The bacterium, the fly and the sugar bowl

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

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

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

Does a fly have any more free will than…

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

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

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

… a bowl of sugar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Cashmore notes, Soon et al. conclude that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boiling water does not represent true, ontological emergence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit flies exercising their free will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how the paper begins:

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

Jeremy R. Lent


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


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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes referenced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Quoted by Watts, op. cit.

[9] Watts op. cit.

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

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

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

Carry It On

Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind

By Evan Thompson

Cambridge: Harvard University Press

In a couple of recent blog posts[1], I’ve talked about how life-science needs to expand its reductionist agenda to approach the mysteries of life, enabling us to bridge the chasm between science and spirituality.  After recently completing Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life, I believe that he could be one of the leading thinkers in getting us there.

Thompson was one of the co-authors, along with Francisco Varela, of a ground-breaking book published in 1993 called The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, which explored some of the areas of overlap between cognitive science and Buddhist psychology.  Varela, who introduced (with Humberto Maturana) the idea of autopoiesis[2], was viewed by many as a thought-leader in this area, until he tragically died in mid-career in 2001.  In his current book, Thompson is carrying on the thought-processes he began with Varela[3], and taking them into expansive new areas.

At the core of the book is the idea that life is a self-organized, self-creating system.  This central theme is then applied to different aspects of life, such as consciousness, evolution and cellular dynamics, to provide a coherent view of how these seemingly disparate areas are in fact all integrated.

A key phrase Thompson has coined to describe his particular view of life’s self-organized nature is “dynamic co-emergence.”  This is crucially important for contrasting living systems with other complex, self-organized non-living processes, such as a candle flame or a whirlpool.  Here’s how Thompson explains it:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing… In the single-cell, autopoietic form of autonomy, a membrane-bounded, metabolic network produces the metabolites that constitute both the network itself and the membrane that permits the network’s bounded dynamics.  Other autonomous systems have different sorts of self-constructing processes…  Whether the system is a cell, immune network, nervous system, insect colony, or animal society, what emerges is a unity with its own self-producing identity.

The reason why Thompson calls this “dynamic co-emergence” is that:

… the whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole.  Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole.  Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.

Thompson traces a tradition of Western thought, going back to Aristotle, which entertained this approach to understanding life.  I call it the “moonlight tradition”, because its illumination was so overwhelmed by the bright glare of Platonic dualism, that it’s just about invisible to most conventional examinations of Western thought; but when you look at the world by its light, you see things in a new and beautiful way, in the same way that a plain, familiar landscape becomes entrancing by moonlight.

Following this line of thought, Thompson shows how Kant arrived at a view of “natural purpose” for living organisms which is only now being re-discovered by scientists applying the mathematical tools of complexity theory that were not available to Kant.

These tools are, however, available to Thompson, and he makes excellent use of them in exploring the implications of “dynamic co-emergence” to central aspects of our lives.  A key concept from complexity theory is that of an “attractor”: a relatively stable, dynamic state to which a complex system converges over time.  Every time you turn on the water in a sink and see the pattern it makes as it circles the drain, you’re seeing an attractor.  It’s both stable and dynamic.  It keeps changing, but only within certain parameters.  Open the faucet more, and after a few chaotic moments, the water will settle into a new attractor.[4] Attractors can describe the changes in state taken by the kinds of self-organizing, dynamically co-emergent systems that comprise life as we know it.

When you apply the concept of attractors to the most complex systems of all, such as our minds, this leads to another concept known as “metastability”, where things appear relatively stable even as they keep fluctuating from one area to another within an attractor.  This dynamic, Thompson explains, “permits a flexible repertoire of global states without the system becoming trapped in any one particular state”.  Increasingly, leading neuroscientists are applying this analysis to understand how complex patterns of neuronal firings can lead in our brains to the state of consciousness.

Thompson follows this logic on inexorably, exploring how the cellular complexities of dynamics such as metabolism lead to a sense of purpose in even a single-celled organism.  As this microcosm of value is then traced up the ladder of complexity all the way to human cognition, we see how intentionality turns into what is known as “valence” (attraction/repulsion, like/dislike, etc.) and ultimately into what we define as values.

