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Spontaneous Self-organization

July 8, 2015

Spontaneous Self-organization: A Preface on Qi and Physiology in Chinese Medicine

In a conversation with a mentor, I was struck by a thought as he spoke. I jotted it down quickly, but did not know where to go with it, and so left it:

“The spirit of the medicine …what are we really treating?”

This essay is a preface only, with all of the real work to be done later, here only to map out a way in which I want to begin to engage with that answer.[1]

We commonly state of Chinese medicine that, fundamentally, we are treating disharmony by manipulating “Qi”, in many ways “sending messages” to the body, to physiology, to psycho-emotional and psycho-spiritual processes, based on thousands of years of empirical data. But our needles do not directly impact physiological, or these other, systems – there is no reason to suggest that by putting a needle in just a few inches below the knee, or down near the metatarsophalangeal joint of the big toe, we will impact, say, digestion directly. It is, on its face, a somewhat absurd notion. And so Chinese medicine has established a set of theories to attempt to map out just why it is that, empirically speaking, particular places on the body do, time and again, seem to have remarkable effects on psychology and physiology.[2] But the answer that there is something called “Qi” and that it moves in “channels” along the body doesn’t really answer the question, it simply pushes it back. The obvious question then is “what is Qi?” We are taught, repeatedly, that Qi isn’t measurable, isn’t quantifiable, doesn’t lend itself to metrics. And so of course I want to know: what is Qi? But here I think it will prove to be a trap, if we let ourselves get lost in definitions. The questions expand themselves too far and become unmanageable based if nothing else on the scope to which they attempt to extend, and the lack of clarity about what is even being asked, what phenomenon is even attempting to be isolated for definition or study.

So here is a different idea.

Matter, or its other face as energy, is self-organizing. We see this at all scales, it is consistent from the subatomic to the galactic and transgalactic. There is something remarkable about the way in which things operate such that they produce new orders of complexity. Entropy notwithstanding, it is possible to see clearly that the formation of crystals and the heat-signatures of galaxies as they are traced back through eons show similar patterns of fractal organization. Energy oscillates in harmonics. Patterns of movement find resonance with one another and synchronize. Matter becomes spontaneously self-organizing.

Life emerges from highly complex systems, and is itself a highly complex system. Life evolves. It adapts, it changes in time with both short and long-term processes.

These are the same principles. It is not uncommon for many of us, especially those raised around or trained in “modernist”[3] science and philosophy, to tend to think of life as something distinct from matter, life as something that can be studied in isolation from the self-organizational principles of matter, the harmonic wave-forms of energy. We think of life in terms of biochemistry, a happy accident of the permutations and arrangements afforded by the self-bonding of carbon atoms, the remarkable chains of peptides, the distinctness of hydrogen bonds that water makes possible.

Biochemistry and physics, of course, stop short of answering “why” life. Why do living things behave as they do? How is it that strands of amino acids can generate complex strings of proteins that function within and without cellular structures, shaping our whole beings? What causes a stem cell to go one direction or another? Why do molecules come together in a way that produces such an extraordinary thing as a cell, and how is it then that cells come together to produce something that is so much greater than any one of them in isolation, from fish to birds to reptiles to mammals? Answers of genetics provide the functional understandings for how, but not why it should be so in the first place. And the flippant answer of “it simply does, and there is not more to it” becomes an unworthy retreat.

Reductionist-inspired science (though note, not all science) has a tendency to consider the observed self-organization of matter to be something distinct from biological life, or at least this attitude has long held sway. This belief is, I would suggest, a cornerstone of an unacknowledged need on our, very human behalf, for uniqueness, to assert that living things are different from inert matter, and minded things that much greater than single-celled organisms with no demonstrable nervous system.

