The li of shared arousal

What makes the idea of the li so radical for our society is that it’s both a spiritual and a scientific term.  It offers us a bridge between the two domains of spirituality and science that have been so zealously off-limits to each other in our current cognitive framework.  The li, as described in other posts, refers to the traditional Chinese Neo-Confucian term for the patterns of organization that link energy/matter (ch’i) together.  These patterns are both fixed and dynamic.  From a spiritual perspective, the Tao may be viewed as the universal set of manifestations of the infinite li: the infinite patterns by which nature organizes itself.  From a scientific perspective, the li may be understood as the patterns of organization of complex systems studied in complexity science and in systems biology.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) offers a wonderful example of a rigorous, scientific study of the li of shared arousal in humans.  Of course, the authors don’t use the word “li.”  Instead, they refer to the more mechanistic term “information,” which is about as close as modern science has yet come to an awareness of the li.  In the study, the researches focused on a powerful fire-walking ritual conducted each year in a little village in Spain. Here’s how they describe the ritual:

After dancing for several minutes in a circle around the glowing bed of coals, the fire-walkers assemble and decide the order in which they will cross. They then take their place on the ground to wait their turns. The sound of a trumpet beckons each fire-walker to the walk, one by one. The fire-walk is conducted bare-footed, and most walkers carry another person on their backs while crossing the fire, typically a spouse, relative, or friend.  Once they have crossed over, their closest friends or relatives rush over to hug and congratulate them.

Firewalkers in San Pedro Manrique synchronizing their heartbeats with related spectators

The researchers studied the heart rate of the fire-walkers as well as spectators.  But they made a distinction between the spectators who were closely related to the fire-walkers, and those who were just there as tourists.  What they found was that the heart rates of the closely-related spectators synchronized very closely with the fire-walkers, while those of the unrelated observers remained uncorrelated.

The researchers point out that there was no physical contact between the fire-walkers and their related spectators whose hearts rates peaked along with theirs.  As they put it:

The synchrony of the physiological markers shared by the two beings cannot be due to direct exchange of matter or energy, leaving only the information available to spectators and participants as the basis of the coupling. Whether information is sufficiently salient to bring about coupling is determined by whether the spectator is related to at least one of the fire-walkers; hence, the coupling is socially modulated. The shared dynamics of heart rate are thus the consequence of socially modulated information-mediated coupling.

The key point is that there was no “direct exchange of matter or energy.”  That is what, in traditional Chinese terms, is called ch’i.  As the Neo-Confucianists explain it, the li is what connects the ch’i.  In the case of the fire-walkers, the heat of the coal directly affected their own heart rates, but it was the sight of the fire-walkers, the sounds of them, and most crucially, the emotional connection with them in the hearts of the related spectators, that caused the spectators’ heart rates to synchronize with them.  It was the li that synchronized the hearts of the spectators with those of the fire-walkers.

When you look a loved one in the eyes, it’s your shared li that connects you.  And even within your own body, it’s your li that makes you who are.  Your cells and their molecules come and go, but your li remains stable, changing dynamically as you mind/body organism develops, but always maintaining a connection with what you’ve been before and what you will become.  After you die, your li will remain in the hearts of those who loved you.  In fact, what we really are is not a bag of skin, flesh and bones.  What we really are is a temporary collection of li, of a massively integrated series of self-organized patterns.

The li is the connectivity that binds us into an organism.  It’s the connectivity that binds us to each other.  Connectivity is the underlying principle of meaning in our lives.  In fact, ultimately, the unconditional love that spiritual mystics describe is really an experience of the limitless connectivity of the li through which all things are related.  This is the true meaning of the scientific research conducted on those fire-walkers and their spectators.  But you won’t necessarily find these conclusions in the august pages of the PNAS.

Finding the li? It’s easy! You see…

It’s easy, you see, to find the li,

Since the li’s all around, everywhere you can see.

When you hear that bird tweet in the trees

When you feel the warm sun through the breeze

Then you’ve found it, you’re in touch with the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to find the li,

Except when we lock it away for no-one to see

When we seal it up with the barriers of self

Through our constant pursuit of happiness and wealth,

Then we blind ourselves to the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to hear the li

Since it’s bubbling up all the while within me

Those trillions of cells dancing effortlessly

Cheek-to-cheek in free choreography,

I’m in touch with – I am – the infinite li.

It’s easy, you see, to feel the li

When you surf the waves of the ceaseless sea

When dancing the dance of ecstasy.

Since love is the li’s connectivity

My li is in you, and your li is in me

So our li is our true immortality.

“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]



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.


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!

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.

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!

A Global Ethic for the 21st Century

The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive On a Volatile Earth

By Dianne Dumanoski

New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2009.

There’s something even more fundamental going on in our world than climate change.  While the world focuses its attention on geopolitical power struggles over approaches to global warming, and the American media gives credence to those who attack the science of climate change to score cheap political points, something far more profound is taking place in our world below the level of public discourse.

This is the crucial point made by award-winning journalist Dianne Dumanoski in The End of the Long Summer.  In the second half of the 20th century, Dumanoski tells us, we passed “a fundamental turning point in the relationship between humans and the Earth, arguably the biggest step since human mastery of fire.”  Our modern civilization emerged as “a global-scale force capable of redirecting Earth’s history.”  The implications of this are enormous, as she describes:

The consequences are not limited to global warming, nor are weather extremes the first evidence of our new status.  Accelerating climate change signals a far deeper problem – the growing human burden on all of the fundamental planetary processes that together make up a single, self-regulating Earth.

