I give thanks…

I give thanks to the trees, the sun, the trails, the wind, for being there.

I give thanks to my lungs for breathing me.

I give thanks to Pete Townsend for Baba O’Riley.

To Keith Moon for drumming me.

To Roger Daltrey for singing to me:

“I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right.

I don’t need to be forgiven…”

I give thanks to William Blake for telling me

“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

I give thanks to my mind for carrying me along in its currents.

I give thanks to my li for sustaining me.

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“Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness”

Here’s a working draft of the Introductory section of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.  I invite constructive comments from readers of my blog.

[Click here for a pdf version of this post]


FINDING THE LI: TOWARDS A DEMOCRACY OF CONSCIOUSNESS


Introduction.

Imagine a satellite being launched into geosynchronous orbit, but its controls aren’t working too well.  If the trajectory gets too steep, the satellite will break through earth’s gravity field and soar into outer space, leaving earth behind forever.  On the other hand, if the calculations were wrong, the resistance of the atmosphere might become too great, and the satellite would come crashing down to earth in a fiery ball.  Only if everything is managed with great care will the satellite achieve its stable orbit, locking into synchrony with the earth.

I see our human trajectory like that satellite.  Our ever accelerating rate of technological innovation has allowed the human race to accomplish things that couldn’t have been dreamt of even a hundred years ago.  And the daily advances in areas like microchip technology and genetic engineering offer promises of ever more fantastic achievements.  At the exponentially increasing pace of this technological change, it won’t be too long before artificial intelligence transcends human intelligence and human DNA can be safely enhanced to produce an improved species.  That’s the analogy of the satellite breaking through earth’s gravity field to leave its home planet behind forever.

But there’s no guarantee that this is what the future holds for our species.  Our technological progress has been based on exploiting our world’s natural resources at an ever-increasing pace, to the point that the current rate of material progress appears unsustainable on many fronts.  In addition to the threat of climate change, there is a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting issues such as capacity limits in crucial resources like oil and water, deforestation, desertification, oceans emptying of fish and a massive extinction of species.  If the convergence of these multiple threats becomes too much to handle, our global civilization might face a total collapse.  This is the analogy of the satellite hitting too much resistance and crashing down in a fiery ball.

To me, and most likely to you too, neither of those scenarios is attractive.  But is it possible for the human race to manage the trajectory it’s on closely enough to reach a stable orbit?  What would it take for us to achieve that?  That’s a question this book attempts to answer.  But the approach taken in this book has very little to do directly with global economics or environmental politics.  There are plenty of other books currently being published offering plans for social and political transformations that could help to put us on a more sustainable course.  The fundamental problem, however, is that as long as each of us continues to live according to the values infused in us through our culture, it’s not realistic to expect any real change in the human trajectory.

This book is based on the premise that there are some fundamental, structural elements to our modes of thought that drive our global culture on its accelerating and unsustainable path.  Understanding those foundational structures requires looking deeply into the historical and psychological sources of how we currently think.  It may not be a simple journey, but it’s only when these foundations are clearly understood that we can explore possibilities to rebuild our patterns of thought in ways that might permit us to enjoy a sustainable future on our planet.

This book takes us on a journey into the depths of our modern consciousness and identifies some faults in the foundations.  At the same time, it offers an alternative foundation of thought, based on a fusion of scientific insight and traditional wisdom, that could provide us with a sturdier basis for the next phase in our human project.

In order to accomplish this exploration, the book is divided into three parts.  The first part attempts to understand what happened historically to our collective consciousness that put us on our current trajectory.  It offers what I call a “cognitive history,” an investigation into the major historical factors that structure our modern consciousness, from the earliest days of the human race to the present day.  The second part examines the biological source of our consciousness and explores the new view of life as a dynamic, self-organized system proposed by leading thinkers in biology and complexity science.  The final part of the book integrates learnings from the first two parts, offering a way of thinking about ourselves and our relationship with the natural world that synthesizes major themes from both Chinese and Western thought traditions, proposing a worldview that could bridge the chasm that currently exists between science and spirituality and could potentially offer a path for sustainable living on our earth.

What follows is a more detailed description of each of these three parts.

Part I:  An archaeology of the mind

The first part of this book conducts what may be thought of as an “archaeology of the mind.”  It attempts to uncover the layers of cognitive structures that comprise our modern consciousness and investigate how they were originally formed.  In order to do that, we have to go back to the very origins of our species and determine what it was that made homo sapiens unique in the history of our planet.  From that foundation, we take a look at the worldview of our hunter-gatherer ancestors  who have accounted for the vast bulk of human history.  Then, layer by layer, we’ll trace how the phenomenon of agriculture transformed the world, and how this in turn paved the way for the great early civilizations that spanned the continents.

At that point, though, our archaeology dig stumbles on a strange bifurcation in its cognitive search.  We’ll take a close look at how, roughly twenty five hundred years ago, a unique confluence of cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean led to the emergence of an unprecedented dualistic cosmology, a complete separation of the eternal and sacred from the material and profane, which has formed the basis of our modern worldview.  At the same time, we’ll see how in China, separated by the Himalayas from their contemporaries in the West, a sophisticated and fundamentally different cosmology emerged from earlier shamanistic and agricultural traditions.  We’ll begin to explore the significance of these contrasting worldviews, and see how they led to a divergence in the way people understood themselves and their relation to the natural world.

Back in the West, we’ll trace how the Christian view of the universe permitted the astonishing transformation of thought that led to the Scientific Revolution, the gateway to our modern world.  We’ll see how fundamental concepts that we take for granted nowadays, such as Reason, Truth, Measurement, Time and Progress, evolved over the past two millennia into their modern forms.

The tyranny of the prefrontal cortex

As we conduct our archaeology of the mind, we’ll be viewing our findings through a lens that’s been provided by recent developments in neuroscience.  A major thesis of this book is that a crucial part of the human brain – the prefrontal cortex – has played a central role in the human story.  The prefrontal cortex (hereinafter referred to as the “pfc”) is that part of the brain responsible for mediating those cognitive abilities we view as uniquely human, such as symbolic thought, abstraction, planning, rule-making and imposing meaning on things.  It’s a part of the brain that’s far more developed in humans than in other mammals.