But that’s not borne out by simple observation. We are matter and energy. To say “I am alive” is meaningless outside of the context of the matter and energy of which we are made. The cells are alive. The minerals are alive, the molecules are alive, the atoms are alive, the rippling electric currents of K-Na pumps in cell walls are alive. What would we mean by “alive” if not these things? But what does it mean to say that an O2 molecule is alive? Does it help us to consider the air part of a living organism – and hence, alive – when it can be measured in blood arterial gases, but not when we exhale and it is simply part of the atmosphere again? Are things alive only so long as they participate in a finite system that we can designate as, in aggregate, alive? Does oxygen become alive in my blood, and cease to be alive when I breathe out? And if it is never alive in either case, then which of my molecules are, in fact, alive? Where is the line drawn? Any line will be, of course, impossibly arbitrary.

We are just this “inert” matter, this dust of the cosmos. The Judeo-Christian metaphor is that the Divine breathed life into the silent husk of Adam, the first man. As pleasant a metaphor as this may be in terms of its ability to remind us that we breathe the breath of the Divine, it has a potential, if taken naively, to separate us from the fact that we are literally – not figuratively, not metaphorically, but in actual fact – cosmic dust that takes in other cosmic dust, and carries on elaborate biochemical processes with it, in order to provide itself with the other dust-blocks needed to continue to move and think and work and play and fight and sing and love and create art and all of the other remarkable things that human-shaped-cosmic-dust does.

The dust itself is alive. Or, if you prefer, living things are themselves not other than a particular case of a more general principle of spontaneous self-organization of matter and energy in the whole of the universe. This principle is always acting on all scales. Basins of attraction, which I admit I do not really understand, describe a mathematical principle in which elements of complex systems move spontaneously toward other elements called attractors. Studies of complex and distributed agency in terms of dynamic systems have heralded a new era in the understanding the ontologies of materiality itself.[4] New fields in phenomenology and biology begin to express the clear sense that there is something else happening with biological life, something that requires a sense of “mindedness”, which I would call a movement toward self-organization.[5]

Because why should we consider mind to be other than simply another expression of this same principle of self-organization at work in the universe (or multiverse, or what-have-you)? Mind is not other than life. Life is not other than the principle at work that we can observe, in at least one clear facet, as self-organization. There is no clear reason that after the initial universe-spawning event (whether it was a classic Big Bang or whether it was our universe rolling over and out into existence into these four dimensions based on the supernova of a fifth-dimensional star, or whatever other weirder thing it may have been) that there should not have been simply chaos, an empty entropy forever. We can describe the forces (weak and strong electromagnetic, gravity, etc) that have shaped the physics of the universe, we can describe quantum theory and its surrealist friend string theory, and general and special relativities that seem to be the way the universe operates at certain scales, but “why not entropy?” or “why is there anything at all?” is not a question that can be answered within the scope of these particular theoretical models, however beautifully constructed. They are forces at work that can be measured, but they are not the organizing principle.

It is commonplace in spiritual circles to hear something akin to the idea that “we are the beating heart of the universe.” But it is quite literally true. My heartbeat in my chest is literally the whole universe beating – the whole universe converges in just this way to put cardiac muscle with its atria and ventricles and electrical system of sinoatrial nodes and atrioventricular nodes in what I call “my” chest, to drive the electrical and biochemical forces that cause muscle to contract and the pumping action to take place, to perfuse my tissues with oxygen and nutrients and all the rest that blood makes possible. The principle that drives the organization of matter, the principle that makes possible systems of complexity profound enough to give rise to something that – from a particular vantage point of limited years and limited senses and an unfortunate if sometimes useful inclination to value only what we recognize as similar to ourselves in some way – we draw a box around and call “life”. But life was never limited to where our perceptions could recognize its start and end. Whatever is at work is smaller and larger by such scales of imagination and time and space that we cannot know it, we can only bear witness to those movements that we can, in our brief time and gaspingly small perceptual domain, discern. Life should perhaps not even be called “life”, given the highly situated context from which we derive the word, situating as it often does matter below and mind above, as a largely worthless set of value statements.

