Date:May 1, 1992
Class:Moral Reasoning 40, Harvard University
Comments: I wrote two papers about Confusianism and quantum physics while at Harvard. Neither were very good, but this one sucked less than the other. Like about half of my papers, this one was written because I disagreed with the professor (though I really liked and amired him, unlike some others). Basically, he claimed that Confusionism and Western scientific thought were incompatible, because observation in science is detached while observation in Confusianism is not. This paper argues that this is not true, because observation in science (quantum physics in particular) is no longer detached.
  In any case, this paper didn't really dive deeply enough into the ideas, and presented a lot of things in a sort of flimsy way. The reading was fun, though.
  One thing you can really see reading it now is the misplaced fascination with Japan's economic success at unversities of the time (particularly at Harvard). Classes on Japan were everywhere in the early 1990's.
Hook: I'd been working with single word titles for some time, but I tried for single work section headings in this one. It helped, but was harder to do than I expected.

“It’s so hard to believe in anything anymore, y’know? Like religion, you can’t really take it seriously because it seems so mythological and seems so arbitrary. On the other hand science is just pure impericism and by virtue of its method, it excludes metaphysics. And I guess I wouldn’t believe in anything if it weren’t for my Lucky Astrology Mood Watch.”
   — Steve Martin


“I do not know what science is, but science is very beautiful”
   — Albert Einstein

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
   — Keats

“A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth.”
   — Niels Bohr

Δx Δp ≥ h
   — Werner Heisenberg

“The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea.”
   — Vladimir Nabokov

‘Confucian scientist’ is a obtensibly self-contradictory label. Confucianism, with its unity of knowing and acting, is diametrically opposed to the examining without altering aspects of science. Confucian emphasis on the group over the individual also stifles the individualism of the scientist. Perhaps most importantly, science deals with questions that Confucianism isn’t interested in.

Few could argue with the fact that in the last few decades and even centuries, scientific advances have altered the world, and show no signs of not continuing to do so. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that nations which wish to prosper in the future must embrace science to some extent. That modern Confucianism is oriented against Western scientific modes of thinking is a problem which must be overcome if Confucianism is to remain in widespread practice.

Confucianism works from what Tu Wei-Ming calls an “emic perspective,” meaning that Confucians are actively involved with systems they observe. (Tu, lecture, April 27, 1992) This is different from the more Western etic perspective, where the observer is completely disconnected from what is being observed. Confucians feel that it is not enough just to know something; it must be experienced: “When you know something, but don’t act on it, your knowledge is superficial.” (Chu Hsi, 3.2)

No Confucian ever bluntly says “observers interact with the observed,” which is what emic perspective is all about; it is assumed and taken for granted. Chu Hsi, when discussing the unity of action and knowledge, comes closest:

Knowledge and action are normally mutually dependent. It’s like this: if a person has eyes but no legs, he cannot walk; if he has legs but no eyes, he cannot see. As for their order, knowledge come first. As for their importance, action is more significant. (Chu Hsi, 3.1)

It is this unity between action and knowledge which typifies the emic perspective of Confucianism. Confucianism is solidly based in “a direct non-intellectual experience of reality.” (Capra 130)

Science, on the other hand, takes great pains to separate the observer from the observed. Scientists want 20 centimeters of glass between them and the experiment, and this is anathema to the Confucian project.

Since its beginnings, Western science has been an enterprise undertaken by individuals who were, as Tu Wei-Ming put it, “willing to destroy convention.” (lecture, April 27, 1992) The Western scientific method for the past mellenia has been that of a lone scientist experimenting with his or her own personal theories in his or her own personal laboratory.

This is generally unthinkable to Confucian methodology. Confucians argue that “it is more difficult to imagine ourselves as isolable individuals than as centers of relationships constantly interacting with one another in a dynamic network of human-relatedness.” (Tu 95) With a strong group oriented outlook, Confucianism does not encourage the Western scientific method. The individual freedom to experiment with theories against social norms is unheard of in Confucian society.

In addition, Confucian thought doesn’t generally dwell on the issues investigated by modern science. Science seeks to find the true nature of the universe; as Tu Wei-Ming put it, “What is the ultimate nature? Fire? Water? Number? Or process itself?” (lecture, April 27, 1992) But just seeking the answer is not sufficient; it is “crucial to have the mind unconstrained by any single mode of thinking” when doing so. (Tu lecture, April 27, 1992) In contrast, Confucians hold an interest in nature, but only insofar as it affects humans. Confucianism is not so concerned with origins as the West is. (Tu lecture, February 4, 1992)

Given these factors, uniting science with Confucianism seems unlikely without completely restructuring major portions of the Confucian project. And could what was left after such rewriting even be considered Confucianism? Fortunately, such a reconstruction is unnecessary; the solution lies in taking a different, deeper look at science itself.