Neuroscientists have already established for some time now that the pfc is a central component of human uniqueness.  But this book’s thesis goes beyond that.  It argues that the unique evolutionary expansion of the pfc in the human brain, combined with the dynamics of culture (itself a product of pfc activity) has created a positive feedback loop leading to an imbalance within the human psyche, both collectively and individually.  Within each culture, a cognitive network of symbols constructed over countless generations imposes itself on the mind of each child growing up, structuring the pathways of that child’s cognitive perception.  This structuring gives each individual’s pfc a greater role in shaping a person’s consciousness than it would otherwise have.

This has been true for all the different cultures that have evolved throughout the world over the millennia.  But this book proposes that, along with the rise of a dualistic worldview, something unique happened to the relative power of the pfc within human consciousness in the Western world.  For the first time in human thought, the pfc’s function for abstraction became a core value in itself.  Reason was separated from emotion.  Abstraction became conjoined with the notion of an eternal and omniscient monotheistic God.  The human soul became defined on the basis of the abstracting function of the pfc, and viewed as eternal and holy, the link between human and God.  Conversely, that part of the human experience that we share with other animals and is less dependent on the pfc – our instincts and our physical sensations – became viewed as inferior.  Paralleling this dualistic, split view of the human being, mankind’s relationship with nature experienced a similar divergence: nature became increasingly seen as something separate from mankind, something that lacked an eternal soul.

While the pfc’s capability for abstraction was forming an eternal God in its own image in the Western world, a very different cosmology was developing in East Asia.  Over the course of a millennium, two indigenous Chinese thought traditions – Taoism and Confucianism – became infused with Buddhist ideas imported from India, leading to the flowering of a philosophy known as Neo-Confucianism.  Around the time that William the Conqueror was invading England, the Song dynasty of China was conceiving an integrated view of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds that placed the pfc-mediated functions in harmony with the other aspects of human experience, in direct contrast to the dualism developing in the West.  Specifically, the Neo-Confucianists thought of the universe in terms of dynamic patterns, or li, which organized how matter and energy, or ch’i, were manifested.  They saw the living world as one gigantic, interconnected organism, and in fact their cosmology has been referred to as an “organismic” worldview.

In recent centuries, however, traditional Chinese thought – along with other indigenous cosmologies around the world – has been overwhelmed by the modern, scientific worldview which hitched a ride along with the global military and industrial conquests of the Western powers.  And the first section of this book goes on to examine the cognitive roots of the scientific revolution that has so transformed our world.

In the traditional narrative of European history, the rise of the scientific worldview is generally seen as being in opposition to Christian theology.  The current ongoing raucous debate between the two sides may be presented as evidence enough for this.  But viewed from the lens of the pfc’s influence over human consciousness, the scientific revolution appears as yet another stage in the pfc’s rise to power.  In fact, “power over nature” (including our own human nature) may be identified as the hallmark of the scientific revolution, a theme introduced by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that has since become a foundation of modern thought.  And the systematic application of reason has now become generally viewed as the only way to arrive at an objective truth.

I’ve called this cognitive imbalance the “tyranny of the pfc” over the rest of our consciousness.  The choice of this term is designed to communicate the notion that it’s both an unnatural and unstable dynamic.  In fact, this tyranny of the pfc has been responsible for creating the current unsustainable trajectory for the human race.  Whether it continues to successfully harness technology to take us into a future of genetically engineered super-humans and artificial super-intelligence, or whether it ransacks the desacralized natural world into ruin, either way life as we know it will be headed for extinction.  Either our humanity or our civilization is at risk.

Part II: An exploration of the pfc, consciousness and life

The term “tyranny of the pfc” is used in the first section to describe how our modern set of values overemphasizes certain characteristics of our thought processes that are mediated by the pfc, to the profound detriment of both our own experience of ourselves as well as our relationship to the natural world.  The second section explores the fundamental question: since the pfc is a central part of our human uniqueness, is the “tyranny of the pfc” an inevitable outcome of humanity’s cultural evolution? Or is there in fact another basis for us to understand ourselves and to experience our relationship with the world around us?

The section begins by using recent insights from neuroscience research to examine the ways in which the pfc makes us uniquely human, and then starts digging down into the very roots of consciousness and life.  It distinguishes between the kind of pfc-mediated consciousness experienced only by humans, conceptual consciousness, and the kind that we share with other animals: animate consciousness.  But where does animate consciousness come from?  As we uncover the remarkable complexities of other life forms and the astonishing workings of individual cells,  we begin to see how even individual bacteria make choices.  This exploration leads us to a form of intelligence existing at a cellular level, which has been described as “the intelligence that lurks in nonhuman nature,” and which I refer to as animate intentionality.  Understanding animate intentionality takes us on a path that opens up a different perspective on human consciousness and indeed, on life itself.

Finding the li

How do creatures without a brain – plants, fungi, bacteria – figure out what to do?  How do creatures with tiny brains – ants, bees, termites – act so smart as a group?  Biologists have achieved major insights into these puzzles in recent years by analyzing what is known as self-organization: the principles by which highly complex living systems can achieve sustained levels of intelligence, order and flexibility.  This has led some biologists and philosophers to the fundamental notion of life itself as a self-organized system, which becomes a cornerstone for the new way of looking at ourselves and our world proposed in this book.  In this view, the dynamic organization of a system, the ways in which each of its parts interrelate, are more significant than the physical matter of which the system is comprised.

Think of a photograph taken of yourself when you were a child.  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 still connects you to that child?  It’s the principles of self-organization in your body, the ever-dynamic but remarkably stable interrelationships existing within and between the cellular components of your body and your brain.

But these interrelationships don’t just stop at the boundary of your body.  In fact, these principles of dynamic self-organization apply to all living systems, from the tiniest cell to the largest ecosystem.  From this perspective, all living organisms can be seen as both comprising smaller self-organized systems, and at the same time being a part of one or more larger self-organized systems.  In this view, no living system is self-sufficient, but is interdependent within what is known as the holarchy, a conceptual model of systems acting within systems.  The largest system of all in the holarchy would be the biosystem of the Earth, which is sometimes referred to as Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

If this description of life reminds you a little of the Neo-Confucian view of the world as one giant, interconnected organism, this is no coincidence.  Remarkably, the principles of self-organization that modern biologists and complexity theorists have uncovered may be understood as the very same dynamic that traditional Neo-Confucian philosophers in China described as the “li.”  In both cases, the emphasis is on understanding the interrelated, dynamic qualities of a living system as its most important feature, rather than merely analyzing the system’s physical components.  However, whereas modern scientific investigations use advanced mathematics and computer modeling to understand these principles, the Neo-Confucianists used their perspective on the li to achieve profound spiritual insights.  This astonishing and informative congruence of modern scientific thinking with a sophisticated, traditional worldview that flourished a thousand years ago becomes a major theme in the final section of the book.

