Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things

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

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[8]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


[1] Quoted by Ravindra, R. (2008). “Notes on Scientific Research and Spiritual Search.” Parabola, 33(3: Fall 2008), 7-11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Fung and Bodde, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

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