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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are “temporarily identifiable wiggles” in time.

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


[1] Cited in Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Quoted by Watts, op. cit.

[9] Watts op. cit.

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

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

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

Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Look at a piece of wood that happens to be close to you.  See the swirling pattern of its grain.  If there’s any natural stone close to you, look at it too.  See how the patterns form a random shape, yet somehow seem ordered in a way that you could never define.  What you’re looking at is what the classical Chinese called “li”.  In its most ancient meaning, the word li literally meant “the markings in jade or the fibers in muscle tissue.”  As a verb it meant “to cut things according to their natural grain or divisions.”[1]

The li, as Alan Watts describes it, is:

…the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand.”[2]

From this simple idea arose one of the most powerful concepts in mankind’s attempts to understand the world around us.

One manifestation of the li as natural patterning: a manzanita tree at Phoenix Lake, Marin County

From the original meaning of markings in jade, the word li became commonly used in a way that dictionaries often translate as “principle”.  But the Neo-Confucians of China’s Song Dynasty[3] took this notion and transformed it into something far broader, expanding it to a more general level to represent all the patterns or principles through which the natural universe expresses itself.  For the Neo-Confucians, the li represented “the ordering and organizing principle in the cosmos… the order and pattern in Nature.”[4]

Since this blog is called Finding the Li, it’s self-evident that I see this classical Chinese view of the li as important.  In fact, I believe that a true understanding of the Chinese conception of the li can be a crucial step in our society developing a cosmological construct of the universe for the 21st century: one that can bridge the gap between science and spirituality and give a framework for truly integrating technology and the natural world.

The first thing to understand about the li is that it doesn’t refer to a fixed pattern.  We’re talking about dynamic patterns, patterns within patterns, patterns both in space and in time.  And it’s not something that only exists in beautiful natural scenery such as trees, clouds and streams (although that’s a great place to look for it).

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

The li is the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.

Chu Hsi, the greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher[5], gets this point across clearly when he describes:

… the ever-flowing presence of li.  This li moves in the world in continuous cycles without a single moment’s cessation.  None of the myriad things and activities – be they small, large, fine, or coarse would have been possible without the ever-flowing presence of li in them.  So is my mind (heart)[6] which also receives it.  The li never ceases to stay in my mind for a moment; its creative process never ceases to reciprocate with the physical world.”[7]

In the words of Joseph Needham, the great 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought, “It is dynamic pattern as embodied in all living things, and in human relationships and in the highest human values.  Such dynamic pattern can only be expressed by the term ‘organism’.”  In fact, Needham suggests thinking of Neo-Confucian philosophy as “a scheme of thought striving to be a philosophy of organism.”[8]

Tropical mollusk shell: the li as "pattern of the organism"

So far, we’ve been seeing li as patterning – as all the patterns that embody existence.  But if you raise this idea to a higher level of generality, then you can begin to think about the li as the set of “organizing principles” that form these patterns.

In the description of Ch’en Shun (a disciple of Chu Hsi), what we’re looking at in the li is “a natural and inescapable law of affairs and things…It is a Patterning Law.”  Ch’en Shun further explains his meaning:

The meaning of “natural and inescapable” is that [human] affairs, and [natural] things, are made just exactly to fit into place. The meaning of ‘law’ is that the fitting into place occurs without the slightest excess or deficiency.[9]

In an earlier post, I’ve described how ancient Chinese thinkers saw the universe in terms of cosmic harmony.  The notion of the li is a key element in explaining how this harmony manifests itself in the ongoing workings of nature.  The ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu encapsulates this sense when he says:  “The ten thousand things have perfect intrinsic principles of order [li], but they do not talk about them.”[10]

For Western-educated readers, this might seem like a natural place to think to yourself “Nice idea, but what does this ‘cosmic harmony’ stuff have to do with the real world?”  In the next few posts, I intend to answer this question, and propose that the concept of the li represents a missing dimension to our Western reductionist worldview while remaining compatible with scientific thought.

I’ll try to show how the li contrasts with our Western idea of the “laws of Nature,” and how it relates to modern complexity theory and to the Tao.  Along the way, I hope to point to how the conception of the li can help us to understand current views of how the mind creates consciousness, modern approaches to evolution, and where to look for spirituality in a material world.

