I am the wilderness before the dawn

Eliminate learning so as to have no worries
Yes and no, how far apart are they?
Good and evil, how far apart are they?

What the sages fear,
I must not fear.
I am the wilderness before the dawn.

The multitude are busy and active…
I alone am bland,
As if I have not yet emerged into form.
Like an infant who has not yet smiled,
Lost, like one who has nowhere to return.

The multitudes all have too much;
I alone am deficient.
My mind is that of a fool,
Nebulous.

Worldly people are luminous;
I alone am dark.
Worldly people are clear-sighted;
I alone am dull,
I am calm like the sea,
Like the high winds I never stop.

The multitudes all have their use;
I alone am untamable like lowly material.
I alone am different from others.
For I treasure feeding on the Mother.

From Tao Te Ching 20.  Translation: Ellen M. Chen.

Wang Yang-ming and the democratization of sagehood

To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming

By Julia Ching

New York: Columbia University Press. 1976.

Things were looking very bad for Wang Yang-ming.  Midway through his career as a successful minister, he intervened to save some people unjustly imprisoned.  Instead of saving them, he was imprisoned himself, flogged and sent into exile, where he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.  There he was, in a frontier region of the Chinese empire, a desolate, tropical hole infested with serpents, malaria and outlaws fleeing from justice.  He thought he’d never make it back to civilization, and had a coffin made for himself out of stone, which he looked at nonstop while sitting, meditating, day and night.

It was there, deep in meditation one night, that Yang-ming received enlightenment.  He leaped up, waking those around him, telling them: “I have finally understood that my human nature is quite adequate for the task of achieving sagehood.”

Julia Ching’s book on the life and philosophy of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) takes you right into the heart and soul of Ming dynasty China.    This, in itself, makes it a good read.  But what makes it special is the penetrating insight it offers into the revisionist Neo-Confucian philosophy he formulated several centuries after the height of the classic Neo-Confucian age during the Song dynasty.  This philosophy is not some historic relic of mere academic interest.  Far from it.  Wang Yang-ming’s philosophy is more fresh and relevant today than ever, and is increasingly validated by recent findings in neuroscience and systems biology.

It’s fitting that Yang-ming’s enlightenment occurred in the middle of his political vicissitudes, because for Yang-ming, knowledge and action are one and the same thing.  For him, the idea of pure knowledge, separated from experience, is nonsense.  As Ching puts it, “One can become a sage only by acting in a sagely way, and this action itself is knowledge.”  On the flip side, as Yang-ming says, “One can only know pain after having experienced it.”

And just as knowledge and experience are inseparable, so sagehood – the Neo-Confucian version of enlightenment – is not some distant, transcendent goal.  Rather, sagehood exists within every one of us.  You could say that Wang Yang-ming promoted the democratization of sagehood:

the ideal of sagehood still remained the reserved goal of a few selected scholars, who always risked the danger of being considered mad (k’uang) for daring to have such an ambition.  It was against this situation that Yang-ming revolted, and, in revolting, would present his own discoveries – that every man not only can be a sage, but possesses within himself all the means necessary to become one, and that sagehood is not a remote, impersonal ideal, but a concrete goal, well within reach, a state of mind, self-transcending and yet to be made immanent, to become internalized…

Sounds great, but how do we get there?  Wang Yang-ming builds on the idea of the ancient Confucian scholar, Mencius, that human nature is naturally good, but tends to get corrupted by environmental influences.  “Sagehood,” in Yang-ming’s opinion, “is a quality with which every man is born.  To become a sage is simply to recover one’s original innocence, to take over one’s self completely by recapturing one’s pristine state of mind and of heart.”  If you are able to get to that place, there is a joy you can experience from that inner “peace of mind-and-heart,” at which point you can truly say: “All things are present in me.  I have no greater joy than to find, when I look deep into myself, that I am true to myself.”