Part III: Towards a democracy of consciousness

In Part I, our archaeology of the mind identified some flaws in the foundations of our modern worldview.  In Part II, our journey into the heart of consciousness revealed an alternative biological view of life that connects with the Neo-Confucian “li” from a thousand years ago.  The third section pulls together learnings from the past and the present into one integrated worldview, proposing an approach that bridges science and spirituality to lead us away from the tyranny of the pfc and towards a democracy of consciousness.

In our modern world, the tyranny of the pfc described in Part I has led us to a chasm that separates science and spirituality.  But other, non-Western traditional worldviews never experienced that split.  How did they deal with those attributes of the pfc that make us uniquely human?

The classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, begins with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the everlasting Tao,” and many of the following pages reinforce this theme.  Language – that uniquely human and most powerful of all artifacts created by our pfc – is seen as anathema to an understanding of the Tao. Similarly, when we turn to Buddhist thought, we find a systematic attempt to undo the constraints of the pfc’s conceptualizations.  The Buddhist emphasis on living in the present moment can be seen as a way to avoid the constructions of past and future that are the hallmark of pfc-mediated activity.  Interestingly, these traditions shared an emphasis on cultivating the mind through the practice of meditation, to integrate mind and body and to quiet the incessant chatter of our pfc-based inner narratives.

Of course, in the West, there have been those who fought against the tyranny of the pfc, but they didn’t have a systematic foundation of thought like Taoism or Buddhism to turn to in their struggle.  I call these people – such as Wordsworth, Blake or Van Gogh – “pfc rebels” and as such they have tended to surface in the arts, a social safety valve that has allowed Western mainstream thought to keep its structure secured.  And there has also been a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Spinoza and the 20th century phenomenologists, which has attempted to see the world from something like the Neo-Confucianist perspective of the li, but it’s generally been hidden by the glare of mainstream Western dualist thought, and as such I call it the “moonlight tradition.”

In our modern Western world, even without the practices of Taoism and Buddhism, there are still plenty of ways that each of us, on an ad hoc basis, finds moments to escape pfc tyranny.  Some people have experienced moments of pfc-liberation through taking hallucinogenic drugs.  The vast majority of us have known those special moments, in sporting activities, walking in nature, looking a loved one in the eyes, or making love, when the constructs and abstractions of the pfc melt away and we’re fully in touch with our animate consciousness.  Perhaps the most common form of ongoing “pfc disobedience” is music, that pervasive and primal vehicle of communication that we humans most likely used for millions of years before language evolved.

Liology

Yet all these ad hoc moments of freedom from pfc tyranny are not enough.  Individually, our lives are controlled by values that are not entirely our own; and globally, we’re all doing our part to drive that human trajectory on its unsustainable crash course with the Earth.  We need a more systematic framework on a stable foundation to move towards a democracy of consciousness.  The one that I propose is called liology.  The very word liology is designed to demonstrate that it is a fusion of Western and Eastern worldviews: the Neo-Confucian notion of the li merging with the Western scientific tradition (the “ology” part which is Greek for “study”).  Liology means a study of the organizing principles that link all living entities, a project (in Heraclitus’ words) “to know the principles by which all things are steered through all things.”  But it’s not just a “study” in the conventional Western scientific meaning of pfc-based analysis.  It’s also an investigation of ourselves and the natural world using both our animate and conceptual consciousness.  And the “li” that is studied is both a scientific and spiritual term.  In liology, there’s no fundamental distinction between the two.  Liology is proposed,  not as a substitute for conventional Western science, but as a complement to it.  Realizing the intrinsic connectedness of all things, liology would tend to lead to solutions that emphasize participation with, rather than control of, natural processes.

What liology means for us as individuals is a framework to achieve a democracy of consciousness within ourselves, to harmonize and integrate our conceptual and animate consciousness.  This has major implications for the values by which we choose to live our lives.  Liology will tend to emphasize a new set of values linking our human identity with the natural world, extending our circle of empathy beyond other humans to the interconnected li of other living entities all around us.  The destruction of the natural world, along with transcendence of our humanity into an abstract super-intelligence, would both be anathema to the values arising out of liology.

Finally, liology opens the possibility for broader spiritual growth.  The integration of our conceptual and animate consciousness, combined with an increasing awareness of the connectivity of our li with the li all around us, offers a path to transcend the fixed sense of self that our pfc-oriented culture locks us into from early childhood.  A practice of liology can help us to experience the world that Neo-Confucian philosopher Chang Tsai described over a thousand years ago:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst.

All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

Enjoy the ride!

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.

The bacterium, the fly and the sugar bowl

[A response to Anthony Cashmore’s article denying free will published in the March 9, 2010 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]

I wasn’t sure if I was meant to take it seriously.  But it was being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it was even an Inaugural Article by a recently elected member… and it wasn’t yet April 1.  But there I was, reading in this august journal that

not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.[1]

Does a fly have any more free will than…

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, this University of Pennsylvania biologist, Anthony Cashmore, was actually suggesting that our lack of free will should be reflected in our criminal justice system and proposing various adjustments to it.  Finally, to make matters even more disconcerting, a letter appeared a couple of weeks ago in PNAS, not taking issue with Cashmore on free will, but taking  our lack of it as a given, and discussing the implications for our system of justice.[2]

I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked.  After all, this utter rejection of free will in the name of scientific reductionism has been around for at least a couple of centuries.  It’s as though Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was re-born but without God in the driver’s seat.  It was back in 1814 that Pierre-Simon de Laplace notoriously wrote in his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités:

A mind that in a given instance knew all the forces by which nature is animated and the position of all the bodies of which it is composed, if it were vast enough to include all these data within his analysis, could embrace in one single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and of the smallest atoms; nothing would be uncertain for him; the future and the past would be equally before his eyes.[3]

… a bowl of sugar?

And for the past two centuries, wannabe Calvinists who found themselves in science rather than theology have kept up their attack on the notion of free will.  A hundred years after Laplace, it was celebrated biologist Jacques Loeb who found himself on the frontline of the assault, writing in his bestseller The Mechanistic Conception of Life:

Living organisms are chemical machines, possessing the peculiarity of preserving and reproducing themselves… We eat, drink and reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so.[4]

Perhaps Cashmore sees himself as the new century’s storm trooper for predestination; he certainly provided enough historical quotations himself to show that he is well aware of the pedigree of his idea.  And to give him credit, he has added an important stochastic element to the traditional notion of determinism, proposing that “there is a trinity of forces —genes, environment, and stochasticism (GES)—that governs all of biology including behavior, with the stochastic component referring to the inherent uncertainty of the physical properties of matter.”

