Asian Religious Traditions and Natural Science:

Potentials, Present and Future

by: Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

International Conference on Science, Theology, and Asian Religions,  Seoul, January 2002



Introduction. 1

History. 1

The Conceptual Interface. 2

Science and Religion: Potentials, Present and Future. 5

    Bibliography. 8


The general topic I was asked to address in this paper is "natural science and Asian religions." Leaving aside for a moment the enormity and inner complexity of the two sides being thus brought together, let us look for a moment at the seemingly simple word in the middle: "and." The word is ambiguous to the point of silence, but pregnant with great expectation. Somehow the bringing together of these two topics should yield something interest, something that will further our understanding of, and perhaps our practice of…what? I think of at least three ways of exploring the meaning of the "and" juncture. The first would be historical, with a view to understanding the way the science-religion interface has actually worked out thus far in Asian societies and trajectories for the future. The second would be conceptual, moving in the artificially timeless world of ideas to ask what powerful conceptual chemistry might emerge from placing understandings drawn from these areas into mutual interaction. The third "and" might be to some extent a product of the first two, but with a special sense of creative potential in the present and urgent question for the future. It is the kind of  "and" that one understands in titles like, "Fossil Fuel Emissions and Global Warming." 

My intent is to develop the question of natural sciences and Asian religions ultimately in the third sense. But in order to arrive at that, we must first pay some attention to history and to the general configuration of the conceptual interface.

Before beginning I would like to trim the broad sphere of "Asian" religions to more manageable proportions. My professional involvement in comparative religion includes to some extent all the major religious traditions, but the traditions of East Asia have been my real focus, i.e. the Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. In particular I specialize in the Neo-Confucian tradition, the product of a powerful Confucian revival movement in 11th century China that eventually became the predominant intellectual and spiritual tradition throughout East Asia down to the modern era. The Neo-Confucian movement drew heavily on the then prevalent Taoist and Buddhist traditions to develop the metaphysical and ascetical dimensions essential to revitalizing the Confucian tradition and its core social values.  It is the most extensively and intensively elaborated intellectual crystallization of main elements and assumptions that characterize what is sometimes called the East Asian world view, and so will serve as my main reference point when I speak of the revitalization of the East Asian intellectual tradition.

  India also merits major consideration in any discussion of Asian religions. But the sprawling and diverse religious culture of India is so different from East Asia that they really cannot be usefully combined even in a discussion that allows the half-truths that come with liberal use of sweeping generalizations. I will therefore approach this topic from a basically East Asian perspective, though I will make some relatively brief comments concerning the Buddhist tradition which originated in India and represents assumptions about the nature of existence more typical of India than the organismic holism that originated in East Asia.


Modern natural science arose in the western world in the 17th century. It's rise brought with it a new and much narrower definition of how we use our minds to achieve solid knowledge, and this science-influenced redefinition of rationality profoundly altered the cognitive terrain of the western world. The philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) expressed the challenge posed to more traditional claimants in the most stark terms: "If we take in our hands any volume. . . let us ask, 'Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?' No. 'Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?' No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

This stringent notion of the path to solid knowledge fits the mechanistic paradigm of all material existence ushered in by Newtonian physics and Cartesian philosophy. The new paradigm and its related methodology proved uncomfortable partners with the religious traditions that occupied the same cognitive milieu. The ensuing coevolutionary dance of science and religion has, over a space of 400 years, has been constant, intense and problematic. Over this period science in synergy with major currents of political and social change contributed to the creation a seemingly religion-free secular environment. Religious reaction has covered the range from total accommodation to outright war and all degrees between. Whether it be Unitarians or born-again Christians, virtually all forms of western religious understanding bear distinctive marks of self-conscious interaction with the sifting mesh of science.

  The same cannot be said of Asian traditions. In the non-western world natural science did not grow as a native plant, struggling to carve out new space amidst deeply rooted competitors. It arrived in the company of gunboats with superior firepower, industries looking for markets, or extractive enterprises seeking resources.  The consequence is that for the most part the sifting of Asian traditions in terms of natural science has been of a much rougher cut. Sustained intellectual engagement has all too often been foreshortened by the inviting option to simply abandon all that "old fashioned" stuff in the name of awakening to the modern world.