The problem of Confucianism's emic perspective is diametrically opposed to the etic way Western science has been conceived and practiced in the past; however, science is moving rapidly away from this perspective, not because it ‘wants’ to, but because it has to.

For hundreds of years, science dealt with objects of a relatively modest scale: from molecule-sized objects (the realm of chemistry) to whale sized objects (the realm of biology and mechanical physics) to planet and star sized objects (the realm of celestial physics and astronomy). As time progressed, the focus of science moved towards the end of this scale and beyond. Astronomy gave way to astrophysics as the focus in that field turned from the workings of the solar system to the workings of whole galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and even clusters of clusters of galaxies. On the smaller end, scientists became interested in the nature of matter and began to delve into the smaller and smaller world of particle-physics. It is here that the scientific methods practiced for hundreds of years began to fail.

To illustrate by example, think about an electron. An electron is a very small particle with an electric charge, that orbits very quickly around the central nucleus of an atom. Scientists were interested in electrons because their behavior and interaction with electrons of other atoms dictate how atoms link together into the molecules that form everything from the air we breath to this paper and the ink on it. As with any unknown in science, to learn about the electron required measuring it and identifying its properties. Electrons have many properties, like charge, mass, and velocity, but we will deal with only two: the position of the electron in orbit, and it’s momentum. (Momentum is defined to be the electrons mass times its velocity. Scientifically, velocity indicates direction, so while position answers ‘where is the electron?’, in a very simplistic, bastardized sense, momentum answers ‘where is it going?’

Both the position and the momentum of an electron are, individually, perfectly measurable to as much accuracy as your equipment will allow; however, something rather odd happens if you try to measure both at the same time.

You can’t.

Measuring the position of the electron at any given moment is done by basically taking a flash photograph of it. Normally, we think of light as having no real form, but the electron is so small that light effects it dramatically. It is possible (and very easy) to use light to knock the electron completely out of orbit. The point here is the the act of taking the flash-photo of the electron alters the path of the electron. The act of observing the particle changes the nature of the particle. The etic scientist was changing the nature of her experiments just by looking at them.

Science could not find the answer to both ‘where is it?’ and ‘where is it going?’ at once, because finding the answer to the first question changes the answer to the second (and vice versa). It is important to note that this is independent of the equipment used; even the best measuring devices in the world would still suffer from this problem. This difficulty has come to be known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, after Werner Heisenberg, who formulated it mathematically. Since its introduction to scientific thought, it has shown up everywhere. In quantum physics, at any scale smaller than the atomic—which is where most of the research in physics has been for the last fifty years—you must deal with Uncertainty. John Wheeler writes:

Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there’, with the observer separated from it by a 20 centimeter slab of plate glass. Even to observe so miniscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. (Capra 141)

In this sense, science has adapted to the Confucian emic perspective, although perhaps not willingly. This last point may actually prove most beneficial to Confucians who are familiar with dealing with the world in these terms. It is quite possible that a scientist trained from day one in Confucian thinking would view this interaction with the experiment not as a difficulty, but as a boon.


The days of the lone scientist in a dark lab working long hours amid beakers and bunsen burners are also over, at least for the research scientist. Exploring the frontiers of science now requires huge amounts of labor, computers, money, and brain power. In addition, scientific theories that deal with individual occurrences, isolated from other events, are becoming less and less satisfactory.

Current experiments in particle physics require accelerators, huge, complex machines, and a single experiment can take months and require hundreds of scientists and technicians. Astrophysics likewise requires an enormous investment in telescopes and projects—the Voyager spacecraft, for example—involve scores of researchers and designers. Even biologists work in groups of around 20 or so.

Veteran of multiple research projects, biochemistry concentrator Kate Tulenko feels that the transition to group-based science is because “all the easy problems have been solved.” (personal interview) But whatever the cause, group science provides another ‘in’ for Confucian thought. Science could certainly do worse than to adopt Confucian group morality into group sciences. For example, the problems with the Hubble telescope could have been likely avoided had there existed greater reciprocity and communication between the designers and the engineers.

(There is a temptation to apply the idea of the sage king to the leader of a research team, but such an idea, valid or not, is best left for another time and another writer.)

Modern science (again, especially particle physics), no longer deals with individual units. In the kinds of problems most science currently investigates, an answer indicating that the point of study behaves separately from the rest of the universe is tidy, but usually wrong.