But I intend to show that, in fact, Cashmore is so far from the truth that his statement above about the bacterium, fly and the bowl of sugar should be turned around completely to read:

not only we, but also a fly or a bacterium, in actuality have more free will than a bowl of sugar.

Cashmore cites, as evidence of his argument that GES governs all our activity, a number of recent studies showing that our conscious awareness of what we’re doing generally follows, rather than precedes, the relevant neural activity in the brain.  I agree with him that these studies are important, so let’s take a look at one of those he cited, by Soon et al., called appropriately enough “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.”[5]

As Cashmore notes, Soon et al. conclude that

Taken together, two specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 s… Also, in contrast with most previous studies, the preparatory time period reveals that this prior activity is not an unspecific preparation of a response. Instead, it specifically encodes how a subject is going to decide.

So what does that conclusion tell us?  That certain parts of our brain – including part of our prefrontal cortex which is generally regarded as the locus of our “executive function” – make a decision and begin implementing it before our self-awareness becomes conscious  of this decision.  Is that evidence against free will?  No.  Rather, it’s evidence that when you, as an organism, decide to do something, that decision process is far more complex than we have generally understood it to be, and the part of the process that you’re conscious of is only a small, and sometimes relatively insignificant, part.  What Cashmore has done in his interpretation is conflate “conscious” with “free,” and therefore conclude that because we’re not conscious of something, we’re not free in our volition.

Cashmore is, of course, not alone in doing so.  In fact, even though he believes himself liberated from Cartesian dualism, he’s actually still confined within the modern dualistic tradition of Western thought that began with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) – the identity of self with one’s conscious awareness.  This tradition itself is really just a scientific rendering of an older current of thought that began with Plato two and a half millennia ago, when the eternal soul was conflated with the reasoning faculty and separated ontologically from the mortal body.

As cognitive linguists Lakoff & Johnson have shown, this split of self-identity between subject and object is so embedded in our thought and culture that it infuses the structure of our ordinary language. When we say “I pulled myself together,” or “I’m disappointed in myself,” or dozens of other such constructs, we’re exhibiting “something deep about our inner experience, mainly that we experience ourselves as split.”  Lakoff & Johnson generalize this as a dichotomy between the Subject, which they define as “the locus of consciousness, subjective experience, reason, will, and our ‘essence,’ everything that makes us who we uniquely are,” and multiples Selves, which “consist of everything else about us – our bodies, our social roles, our histories, and so on…”[6]

With the perspective of Lakoff & Johnson’s Self/Subject split,  we can interpret Soon et al.’s study as identifying some of the neural correlates of that split.  If one of the participants described the findings as “I wasn’t aware of the decision I’d made ten seconds earlier,” then rather than undermine the notion of free will, this merely demonstrates that the “specific regions of frontopolar and parietal cortex” that were seen to encode the decisions were not simultaneously participating in the conscious awareness of self.  In fact, a number of studies have searched for the neural correlates of that “self-referential or introspectively oriented mental activity,” and while acknowledging that it’s “likely to be widely distributed,” have identified the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex as probably the most important locus of the Subject/Self dynamic.

The important takeaway from all this is that, as Antonio Damasio has eloquently stated, “the mind exists in and for an integrated organism… The organism constituted by the brain-body partnership interacts with the environment as an ensemble, the interaction being of neither the body nor the brain alone.”[7] At this point, I can imagine Cashmore exultantly responding: “Right, so forget the distinction between conscious and unconscious processing, in the end it makes no difference.  Both the body and the brain are still subject to the determining factors of GES.  Neither is free.”  And from this perspective, I can agree with Cashmore that as far as free will goes, we humans are in the same bucket as his fly and bacterium.  Sure, there’s a extended continuum, and our higher-order consciousness may affect our actions more than Soon’s experiment shows, but  on a radical level, whether free will exists or not is really a question for the human, the fly and bacterium – all of us are in this together.

So let’s take a close look at the dynamics that all living organisms share.  Are we really subject to GES and nothing more?  This is where I think Cashmore’s understanding comes up short.  He states:

Some will argue that free will could be explained by emergent properties that may be associated with neural networks. This is almost certainly correct in reference to the phenomenon of consciousness. However… in the absence of any hint of a mechanism that affects the activities of atoms in a manner that is not a direct and unavoidable consequence of the forces of GES, this line of thinking is not informative in reference to the question of free will…

Well, the thing is, there’s no “absence of a hint of a mechanism.”  In fact, there’s a rigorous, interdisciplinary approach to the complexities of life, with decades of modeling under its belt, which recognizes the emergent properties of complex, self-organized systems as a dynamic which supersedes the forces of GES, while remaining consistent with the physics of these forces.  Cashmore betrays a possible lack of understanding of the nature of self-organized systems when he refers approvingly to “studies that indicate that consciousness is something that follows, and does not precede, unconscious neural activity in the brain.”  In fact, the breakthrough in understanding consciousness as an emergent property of neuronal self-organization is that there is no linear progression.  Consciousness neither follows nor precedes neural activity in the brain.  Consciousness is simultaneously both a function of and a driver of that neural activity.

How can that be?  The key concept necessary for an understanding of any living system – whether it’s human consciousness, a multi-cellular fly or a single-celled bacterium – is the two simultaneous directions of causation, both upwards and downwards.  This is summarized well by renowned neuroscientist György Buzsáki:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.[8]

This global order parameter, while influenced by genes and environment, and subject to stochastic variation, nevertheless exerts an emergent force on its own integrated system that is not determined by the parts of that system, but by the dynamic interactions of the whole with the parts.  Philosopher Evan Thompson, referring to empirical examples of epileptic patients changing the neurodynamic patterns of epileptic activity, explains that

‘downwards’ (global-to-local) causation is no metaphysical will-o’-the-wisp, but a typical feature of complex (nonlinear) dynamical systems, and may occur at multiple levels in the coupled dynamics of brain, body and environment, including that of conscious cognitive acts in relation to local neural activity.[9]

At this point, there’s a temptation to respond that, while the workings of these complex, self-organized systems are, for all practical purposes impossible to determine, they’re still deterministic.  However, this blanket dismissal of emergence fails to differentiate between what’s been termed “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence.  Philosophers Silberstein & McGeever explain the distinction well.  Epistemological emergence is the kind of “false” emergence that can be dismissed by determinists, where there’s no real top-down causation, but the system is just practically impossible to predict:

Most cases of emergence are epistemological. These are often cases in which it is hopeless to try to understand the behaviour of the whole system by tracing each individual part or process: we must find a method of representing what the system does on the whole or on average in a manner which abstracts away from causal detail… This kind of explanation often involves high-level descriptions of one sort or another: examples include averaging, gas laws and statistical mechanics in general.