But don’t confuse being true to yourself with being self-centered.  Far from it.  One of the great revelations of Neo-Confucian thought, which would be so valuable to us in the West if we could only learn it, is the ultimate interdependence of self and other.  In Wang Yang-ming’s case, this insight took the form of the phrase hsin chi li, which may be roughly translated as “the human mind-and-heart are ultimately identical with the organizing principles of nature.”

As I’ve described elsewhere on this blog, modern scientific thought is beginning to describe this mysterious Neo-Confucian view in rigorous, technical terms, as in this description of complex adaptive systems by Princeton evolutionary biologist Simon Levin:

Ecosystems, and indeed the global biosphere, are prototypical examples of complex adaptive systems, in which macroscopic system properties … emerge from interactions among components, and may feed back to influence the subsequent development of those interactions…  Examples of complex adaptive systems abound in biology. A developing organism, an individual learning to cope, a maturing ecosystem, and the evolving biosphere all provide cases in point.[1]

So, as you gradually accumulate an understanding of the external world, this can lead you to a better understanding of your own nature… and vice versa.

By following the implications of this interconnection, and through Wang Yang-ming’s approach to experiencing it, not just intellectually but in your gut, it’s possible to arrive at a realization of the ultimate unity between each of us and the world around us.  This naturally leads to what Yang-ming called jen, an overflowing sense of love between humanity and the natural world.  For Yang-ming, as Ching describes it, “the world of nature and of human society are fundamentally one, and unity with other men extends itself to unity with birds and beasts and the whole cosmos.”  In his own words:

Everything from ruler, minister, husband, wife, and friends to mountains, rivers, heavenly and earthly spirits, birds, beasts, and plants, all should be truly loved in order that the unity may be reached [through] my humanity (jen).  Then will my clear virtue be completely made manifest; then will I really form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things.

At a time when our global greed and plundering of the earth’s resources is causing millions of barrels of oil to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, enveloping pristine lands and innocent sea creatures in a black cloak of death, if only more people would stop and consider this view of our relationship to nature.  Ultimately, we’re all one and the same.  As Wang Yang-ming put it in one of the beautiful poems appended to the book:

Swimming in the depths, the fish are passing on words of power;
Perched on the branches, birds are uttering the true Tao.
Do not say that instinctive desires are not mysteries of Heaven:
I know that my body is one with the ten thousand things.
People talk endlessly about rites and music;
But who will sweep away the heaps of dust from the blue sky?

And who will sweep away the heaps of tar balls from the Gulf coast?


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

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!

Exploring the Neural Correlates of Wu-Wei.

Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

By Edward Slingerland

New York: Oxford University Press.  2003.

If the Tao is all around us in the natural world, what does it actually do?  In the monotheistic worldview, it’s all rather straightforward.  We have a command-and-control God who gets things going in the universe with direct, purposive action.  God said, “Let there be light!”… and there was light.  But early Chinese thought had no conception of a creator God.  There was the Tao, a “whirling emptiness” which was nevertheless “the ancestor of the ten thousand things.”  In stark contrast to God’s purposeful command, the Tao offers us the paradox of wu-wei: “Act by no-action, Then nothing is not in order.”[1]

Classical Chinese scholar, Edward Slingerland, translates wu-wei as “effortless action” and describes how this metaphor served “as a central spiritual ideal” of the great early Chinese philosophers.  Along with such great Chinese scholars as Joseph Needham and Benjamin Schwartz, Slingerland believes that the simple translation of wu-wei as “non-action” is inadequate to describe the concept.  Schwartz had previously suggested “non-purposive action or behavior”[2] and Needham offered: “‘refraining from activity contrary to Nature’, i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable.”[3] Slingerland’s “effortless action” seems consistent with these interpretations, but shifts the attention a little more to the dynamics within an individual consciousness rather than, for example, Needham’s focus on mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