In behavioral biology, an organism's activity depends on innumerable outside factors. In molecular biology, the effectiveness of many metabolic processes is altered by the presence of chemicals from other metabolic processes. Similarly, in quantum physics, no system, or even particle, can be considered as a single unit. “Quantum theory forces use to see the universe not as a collection of physical objects, but rather as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole.” (Capra 138)

This is identical in nature to the Confucian idea of the self as the center an interconnected web of relationships. In this sense, Confucian philosophy would be extremely beneficial in relating to the kind of questions currently explored by science, if Confucians would care to examine them.


This is the main obstacle for Confucian science: altering outlook to accept scientific inquiry. Is there a way to successfully bring about a change of this type in Confucianism? If so what is it?

Given the nature of the adjustment and adaptation of Confucianism to the industrialization of Japan and the four little dragons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), it seems likely that a change towards science is likely, or perhaps even underway. In these countries, industrial capacity and trade became of upmost societal import and many institutions created to encourage these ideas were Confucian in philosophy. A meritocratic bureaucratic system was founded on pure Confucian guidelines for proper actions, or li. Attitudes toward group orientation still flourish, but the groups are decidedly different: the family is no longer as important as the place of employment or occupational specialty. The idea of the self as the center, and group-improvement through self-improvement remain intact, but with a focus on work-related skills like learning foreign languages, computer skills and so on. (Vogel 92-101) The society in Japan today is much different than that of 400 B.C. China, but Confucian values can still be seen. Thus, such alteration of Confucian tradition is, at least, conceivable. The basic change in the Japanese Industrial Neoconfucianism is one of goal or outlook, a change in what is important in running a society from an agrarian base to an industrial one.

Perhaps the answer to fitting scientific inquiry into Confucianism lies in examining which portions of Confucianism are not effected by such an idea. Group dynamics, the unity of action and knowledge and the self as the center have already been mentioned.

Certainly, science would not argue with the Confucian notion of faith in the improvability of the human condition. Likewise, emphasis on education is easily adapted to a scientific world. Science places a large importance on education of all types and even learning based on reading the ancient classics of Confucianism could have, as mentioned earlier, beneficial effects on the practice of science.

The five basic relationships (parent-child, ruler-minister, sibling, husband-wife, friendship) are unchanged in a scientific society. These basic human interactions are present in most of the societies on earth, which is perhaps part of their intellectual power. Science does not necessarily change the reciprocal nature and dynamics of these relationships (filial piety, for example), in fact the idea of the ruler as the boat and the common people as the water extends well into scientific investigation. (Hsün Tzu 37)

The sympathetic nature of humanity and the five cardinal virtues are also unaffected by embracing scientific inquiry. To possess humanity, ren, you must practice five things: “respectfulness, magnanimity, truthfulness, acuity and generosity.” (Confucius XVII.6) Scientific inquiry does not interfere with this. “To cling to profit and cast aside righteousness [yi] is called the height of depravity.” (Hsün Tsu 26) Scientific inquiry does not necessarily make material profit a priority. “Li, for Confucius, is the explicit and detailed pattern of that great ceremony which is social intercourse, the human life.” (Fingarette 20) Scientific inquiry, if anything, augments this pattern. “Bring the ancient wisdom (zhi) to life and be also knowledgeable about new developments.” (Confucius II.11) Scientific inquiry is based on this very thing. In the same way, truthfulness (xin) is the cornerstone of scientific inquiry.

Science either lends itself to or, at least, does not contradict Confucian ideas in many ways. All that is really necessary is a change in goal or emphasis on what is important. Enough of the basic premises of Confucianism could conceivably be present in a ‘scientific neo-Confucianist’ system, that the system would recognizably Confucian, at least as much as Japan’s Industrial Neo-Confucianism. In fact, with Japan’s growth rate slowing as they become a leading economic power, do not be too surprised in Japan develops a version of scientific neo-Confucianism in the near future.


For the most part, reconciling Confucianism with science relies not in changing Confucianism, but in the changing nature of science. The outlook of today’s Confucianism is almost perfectly suited for the scientific methods that have emerged in recent years.

The one change in Confucian thought necessary for Confucian science is an adaptation to the modern scientific world, a shift in attitude toward scientific inquiry. If this can be accomplished—together with the changes in science—Confucianism and science will unite to the benefit of both.


Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Third Edition. Shambhala Press. Boston, 1991.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Harper Torchbooks. 1972.

Lau, D. C. Confucius: The Analects. Penguin Books. 1979.

Nelson, Benjamin. On the Roads to Modernity: Conscience, Science, and Civilizations. Bowman and Littlefield. Totowa, New Jersey: 1981.

Tu Wei-Ming. Centrality and Commonality. State University of New York Press. Albany, New York: 1989.

Vogel, Ezra. The Four Little Dragons. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1991.

Watson, Burton. Hsün Tzu. Columbia University Press. 1964.

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