  This broad generalization produces different facts on the ground in different societies and different Asian religious traditions. Buddhism, a missionary tradition with an institutional base more similar to western churches than most, has had vigorous development. The Neo-Confucian tradition, in contrast, was closely associated with the governments and socio-economic systems East Asian countries sought to transform as they entered the 20th century. Deeply rooted values and assumptions have certainly carried forward, but the engaged vitality of a living tradition has largely been replaced with the aura of museums and the academic custodianship of specialized intellectual historians.  Owing to the strong social focus of this tradition, such intellectual interaction as there is tends to be mainly in the area of social sciences.

  All this could change, and in the third section of this paper I will present reasons why one might indeed expect it to change. This would be an important development, for as we shall see there is great promise in what could happen in natural science if it were carried forward in the context of a renewed East Asian intellectual tradition.    

The Conceptual Interface

  Modern natural science arose in the western world, but its fit with the monotheistic religious traditions that shaped that world has been problematic. The God who intervened as the guide and shaper of history, the God who answered the prayers of the faithful and manifested himself in miracle, was not easily accommodated to a mechanistic universe. Those who thought seriously about such matters encountered uncomfortable choices between the responsive, personal universe of their religious tradition and the lawful universe of prediction and control promised by the new science. For several centuries the element of design disclosed in ever more detail by scientific investigations served to support the rational conclusion of a divine Mind as the creative Source of this great mechanism. But Darwinian evolution suggested a naturalistic solution to the question of design, and natural science has since pushed analogous naturalistic inquiries as far as the origin of the universe itself. Since then science has not needed theologians, but in a milieu in which science has become the paradigm of real and solid knowledge the theological enterprise has been weakened when pursued totally apart from science.

  The pre-Darwinian Deistic incorporation of God as the Great Watchmaker to explain a universe conceived as a Great Clockwork is the most overt, if transitory, insertion of religious thinking into a science-oriented rationalistic framework. But in other less obvious ways traditional concepts carried forward by Christianity's heritage of Greek thought critically shaped the framing of natural science.  A dualistic worldview conceptualized in terms of matter/spirit, world/God, body/soul easily cleaved into an arrangement where science took responsibility for matter, world, and body, leaving the rest to religion. And the concept of matter itself as lifeless mechanistic stuff was but the counterpart of the notion that life arises through some animating spiritual soul.

Indeed, the Enlightenment vision of a world opened to progress through the new rationality promised by science and technology simply brought to earth the Judeo-Christian understanding of time as the progressively unfolding history of God's plan. And religious ideas mediated the very plausibility of the notion that the human intellect could assume the transcendent power of prediction and control to preside over the project of bettering the world.  If the Mind of God put this intelligible universe together, He could give us the mind (in His image) to comprehend it. It just took science to reveal to us that mathematics was the language God used in creating the world.

As God gradually dropped out of the picture, this assumption of godlike capacities associated with the exercise of human intellect carried forward. No other civilization has ever imagined that it is the role of human beings to make the world a better place. The dream of progress through science and technology founded on humanistic faith in the power of the human mind has rivaled and overshadowed the religious vision that was the matrix from which it arose.             

  Under the contemporary guise of globalization and economic progress, this western vision now encompasses the world in what amounts to a vast and highly successful missionary endeavor. But the conceptual interface of Asian traditions with natural science is quite different. On the one hand, they are not organized around western style theism. On the other, their assumptions about the nature of the universe have found almost no play in the world of science or in the larger cultural edifice erected about science.  The potential to reframe much that has been taken for granted by a serious encounter of natural science with Asian religious traditions is in inverse proportion to the conceptual encounter that has taken place thus far. It is immense.

  The alternative conceptual interface can be sketched in the broadest strokes by a simple characterization of the major worldviews in question. Natural science arose within the context of a worldview comprised of a spiritual creator God, a created material world, and human beings who combined the spirituality of God and the transitory materiality of the world. We have seen how science both incorporated and transformed elements of this worldview. China and India represent two major alternatives to this model.

  How else might one arrive at a universe? One such model might be organic, something like a single living body. Modern biology traces the development of a single cell into a complex, differentiated, but still unitary organism. Taoists and Confucians assumed such a universe, beginning in formless unity and unfolding according to its own inherent pattern into the complex, diverse, but harmoniously unified and interdependent world about us. The traditions of India sometimes pick up on this body motif, but the most distinctive model tends to center on consciousness. All that we call physical is a matter of conscious experience; all that we enumerate as diverse entities exist in our single minds. Thus mental experience can serve as another model for the way a diverse phenomenal world arises out of primal unity. Buddhism introduced the Indian model into China.  Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism are both historical products of the meeting of these models, but the Neo-Confucians deliberately elaborated on the traditional organismic model as a counter to the mentalism of Chan Buddhism.  