This shift in focus leads Slingerland to identify what he sees as a crucial paradox in East Asian thought centered on the wu-wei concept, one that extended over more than a thousand years, through the development of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and into Neo-Confucian debates of the Song Dynasty.  The paradox goes like this.  The great Taoist works, such as the Laozi (Tao Te Ching) or the Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu), advocate a wu-wei approach to the world, with the Laozi’s view of ideal human nature as a natural uncarved piece of wood, and the Zhuangzi’s memorable descriptions of butchers, cicada-catchers and swimmers so involved in what they’re doing that they lose their self-consciousness, becoming one with their activity.  But if wu-wei is so “natural,” then how did we humans ever lose it, and how can we get back to that state without going against the very nature of wu-wei? Here’s how Slingerland summarizes it:

If, in fact, we are naturally good in a ‘so-of-itself,’ no-effort fashion, why are we not good already?  If the Laozian soteriological[4] path is so effortless and spontaneous, why do we have to be told to pursue it? … Laozi urges us to behaviorally ‘do wu-wei’ and to cognitively ‘grasp oneness,’ while at the same time he systematically condemns doing and grasping… The fact that we are not already … open to the Way means that we need to somehow render ourselves receptive, and Zhuangzi is thus forced to supplement his effortlessness and unself-consciousness metaphors with references to hard work and training…

Slingerland examines each of the great early Chinese philosophers from this perspective, pulling open the text to expose the underlying paradox.  In what was for me a particularly enlightening section, he demonstrates the conceptual relationship between the Confucian philosophy of Mencius and the Taoism of Laozi, showing how Mencius’ favorite agricultural metaphor transforms the Laozian sense of wu-wei as “pristine nature” into an agricultural vision of wu-wei as “appropriate cultivation.”

Slingerland concludes that “the paradox of wu-wei is a genuine paradox and that any ‘solution’ to the problem it presents will therefore necessarily be plagued by superficial and structural difficulties.”  While I agree with his view of the centrality of the wu-wei paradox in traditional Chinese thought, I believe it may be possible to make some headway in this paradox by applying recent findings in neuroscience to a cognitive view of human development, and considering the notion of wu-wei in terms of what I call “democracy of consciousness.”

In another blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve argued that the symbolizing and conceptual functions mediated by the prefrontal cortex (pfc) have led to a “tyranny” of those capabilities over other aspects of human consciousness.  This view can be seen as a modern formulation of the Taoist narrative of the loss of our original state of nature, that primordial time when “in the Age of Perfect Te, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.”[5] Under this approach, the Laozian view that:

From knowing to not knowing,
This is superior.
From not knowing to knowing,
This is sickness.[6]

may be seen as a repudiation of pfc-mediated forms of symbolic and conceptual cognition (which I’ve termed “conceptual consciousness”) and an idealization of what I call “animate consciousness”, the pre-symbolic form of consciousness that we share with other animals.  Similarly, the rise of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi:

Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te.
When te is lost, then there is jen (humanity).
When jen is lost, then there is i (righteousness).
When i is lost, then there is li (propriety).[7]

The trappings of culture, the forces of technology, cumulatively come to dominate mankind’s original animate consciousness, imposing a different kind of conceptualized order on society and in each of our minds.

However, my approach differs from Laozi in that it’s clear that there’s “no going home.”  Even if, according to some romantics, the hunter-gatherer way of life was superior to ours in many ways, that’s now irrelevant.  We live in an age when both the positive and negative effects of our pfc-dominated culture pervade every aspect of our existence.  The way forward, then, is for us to achieve a “democracy of consciousness” by regaining a harmony between our animate and conceptual consciousness.

This is where my approach meets Slingerland’s “paradox of wu-wei.”  When Zhuangzi describes the perfect harmony of the cicada-catcher or Butcher Ding, I believe he’s capturing moments of “democracy of consciousness”, when the functions of the pfc are perfectly aligned with those of our animate consciousness.  Slingerland points out the paradox here that Butcher Ding “apparently had to train for years and pass through several levels of attainment before he was finally able to follow his spiritual desires.”  I agree.  But modern neuroscience shows us that this paradox is encapsulated in the biology of our brains.  When you are learning a new routine, whether it’s driving, playing music, or walking into a restaurant, your pfc is fully engaged.  You are attentive to every move you make, thinking about it, making an effort, measuring it against pre-conceived rules of conduct.  Your self-awareness is at its height.  Wu-wei is nowhere to be found.