A property of an object or system is epistemologically emergent if the property is reducible to or determined by the intrinsic properties of the ultimate constituents of the object or system, while at the same time it is very difficult for us to explain, predict or derive the property on the basis of the ultimate constituents. Epistemologically emergent properties are novel only at a level of description.[10]

Boiling water does not represent true, ontological emergence.

So, for example, if you heat a pot of water until it starts boiling, it’s sometimes claimed that the boiling is an emergent property of the water.  Wrong.  That’s epistemological emergence.  In practical terms, you’ll never be able to predict each bubble, but in principle, as Laplace said back in 1814, a mind that knew all the forces of nature could theoretically model the movements of the water.  Ontological emergence, by contrast, refers to

features of systems or wholes that possess causal capacities not reducible to any of the intrinsic causal capacities of the parts nor to any of the (reducible) relations between the parts. Emergent properties are properties of a system taken as a whole which exert a causal influence on the parts of the system consistent with, but distinct from, the causal capacities of the parts themselves.[11]

In other words, a “causal influence… consistent with, but distinct from” Cashmore’s GES.  Ontological emergence, in the view of Silberstein & McGeever, “entails the failure of part-whole reductionism.”  It also entails the failure of Cashmore’s denial of free will.

Perhaps the best explanation of ontological emergence I’ve come across is Evan Thompson’s description of the cell (and life) in terms of what he calls “dynamic co-emergence”:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing and thus procures its own self-maintaining processes… Whether the system is a cell, immune network, nervous system, insect colony, or animal society, what emerges is a unity with its own self-producing identity and domain of interactions or milieu, be it cellular (autopoiesis), somatic (immune networks), sensorimotor and neurocognitive (the nervous system), or social (animal societies).

Dynamic co-emergence best describes the sort of emergence we see in autonomy.  In an autonomous system, the whole not only arises from the (organizational closure of) the parts, but the parts also arise from the whole.  The whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole.  Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole.  Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.

Biological life, seen from the perspective of autopoiesis, provides a paradigm case of dynamic co-emergence.  A minimal autopoietic whole emerges from the dynamic interdependence of a membrane boundary and an internal chemical reaction network.  The membrane and reaction network (as well as the molecules that compose them) do not pre-exist as independent entities.  Rather, they co-emerge through their integrative, metabolic relation to each other.  They produce and constitute the whole, while the whole produces them and subordinates them to it.[12]

Fruit flies exercising their free will.

Which is why I’m claiming free will not just for us humans, but also for that fly and bacterium.  In fact, speaking of flies, I’d refer Cashmore to a study by neurobiologist Bjorn Brembs who was attempting several years back to see if fruit flies in a deprivation chamber would fly in random or predictable patterns.  Turns out, they were neither random nor predictable.  They showed all the hallmarks of chaos, the form of activity that can arise from complex self-organized behavior, and which has been modeled in human brain patterns:  “It’s a rudimentary sort of free will,” Brembs concluded.[13]

Of course, I’m not claiming that we have the same amount of free will as a fly.  I think we’re at different points along a continuum of free will, which can be understood as a function of the complexity of the organism: whether it’s multicellular,  has a nervous system, a brain, a neocortex or (as in humans) a highly evolved prefrontal cortex.  In all cases, our free will is certainly constrained by Cashmore’s GES: genes, environment and stochasticism, but the constraints don’t eliminate free will, they just structure how it can be manifested.  One way of thinking about Cashmore’s GES is like a scaffolding: you can view the structure as a set of prison bars eliminating your freedom, or you can view it like a set of gymnasium bars, which you can grab onto and swing from.  It’s your, er, … well, it’s your choice.

Ultimately, I’m afraid that the mechanistic view of determinism propagated by Cashmore and others merely indicates the poverty of the reductionist worldview as a vehicle for understanding complex, self-organized systems such as cells, organisms and the human mind.  We’re all in this life together.  And whereas we humans may be the only ones capable of reflecting and writing about it, we share our free will with every other living organism on the earth.  That’s something that I, for one, am happy about.


[1] Cashmore, A. R. (2010). “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” PNAS, 107(10), 4499-4504.

[2] McEvoy, J. P. (2010). “A justice system that denies free will is not based on justice.” PNAS 107(20)E81.

[3] Cited by Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York: Vintage Books.

[4] Cited by Capra, F. (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, New York: Bantam Books; and Rensberger, B. (1996). Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J., and Haynes, J.-D. (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.” Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543-5.

[6] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 268-9.

[7] Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, xx-xxi, 88.

[8] Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain, New York: Oxford University Press.

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

[10] Silberstein, M., and McGeever, J. (1999). “The Search for Ontological Emergence.” The Philosophical Quarterly, 49(195:April 1999), 182-200.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 64-5.

[13] Homes, B. (2007).  “Fruit flies display rudimentary free will.” New Scientist, 16 May 2007.

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.

Transcendence or Immanence? You can choose one but not both…

Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization

By Huston Smith

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.  1982/2003.

Huston Smith is one of the most respected spiritual thinkers of our time.  Having been born in China to Methodist missionaries in 1919, he practiced different Eastern religions for several decades and wrote one of the few religious bestsellers of the 20th century, called The World’s Religions, in addition to many other well received books on religious beliefs.  So it is with some trepidation that I take issue with this great man on a fundamental matter of spiritual thought.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, as well as other more recent writings, Smith argues strenuously against the soulless nature of modern scientific materialism, positing a transcendent meaning to life that in his view, science “cannot handle.”  As I’ve described in other posts, I wholeheartedly agree in his invective against scientific reductionism, although I think his attack on science errs in equating reductionism with the whole scientific enterprise.  But other thoughtful scientists have already locked horns with Smith on that topic, so I won’t go there.[1]

In this post, I suggest instead that the fundamental structure of Smith’s spiritual cosmology is incoherent.  Smith eloquently describes a universe where meaning is both transcendent and immanent.  But I believe that if you want to conceive of your spiritual experience in a coherent way, you can choose transcendence or you can choose immanence.  But you can’t choose both.