And just as the problem is far deeper than global warming, so the solution will require changes in our behavior that go way beyond cuts in carbon emissions.  The changes that are needed go right to heart of our sense of who we are as human beings and our fundamental relationship with the natural world.  “This modern culture,” states Dumanoski, “is not the only or best way of being human… Our civilization is profoundly at odds with the world we now inhabit.”  If we don’t change “the obsolete ideas and practices that underlie our culture, our civilization surely won’t survive.”

Dumanoski’s viewpoint might not win votes in an election, but it’s shared by other thinkers who have watched with alarm as our society accelerates into an unsustainable trajectory.  Before his death last year, the environmental theologian Thomas Berry wrote how “The violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability… We are into a new historical situation.”[1] Berry pointed out how this devastation is normative for our Western culture:

the truly remarkable aspect of all this is that what is happening is not being done in violation of anything in Western cultural commitments, but in fulfillment of those commitments as they are now understood… Our Western culture long ago abandoned its integral relation with the planet on which we live.[2]

And you certainly don’t need a theological perspective to see the magnitude of our predicament.  Biologist Paul Ehrlich writes how we have “permitted enlargement of the scale of the human enterprise to the point that it is destroying the life-support systems on which all our lives depend,” and that as a result this “may be heading us toward the worst catastrophe in the history of Homo sapiens.”[3]

Dumanoski shows how our current crisis is the result of some deep historical drivers.  She points out the uniqueness of Western civilization’s approach to the natural world, characterized by its quest for domination:

While all human societies have possessed and exercised the cultural capacity to shape the world, in the modern era we have pursued power and control – abetted by fossil fuels, science, and industry – with an aggressive intensity that makes our civilization unique.

As I describe in my blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I believe that Dumanoski is in fact describing one of the most glaring results of an imbalance within our collective consciousness, one that has led to a view of our human nature as something apart from – and superior to – the natural world.   Dumanoski sees Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as the prophet of the new power-oriented approach to the natural world, a view that’s consistent with most historical interpretations.  But she also traces how this desacralization of nature became imprinted in the Western mindset, quoting Robert Boyle, a pioneer of the Scientific Revolution, on his desire to “banish any reverence for nature”:

The veneration wherewith men are imbued for what they call nature has been a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God.

The depth of this cultural bias, and the severity of the global crisis that has ensued, means that some of the more comforting proposed solutions are really not viable, attractive as they may appear.  On this topic, Dumanoski is refreshingly and unusually candid in exposing some of the prevalent myths.  She attacks the arguments of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow that “our ingenuity will allow the economy to find endless substitutes for depleted resources so ‘the world can, in effect, get along without natural resources,’” showing how he and other economists are “strangely untethered from physical reality.”

She also points out the inadequacies of the “stewardship” viewpoint towards the natural world.  At first blush, the notion of “environmental stewardship” seems benign enough: we humans have a responsibility, along with our great intellectual powers, to act as “stewards” of nature, taking care of it for the next generation.   [Click here for a typical example of this approach.]  But, as Dumanoski points out, this idea “loses traction on the planetary scale.”  It gives us a false sense of security, implying that “we are in a position to take charge of nature and it thus mistakes our position vis-à-vis the larger world.”  Dumanoski convincingly argues that, in fact, we’re too far gone for this approach to work.  We need, instead, to “find creative ways to adjust and redesign our civilization.”

So what is, in fact, the way forward, if we accept this bleak prognosis of our current state?  Dumanoski calls for a “new cultural map” to orient us as we as we grapple with a “profound ‘human crisis’ that cuts to the heart of our civilization.”  Essential to this new orientation is moving away from the dualistic mindset that has entranced our civilization for the past two thousand years.  Here’s how Dumanoski describes it:

If humans are to have any chance at a long-term future, we must give up the persistent and pervasive notion that we do not really belong to this imperfect Earth of mortal creatures.  We must abandon the conviction, which also has deep roots in the Western tradition, that we are some sort of special creation, mortal gods, noble beings in exile.  We must wake from dangerous dreams of escape from the human condition, of emancipation from Earth.  We must reconcile ourselves to the truth that death, suffering, and finitude go with the territory as much as life, joy, and beauty…

This, Dumanoski points out, is both “a journey of self-understanding and a matter of survival.”  Once again, although her diagnosis won’t score high in the opinion polls, she’s in good company with some of the profoundest thinkers of our times.  Environmentalist advocate James Gustave Speth writes of the need for a “new consciousness” in meeting our environmental challenges:

Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.  For some, it is a spiritual awakening – a transformation of the human heart.  For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself.[4]

Many people might wonder, at this juncture, what is the form of spiritual awakening required, and how would this translate into our daily practices and values.  In some recent posts, I’ve suggested that we can learn some profound lessons from the Neo-Confucian thought tradition from a thousand years ago, which sees the spiritual aspects of our existence as inextricably linked with the material world, leading to a sense of the interconnectivity of mind and nature.

Perhaps, by arriving at a spirituality which is not at odds with science but actually arises from a scientific view of the natural world, we might become convinced that “our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists.”  Then, perhaps, we have a chance of developing an ethic for the 21st century, one that might just help us to achieve the survival of the most valuable aspects of our civilization.

[1] Berry, T. (1999). The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, New York: Three Rivers Press, 108-9

[2] Berry, op. cit.,146

[3] Ehrlich, P. R. (2000/2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, New York: Penguin, 321.

[4] 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, 199-200.

The Li Series

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

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

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

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Introduces the Neo-Confucian idea of the li and explains how it evolved to mean the “ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.”

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

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

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

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

Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things

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

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Fung and Bodde, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

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

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

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

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

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

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

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

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

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

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


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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are “temporarily identifiable wiggles” in time.

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

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

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

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

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


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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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