In both these Asian models unity is the source and foundation of diversity, though the nature of the unity in question is very different. The organic unity envisioned in the Taoist-Confucian model serves an emphasis on proper, harmonious fit, while the Indian consciousness model invites some kind of awakening or breakthrough to a deeper realization. Because unity is the ground in both models, both are inherently holistic and both deeply challenge the notion that physical or phenomenal boundaries are suited to final descriptions of reality.

Serious familiarity with conceptual patterns embedded in the holistic traditions of Asia would at least have made evident the questionability of elements of "commonsense" that unraveled only gradually in the 20th century.  But natural science on its own has done a quite remarkable job of bursting through the inherited, culturally formed western status in many areas. Ecology has developed in synergy with the advent of computers and cybernetics, and now a new form of understanding complex systems, non-linearity, and processes of self-organization bridges the approach to both life systems and technology. Even earlier, quantum physics challenged and overturned mechanistic assumptions within the very discipline in which the mechanistic paradigm first decisively established itself.

  None of this has happened due to any clear influence from Asian traditions, though a few notable scientists such as David Bohm, and popularizers such as Fritjof Capra have drawn on Asian traditions to make some sense of the new developments. For those engaged with Asian traditions and also concerned with science, these developments are cause for satisfaction as cognitive dissonance is replaced by congruence. Chaos theory, complex systems, self-organization, and interdependent relational life webs contain much that fits traditions steeped in an organismic worldview. And new understanding of coevolving information systems and awareness of the subtle and creative organizing role of value, desire, and language in all phenomenal apprehension recall ancient home ground for Buddhists and other traditions deeply concerned with consciousness.

  The nature of the relationship between science and religion is historically conditioned, depending on the character of the religious tradition and the state of the art in natural science at a given time.  In general the mechanistic paradigm established by Newtonian physics and Cartesian philosophy offered little creative interaction with any religious tradition. But that is yielding to configuration that offers a far richer interface, at once both more inviting and more able to evoke new development within the world of religious understanding.  The scientist-theologian Robert John Russell celebrates the new developments in science as opening up a new space. They "point in concert to a nature more open, subtle, numinous, interconnected than we have known for centuries. In the emerging worldviews of the 'new Science' our existence as evolutionary creatures gifted with life, self-consciousness and moral agency no longer separates us from the universe around us." (Russell, p. 7) And he concludes this line of thought with a homecoming: "Ours, then, is a universe in which we once again have a place, an origin, and for which we can speak to and for a cosmic destiny. Once again, perhaps for the first time in three centuries, we humans are finding ourselves at home in the universe." (Russell, p. 7)

This is an instructive illustration of one effect of a restored conceptual interface. Russell translates the conceptual wrestling of systems theorists, biologists, and cosmologists as they work to understand and verify the workings of the universe into a value rich discourse that leads us home. This is of vital importance, as we shall discuss below. But the conceptual creativity here is on the religion side. Science has taken a form where a Christian theologian is invited to locate home, our deepest belonging, in the universe. But what is the potential for conceptual backflow? In what sense might the new interface be a synergy rather than just an energizing of the religion side?

  There is already a science-religion history that constitutes a formidable barrier to any traditional god-talk in the scientific forum. A pivot point in this history has been the question of how we think about the issue of design. Design as an obvious product of Mind supported the Great Watchmaker in the heyday of natural theology. But design as fortuitous Mindless mechanism was religiously deadening. Now design as a historical process of open-ended, emergent self-organization is fruitfully ambiguous. But already fierce defensive battle lines are drawn around the suggestion that there is not enough causality in natural selection to account for the complexity of evident design evident in living organisms; the suggestion can hardly be entertained lest it be taken as an invitation to reintroduce the Mind of a Creator.

But such questions could be an important point of juncture with "godless" Asian traditions that have likewise had to account for design without appeal to a Designer. I will focus my remarks particularly upon the East Asian organismic traditions where the symmetry with emerging systems theory is strongest.  The universe of Taoists and Confucians is self-originating, self-organizing, open, and naturally manifests life. It is Home, the origin from which we emerge and to which we return, and this is good and valuable in itself, needing no further purpose. In these respects these traditions can fit comfortably within the parameters of contemporary science, and further they could absorb and learn much from contemporary research and thinking without significant conflict and dislocation.