In making my case, I’m not only going against Smith.  I’m also by implication criticizing the revered thinker, Aldous Huxley, whose book The Perennial Philosophy, a collection of mystical writings taken from different faiths around the globe, has gained enthusiastic advocates worldwide since its publication in 1945, and is viewed by many as a bible for ecumenical, liberated spiritual thought.

Smith himself is one of Huxley’s greatest advocates, quoting Huxley’s definition of the “perennial philosophy” as “the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being,” adding that he “cannot imagine a better brief summation.”  Later on in his book, Smith follows Huxley’s use of the two terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in the same sentence, stating that:

Looking up from planes that are lower, God is radically transcendent…; looking down, from heights that human vision (too) can attain to varying degrees, God is absolutely immanent.

Aldous Huxley: conflates “transcendent” and “immanent” in his "Perennial Philosophy".

The “perennial philosophy” advocated by Smith and Huxley is an attractive proposition from an ecumenical perspective, an enhancer of global spiritual integration.  The use of these two terms together was, I surmise, a deliberate choice by both writers to conflate the “transcendent” spirituality of monotheistic and Vedic religion with the “immanent” realization of East Asian traditions, thereby proposing a sense of mystical Oneness that embraces the metaphysical truths of all the world’s major religious traditions.  While I fervently support that goal, I believe that the conflation of these two concepts conceals some inconvenient but fundamental differences between them.

Let’s explore the meaning and etymology of both of these two terms before we go any further.  In a paper called Transcendence East and West, professor of comparative philosophy David Loy notes how the Latin trans + scendere means to climb over or rise above something.  Transcendence, he explains, is “that which abstracts us from the given world by providing a theoretical perspective on it.”[2] Implicit in this concept is the notion that spiritual meaning exists somewhere “up there” above worldly, material things, in a pure, eternal dimension.  Perhaps the ultimate statement of spiritual transcendence comes from this passage in the Katha Upanishad:

Higher than the senses are the objects of sense.
Higher than the objects of sense is the mind;
And higher than the mind is the intellect (buddhi).
Higher than the intellect is the Great Self (Atman).
Higher than the Great is the Unmanifest (avyakta).
Higher than the Unmanifest is the Person.
Higher than the Person there is nothing at all.
That is the goal.  That is the highest course.[3]

Now let’s turn to our other word, “immanence.”  The respected neurologist and Zen Buddhist, James Austin, notes that this word comes from the Latin immanere, to remain in.  In contrast to “transcendence,” “immanence” implies that spiritual meaning exists continually within us and all around us.  It’s there for the taking.  We just need to notice it.  Austin uses the word “immanence” as the descriptive term for the “deep realization” of kensho (the Zen term for a moment of enlightenment) that “ultimate reality is right here, in all things, and not elsewhere, or distant from us.”  In this moment of enlightenment, Austin describes, “no miracle is greater than just this.”  He quotes a famous saying from an old Zen teacher: “If you love the sacred and despise the ordinary, you are still bobbing in the ocean of delusion.”[4]

What a mix up!  How can spiritual meaning be derived from “up there” in one tradition, from “down here” in another tradition, and from all of the above in the “perennial tradition”?  A sensitive reader might be forgiven at this point for thinking: “Look, the words might be different, but the feeling is the same.  They’re all talking about a special moment of great meaning.  That’s an experience we humans can all share.  So let’s not get hung up on semantics.”  This is a viewpoint that I myself hold, when it comes to those rare moments of enlightenment we might be fortunate enough to experience.  But in this case, the difference I’m highlighting is far more than semantics, and here’s why.

The celebrated philosopher, Walter Stace, in an analysis of mystical states of mind experienced by people across many cultures, concludes that while the experience itself may have common elements among all humanity, the “many and varied conceptions” that accompany these experiences are “the products of post-experiential cultural and religious categorization and are not inherent in the experiences themselves.”[5] In other words, how people interpret their mystical experiences is structured by their foundational cultural assumptions.  This doesn’t for one instance take away from the validity of those experiences; but precisely because of the power these experiences have on the individual’s psyche long after the event, the interpretation can be crucially important to that individual’s future assessment of meaning and will both reflect and reinforce the underlying metaphysical constructs that inform that culture’s values.

In fact, I believe that the traditional Western, monotheistic-oriented view of transcendence is one of the most important aspects of a fundamentally dualistic view of the universe that has pervaded Western thought for two and a half millennia.  We see it emerging in the Western tradition as early as the Presocratic thinker Anaxagoras (c.500-428 B.C.), who posited a pure Mind which “is infinite and self-ruling and is mixed with nothing but is alone by itself.”[6] This notion got taken up by Plato for whom, in the words of the great classicist Francis Cornford, “the immortal thinking soul, which alone knows reality, is sharply distinguished from the body, with which are associated the lower faculties of sense, emotion, and desire.”[7] Then, with the rise of Christianity, we see the merging of a Hebrew omnipotent God with Plato’s body/soul division, to construct a universe where the cosmic dualism of an eternal God above ruling a material world below is paralleled by a human dualism of an eternal soul ruling the mortal body.

But as we all know, the soul’s rule of the body is somewhat problematic.  No-one has described the tortuous tensions arising from this search for transcendent meaning better than the Apostle Paul, who put it this way:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[8]

Apostle Paul: defined the tortuous spiritual conflict arising from dualism.

For nearly two millennia, countless millions of people pursuing spiritual transcendence have suffered the conundrum defined by Paul.  This dualistic division of the universe then took a more modern incarnation after Descartes merged the Christian “soul” and the newly ascendant notion of “mind” into one entity, the res cogitans, utterly separate from the body, creating a “theory of mind and thought so influential that its main tenets are still widely held and have barely begun to be reevaluated.”[9]

In a cross-cultural analysis of views of transcendence, Professor Guoping Zhao has noted the potentially harmful effects of pursuing transcendence as a target external to our own physical existence:

What is particular about the modern notion of transcendence is that it is a transcendence of us, but at the same time, it is also transcendence from us, from the very material that constitutes human experience. It is this disconnected form of transcendence, I suggest, that makes our pursuit of transcendence at times unexpectedly harmful to human well-being.  For when transcendence means “disconnected from” the material nature of humanity, it detaches the modern construction of humans from everyday human experience and the deeply felt and commonly shared human sentiments.[10]

Here, Zhao has noted the spiritual harm that can be caused to the individual by seeking transcendence from something outside his/her own embodied experience.  In addition, I think this sense of transcendence as other-worldly has led to what philosopher Hans Jonas has called “among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race,” where our dualistic view has “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.”[11] If spiritual value is derived from an eternal heavenly dimension, then ipso facto it is not intrinsic to the trees, rivers and animals of the natural world.  In a grand irony, the transcendent view has been partially responsible for the very scientific materialism that Smith so derides, one that has led to a desacralized earth, where the spiritual resonance of the natural world has been transformed into the economic value of geological resources and “ecosystem services.”

