A Moment to Touch the Li

Wife lying sick in hospital bed.
Long hours sitting by her side.
But lunch time brings a walk to grab a sandwich
Through quiet pathway along a little stream.

Surrounded by hedges on both sides
Sounds and smells of spring in the air.

The tweeting of birds calling to each other
Fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle flood the nose.

New shoots jutting out from the hedges
And flowers beckoning with splashes of color.

What a moment to touch the li!

A Global Ethic for the 21st Century

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

By Dianne Dumanoski

New York: Crown Publishing Group.  2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Berry, op. cit.,146

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

[4] Speth, J. G. (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 199-200.

The Li Series

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

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

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

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

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

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

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

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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

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

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

Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things

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

Albert Einstein saw no distinction between science and religiousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Fung and Bodde, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

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

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

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

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

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

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

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

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

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

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

_____________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


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

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are “temporarily identifiable wiggles” in time.

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

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

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

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

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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