At my invitation, my former student Dylan Awalt-Conley has agreed to make the following short essay public as a Guest Post. Please address any questions or comments to Dylan.
Neo-Confucianism and Physicalism
© 2016, Dylan Awalt-Conley
Despite general enthusiasm for engaging with the Neo-Confucian imaginary in a serious philosophical way, there seem to be some widely held reservations against its use in scientific contexts. Yet I believe that much of the intuitive incompatibility between the Cheng-Zhu metaphysic and a scientific framework comes from a sense of ‘science’ that is constrained by an implicit ontological reductionism. If we are willing to take Neo-Confucianism seriously, then the ontology invoked by concepts like li and qi can provide an experimentally sound alternative to physicalism, complete with new ways of thinking and working scientifically.
I follow Val Plumwood’s argument in “Nature in the Active Voice” that the entire framework of physicalism depends on a deeply embedded ontological distinction, which she calls the spirit/matter dichotomy. The physical kinds that we talk about today are still defined through this implicit opposition: unlike spirit, they are lifeless and inert, only moved by external forces. Even staunch eliminativists are bound up in this framework, since denying the existence of one half of a dichotomy is about as strong a case as one can make for the legitimacy of that dichotomy itself.
One of qi’s most interesting features is that it does not fit into either half of the spirit/matter dichotomy. Instead, it introduces an entirely separate ontology of “psychophysical stuff.” While this psychophysical ontology may be compatible with some weaker formulations of physicalism—in that psychophysical explanations for some phenomena can probably be translated into acceptable physical ones—it is at odds with any doctrine that grants ontological priority to physical kinds, such as reductionism and upwards causation. Indeed, this ontology does not recognize merely physical kinds as such, and so it warrants a positive account independent of our familiar framework. I believe that a good start is by looking at a particular everyday sense of ‘energy’: the kind we invoke when we report having ‘high’ or ‘low’ energy, or when we recall a ‘tense situation.’
Take a phenomenon that I’ll call morning qi. There is a distinct, invigorating ‘energy’ to the morning, which is neither wholly internal nor wholly external—neither spiritual nor material—but ‘something in the air’ that we find ourselves participating in. While this ‘energy’ could be explained in psychological terms, it is primarily a public phenomenon, felt through our collective witness to the changing light, the chirping of certain birds, and the occasional “good morning!” For the most part, I cannot even notice morning qi without taking part in it: if I notice it, then I am already invigorated; if I am invigorated, then I am rising, moving around, and waking the neighbors with my own form of chirping. Likewise, morning qi cannot be reduced physically to the bare spatial relation of planetary bodies. The sun’s position cannot produce a ‘morning’ without an embodied, psychical witness to it up meaningfully. Morning qi could thus be described as a kind of emergent, participatory phenomenon.
Even if this account sounds acceptable so far, qi becomes truly complicated (and most troubling for physicalists) once we bring up its purported autonomy. Chinese thinkers frequently refer to qi and its various manifestations—particularly the macro-phenomena of Heaven and earth—as forming and transforming themselves and directing their own activities in response to each other. This raises understandable concerns as to whether such agency constitutes a causal power, how it interacts with our causally-closed universe, and the problems involved in ascribing causality to emergent phenomena more generally. I think it’s sufficient to suggest that attributing causal power to qi would be a category mistake—that causality, in the scientific sense, can only be attributed to physical kinds qua inert, lifeless substance. Yet even if we accept this and interpret qi’s agency more loosely, we face another difficulty. If qi is an emergent phenomenon constituted by the participation of multiple discrete agents, shouldn’t its own agency override and erase the agency of its participants?
Luckily, there is a Western precedent for this way of thinking. Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory describes agency as composed of holistically-determined actants rather than atomic actors. When a plurality of actants in some network come to operate as a unit, this is called punctualization, and it can constitute a new actant in a new network. On this model, the agency of the participants in qi is not negated by qi’s macro-agency precisely because these agencies are never in conflict. Higher-order agencies only arise through punctualization, so their existence assumes prior cooperation and harmony among constituent actants. And yet this higher-order agency, once arisen, still seems to play a role in reinforcing itself, just as the invigorating energy of morning qi both prompts my own (very autonomous) “good morning,” and manifests through it.