It is facile and unnecessary to return this investigation to the initial question in a way that simply says “this mystery that we have pointed to – that is Qi”. That is a nonsense statement, and is naively triumphantalist in its aims, to neatly point to the extraordinary mystery of matter-life-mind and any experience, phenomena, or expression that may arise with or without name from that same field, and say “this other mystery which I would solve, let us conflate them”. That is not my intention.

Instead, I would like to suggest that Qi, as it could be understood from the perspective of Chinese medicine and acupuncture channel theory, is a way of describing the unfolding of that principle – spontaneous self-organization of matter and energy, the evolution and adaptable dynamism of life, the impulse of the mind toward becoming more than the collection of needs and impulses upon which it is built, and so on. Qi is not simplistically to be made identical with that mystery, but rather, within Chinese medicine, to be recognized as a descriptive term of that phenomena within which we can see that mystery at work, where we can interact with it, as matter to matter and life to life and mind to mind, since it is not other than these things – since these things were never distinct one from the other – at whatever scale or velocity that might situate our perception of it and of ourselves.

Matter is mind, mind is life, life is matter, and on and around in every combination and well beyond these. Spontaneous organization at every scale, and to many extents that I frankly admit I cannot imagine, beyond matter or life or mind or energy or spirit. And when we speak of spirits, is it not absolutely possible and even quite plausible that these are other forms of organization? When we cease to see “matter” as something more “base”, something that must be stirred by that which is ontologically greater than itself (i.e. life or mind), but instead recognize it as itself dynamic, active, full of agency and spontaneity, then we are no longer limited to the hope of finding all forms of experience and phenomena as generated from it, but can open up ourselves to a more anti-hierarchical and lateral model of interaction and intersection, where the non-material may at times intersect with the material, because they were never of different “stuff”, they are of the same mystery, the same profound spontaneous organization, evolution, dynamic adaptation, the unfolding and enlightening that is the whole movement of the world.

The manipulation of “Qi” in Chinese medicine then is important because it is a way of communicating, of interacting, with physiological and psychological processes that are themselves the unfoldings of the spontaneous organization of the whole world, universe and universes, in the tiny space that is the body of an individual person. Healing is fundamentally a dialogic space.[6] We are that mystery, that unfolding. There are many ways in which we can communicate, can touch and shape and interact with this mystery, because we were never apart from it. The Chinese medicine concept of “Qi” is a worthy way of contemplating – and empirically mapping out the effects of that unfolding over the dynamic matter of the human body – when we attempt to move our thinking into a world wholly composed of spontaneously organizing, living, minded (and on) beings or processes or currents, with whom we will find much greater commonality by communication and interaction than by blunt chemical demand.


[1] Though this essay was written before I came across the source, Paul Unschuld in his book Medicine in China suggests that Qi should be translated, most literally, as something akin to ‘subtle matter influences’. This idea resonates with the one outlined in this essay, and has given me the impetus to put this article up for comment.

[2] These places/spaces/points deserve a much more robust treatment. I am currently very excited by Wang Ju-Yi’s work (see Applied Channel Theory) on channel dynamics and acupuncture points, but that discussion will have to wait until another article.

[3] Here I am referring specifically to a definition of “modernist” projects given to me by a past mentor, suggesting that modernist projects have a tendency to paint the world with totalizing metaphors, believing that the world can be objectively known, and that what is known can then be made use of to ultimately solve, permanently, conflicts, points of contention, and the rest. There is, I admit, in my understanding of modernist projects, an overlap between modernism and positivism, but I am comfortable with that overlap, while remaining open to critique of it.

[4] See Jane Bennett’s work, especially Vibrant Matter.

[5] See Thompson’s work on Mind in Life, and Narby’s Intelligence in Nature.

[6] Though it is beyond the scope of this brief essay, it is worth considering for future contemplation that sociality is another form of this same spontaneous self-organization. See Latour, especially in Reassembling the Social and Politics of Nature. This is in many ways what shamanic healing in traditional cultures is about – working on a social re-integration that has a harmonic resonance with the mind-life-matter of the individual, inasmuch as the social is simply another manifestation – and hence inextricably bound up with the rest – of the same principle.

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