However, when you have mastered your activity, your pfc takes a back seat, only intervening if something unexpected occurs.  A recent neuroimaging study observes that, as familiarity with a particular activity increases, the pre-motor cortex begins to take over from the pfc:

Evidence suggests that the PFC is more critical for new learning than for familiar routines… Human imaging studies report a decrease in blood flow to the PFC as a task become more familiar and greater blood flow to the dorsal premotor cortex (PMC) than the PFC when subjects are performing familiar versus novel tasks.  Also, with increasing task familiarity, there is a relative shift in blood flow from areas associated with focal attention, such as the PFC, to motor regions.  Therefore, it may be that the PFC is primarily involved in new learning, but with familiarity, rules become more strongly established in motor system structures.[8]

I suggest that this study, and others like it, may be describing the neural correlates of Zhuangzi’s wu-wei.  Another recent study examines the neural activity predominant in meditation conducted by novices and those at more advanced stages of practice.  Again, in early stages, a practitioner requires greater mental effort to direct his/her wandering thoughts, which “requires strong executive function and capacity that heavily involves the PFC.” At intermediate stages, the anterior cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in self-regulation) “maintain[s] the balance of cognitive control and autonomic activity.”  For an advanced practitioner, however, an effortless state of wu-wei is achieved.  Here’s how it’s described:

In later meditation stages, the practitioner does not need strong effort and uses only effortless experience to maintain the meditative state. When deeply in this state, practitioners totally forget the body, the self and the environment. In this stage, the ANS [autonomic nervous system] is in control…[9]

I would propose that the “effortless experience” described here is the same wu-wei state as Slingerland’s “effortless action”.  Finally, in what is perhaps the most enlightening recent study on the subject, an analysis of the neural correlates of jazz improvisation shows a shift towards wu-wei in the cognitive experience of jazz musicians – what I view as a harmonization of animate and conceptual consciousness.  The study notes a deactivation of the lateral pfc regions that “are thought to provide a cognitive framework within which goal-directed behaviors are consciously monitored, evaluated and corrected” and which are active “during effortful problem-solving, conscious self-monitoring and focused attention.”  The authors of the study describe their findings in terms which, again, echo Slingerland’s “effortless action”:

Whereas activation of the lateral regions appears to support self-monitoring and focused attention, deactivation may be associated with defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations. The idea that spontaneous composition relies to some degree on intuition, the ‘‘ability to arrive at a solution without reasoning’’, may be consistent with the dissociated pattern of prefrontal activity we observed. That is, creative intuition may operate when an attenuated DLPFC [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] no longer regulates the contents of consciousness.[10]

The subjects of this study were “highly skilled professional jazz musicians”.  We can imagine, based on the earlier studies mentioned, that novice jazz musicians would have shown much greater pfc-activation along with their greater effort.

Based on these analyses, I suggest that we can usefully correlate different levels of pfc-activation to different aspects of wu-wei that Slingerland identifies in Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi.

The Laozian wu-wei correlates with what I call animate consciousness, equivalent to the pre-symbolic kind perception experienced by an infant.  In a grown person, our experiences are mediated by the pfc so automatically that it’s difficult to discern this pre-symbolic moment of awareness, but experienced practitioners of meditation can describe it.  Here is a description of that pre-symbolic, pre-pfc moment by a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher:

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it.  That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived…   It takes place just before you start thinking about it – before your mind says, ‘Oh, it’s a dog.’  That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.  In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing.  You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it…[11]

By contrast, as Slingerland points out, the Mencian view of wu-wei involves “appropriate” human cultivation of experience.  In this view, the pfc’s functions of identifying, establishing rules, and promoting appropriate action are considered part of the natural, wu-wei human experience.  Just as it’s “natural” for an infant to spend their first two and a half years formulating the symbolic pfc-mediated network required to understand native language, so the Mencian view would place the societal manifestations of this function – language, community, agriculture – as wu-wei, the effortless activity of a mature human consciousness.