Ultimately “finding the li” is about finding our way in this world by finding ourselves.  Or, in the words of Chang Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucianist movement:

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[11]

________________________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


[1] Needham, J. (1951). “Human Laws and Laws of Nature in China and the West (II): Chinese Civilization and the Laws of Nature”Journal of the History of Ideas, pp. 194-230.

[2]Watts, A., (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books.

[3] The Song Dynasty, considered by some to be the pinnacle of classical Chinese civilization, existed between the years 960 and 1279.

[4] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. II, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 558.

[5] Chu Hsi lived from 1130 to 1200.

[6] The Chinese thought of the mind as having its physical existence in the heart as opposed to our Western view of it existing in the brain.

[7] Quoted in Yu, D. (1980). “The Conceptions of Self in Whitehead and Chu Hsi.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 7(1980), 153-173.

[8] Needham, J. (1951), op. cit.

[9] Needham, J. (1951) op. cit., pp 216-18.

[10]Quoted by Needham, J. (1956/1972) op. cit. p. 546.

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

Reverent Guests of Nature

This week, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss what to do about global warming.  How did we ever get into this mess?  Yes, we all know the proximate causes – the greenhouse effect, carbon emissions, etc.  But I’m asking about the underlying cause: the construction of our view of mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

In this post, I want to take a brief look at an entirely different perspective of our place in the universe: the ancient Chinese view of the cosmos.  It’s fundamentally different from how the Western world sees things.  And there’s a lot we can learn from it.

Let’s start with what there wasn’t.  There was no “command and control” Creator that ruled over the natural world.  Consequently, there was no God to create Man in His image to follow His command and dominate Nature.  Instead, there was the Tao, which existed even before the creation of the world.  But there was no ruling mandate that came along with the Tao’s role in creation, as the Tao Te Ching itself states:

Tao everlasting does not act
And yet nothing is not done.
If kings and barons can abide by it,
The ten thousand things will transform by themselves.[1]

And in a direct contrast to God the Creator expecting Man to follow His own dominating role, the Tao instead informs the sage how to follow the ways of the Tao in leading the people:

In loving the people and governing the state…
To give birth yet not to claim possession,
To act yet not to hold on to,
To grow yet not to lord over,
This is called the dark virtue.[2]

As historian Toby Huff so clearly puts it: “Within this cosmos there is no prime mover, no high God, no lawgiver”.[3]

So, if there was no Creator, how did this harmony come about?  In the West, we’re used to an either/or approach to cosmology.  In our present day, it’s the faith of religion against the reductionism of science.  Either there’s a God who created everything and gave it all meaning, or there was just the Big Bang and ever since then the immutable laws of physics arranged everything down to the last molecule in a cold, hard universe without magic, mystery or meaning.

But the Chinese view of Nature had nothing to do with either of these two extremes.  Instead, they saw the universal order of things as “an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer”.  Joseph Needham, the leading 20th century expert on ancient Chinese cosmology, gives the analogy of a traditional country-dance to describe the Chinese view:

Spontaneous yet ordered, in the sense of patterned movements of dancers in a country dance of figures, none of whom are bound by law to do what they do, nor yet pushed by others coming behind, but cooperate in a voluntary harmony of wills.[4]

Joseph Needham sees country dancing as an analogy for the Chinese view of natural harmony

Here’s how an early Chinese philosopher – Wang Pi writing around 240 AD – described the cosmology expressed in the I Ching, on which he wrote a famous commentary:

We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they never swerve from their course.  So also we do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him.

Needham describes this thought as “extremely Chinese.  Universal harmony comes about not by the celestial fiat of some King of Kings, but by the spontaneous cooperation of all beings in the universe … not from the orders of a superior authority external to themselves, but from the fact that they were all parts in a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic pattern, and what they obeyed were the internal dictates of their own natures.”[5]

Needham coined the phrase “an organic worldview” to describe this – self-contained organisms following their own internal rules within the context of larger organisms, and themselves comprised of smaller organisms also following their own rules.

And this worldview leads to a very different perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.  In contrast to the Genesis myth putting Nature under Man’s dominion, “the universe did not exist especially to satisfy man.  His role in the universe was ‘to assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth.’”[6]

In my blog, Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how, beginning with Plato, our dualist Western tradition came to idealize the mind and separate the abstractions of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) from our animate consciousness.  By contrast, Chinese traditions looked for harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and the other aspects of our existence.  “Hence the key word is always harmony; the ancient Chinese sought for order and harmony throughout natural phenomena, and took this to be the ideal in all human relationships.”[7]

The Chinese never conceived of an immortal soul.  They never conceived of an omnipotent Creator.  The notion of dualism never entered their consciousness.  They used their pfc faculties every bit as much as the Greeks, but for the purpose of understanding the integration of these faculties with other aspects of themselves and with the natural world around them.