But this basic fit also carries potential for a dialogue that has consequences for natural science.  Two thousand years of thinking within an essentially relational, whole-systems framework has explored and examined implications and ramifications as yet hardly touched upon in western science. Most notably, East Asian thought consistently includes and considers human beings and the entire scope of human activities within the single system, as any holistic understanding must. We avoided this in the West partly by the division between natural science and the social sciences, a division that really reflects a religiously founded distinction between humans and the natural world. Insofar as humans have fallen within the purview of natural science their humanity has had to be bracketed. But intellectual brackets can also be blinders. What might be learned from traditions that have never used them?

Neo-Confucians observed that since all creatures emerge from a single source, all are kin and all are systemically interwoven. This does not mean that we are all situated exactly alike within the system, however, nor that humans lack distinction. They accorded human beings a distinctive place at the apex of systemically situated, responsive life.  Other creatures, they observed, were constituted to responsively deal with more or less defined and limited circumstances; only humans seem universally related, interwoven with everything so that we are called upon to respond and act responsibly to all things. This is at once the glory and the problem of human beings, for we also seem to have a unique capacity to mess up unless we engage in some sort of ethical self-cultivation.

These are useful observations and questions. Transposed to a contemporary context, they suggest something like looking at the graded variation of responsive interaction by which the web of life is maintained, with an eye to what leads up to us. What is the systemic threshold that once crossed thrust us into such wide-ranging, flexible interactions that we need ethics in order to survive?  Why does the system seem to work short of that threshold, but enter what we call environmental crisis when it has been crossed? Such questions belong to evolution and systems theory, not to social science, but the answers might be the most critical thing the human community has to learn at this historical juncture.

Of course we could short-circuit the inquiry by an appeal to the uniqueness of our rationality and free will. We think of ourselves as free, rational makers of decisions, exercising our autonomy as originators of problem-solving activities that will bring situations under control. The environmental crisis simply must be solved by additional control.   Paradoxically, however, the more we bring our vast scientific and technological capabilities to this project, the more we are oppressed with the feeling that things are reeling out of control.

We already know this is an outworn vision: participants in a system are responsively engaged in a way that leaves little room for notions such as autonomy, originating activity, or control--except perhaps in a very qualified and limited manner. Such qualities are indeed in the image and likeness of God, that is, they are premised on occupying a position that transcends the system. But we are so habituated in such thinking that even when we understand its inappropriateness we can hardly imagine an alternative. It took quantum physics and environmental disaster to dislodge us from a godlike transcendent perch from which objective observation, prediction, and control made self-evident sense as an ideal of the exercise of the human mind. But even now the awareness of the strictures this places on autonomy, prediction and control seem more like academic footnotes than reality. Again the more consistent systemic heritage of East Asia helps refocus the situation.


  If one consistently thinks of and speaks of human beings (including oneself) as within the system, no new content is added, but everything changes. East Asian traditions always assume we are relationally situated in all thought and action, players, not managers. The situation always extends beyond ourselves and enmeshes us: we never control it, but our activity is an important part of the dynamic of the whole. Questions of human action are typically phrased in terms of response; no matter how creative our initiative may be, in reality it flows as a response evoked by the relational situation in which we are involved. The appropriate response allows the organizing dynamic of a situation to work smoothly and contributes order and harmony, while inappropriate response does the opposite. Thus the qualities one looks for are appropriateness, hitting the mark, fitting the situation.

Systems have their own self-organizing dynamic; it works in and through all elements of the system, but is located in no single element. This understanding is enshrined in the East Asian concepts of Tao as the patterning or organizing dynamic, and tzu-jan (Kor. chayŏn), fundamental causal category associated with Tao. Tzu-jan is literally translated "self-so," but more often shows up in western translations as "spontaneity" or "naturalness." As we have come to understand self-organization better, we begin to see why "self-so" functions as a causal concept in an organismic worldview. Tzu-jan is the effective modality of the system that informs the actions of the agents that compose it. The rules of baseball both govern and are real-ized in the self-so activity of those who play the game. The complex dynamics of an ecosystem are realized in the self-so or "natural" activity of its myriad participants.

The ramifications of insisting on the systemic embeddedness of human agency extend immediately to deeply held cultural values.  But they also reach deep into the conceptualization of natural science projects and their application. There is an immense difference in approaching the natural world as participants in a self-organized, dynamic set of life-producing/sustaining relationships, and approaching it in the endeavor to predict and control the behavior of a vast mechanism with parts that can be replaced, altered to our advantage, or returned to the previous state if we don't like the alteration. We know this already, but the knowledge has not penetrated deeply. 