Thus it is that when Smith and others pursue spiritual meaning as transcendent, they leave the natural world around them denuded of meaning, fair game to those who would view their environment as resources with value calculated in dollars and cents.  On the other hand, when spiritual meaning is realized as immanent, the gap between the sacred and the scientific begins to get blurred, even disappear.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough describes her awe of nature in terms reminiscent of Austin’s description of kensho, when “no miracle is greater than just this”:

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.[12]

The notion that spiritual meaning is immanent – ever present and all around us – is a liberating one in a world increasingly dominated by the scientific enterprise.  From this perspective, spirituality doesn’t have to flee from the material world into a construction of another eternal dimension.  Spirituality doesn’t have to fight a rearguard action against ever more intrusive scientific insights into the forces of evolution or the neural correlates of consciousness.  Rather, spirituality can embrace scientific illumination as yet another source of wonder, another means by which the infinite complexity of the natural world manifests itself to the human mind.


[1] See Goodenough, U. (2001). “Engaging Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters.” Zygon, 36(2), 201-206; Pigliucci, M. (2010). “The Place of Science.” eSkeptic, March 10, 2010.

[2] Loy, D. (1993). “Transcendence East and West.” Man and World, 26(4), 403-427.

[3] Quoted in Barnes, M. H. (2000). Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science, New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Austin, J. H. (2009). Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[5] Cited in Roth, H. D. (1999). Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6] Quoted in McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York: Allworth Press.

[7] Cornford, F. M. (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation, New York: Dover Publications.

[8] Romans 7:22-24

[9] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books.

[10] Zhao, G. (2009). “Two Notions of Transcendence: Confucian Man and Modern Subject.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 36(3:September 2009), 391-407.

[11] Jonas, H. (1966/2001). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

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

Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

György Buzsáki’s book is viewed by the academic press as a “must read,” particularly for “neuroscientists looking to get an up-to-date and challenging exposition of many of the big questions.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I view it somewhat differently.  I see Rhythms of the Brain as one of the increasing number of modern scientific descriptions of the authenticity and power of the classical Chinese concept of the li.

Now what could a book on the brain by a leading neuroscientist possibly have to do with traditional Chinese thought?  Readers of this blog will know that “the li” is a Neo-Confucian concept of the dynamic organizing principles of nature.  In traditional Chinese thought, Nature is composed of two interrelated principles: ch’i, which we can loosely translate as matter/energy; and li, which are the organizing dynamics by which the ch’i is manifested.  There’s no ch’i without li, and there’s no li without ch’i.

Now let’s fast forward a thousand years to Buzsáki’s book.  The physical composition – the ch’i – of the brain is staggering on its own account.  Buzsáki tells us how the human brain has about “100 billion neurons with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them.”  But what makes the brain even more amazing is how it can organize these trillions of connections to cause us to think and feel, to be aware of the world and of ourselves, to be able to sit here and read these words.  That’s where the rhythms of the brain – the li of consciousness – play their part.

Think about it this way: the moment someone dies, their brain still exists, but there’s no longer a mind.  If you freeze their brain instantaneously, you could theoretically trace every one of those 200 trillion contacts.  But all you’d be looking at would be a complicated tangle of protoplasm.  The ch’i would still be there, but the dynamic, pulsing rhythms, the li, would be gone.

Buzsáki’s book is all about the li of the human brain: the rhythms that form the complex, self-organized fractal patterns that come together to create the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.  Buzsáki’s analysis utilizes the crucial concept of the brain as a complex adaptive system exhibiting a “nonlinear relationship between constituent components.”  As such, the rules that apply to self-organized systems elsewhere in the universe – in cells, ant colonies, fish swarms, global climate, (to name but a few) – also apply to the brain’s functioning.  Some of the results of this, in the brain as in the other systems, are that “very small perturbations can cause large effects or no effect at all” and that “despite the appearance of tranquility and stability over long periods, perpetual change is a defining feature.”

Buzsáki’s analysis emphasizes the distinguishing characteristic of such systems: emergence of a higher level of organization through “reciprocal causality,” which he describes as follows:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.

Buzsáki explains how this dynamic leads to that special combination of flexibility and robustness that our minds possess, whereby we seem to experience both stability and continual change at the same time.  Brain dynamics, he states, are in “a state of ‘self-organized criticality.’”  As such, the dynamics of the cerebral cortex display “metastability,” whereby in some cases the smallest perturbation can cause a major shift in the patterns of neuronal firing, and in other cases that firing can return to its previous patterns even after receiving large perturbations.

Buzsáki notes that such self-organized systems generally demonstrate a power law distribution, which leads to the inevitability of “rare but extremely large events.”  Here, he sees an exception to the general rule in the case of the normal brain, arguing that “such unusually large events never occur” because the balancing “dynamics of excitation and inhibition guard against such unexpected events.”  However, I wonder if that’s the case.  I know that, usually, when Buzsáki and other neuroscientists are considering these uniquely synchronized events, they’re thinking of the pathological synchrony of, for example, an epileptic seizure.  But what if they consider a highly infrequent synchrony between different brain systems that usually remain asynchronous?  Most of us have experienced rare moments in our lives where the normal balancing metastable dynamics are suddenly blown away.  For each of us, these moments will be totally unique, but in typical cases they might take the form a feeling of spiritual transcendence, of extreme love or anguish, a moment of enlightenment or of utter despair.  In many cases, these experiences can have such high valence that they can shift the previously metastable patterns of our brain into a new attractor manifold.  In more common parlance, these moments can profoundly affect our values and behavior for the rest of our lives.  I believe that this is an area that could profitably be explored by the methodology Buzsáki lays out in his book.

