inhuman… and a person lacking the heart of right and wrong is inhuman…[2]

For centuries, Western intellectuals have dismissed this view as mere wishful thinking, but this is exactly where modern science has shown Mencius to be right.  In fact, modern neuroscientists have identified a specific part of the brain – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – which, when it’s damaged, may lead a person to become what we call a psychopath.[3]

Munro touches on some other similar linkages between the Chinese view of ethics and Western science.  For example, one of the most important recent findings of Western neuroscience is the fact that emotions are embodied.  When we refer to someone’s actions as “disgusting,” this is not just a metaphor: studies have shown that the same neural pathways and facial responses are activated by both physically and morally disgusting sights.[4] In this context, Mencius’ statement (quoted by Munro) that ‘Reason and righteousness please my heart in the same way meat pleases my palate’ takes on a new significance.

This Chinese sense of embodiment has a great deal to offer the West.  One of the greatest contrasts between Chinese and Western thought is the lack of dualism in the Chinese tradition.  The Chinese make no fundamental distinction between body and soul, which is one of the cornerstones of Western thought.  Modern neuroscientists and cognitive philosophers, such as Antonio Damasio and George Lakoff, have been demonstrating the fallacy of this aspect of the Western tradition in recent decades, and it’s remarkable how closely their approaches match the mainstream thought of classical Chinese thinking.  Given that, in Munro’s words, “China has a twenty-five hundred year history of writers focusing on moral psychology and human nature,” there is a tremendous amount we can learn from that history.  One notable example is the Chinese word “tiren” which refers to the understanding of something with both body and mind.  Munro describes how the great Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi), used this term:

Zhu conceived of the experience of knowing as deeply affecting the entire self.  The additional image that he used to expand the scope of the concept is that of a skeletal framework or a body (ti).  When used as a verb in the context of relating the self to things, ti means to make things part of the body or of the self – in short, to embody them.  Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience.  Investigating things goes beyond looking at static objects – it means getting involved with the affairs of the world.  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

Here, in one key Chinese word, is much that Damasio, Lakoff and others have been arguing for decades.  Knowledge is not just the domain of the mind; it is the result of an embodied interaction with the world around us.  The implications of this go far.  For example, philosopher Evan Thompson has written extensively on the linkage of neuroscience and 20th century European phenomenology, building on “the realization that one’s consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual in the world is founded on empathy – on one’s empathic cognition of others, and others’ empathic cognition of oneself.”[5] That thought process – still fairly radical in the West – is mainstream in the Chinese tradition.

And the implications of this thought process go even further.  Just as Chinese thought eschews the Western split between body and soul, so it also blurs the fixed barriers constructed in Western thought between self and other.  If understanding something requires an empathic projection of the self to the object, then what happens to the dividing line?  In some Chinese traditions, that dividing line virtually disappears.

Munro touches on this when he quotes another Neo-Confucian philosopher, Cheng Yi, on how the notion of the self can expand to everything out there:  “When one has no selfish subjectivity, there will be no occasion when he is acted on in which he will not respond to every stimulus with understanding.”  There is really no limit to where this notion can go, as Cheng Yi points out: “The humane man regards heaven, earth, and all things as one body; there is nothing not himself.”

Munro’s book opens a door to a vast universe of learnings that we in the modern world can acquire from traditional Chinese thought.  As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog in detail, I believe there is a fundamental link between the principles of self-organization described in modern complexity science and the Neo-Confucian concept of “the li” – the dynamical principals of our universe.  A thorough application of traditional Chinese thought to our scientific world could not only transcend the Western splits between body vs. soul and self vs. other, but could create a conceptual bridge between science and spirituality, two dimensions of experience that have long been viewed as separate in the Western worldview.

I believe that we in the West could gain hugely not just from “a Chinese ethics for the new century” but also from a Chinese cosmology for the new millennium.  Munro has done us all a favor in opening what I hope will become a floodgate for infusing Western reductionist thought with a Chinese view of the universe that can greatly enhance our ability to manage the new challenges of our global civilization.


[1] For a good recent summary, see Fehr, E., and Fischbacher, U. (2003). “The nature of human altruism.” Nature, 425, 785-791.

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

[3] See, for example, Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, or Krueger, F. et al. (2009). “The neural bases of key competencies of emotional intelligence.” PNAS, 106(52), 22486-22491.

[4] See Rozin, P., Haidt, J., and Fincher, K. (2009). “From Oral to Moral.” Science, 323(27 February 2009) and Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., and Anderson, A. K. (2009). “In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust.” Science, 323, 1222-1226.

[5] Thompson E. (2001).  “Empathy & Consciousness.”  Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-7), 1-32.