The Mencian view, though, describes another ideal context – that of a stable agricultural society where man and nature co-exist in harmony – which is almost as far removed from our world as the Laozian “state of nature.”  To use the Mencius agricultural harvest metaphor, mankind has been tugging on the naturally growing shoots for so long that we’re in danger of pulling up the entire plant from the ground, having to replace it with our own genetically engineered variety.

I suggest that the Zhuangzian approach to wu-wei, in contrast to both Laozi and Mencius, describes a path that’s directly relevant to our individual and societal conditions in the 21st century.  Rather than reject the pfc’s involvement in human experience, the Zhuangzian approach, supported by the neuroimaging findings above, advocates the full utilization of pfc functions – willpower, application, attention – to arrive at a stage where the pfc can take a back seat, and a harmonization of consciousness becomes available.  This dynamic can be extended beyond the specific aspects of life analyzed in the neuroimaging studies to all aspects of our lives, indeed to the general way we choose to lead our lives.

From this viewpoint, Slingerland’s original “wu-wei paradox” doesn’t go away, but it’s transformed into a descriptor of the pfc’s dynamics within our consciousness:  We can use the very power of our pfc functions – self-awareness, goal identification, willpower – to reduce the pfc’s “tyranny” over the other aspects of our consciousness.  I think this may be what Zhuangzi means when he says “Words are for holding ideas, but when one has got the idea, one need no longer think about the words.”[12]

It might take a great effort to get there, but by utilizing rather than rejecting our unique pfc-mediated functions, we each have the capability within us to arrive at a place of wu-wei, to shift the balance of power within our own minds and achieve our own democracy of consciousness.


[1] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. TTC 3 & 4, pp. 58, 60.

[2] Schwartz, B. I. (1985). The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard University Press,  188.

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

[4] “Soteriology” generally refers to the religious study of salvation.

[5] Cited by Chen, E. M. (1973). “The Meaning of Te in the Tao Te Ching: An Examination of the Concept of Nature in Chinese Taoism.” Philosophy East and West, 23(4), 457-470.

[6] Chen, E. M. (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary, op. cit. 215: TTC 71

[7] Chen, op. cit. 146: TTC 38.

[8] Muhammad, R., Wallis, J. D., and Miller, E. K. (2006). “A Comparison of Abstract Rules in the Prefrontal Cortex, Premotor Cortex, Inferior Temporal Cortex, and Striatum.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 974-989.

[9] Tang, Y.-Y., and Posner, M. I. (2009). “Attention training and attention state training.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(5: May 2009).

[10] Limb, C. J., and Braun, A. R. (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLoS ONE, 3(2: February 2008), e1679.  It should be noted that another part of the pfc, called the fronto-polar cortex, was active during the improvisation.  This area is thought to be related to integrative functions, and is distinct from the “effortful” planning functions of the lateral pfc described in the post.

[11] Gunaratana, V. H. (1991). Mindfulness in Plain English, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[12] Quoted by Fung, Y.-L. (1948/1976). A Short History of Chinese Philosophy: A Systematic Account of Chinese Thought From Its Origins to the Present Day, New York: The Free Press.

The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Quoted by Watts, op. cit.

[9] Watts op. cit.

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

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

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

Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

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

The li, as Alan Watts describes it, is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Chu Hsi lived from 1130 to 1200.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverent Guests of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid. Chapter 10.

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

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

[5] Needham, ibid.

[6] Needham, ibid.

[7] Needham, ibid.

[8] Chen, ibid. Chapter 29.

[9] Chen, ibid.  Chapter 15.

Meaning Without “Truth”

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

By Chad Hansen

New York: Oxford University Press. (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

Digging into the archaeology of the mind

For those of us who have grown up in a world dominated by Western thought, the prevailing mindsets available to us – scientific methodology, monotheism or some other dualistic belief – seem like the only ones to choose from.

