Awalt-Conley, Neo-Confucianism and Physicalism

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.

Hannah Pang detail

7 thoughts on “Awalt-Conley, Neo-Confucianism and Physicalism

  1. Dylan, thanks for being willing to share this here; I find it completely fascinating, a very fruitful crossing of boundaries. The closest published work I can think of to this is Michael Kalton’s essay “Extending the Neo-Confucian Tradition: Questions and Reconceptualization for the Twenty-First Century,” in Confucianism and Ecology. I hope there will be more in the future!

    This very afternoon Brook Ziporyn will be presenting a paper at the Columbia Neo-Confucianism Seminar that is related to what you say here. Here is one excerpt from his paper:

    “Production,” sheng, does not refer only to what we mean by the English word “life”: it means any transformation, any emergence of a qualitiatively distinct entity. Burning rotten wood produces smoke. Neither of these is “alive,” but the relation of production is the expression of the Li, the Productive Compossibility, of the wood. Basically, any event that occurs is an example of “ceaseless production and reproduction” 生生不息. The rotten wood does not “intend” to produce, it has no living “intention” or “impulse” to produce (sheng yi 生意), but it has the potentiality to produce; to exist is to have this potential to produce a certain effect, and requires that this entity was something that could come into existence, could be produced, in tandem with everything else that exists. To have a Li is to be something that can be generated by whatever is already existing, and to participate in this process of ceaseless production and reproduction by in turn having the capacity to produce something else beyond itself.

    How important is it to your interpretation, Dylan, that sheng means “life”?

    • Thanks for the response Steve, this has sent thinking quite a bit!

      I suspect that sheng sheng, even in this looser sense, can still be mapped onto Okrent’s life-for-life norm, without making Okrent’s norm a specialized or partial form of sheng sheng. Although clearly my understanding of these terms isn’t complete.

      Do you know if the Neo-Confucians explicitely distinguish sheng from the Buddhist concept of change or impermanence? If sheng qua production is merely the transformation of any one thing into not-that-thing, then it probably does not hold up with Okrent. Sheng would include simple increases in entropy; it would include the falling-apart of life systems and the failure of the life-for-life non-arbitrary norm.

      But Ziporyn, at the end of Beyond Oneness and Difference, describes sheng in a way that implies value, at least to something: “‘generation’ means ‘co-generation,’ and the sort of ‘life’ generated here includes any function, any distinctive way of functioning within the whole, any way of affecting other things that is of potential value to those things in their own continued coherence with one another” (329). Interestingly, after this passage, Ziporyn invokes the same burning-wood example of sheng, but emphasizes the generally-valued (life-sustaining) production of heat over the generally-devalued production of smoke. If calling something sheng invokes value, then this seems to imply some sort of ecological involvement, even if the sheng process itself is not alive. I imagine that this is the distinction Zhu Xi is getting at (also with reference to the rotten wood) between the “impulse of life” and the li of life.

      If this sounds reasonable, then we could still incorporate inanimate sheng processes into the psychophysical framework. We don’t have to refer to combustion to explain why burning wood produces smoke (although we can, and this might just be a pragmatic issue). A psychophysical explanation would involve the way the ecosystem is structured so that such wood-burning-and-producing-smoke could ever happen It would attempt to explain the compossibility of this phenomenon: how does “wood” emerge through the participation of other natural phenomena?

      I might not be entirely clear about all that. But if we start talking about sheng sheng (i.e. the sustainable reproduction of the wood-burning process), then I think we’re firmly in the realm of value, intentionality, and ecosystems. I think, here, we’re compelled to explain the wood-burning phenomenon in terms of its function in some (human) life-cycle as a heritable developmental resource. It seems that a purely physical explanation just misses something critical here–and may not be able to incorporate this distinction between sheng and sheng sheng at all.

  2. Dylan,

    I find your analysis of Neo-Confucian ideas of qi and li insightful. It parallels my own work on trying to understand the dynamics of action theory in early Chinese thought. I’m not familiar with LaTour’s work or with Wilson’s notion of DST, so thanks for introducing those.

    There seem to be many ways of putting the notion of self-organization in contemporary scientific terms: complex dynamic systems, complex adaptive systems, chaos theory, autopoiesis, etc. What they have in common is that they all diverge from a simplistic atomistic model of efficient causation that is, like you say, bound up (in the realm of human action) with problems of determinism and free will.

    You may be interested in my exploration of these ideas in my articles “The Rehabilitation of Spontaneity” and “Action without Agency and Natural Human Action” (among others). My approach is to view early Chinese ideas of causation broadly as self-causation in the sense of self-organization. This also seems to me a better way to understand human action than the standard compatibilist approach, which is so bound up in the free will/determinism dichotomy.

    One thing that you seem to be exploring is the interface between human behavior and motion in nature–how motion in nature (outside of life as normally understood) can have a sense of intentionality or directedness and how human psychology can be consistent with this kind of motion in nature. We can extract from early Chinese writings a notion of natural motion and human action as fundamentally the same kind of thing. In the West, we have traditionally seen them either as the same in a reductionistic sense–human action is nothing more than determined–or as different in kind–human action lies outside the realm of the determinism of the natural order, and the compatibilist project has been to resolve the contradiction involved in saying that human action is both non-determined and yet constrained by the uniform regularity of nature (understood as fundamentally determined). Scientists, having generally set the notion of strict determinism aside in favor of statistical probability , have long assumed human behavior to be consistent with the uniform regularity of nature and so are in this sense in agreement with the assumptions of early Chinese notions of human action/motion. This basic agreement between early Chinese theory and current scientific theory is, in my opinion, fertile ground for comparison, mutual exploration, and cross-fertilization. There is much more to be done, a significant part of which is attempting to get a robust understanding of the Chinese terminology, itself!

    • Hi Brian,

      Thank you for your comment, and for the recommendations on further reading! I’ll definitely be checking out the articles you mentioned (“Rehabilitating Spontaneity” is an intriguing title).

      If you’re looking for more on DST, I think Griffiths and Gray’s article, “Darwinism and Developmental Systems,” is probably a more straightforward kind of manifesto. Wilson describes it mostly within his broader account of biology’s direction and relation to the “hard sciences”–still very interesting! but maybe less to the point.

      I like your point that the emphasis on statistical probability puts actual scientific practice more in line with Chinese ontological assumptions. I hadn’t thought about that, but it does seem to be another area in which scientific practice diverges from the reductionist or compatibilist ontology (and yet certainly seems to produce viable results!). All very interesting stuff.

    • Hi Jingcai,

      Thank you for the comment and recommendation! I’m not familiar with the book but it sounds fascinating, and very relevant! Will look into it.

  3. Thinking and working scientifically have to do with planting crops and feeding the family in rural China since forever. The approach may be fundamentally different from the West but the grounding in physical science of Chinese inventions that has kept a living civilization going for more than two thousand years is hardly “li” and “qi”.

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