A Moment to Touch the Li

Wife lying sick in hospital bed.
Long hours sitting by her side.
But lunch time brings a walk to grab a sandwich
Through quiet pathway along a little stream.

Surrounded by hedges on both sides
Sounds and smells of spring in the air.

The tweeting of birds calling to each other
Fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle flood the nose.

New shoots jutting out from the hedges
And flowers beckoning with splashes of color.

What a moment to touch the li!

The Li Series

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

The Li Series is an integrated set of five posts which introduce the traditional Neo-Confucian concept of “the li” – the organizing principles of Nature – and explain their relevance to today’s world.

I recommend reading them in order, but I’ve given a brief synopsis of each one below, so you can jump to any post that you find particularly interesting.

I hope you find the ideas in the posts as interesting as I do!

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Introduces the Neo-Confucian idea of the li and explains how it evolved to mean 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.”

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

Contrasts the li to our Western concept of the “laws of Nature”, and explores similarities to some scientific views of Nature expressed in the area of complexity science.

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

Explains how the li relates to the Chinese concept of ch’i (energy/matter), and explores some of the philosophical implications of viewing life in terms of the integrated dynamics of li and ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

Argues that an understanding of the li offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

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

Explores how the Neo-Confucian way of understanding the natural world may offer us a view of humanity’s oneness with Nature that’s increasingly important in light of the current global environmental crisis.

Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things

Supposing we all learned to view the universe like Einstein saw it?  Wouldn’t that lead to a very different world?  Now, I’m not suggesting that any of us can ever hope to have the genius that Einstein possessed, but it’s possible that the traditional Neo-Confucian approach to understanding the universe (that I’ve described in earlier posts) might offer a few insights into seeing the same natural wonder that Einstein saw all around him.

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.  It was all encapsulated in one sublime vision.  “The most beautiful thing we can experience,” he tells us, “is the mysterious.”[1] In Einstein’s view, the religious feeling of the scientist “takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”[2]

Well, that may have been the case for Einstein himself, but it certainly hasn’t been true for most scientific voices of the past few hundred years.  In direct contrast to Einstein, the typical viewpoint from the Western world has been one which originated in the writings of English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose vision of the role of science led to the founding of the British Royal Society and the institutionalization of the scientific methods that we take for granted nowadays.

Bacon’s favorite metaphor of the natural world was that of a powerful woman who needed to be conquered and subdued.  As he tells us in his book, Novum Organum:

I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.[3]

Bacon viewed science as the means to gain power over Nature, “to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.”[4] Bacon’s metaphors might sound disconcerting to our 21st century sensibilities, but they form the foundation of the Western view of science.  For example, later in the century, echoing Bacon, Joseph Glanvill defended the recently founded Royal Society arguing that “Nature being known, it may be master’d, managed, and used in the Services of human Life.”[5]

That approach succeeded beyond Bacon’s wildest dreams, but it has also led our civilization to a precipice of climate change and global destabilization, where Nature now seems to be threatening to shake us to our own foundations.  Many observers have seen the Baconian view towards Nature as the fundamental source of this imbalance.  The great spiritual ecologist Reverend Thomas Berry, wrote that:

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans… Consistently we have difficulty in accepting the human as an integral part of the Earth community.[6]

Ultimately, we’ll only escape from our global predicament if we can find a way to view Nature that’s fundamentally different from Bacon’s domination.   This is where the Neo-Confucian tradition can possibly help us out.

I’ve described elsewhere how the Neo-Confucians of China’s Song Dynasty understood Nature in terms of the li, the dynamic organizing principles underlying everything in the universe.  For Chu Hsi, the leading Neo-Confucian philosopher, one of the driving imperatives of human existence was what he called the “investigation of things” (ko wu).  But this investigation was very different from the kind that the Royal Society instituted in Europe.  When you see the natural world in terms of the li, this leads to an emphasis on the underlying principles in nature that are shared by all of us.  So, in Chu Hsi’s approach, an investigation of nature was equally an investigation into yourself.  Only by understanding yourself could you make sense of the world, and vice versa.

Chu Hsi’s investigation of things broke down the barriers between man and nature, subject and object, intellect and feeling – as described here by 20th century Chinese scholar, Wing-Tsit Chan:

…in Chu Hsi’s doctrine, full understanding of li leads to full realization of man’s nature; there is unity of nature and li when knowledge and practice go together… [I]n Chu Hsi’s investigation of things … there is no distinction of subject and object, for only when one comes into contact with things can one investigate their principle.  Thus intuition and intellection are simultaneous.[7]

Echoes of this worldview may be re-emerging in the thinking of some biologists who apply complexity theory to understand natural processes.  Here are the thoughts of biologist Brian Goodwin:

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.[8]

Nature Within Our Mind: Diffusion spectrum image of association pathways in the human cortex, taken by Van Wedeen, Massachusetts General.