Quite the contrary.  The list of recognized errors due to scientific and technological linear problem solving in the midst of complex self-organized systems is lengthy and well known. It includes straightening rivers, dams, wetlands drainage, introduced species, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, acid rain, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, estrogen emulators, and the pesticide cycle. The latest issue surrounds our conceptualization of the genetic code. The overwhelming tendency is to understand our comprehension of the double helix as finally grasping the key mechanism that controls the design of living organisms.  Genetic engineering is the enterprise that naturally complements such a conceptualization: able to predict the function of the genetic mechanism, we can now control it to suit our purposes.

Of course that is a misconceptualization; we know it, but are not primed, as tzu-jan science would be, to give much weight the systemic factors that would alter our expectations of a new era of control over life.  But in fact, it is not genetic code that designs a given organism, it is the self-organizing dynamic process of selective evolution that lays out organisms in terms of all the other organisms and physical features of an ecosystem. Through selective sifting and resifting of cycling gene pools genomes come to lay out organisms that reflect what has worked and how well it worked in the last generation. The sense of any genetic factor inheres in the relation of the organism   to the system in which it participates. That is how living systems become so exquisitely cross-referenced in their production of generation upon generation of life. But having grasped the "mechanism," we confidently reference the design to its relation to human desires rather than the entire system in which the organisms (and we) participate. East Asian tradition saw misplaced self-centeredness as the root cause of blindness to systemic relationships and the consequent inappropriate responsiveness. We do have much to learn.

Natural science is conceived of as a preeminently rational enterprise. This follows the Greek understanding of rationality as the distinctive and guiding factor in human mental life. East Asian traditions have no equivalent term. Thinking of the human mind-heart primarily as mediating an informed response to our situation, they directed attention especially to factors such as the feelings that motivate response, the question being why they sometimes hit, sometimes miss the mark. As an activity natural science is always situated and always motivated in a more complex relational matrix than the simple love of truth the Greeks thought of as the natural counterpart of rationality. The objective then would be to engage natural science responsively in meeting the needs posed by the health and well-being of the entire system in which we participate, rather than the inappropriately self oriented subsystem of the human economy. In proportion to the scope of its reach and function, the deep motives that inform and guide natural science merit conscious reflection and examination.

Science and Religion: Potentials, Present and Future

More can and will happen as human history unfolds than anyone can predict or even foresee as potential developments--and less as well. There will be many "roads not taken." But a good case could be made that we stand at one of those historical points where the question of potentials for the future presses with particular urgency: the stakes may be very high, the cogency of past precedent considerably weakened, and the confluence of historically discrete spheres of every sort particularly intense.

  Thought about potentials is informed by an implicit or explicit sense of the problem or question underlies the enquiry. What sort of thing are we looking for, and why? As a new, friendlier form of science has emerged that opens more easily to a resacralized sense of the natural world ("home" once again), a sense of new possibilities has emerged in the religious sphere. Part of the broader background here is the cognitive dominance of science and related stress on the plausibility of faith-based and spiritually oriented traditions. Considered in this light, both the problem and the sense of new potentials is more a matter of concern for religion than for science.  To put it another way, science remains basically unaffected: it may be friendlier, but has little to learn from religion. Science learns from science.

A broader consideration might disclose different potential at this point in history. I have found in my work in comparative religion that various traditions (not limited to religion) diverge most tellingly not so much in terms of what they teach as why they teach it. What is their sense of the fundamental problem or question to be addressed?  Even a cursory schematization in these terms of the traditions relevant to our considerations may help reframe our view of potentials.

Traditions and Sense of Problem

            Muslim: submission

Jewish: trust, proper relationship with God

Christian: sin, redemption

            Buddhist: suffering, ill

            Taoist: dynamics of unity

            Confucian: relational unity, social coherence

Science: how things work in terms of testable hypotheses and principles

            Secular: economic development

Environmentalism: survival of interdependent network of evolved life  system.

The present situation can be described in terms of the dynamic interplay of these problematiques, none of which is truly bordered and isolated from the others. The intersection of natural science with both environmentalism and the secular project of economic development is particularly critical, for tension between these two poses the central question for societies of the present and foreseeable future. Both the secular drive for economic growth and environmentalism are enmeshed in the perennial project of arriving at a good life on earth. Since the 17th century, the rise of science, technology and industrial economies has transformed the vision of both the content and the means to the good life, first in the West, and now throughout the world. And now environmental problems challenge and bid to drastically refocus that vision. Environmentalism is most prominent in the West, but the burgeoning issues from which it arises are such that its eventual global compass seems beyond question.