Similarly, we can trace how the short-term dynamics of the attractor of our consciousness lead to feelings, then to moods, and ultimately personality.  From this perspective, we can begin to see personality as a kind of metastable phase-state within which our emotions and moods play out.  But always, the emphasis is on the dynamic co-emergence of the parts and the whole.  So, in this example, your feelings and moods are continually re-forming your personality at the margin, which then impacts those very feelings.  You, therefore, are a self-created and self-creating entity!

Thompson champions a fundamentally different, and potentially liberating, view of ourselves and the world around us, in stark contrast to the reductionist, deterministic view espoused by the life-science mainstream.  In a powerful invective, Thompson witheringly critiques Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the “selfish gene,” arguing that “it is little more than a metaphor that masquerades as a theoretical concept and… leads to a misleading picture of the nature of possible explanations in molecular biology.” I found this section very convincing, and feel it should be required reading for anyone who remains committed to the “genocentric” view of life.

But what metaphor could we use to replace the current “genetic program” view of the natural world?  Thompson proposes a metaphor that he calls “laying down a path,” implying that “there is no separation between plan and executed action.”  This is one area where I think there’s a lot more to be done.  Personally, I believe that the “music” metaphor may be the most powerful candidate to replace “genetic programming.”  Later in the book, Thompson does describe evolution in term of dance:

Like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements, organism and environment enact each other through their structural coupling.

However, I think there’s a lot more play in the metaphor than that.  One writer who has embraced this as a central metaphor is Denis Noble, author of The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes, a book that I’d recommend as a great complement to Thompson.  The power of the music metaphor is that it incorporates all the complexities of dynamic co-emergence, and at the same time it plays havoc with the traditional “competition” metaphor so prevalent among genetic determinists.  Imagine a biologist from another planet watching an orchestra play and observing that “the violins must pursue the most successful adaptive strategy because there are so many of them.”

After centuries of its concealment in the twilight of the “moonlight tradition,” the application of mathematical rigor to a more holistic view of life has the potential to revolutionize the life sciences in the 21st century and beyond.  Thompson’s book does a great job of applying Varela’s insights further afield, and in doing so he’s “laying down” an important path for others to follow.

[1] Re-weaving the Rainbow and A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism.

[2] Autopoiesis can be loosely defined as a definition of life as a system with a semi-permeable boundary produced by reactions within that boundary that simultaneously regenerate the components of the system: thus, it’s self-organizing and dynamically self-creating.

[3] Thompson writes in the Preface that the book was originally intended to be co-authored with Varela.

[4] Technically, this describes what’s called a chaotic or strange attractor, as opposed to a more predictable point attractor or limited cycle attractor.

Re-weaving the Rainbow

As the scientific revolution took hold in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people were horrified by what seemed to be the destruction of the Nature’s spirit at the hands of mechanical forces.  The Romantic poet, John Keats, memorably wrote in his poem “Lamina”:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy? …

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…

Unweave a rainbow.[1]

Does the scientific method unweave the beauty of the rainbow?

Since then, we’ve had two hundred more years of unweaving.  Laws of nature have been formulated and reformulated.  Mysteries of nature have given up their secrets.  And the split between the scientific and the spiritual view of the universe has become a chasm.  A poignant modern expression of this can be seen in an Amazon review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, a book that posits a reductionist view of evolution where each of us is seen to exist for no reason other than to act as replication vehicles for our genes:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper – trying to believe, but not quite being able to – I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further.  This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.[2]

This blog, Finding the Li, will explore ways in which that beautiful rainbow of Nature’s mystery can be rewoven by a confluence of science and spirituality.  My underlying proposition is that there is no necessary disconnect between the two.  There are, no doubt, scientific belief systems that are incompatible with the search for meaning; and there are spiritual belief systems incompatible with scientific rigor.  These are all grist for the Science vs. Theology debate that has endured for too long, trotting out old truisms in new clothing.