In my blog entitled Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how our Western thought structure has led to an imbalance in our collective consciousness, whereby the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – the part of the brain that mediates symbols and abstract values – has predominated over other aspects of our consciousness.

But it didn’t have to be this way.  And it doesn’t have to be this way.  There were other ways in which the pfc could have constructed its cosmology without seeing itself as an immortal soul separate from its own body and the rest of the natural world.  Without seeing its intellectual constructs as the only ultimate truth.  And there are other approaches we can use to construct meaning in a way that integrates with our bodies and with our animate consciousness, without having to reject the evidence of science.

Time to dig into the archaeology of the mind

To find these other approaches to meaning, we need to dig deep into the archaeology of the mind.  Back to the era of the ancient Greeks, when Plato first posited an immortal soul separate from our material bodies.  Only we’re going to look at another path taken by the pfc, a path that connects the pfc’s drive for meaning with the living, feeling reality of the animate consciousness.  It’s a path taken thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, in a culture virtually untouched by the Proto-Indo-European mental structures that pervaded both Western and Indian cultures.  It’s a path laid down by the Chinese thought tradition.

When Plato was setting the foundations for mind-body dualism in the West, ancient Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Lao-Tzu[1] and Chuang-tzu were offering very different viewpoints on the nature of the cosmos.  These masters were the mouthpieces for ancient traditions that had grown up over thousands of years, completely cut off from the other thought traditions of Western Eurasia.  Chinese scholar Chad Hansen describes how “early Chinese and Greco-Indian philosophical traditions materialized on opposite divides of a great physical barrier – the Himalaya mountains and Xinjiang barrens.”[2] This physical barrier led to a philosophical chasm: “early Chinese philosophers show startlingly little interest in the familiar staples of early Western thought” such as dualism of body and soul.

Joseph Needham (arguably the greatest 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought) describes the East/West dichotomy as follows:

Europeans suffered from a schizophrenia of the soul, oscillating for ever unhappily between the heavenly host on one side and the ‘atoms and the void’ on the other; while the Chinese, wise before their time, worked out an organic theory of the universe which included Nature and man, church and state, and all things past, present, and to come.[3]

Until the last few hundred years, China’s culture and civilization were more advanced than anything the West had achieved.  But something even more remarkable in Chinese culture is that it represents an unbroken tradition from our prehistoric indigenous roots.  We see in classical Chinese culture a sophisticated and complex cosmology, but one which evolved along a continuum from early shamanistic conceptions of the world.  In the West, by contrast, the confluence of ideas generated in Proto-Indo-European, Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought traditions led to the revolution in thinking that occurred in classic Greek culture: the ascendancy to power by the pfc in the form of dualism.

Classical Chinese and Western thought are built on different foundations.  The Chinese foundation connects all the way down to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots.  The Western foundation was reset in a new Platonic concrete over 2,000 years ago, providing a solid base for monotheistic and scientific thought, but creating a separation between our conceptual and animate consciousness, and between humans and the natural world.

Chinese culture connects to pre-agricultural shamanistic roots

And what we see in early Chinese thought is an approach fundamentally different from that in the West.  Instead of dualism there’s the polarity of yin and yang.  Instead of Heaven and Hell, there’s a harmonious interaction between different aspects of the natural world.  Instead of mankind’s separation from nature, there’s a complex, organic view of our connectivity with nature.  Instead of the pfc dominating human consciousness with its idealization of reason and the mind, there’s a harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and our animate consciousness.  Instead of God, there’s the Tao.