But the Neo-Confucian investigation of things goes further than a mere awareness of our interdependence with Nature.  For Chu Hsi, there’s really no separation between understanding Nature out there and the Nature within us.  “Every individual thing in the universe has its own li; all these separate li, furthermore, are to be found summed up in the Nature which is contained in our own Mind.  To acquire exhaustive knowledge of the li of these external objects, therefore, means to gain understanding of the Nature that lies within ourselves.”[9]

Again, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[10]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.  Up till now though, we’ve been looking at a purely intellectual approach to understanding.  In another crucial difference from Western thought, Neo-Confucian investigation involves all aspects of our consciousness: thought, feeling, and everything in between.  As Chan said above, “intuition and intellection are simultaneous.”

This is why Chu Hsi’s description of the investigation of things seems closer to the Buddhist process of achieving enlightenment than a scientific investigation.  “As you progress in accumulating your understanding of the world,” Chu Hsi believes, this can “eventually lead to a moment of sudden enlightenment, when the li of all the myriad things in the universe will be seen to exist within our own Nature.”[11] Here’s how Chu Hsi himself describes it:

When one has exerted oneself for a long time, finally one morning a complete understanding will open before one.  Thereupon there will be a thorough comprehension of all the multitude of things, external or internal, fine or coarse, and every exercise of the mind will be marked by complete enlightenment.[12]

What’s the nature of this “complete enlightenment”?  Well, one insight of Neo-Confucian thought is the underlying interpenetration of everything in Nature, the fact that, underneath it all, the principles of life are the same for all of us.  Wing-Tsit Chan describes this insight in another Neo-Confucian thinker, Ch’êng-Yi:

… if one investigates more and more, one will naturally come to understand Li. It can readily be seen that the principle in any one thing is the same principle in all things. This is why [Ch’êng-Yi] said, “We say that all things are one reality, because all things have the same Li in them.” As Li is the universal principle, “The Li of a thing is one with the Li of all things.[13]

Cosmic Unity: an insight shared by Albert Einstein and the Neo-Confucian thinkers.

This sense of cosmic unity may sound mystical and unscientific to some Western ears, so let’s look again at the striking parallels to the understanding of the universe that Albert Einstein achieved.  Here’s how Einstein described it:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘the Universe’, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.[14]

Perhaps if we can learn to practice the Neo-Confucian investigation of things, in our own modern terms, we might find ourselves on the path to “accepting the human as an integral part of the Earth community,” as Thomas Berry so fervently hoped.  After all, as noted by 20th century philosopher Ernst Cassirer:

He who lives in harmony with his own self … lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle.[15]

________________________________________________________________________________

Note: This is the fifth 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] Quoted by Ravindra, R. (2008). “Notes on Scientific Research and Spiritual Search.” Parabola, 33(3: Fall 2008), 7-11.

[2] Quoted by Ricard, M., and Thuan, T. X. (2001). The Quantum and the Lotus, New York: Three Rivers Press, 50.

[3] Quoted by Hartmann, T. (1998/2004). The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, New York: Three Rivers Press.

[4] Leiss, W. (1972/1994). The Domination of Nature, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 55-59.

[5] Leiss, op. cit., 79-81.

[6] Quoted by Speth, J. G. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 202.

[7] Chan, W.-T. (1976). “The Study of Chu Hsi in the West.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 35(4), 555-577.

[8] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, x.

[9] Fung, Y.-L., and Bodde, D. (1942). “The Philosophy of Chu Hsi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 7(1), 1-51. In Bodde’s original translation of Fung’s work, the word “Law” is used instead of li.  For reasons discussed in another post, I’ve taken the liberty of “de-translating” the word back to its original “li”.

[10] Levin, S. A. (1998). “Ecosystems and the Biosphere as Complex Adaptive Systems.” Ecosystems, 1998(1), 431-436.

[11] Fung and Bodde, op. cit.

[12] Cited by Morton, W. S., and Lewis, C. M. (1995/2005). China: Its History and Culture, New York: McGraw-Hill, 114.

[13] Chan, W.-T. (1957). “Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Scientific Thought.” Philosophy East and West, 6(4), 309-332.

[14] Quoted by Thuan, op. cit., 72.

[15] Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing,
This is superior.
From not knowing to knowing,
This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te.
When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity).
When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness).
When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.


[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

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

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.  It should be noted that another part of the pfc, called the fronto-polar cortex, was active during the improvisation.  This area is thought to be related to integrative functions, and is distinct from the “effortful” planning functions of the lateral pfc described in the post.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.

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.

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.

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