The I Ching and Modern Science

Audio Narrated by Peter Fritz Walter

The I Ching may well be the oldest book on the planet. Like the Bible, the Book of Changes was a co-operative effort spanning many centuries.

R. L. Wing, in his I Ching interpretation, makes the assumption that the deepest ideas conveyed in the I Ching were handed down orally from the elders of nomadic Siberian tribes. These early sages were great observers of nature; they looked at the stars and tides, plants and animals, and the cycles of all natural events. They also made out the patterns of social life, government, warfare, and the rules pertaining to the welfare of the family.

Contrary to Western philosophers who thought of the cosmos as a static arrangement of atoms, ancient Chinese scholars put their focus on the organic and systemic nature of the universe; they looked at how things change in nature, and how structures organically emerge.

Their idea of nature was of a fluid, ever-evolving organism in which everything is connected: an interconnected system of relations, which is exactly what cutting-edge systems research now reveals to us, thereby rectifying hundreds of years of speculative, and largely superfluous, philosophy.

—See Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (2014).

They then condensed their insights into the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. It is quite astonishing to see that those sages had an acute awareness of the hidden parallelism between agricultural cycles, social patterns, courtly manners, warfare strategies, cosmic events, and the practice of self-cultivation.

The authorship of the I Ching is attributed to the legendary Fu Hsi, who ruled China during the third millennium B.C. He is said to have created the arrangement of the initial eight trigrams that are at the basis of all the sixty-four hexagrams.

Another influential author and commentator of the I Ching was King Wen, the founder of the Chou Dynasty (1150-249 B.C.). He is said to have written his commentary on the I Ching during the time of his imprisonment under the tyrant Chou Hsin. The legend goes that a dream had revealed to him a hexagram displayed on the wall of his cell, upon which he began to describe his mental images in words.

After he was rescued from prison, King Wen took the throne, and his son, the Duke of Chou, completed his father’s work by writing complete commentaries on all the lines of each hexagram.

At that time, and even later in ancient China, all great scholars were devoting much time and energy to study the I Ching and write their own commentaries for it. Among them are Lao Tzu, Mencius, Mo Tzu, Chu Hsi, and Chuang Tzu. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) made the perhaps most important contribution, known as the Ten Wings, which is a collection of philosophical essays on the I Ching.

Confucius was among the first philosophers who considered the potential of the I Ching for self-development, and especially the development of leadership qualities.

The anecdote goes that he consulted the I Ching so often during his later years that he had worn out three times the leather thongs holding together the parchment upon which it was written.

Another important I Ching scholar was Carl Jung. He came across Richard Wilhelm’s celebrated translation for which he later wrote an important Foreword. Jung saw in the I Ching a brilliant mind map of human nature and cosmic order, and the cosmic memory of archetypal forces which he named as the ‘collective unconscious.’

R.L. Wing writes in The I Ching Workbook (1984) that the search for a solution to the mystery underlying the constant motion and change in the universe has spawned both the science of physics and the earlier science of metaphysics.

There is a line going through all the impending change in the cosmos; it could be called a developmental energy, or creational principle that the old Chinese called the Tao.

Modern science has revealed it through quantum mechanics and calls it the Quantum Field or Quantum Vacuum. While this technical expression suggests that within this field, there is nothingness, the exact contrary is true.

As Ervin Laszlo put it in his book Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything (2004), it’s actually a plenum. What the old Chinese called ch’i and in the West used to be called pneuma or ether, is now considered as obsolete by modern physics in the sense of a secondary mover.

As Einstein put it, the field nature explains sufficiently why electrons are entangled even over huge distances and why there can be ‘spooky motion at a distance,‘ as a result.

But the very core of the I Ching is the principle of polarity which is an underlying reality in all of nature. The old Chinese called it the dualism of ying and yang. 

All the hexagrams in the I Ching are reflections of these polar yet complementary energies. Carl Jung, known to have studied and worked with the I Ching for many years, actually explained its working with synchronicity or meaningful coincidence.

When you throw the coins, the way they fall has meaning; it’s not a random event.

The resulting hexagram reflects the content of your subconscious mind which knows what the outcome of the situation will be, so the I Ching, as any other divination device, actually projects the content of your subconscious mind. As we often today are afraid of change, we can learn to become more change-friendly if we often consult the I Ching and follow its advice. The good news is that the I Ching will always counsel you to change in a non-hurtful, smooth and predictable manner, so that the change is intelligent and harmonious.

Following the I Ching you thereby become more flexible in your overall approach to life and to problem-solving.

In this sense, the I Ching is not just a manual for fortune telling, nor a substitute for your intuition!