My interest in this blog is, instead, to explore the ways in which rigorous science can expand its project to access the mysteries of nature, and to engage the perspectives offered by some of the world’s great spiritual traditions that remain compatible with the findings of science.  My hope is that, in this exploration, people like the reviewer of Dawkins’ book may find “something deeper” while remaining committed to the intellectual rigor of the scientific method.

There’s a companion blog to this one, called Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, which is dedicated to analyzing how the uniquely human capabilities of the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – our ability to create abstractions, symbols, value systems, and to live by them – have created an imbalance in our human consciousness, which I’ve characterized as a “tyranny”.  While that blog diagnoses what’s happened to our society and our collective consciousness, this blog explores ways to potentially remedy this imbalance, and move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”

One way to think about what this means is to consider the difference between the notions of “control” and “coordination.”  Traditional approaches in our Western culture view the role of the pfc-mediated part of our being – variously referred to through our history as the “soul,” “reason,” or “will” – as one of control.  The pfc’s faculties are meant to control the demands of our bodies and emotions, and by doing so, enable us to transcend to a higher spiritual or intellectual plane.  However, to the extent that our living beings are viewed as complex, self-organized systems, then the role of the pfc can begin to be seen instead as one of coordination.

In a 2004 paper, systems biologist Mihajilo Mesarovic and colleagues write about the difference between control and coordination:

There is a critical distinction between control and coordination.  Control is ‘dictating what is to be done’.  Coordination is providing ‘motivation’ for the controllers (regulators, modules, subsystems) to act so as to advance the overall system’s objective while the subsystems are performing their own functions, modified by coordination…

In a multilevel, hierarchical system… the task of the higher-level regulators is not to control but to coordinate, i.e. harmonise the functions of the first level regulators under changing conditions.[3]

Mesarovic et. al. are discussing complex biological systems in general.  My proposal is that we humans are complex biological systems par excellence, but that in our Western culture, we’ve learned to view our pfc’s function as controlling rather than coordinating this system.  When I describe moving towards a “democracy of consciousness,” I’m talking about learning how to devolve power back to those other aspects of our being, and develop our pfc’s faculties for coordination rather than control.

Does the conductor coordinate or control the orchestra?

One of my favorite metaphors on this subject is that of music.  I’m going to propose in this blog that music offers a more powerful metaphor for how our minds really work than the common cliché of “brain as computer”.  Think of the conductor of an orchestra… what’s he doing?  Controlling or coordinating?  Or a mixture of both?  How does an improvisational jazz band keep it together?  Who’s in charge?

It might not seem like a big change, but this shift in our awareness that I’m proposing involves a fundamental restructuring of our sense of ourselves and our values.  And, ultimately, I believe this is what’s necessary if our global society is going to truly resolve the great imbalances of today’s world, manifested in global climate change and the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years.

Here are some of the topics this blog will touch on, all of them interrelated.  I’ll add links to the topics below as I publish posts on each particular subject:

  • How current approaches to self-organization add to our understanding of evolution, challenging the old reductionist “modern synthesis” developed in the early 20th century.
  • How Chinese traditions of the Tao and Neo-Confucianism can help illuminate modern theories of self-organization and evolution (this is where we’ll come across the “li” in the title of this blog)
  • How Buddhist approaches to consciousness can help us transcend the pfc’s metaphor of the self.
  • How neuroscience sheds light on the power of meditation to help us towards a democracy of consciousness.
  • How “animate intelligence” contrasts with our more conventional understanding of “conceptual” intelligence.
  • How we can reharmonize our own animate and conceptual consciousness, and in doing so, play our part in re-balancing the human impact on the environment.
  • How all these findings can lead to a new set of global values for the 21st century.

Enjoy the journey!  And please share your comments whenever you feel you have something to say.

[1] Quoted by Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.

[2] Cited by Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, p. xiii

[3] Mesarovic, M. D., Sreenath, S. N., and Keene, J. D. (2004). “Search for organising principles: understanding in systems biology.” Systems Biology, 1(June 2004), 19-27.