On one level, natural science is the foundation for environmentalism. Science investigates, describes, and explicates the intertwined and complex processes of the biosphere, and questions of endangering or sustaining those processes are likewise matters for scientific inquiry. But on another level environmentalism pushes naturally if not quite inevitably onto religious grounds. As it brings a new level of awareness of the single fabric of life and its interweaving with every sort of physical process, environmentalism invites a new sort of human self-identification with, and hence reassessment of those processes. The generations that deeply resented Darwin's suggestion that we might be related to "the brutes" is gradually being replaced with people who consciously seek a deeper realization of their "unity with nature." This homecoming to the cosmos/earth may be accomplished by a new emphasis that the earth and all in it belong to and manifest God, or by appeal to various  primal traditions, or simply by a felt sense of belonging that feels little need to symbolize ultimacy apart from earth (Earth) or universe (Universe). 

The physical world which is the object of scientific inquiry is also undergoing a process theologians describe as "resacralization." Environmentalism, it seems, mediates a new intersection of science and religion.  The distance bridged by the "and" in science and religion for increasing numbers of people has become as small (yet great) as the difference between small and capital letters.

What may happen in this conjunction of capital and small letters is being exemplified already to some extent in the Buddhist case. Since the Vietnam era Buddhism has enjoyed a lively presence in the western world. My impression (no hard data) is that it has become especially influential among the intelligentsia, especially those deeply involved in social activism, psychology, and counseling. If one considers Buddhism's orientation to the fundamental question of suffering and ill, and its deep tradition of inquiry into the dynamics of consciousness related to the arising of these phenomena, the fit is obvious. And the consequences of this overlap of areas of professional inquiry and the concerns of a complex and deeply founded religious tradition clearly extend beyond the sphere of private and personal religious life. The Buddhist perspective is presented and heard with attention in academic professional journals and national conferences. The difference between Mind and mind seems more easily bridged than the traditional western distinction of religion and science would lead one to expect.

A similar potential is present between natural science and East Asian traditions, but the situation is more complex. The Neo-Confucian tradition,  a grand synthesis of Taoist cosmology, Buddhist inner cultivation, and Confucian concern for social and human relations understanding, prevailed throughout pre-modern East Asia. Historically the social/governmental dimensions of this tradition were of great importance, and its identification with the pre-modern social order has been one reason the tradition seems largely overridden by the social and political revolutions that have transformed East Asian countries over the last century. But the social concerns and understanding were framed in a highly articulate and deeply pondered/argued systemic cosmological framework. Scholars discuss this as an "anthropocosmic" framework; though it is focused on humans, it insists on treating humans as emergent within and in accord with the total systemic forces of the natural world. This is exactly the sort of framework needed for the contemporary economy-environment discussion. And though its cosmology has much to learn from modern science, this tradition is steeped in an understanding of paths and linkages in approaching holistic systems that could contribute much to the contemporary state of the art.

What would it take to bring about this creative confluence of contemporary problems and the East Asian intellectual-spiritual tradition? At international conferences in East Asia bearing titles such as "Confucianism and the 21st Century," I look in vain for more than rare papers moving in this direction, and those mostly from western scholars. Having been bypassed by modernity, the intellectual tradition is now largely in the care of historians of philosophy. Invited to address the future, the response is typically a socially conservative call to restore the gleaming lost values of the past. Meanwhile the limited group of western scholars who understand the tradition are professionally engaged in a world of scholarship that has little contact with science.

The catalyst that might change this situation will be the arrival in East Asia of serious environmental awareness and concern. This is only a matter of time. For the present the drive for economic growth has overshadowed everything. In the slightly longer term, however, environmental considerations are entangled with the economic process in a way that they will come to the fore.  The western world's encounter with environmental consciousness evoked a revival of any threads of tradition that served to frame a unity with the natural world. An emergent Green Christianity is flanked with neo-Paganism, Wicca, Druids, and Native American traditions, all retooled to fit the Environmentalist problematique.

This might sound almost like anti-science, and it certainly bespeaks an undercutting of confidence the mechanistic prediction and control model that arose with natural science in the 17th century. But a similar holistic, integrative impulse in East Asia could well send people back to revive their own neglected traditions. The famous Speech of Chief Seattle has led many into an interest and further examination of American Indian traditions. There are any number of Taoist/Confucian/Neo-Confucian passages that can provide a similar popular interface: "Here is the critical understanding we have lost!" But those texts lead further into a richly developed intellectual heritage that offers a lively interface with environmentalism.