More generally, in examining the implications of the brain’s power law dynamics, Buzsáki ventures into the parallels between brain dynamics and other externally generated patterns exhibiting the same power-law distributions, such as music.  Buzsáki speculates that

Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns.

This speculation has in fact been empirically supported by physicists Hsü & Hsü who have identified a scale-independent fractal geometry in the music of Bach and Mozart.[1] But I wonder if the implications go much farther than this.  Supposing it’s the power law distribution itself that resonates with the brain, rather than the fact that “it is another brain that generates these patterns”?  In this case, might we consider the rhythms of the brain as a fundamental source of esthetic appreciation?  Do we, in fact, find nature so beautiful because at a foundational level, the self-organizing complexity of the brain responds to the analogous patterning that it perceives around it?

Tropical mollusk shell: an example of the intrinsic beauty of self-organized systems

Beauty is traditionally defined as “unity-in-variety,” as “that mysterious unity that the parts have with the whole.”[2] This description sounds remarkably similar to the self-organized reciprocal causality of complex adaptive systems referred to above.  In an interesting analysis, biologists Solé & Goodwin describe Hans Meinhardt’s research on tropical mollusk shells, demonstrating the generic order intrinsic in natural patterns.  The pigment patterns in mollusks, they tell us, “provide one of the most beautiful and convincing demonstrations of constraint arising from intrinsic self-organizing principles of biological pattern formation.”[3] Could this perceived beauty in fact be a case of the human mind, an emergent product of self-organized dynamics, recognizing an external manifestation of those very same dynamics?

Over a thousand years ago, Chang-Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucian movement, made a famous statement that resounded with future generations of philosophers:  “What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.”[4] Could it be that Chang-Tsai and György Buzsáki are in fact exploring the same reality, a thousand years apart?


[1] Hsu, K. J., and Hsu, A. (1991). “Self-similarity of the “1/f noise” called music.” PNAS, 88(April 1991), 3507-3509.

[2] Garcia-Rivera, A., Graves, M., and Neumann, C. (2009). “Beauty in the Living World.” Zygon, 44(2:June 2009), 243-263.

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

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

“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s how the paper begins:

“Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems

Jeremy R. Lent

DRAFT WORKING PAPER, March 2010

Abstract: The theory of “punctuated equilibria” has had a major impact on evolutionary thought since its publication nearly forty years ago.  Advances in the understanding of complex, self-organized systems over the ensuing decades now offer the perspective of seeing “punctuated equilibria” as a particular case within the more general principle of emergence.  What insights could the analysis of emergence in self-organized systems offer to our understanding of major changes in human social systems?  A theoretical framework is distilled from studies in animal and ecological self-organization, and applied for illustrative purposes to four cases of human social change: language, agriculture, the scientific/ industrial revolution, and our current global system.

___________________________________________________

In a foundational paper written in 1972, Eldredge and Gould proposed that the tempo in which different species evolved followed a very different dynamic than had previously been assumed 1.  Ever since Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species 2, most proponents of evolutionary theory had held a gradualist view of speciation 3.  In contrast, Eldredge and Gould proposed what they called “punctuated equilibria” as the general rule for divergence of species.  They argued that “evolutionary trends are not the product of slow, directional transformation within lineages,” but that “punctuational change dominates the history of life”4.  Evolution, they claimed, “is concentrated in very rapid events of speciation”4.

While Eldredge and Gould’s theory has not been without its critics 5, it has had a resounding impact on approaches to evolutionary theory.  Mayr 3 observed that “whether one accepts this theory, rejects it, or greatly modifies it, there can be no doubt that it had a major impact on paleontology and evolutionary biology”.  Recently, the theory has received new empirical support from a statistical analysis of the pattern of genetic change in phylogenies of animal, plant and fungal taxa, showing an exponential distribution that would be predicted by the punctuated equilibria hypothesis 6.

In the same year as Eldredge & Gould published their paper,  Lorenz gave a paper 7 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?, a major milestone in the scientific acknowledgement of the importance of non-linear dynamics in complex systems.   Since then, there has been tremendous growth in both the sophistication and reach of attempts to understand self-organized complex systems 8-10.  One of the crucial elements generally identified in such self-organized systems is the phenomenon of emergence, where a system is seen to undergo a nonlinear phase transition as a result of dynamic interactions between both bottom-up and top-down processes 10-11.

In this review, I propose that the dynamics of punctuated equilibria described by Eldredge and Gould are integrally linked to the behavior of complex adaptive systems, and may potentially be viewed as a particular case of emergence applied to the field of paleobiology.  I suggest that the principles of change in self-organized systems could usefully be applied to a wide range of areas of human behavior, and offer the social sciences a methodology that could provide new pathways for understanding the dynamics of social change.

Want to read more?  Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper. Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.

Footnotes referenced:

1             Eldredge, N. & Gould, S. J. in Models in Paleobiology. (ed Thomas J. M. Schopf)  (Freeman, Cooper and Company, 1972).

2             Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.  (John Murray, 1859).

3             Mayr, E. in The Dynamics of Evolution eds Albert Somit & Steven Peterson)  21-48 (Cornell University Press, 1992).

4             Gould, S. J. & Eldredge, N. Puctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered. Paleobiology 3, 115-151 (1977).

Five years after the publication of their original paper, Gould & Eldredge used this paper to respond to critics, amplify their hypothesis and speculate about its broader implications.

5             Gould, S. J. & Eldredge, N. Punctuated equilibrium comes of age. Nature 366, 223-227 (1993).

6             Venditti, C., Meade, A. & Pagel, M. Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen. Nature 463, 349-352 (2010).

7             Hilborn, R. C. Sea gulls, butterflies, and grasshoppers: A brief history of the butterfly effect in nonlinear dynamics. American Journal of Physics 72, 425-427 (2004).

8             Gleick, J. Chaos: Making a New Science.  (Penguin, 1987).

9             Lewin, R. Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos.  (University of Chicago Press, 1992/1999).

10           Kauffman, S. At Home in the Universe: the Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.  (Oxford University Press, 1995).

A leading proponent for broader applications of complexity theory, Kauffman argues that the emergence of life, intracellular dynamics and evolutionary fitness landscapes can all be understood using the framework of self-organization.

11           Thompson, E. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.  (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Thompson explores the theory of autopoiesis as a defining characteristic of life and investigates its implications, applying the central concept of “dynamic co-emergence”to various complex biological systems such as evolution, cellular dynamics and consciousness.

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!

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