How does this difference translate into daily life?  For starters, as environmental philosopher George Sessions notes, the contrast between these two thought traditions shows up in their relationship with the natural world.  Sessions observes that “while Taoism and certain other Eastern religions retained elements of the ancient shamanistic Nature religions, the Western religious tradition radically distanced itself from wild Nature and, in the process, became increasingly anthropocentric.”[4]

But the difference goes even further than that.  It’s so pervasive that, even after hundreds of years of Western cultural impact on East Asia, and modern education systems that prioritize scientific-based thinking, the traces of a different conceptual blueprint show themselves in an individual’s self-definition.  Research findings by psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have identified a difference between a Western-oriented “independent self” versus an East Asian sense of an “interdependent” self, which arises out of a more holistic view of integration with nature.  Here’s how they describe it:

The notion of an interdependent self is linked with a monistic philosophical tradition in which the person is thought to be of the same substance as the rest of nature.  As a consequence, the relationship between the self and other, or between subject and object, is assumed to be much closer.  Thus, many non-Western cultures insist on the inseparability of basic elements, including self and other, and person and situation.  In Chinese culture, for instance, there is an emphasis on synthesizing the constituent parts of any problem or situation into an integrated or harmonious whole.

They contrast this with the “Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.”[5]

This difference extends to the very way in which we conceptualize the world existing around us.  Psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues have reviewed multiple research studies showing East Asians emphasizing relationships and similarities between objects and events, in contrast to Western subjects focusing more on categories and rules for particular items.  They see this difference as arising from the cultural foundations of Chinese thought.  In contrast to the ancient Greeks who were focused on the “object independent of its context,”

… the Chinese were convinced of the fundamental relatedness of all things… It is only the whole that exists; and the parts are linked relationally, like ‘the ropes in a net’[6]

These differences in cognition can literally be seen in the neural connections activated by people raised in East Asia versus those raised in the West.  Multiple functional neuroimaging studies have identified these differences.  In one study, led by Trey Hedden, participants were asked to perform “absolute” and “relative” conceptual tasks.  Westerners had to use more of their frontal brain regions (i.e. had to work harder) on “relative” tasks than “absolute” tasks.  East Asians showed the opposite effect.  Thus, they concluded, “the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.”[7] In a survey of such studies, Shihui Han and Georg Northoff conclude that “one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions.”[8]

The implications of these differences in East Asian and Western are enormous, but are frequently misrepresented in the political tug-of-war arising from such research.  Much of the debate centers around nature/nurture issues such as “Are Westerners hard-wired to be more creative?” or “Are East Asians hard-wired to be meeker?”  I believe that these issues are relatively fruitless to pursue and tend to be used by people to buttress their own prejudices.

Instead, I think these findings offer a path to much richer pastures.  I propose that those of us who are Western-educated can learn something invaluable from the classical Chinese thought traditions.  We can discover different ways of thinking about ourselves and the world, which have the potential to lead to a more integrated sense of ourselves, and increased harmony with the natural world.

Is our Western thought structure on shaky foundations?

But, as anyone who has done foundation work on their house can attest to, it ain’t easy.  Digging down below the floorboards can be messy and painful, and can turn up long-forgotten buried secrets.  It can also, though, be essential for survival.  If the foundations are not rooted well into the soil, a bad storm or an earthquake can cause devastation.  There’s a growing awareness that our society has created its own perfect storm in the form of global climate change, resource depletion and species extinction.  At this point, I think our conceptual constructs could gain a lot from a tradition that’s rooted to the earth, that’s founded on an organic unity with the natural world.

In future postings, I’ll look in more detail at the cosmology of classical Chinese thought, and explore its direct relevance to the scientific and spiritual views of the 21st century.  Let’s get digging!


[1] Most modern scholars question whether the Tao Te Ching was actually authored by one individual.  However, for convenience, virtually everyone remains comfortable referring to the author(s) as Lao-Tzu.

[2] Hansen, C. (2000). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Needham, J. (1969). The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[4] Sessions, G. ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[5] Markus, H. R., and Kitayama, S. (1991). “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.  It should be  noted that, while Markus & Kitayama focus their analysis on East Asia, they extend their view of an “interdependent self” to other “non-West European” cultures such as in Africa and South America.

[6] Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. (2001). “Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition.” Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

[7] Hedden, T., Ketay, S., Aron, A., Markus, H. R., and Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2008). “Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.” Psychological Science, 19(1), 12-17

[8] Han, S., and Northoff, G. (2008). “Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: a transcultural neuroimaging approach.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 9(August 2008), 646-654.

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.