Popular interest brings inquiry and further intellectual vitality. In such a context persons informed regarding contemporary science are more likely to become interested in threads of the old traditions. The first wave of such activity tends to follow a "me too" pattern: "We already had the theory of complex systems!" "We already had cybernetics and information theory!" "We already understood interdependence and emergence!" Closer examination reveals similarities and differences; it is family resemblances, not repetitions that are exciting. Mature interaction involves probing the state of the art in terms of questions inspired by familiarity with this different wing of the family. 

The understandings that crystallized in concepts such as "Tao," and "tzu-jan" will be central to any East Asian revitalization of its traditional worldview. Tzu-jan is now used to translate the western term "nature," so natural science is already "tzu-jan science" in East Asian lexicography--if not yet in content. Tao as the unitary underlying patterning running through all existence, and tzu-jan as its primary "self-so" manifestation in the dynamic organization and functioning of an ostensibly plural world, establish the fundamental parameters of an all-inclusive, self-organizing system. These concepts have such obvious applicability that they already attract western attention--witness works such as The Tao of Physics and the Dancing Wu Li Masters, which use them to introduce the introducing "new" physics to a popular audience. 

But the elaborate conceptual system worked out by Neo-Confucians as they delved into the ramifications of such an understanding is less well known. I think, for example, of the T'ai-chi (Kor, T'aeguk), the "Supreme Ultimate," a way of conceiving how the distinct but interrelated patterns of physical multiplicity originate in a non-differentiated but all-inclusive patterning. A corresponding analysis discusses all beings in terms of a dualism of li and ch'i (Kor. i and ki), terms that reference the dual aspects of systemic relationship and individuality that characterize entities within a system. Terms such as integrity (ch'eng, Kor. sŏng), altruism (shu, Kor. ), and humanity (jen, Kor. in) are debated and developed in ways that tease out the continuity of a holistic cosmic-social-ethical system.

What is the point here? What difference would it make to the natural sciences if this vast intellectual heritage were renewed and revitalized? I do not mean to suggest that our scientific understanding of self-organizing physical and life systems, of evolution and ecology and cultural change, will be greatly advanced by introducing new terminology borrowed from the world of philosophy and religion. But conceptualization even within the sciences takes place is informed by the deepest assumptions buried in historically elaborated worldviews. For example western assumptions about individual agency and the status of mind (conscious intellectual activity) found a place in what became the indispensable notions of "mechanism" and "objectivity." Hypotheses and investigations advanced in such terms are immediately comprehensible; those that challenge them and fight to move into new territory may be met with either disinterest or fierce resistance. One thinks, for example, of Einstein's famous reservations regarding unpalatable implications of quantum physics: "God does not play dice with the universe." Or of the perplexity regarding phenomena such as quantum entanglement, which simply defies conceptualization in terms of how we assume information must get around in space and time (especially with Newtonian imaginations as our common sense).

If natural science finds itself in the context of a renewed and plausible East Asian intellectual tradition the consequences will be far more profound than a superficial overlay of new terminology. Directions of research in the selective and over-populated market of ideas would be affected, as well as the all-important matter of framing seminal questions. For example, Lotfi Zadeh at Berkely in 1964 invented "fuzzy logic," an alternative to the two-term either/or approach that goes back to Aristotle. It met with enthusiastic reception, and vigorous development and application not in America, but in Japan and in China.1  And while it accords with our intuitions to build ever more massive super-colliders to break matter into ever finer bits, there is no similar intuition supporting the investigation of self-organizing emergent orders of complex systems--a matter understood only by small groups of professional researchers. An East Asian context might reverse such priorities.

The theory of evolution, central to contemporary life sciences, provides an area where an East Asian recontexting might be especially interesting.   Darwinian natural selection stands in the western world as the main naturalistic (scientific) alternative explanation to God or some equally primordial Mind as the source of design. Natural selection is a powerful designer, though whether it alone is sufficient to account for all design in the complex fabric of life is less than self-evident. But in the western milieu questioning in this area is greeted with reluctance, in large part because any criticism of the adequacy of natural selection seems like an attempt to insert God/religion back into the picture.2 Anyone venturing to probe this area and desiring to avoid being stigmatized as a creationist is well advised to have a significant alternative thesis to advance.