This is a very different kind of agency from that formulated within the spirit/matter dichotomy. It is psychophysical—not just in that it can describe physical and nonphysical systems alike (“material and semiotic,” as Latour puts it), but also in that it evades the familiar dichotomy of causal determinism versus free, willful creativity. It is incompatible with reductionism, in that it grants ontological and explanatory priority to macro-phenomena and how they direct the activity of their component actants, in contrast to the priority that reductionism and eliminativism give to micro-phenomena and upwards causation. Birds chirp because it is morning, even though the morning is also constituted by their chirping. I hesitate to call this downwards causation, only because, in identifying it, we should not expect to see actants behaving in ways that couldn’t also be explained through their own agency, but rather: macro-phenomena displaying self-organizing behavior in a sustainable way—preserving and reproducing themselves as coherent unities.
This becomes especially apparent through the significance that the Cheng-Zhu school begins to attribute to qi’s partner term li—the “principle” that qi accords with. Cheng Hao makes the formative move of equating this principle with sheng sheng, which he draws from the Yi Jing. Sheng sheng can be translated as “generativity,” but since, grammatically, it is the same character serving as both reflexive subject and verb, it could be more literally rendered “life-giving life,”—life life-ing itself—to emphasize the themes of sustainability and self-organization at play.
I find this rendering eerily similar to Mark Okrent’s definition of life, based on his account of goal-directed processes in Rational Animals. By pointing out the teleological nature of all goal-directed behavior and the ensuing teleological regress, Okrent shows that any goal-directed act always depends upon a broader context of goals for its intelligibility. Furthermore: “Agents have goals only if what they are, their being, specifies a norm against which the agent is to be evaluated. And only living things stand under such nonarbitrary norms and so have goals of their own” (Okrent, Rational Animals, 73). The non-arbitrary norm of living things is, simply, life: “a living organism will act for life” (Rational Animals, 72)—that is, it will act for the continued intelligibility of its actions as goal-directed.
Yet this life-for-life non-arbitrary norm has certain limitations, if we only think in terms of individual organisms. It’s hard to explain a worker bee’s disregard for its own life when it stings another creature without reference to systems working beyond the individual bee. This suggests that such a norm (a norm that constitutes life itself) is not finally located in individual organisms, but perhaps in broader systems of generation and reproduction, such as life-cycles.
This is roughly the thesis of dynamic systems theory (or DST), an emerging approach to biology and evolutionary studies. As Robert A. Wilson describes it, in Genes and the Agents of Life, DST can be extremely broad in application. It encompasses research endeavors that still fall well within the accepted Neo-Darwinian framework and employ conventional understandings of biological individuals (organisms, genes, etc.). However, Wilson emphasizes the potential for DST to go in a different direction, towards a framework he calls “location-wide externalism.” This is roughly the biology equivalent of extended cognition in the philosophy of mind. Life-cycles are held to include developmental resources external to the organism, which are nonetheless selected for and reproduced generation after generation (such as boats and carts, perhaps). This pushes the locus of biological agency beyond the skin of an organism to the intergenerational organism/environment dynamic. Wilson notes that “this is likely to compromise any acceptable view of individuals, agency, and systems” (Wilson, 157), citing the confusing biological agency of a termite mound, which can be attributed alternately to the termites, the Termitomyces fungus, or the entire mound-thing itself. I see the concepts of li and qi as a helpful resource in this instance and others where intuitive atomic agents dissolve and the emergent dynamic evades reductive explanation. Not only are they a foil to an increasingly-outdated reductionist framework in science, but they offer an alternative worldview with viable research implications.
Of course, this still demands a whole new ontology, but I believe biology and the life sciences have needed this for quite some time. Life itself is not a value-free ideal, nor easily reducible to physical kinds. It is defined, foremost, by systems of life-cycles, which emerge only through the participation of many actants and yet direct their activity in accordance with the non-arbitrary norm of sheng sheng. In Rational Animals, Okrent eventually claims that this non-arbitrary norm can be reduced to a physical description, since goal-oriented systems, as long as they succeed, result in a discernibly lower entropy than their environment. Yet entropy alone does not seem sufficient to distinguish developmental resources from the systems that produce them, nor can it illuminate phenomena like the termite mound. I prefer Evan Thompson’s position: that life-systems are only identifiable from the perspective of another living system, as a result of their mutual participation in this broad process of generativity. This keeps the life-sciences rooted in a psychophysical ontology, and doesn’t risk confusing the physical description of life with what life actually is.
None of this, of course, means that biologists need to read up on Zhu Xi in order to do biology, or that we should start translating li as “dynamic system” rather than principle. Yet I hope this sheds some light on how relevant the Neo-Confucian framework still is, both to the less-explicitly-ethical endeavors of modern science, and possibly to those interested in bringing scientific practice into dialogue with other fields and the broader human investigation into the nature of things.