Clear Weather in the Valley, an example of Sung dynasty landscape painting by Tung Yüan (late 10th century) shows the view of humanity’s relatively subordinate place within the natural environment and demonstrates how human activity is seen to blend in with the environment.

Because of their emphasis on harmony, it never occurred to them that they should use their intellect to conquer the natural world.  On the contrary, traditional Chinese thought is pervaded by the notion of “non-purposive action”, wuwei, as the wisest approach to the natural world and to life in general.  In the words of the Tao Te Ching:

One who desires to take the world and act upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses.[8]

Over two millennia of Western dualism, billions of people have spent their lives struggling with the conflict between the natural drives of their animate consciousness and a conceptualized ideal of spirituality arising from the pfc’s abstractions.  In traditional Chinese thought, the opposite is true.  Harmony is seen as arising from each of us being in touch with and following our own true nature.

And the same harmony applies to our relationship with the natural world.  As world leaders meet this week in Copenhagen to debate how to manage the global climate crisis we’ve brought on ourselves, they might do well to pause for a moment and consider this view from the Tao Te Ching of the Taoist approach to the natural world:

Careful, like crossing a river in winter…
Reverent, like being guests…
Those who keep this Tao,
Do not want to be filled to the full.
Because they are not full,
They can renew themselves before being worn out.[9]

[1] Chen, E.M., (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. Chapter 37.

[2] Ibid. Chapter 10.

[3] Huff, T. E. (1993/2006). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251-2.

[4] Needham, J., (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2. London: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Needham, ibid.

[6] Needham, ibid.

[7] Needham, ibid.

[8] Chen, ibid. Chapter 29.

[9] Chen, ibid.  Chapter 15.

Meaning Without “Truth”

Hansen, Daoist theory of human thoughtA Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation

By Chad Hansen

New York: Oxford University Press. (2000)

Chad Hansen claims he’s going to shake up traditional views on Chinese thought (even modern ones such as A.C. Graham and B.I. Schwartz).  Well, I’m not sure if he succeeded in that, and I found both Graham and Schwartz more accessible and clearer in their surveys of classical Chinese thinking.

Nevertheless, Hansen’s work was well worth the effort.  What I found most valuable is his approach to the linkage of thought and language.  Hansen takes a strong Whorfian approach (one which I agree with) in proposing that Chinese thought, as expressed in the underlying structures of their language, is different from Western thought in some fundamental ways.  For example, Greek and Indian (and all other Proto-Indo European sourced languages) “depend on the semantic concepts of meaning and truth.”  Chinese language and thought, on the other hand, are more relational.  Hansen makes an interesting contrast of Western and Chinese dictionary traditions.  In Western language, we “assume the notion of a meaning that the definition should express.  The Chinese dictionary tradition is more historical.  It collects different historical examples of use and lists possible character (or phrase) substitutes in each use.”

One of my central themes is that Western thought traditions emphasize what I call “conceptual consciousness” (pfc-dominated thought) over “animate consciousness”.  Hansen gives a great example of this thesis, when he explains how in Chinese, meaning is partly a function of tone.  In the West, we make a separation between the substance of what we say, and the tone in which we say it.  The substance is a function of the “objective truth” of the statement.  The tone… well, that’s the emotional, touchy-feely stuff of affect.  In Chinese, by contrast, there was never as clear a separation between conceptual and animate consciousness.  They were more integrated from the outset, and that shows itself in their inclination to incorporate tone into meaning.

Hansen gives a detailed descriptions of Mencius’ view of human nature expressed in a full-fledged plant analogy.  This is something important to me, and I’m grateful to him for his detail.  I believe that Mencius’ view of an organically growing human morality, linking the individual with the cosmos, offers a great deal to anyone trying to construct a global ethic for the 21st century, and also ties in closely with some aspects of modern evolutionary psychology, such as theories of “parochial altruism”.  In following up some of Hansen’s bibliography citations, I discovered a book put out in 2005 by Donald Munro, A Chinese Ethic for the New Century, which I’ll be really interested to follow up.

I’d recommend Hansen to people who have already read Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China and Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, and who want to add another linguistic-oriented perspective to their understanding.

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