One notable probe of this sort is the work of Stuart Kauffman, a leading thinker in the new field of complexity and self-organization. In his book, At Home in the Universe, he states:

I shall argue in this book that this (Darwinian) idea is wrong. For as we shall see, the emerging sciences of complexity begin to suggest that the order is not all accidental, that vast veins of spontaneous order lie at hand. Laws of complexity spontaneously generate much of the order of the natural world. It is only then that selection comes into play, further molding and refining. (Kauffman, p.8)

He is looking for laws of patterned emergence that will not only encompass the emergence of life but also serve as  "a new and unifying intellectual underpinning for our economic, cultural, and social life." (Kauffman, p.15)

In the western context, this project stretches our sense of plausibility. In a revitalized East Asian context, it would simply be stating the expected. His "spontaneous order" seems virtually indistinguishable from "tzu-jan," so the project of spelling this out, as Kauffman attempts, in terms of physics, chemistry, and biology would move the old understanding onto new ground. On the other hand Neo-Confucians could contribute much from a sophisticated understanding of what it means to articulate the entire range of natural and social sciences in a single non reductionistic framework grounded in two thousand years of precedent. One culture's cutting edge is another's periphery or fringe, but in the East Asian context projects such as Kauffman's would be situated as mainline and central.

The seminal work of Gregory Bateson in cybernetics and information theory presents a similar case. In Steps Towards and Ecology of Mind he elucidates an understanding of how systems such as ecosystems or cultures are intelligent processors of problem solving information, a fundamental form of mindedness comparable in function in many respects with conscious mind.  Although he attracted a certain following, his work is obscure and difficult, and his insights have not be picked up and further developed.  Such would not be its fate in an informed East Asian milieu. Scholars familiar with Neo-Confucian thought would recognize his work as a valuable new approach to an old topic, traditionally referred to as "the mind of Heaven and Earth" (i.e. of the universe), a form of systemic mindedness explicitly distinguished from anything like the human conscious mode.

So in the context of a revived East Asian tradition a different range of projects would be appealing as promising leads for further development. But from that context new and seminal questions arise as well. For example, our tradition tends to assume individual units are primary reality, the building blocks of more complex associations. Such assumptions carry over in the way attempts to explain self-organization and design tend to explicate how originally separate elements get organized into higher-level unities. Natural selection, and perhaps even Kauffman's catalytic theory exemplify this. Neo-Confucians, familiar with seeing harmony and relationship as the pluralistic manifestation of an original unity, would probe more deeply the aptness of seemingly separate items for relationship and interdependence. As in quantum entanglement, if unity precedes separateness, separateness is something different than simple otherness. Or again with regard to the Batesonian area of information and systemic mind, a typical Neo-Confucian move would be to look to see how a fundamental pattern of function is manifested in diverse modes on different levels.  Thus in the modern context it would be obvious to essay an evolutionary account of the particular emergence of conscious mindedness within this broader context of systemic mind and in comparison with cognate strategies that emerge within other branches of the evolutionary tree.3

To its credit, scientific investigation on many fronts has led to hypotheses and formulations that deeply challenge the heritage of western assumptions within which the scientific enterprise emerged. And just because they challenge western assumptions does not mean that they therefore must fall in line with one or another Asian tradition. It has been well said that the truth about reality is not only strange, but almost certainly stranger than anything we can possibly imagine.  But it is also true that what rings true to imaginations shaped in our different traditions is not the same, nor does the supposed universality of experiment and verification necessarily make it the same. Different grounding may lead to different lines of understanding, reflection, and question arising from the same data.

In multiple areas contemporary natural science invites a more holistic approach, even though many still acclaim reductionism as the methodological crown jewel of science.4 At this point in history we could hardly be better served than by the reawakening of dormant Asian traditions practiced in thinking in terms of relational wholes rather than units. For a highly skilled and sophisticated reductionism to be complemented with an equally skilled, articulate, and sophisticated holism would contribute a rich and textured interplay that is now an urgent practical need as well as a perennial intellectual desideratum.


Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

McNeill, Daniel and Freiberger,  Fuzzy Logic,  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Russell, Robert John, "Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must be Done," 8/27/01.

Wilson, Edward O., Consilience, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


1 See Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger, Fuzzy Logic, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

2 See, for example, the controversy surrounding Phillip Johnson's  book, Darwin on Trial; Reason in The Balance, in which this is precisely the agenda.

3 I have in fact written such a paper, "An Essay on the Origin of Consciousness," available at

4 See for example E.O. Wilson, Consilience, pp. 54-55.