The I Ching, Supercomputers, and C. G. Jung

The I Ching: Then and Now

The I Ching has survived many interpretations and centuries of scholarly debate. Originally written as a book of “oracles,” there was a kind of magic associated with its use for purposes of divination.

In the introduction to his classic translation from 1924, Richard Wilhelm describes how difficult it was to extricate the text from the realm of the supernatural. He says once the Book of Changes became established as a book of divination and magic in the time of Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the entire school of magicians (fang shih) of the Ch’in and Han dynasties made it their prey. It was not until Wang Pi [A.D. 226-249] wrote about the meaning of the Book of Changes as a book of wisdom, not as a book of divination, that the yin-yang school of magic was displaced.

Writers continue to be intrigued by the I Ching. Damien Walters just wrote an interesting article in The Guardian that makes the case that the I Ching can be tied to the binary code used by supercomputers today. In that piece he explains how Gottfried Wilhem von Liebniz, a philosopher and mathematician from the 1600s, found inspiration for “a new, purer arithmetic than our common decimal system” by reading the I Ching.

Walters claims that Liebniz’s new binary arithmetic was inspired by the binary poles of reality represented as Yin and Yang. He says the ancient text had such an influence on Liebniz, that he wrote an article about the new arithmetic with the title, “Explanation of the binary which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi“.

According to Walters, in the philosophy of the I Ching, reality is not entirely real. It is something more like a dream or an illusion. “This dream of reality arises from the binaries of Yin and Yang, as they play out their infinite combinations. It’s not surprising then, from the I Ching’s perspective, that anything in the dream of reality can be represented as a model of its binary constituents, in a string of 1s and 0s, processed by a computer.”

In closing, Walters asks, “When scientific thinkers ask whether computers can create ‘virtual realities’ or ‘artificial intelligence,’ they are missing the point. Of course we can create ever deeper and more complex layers of the dream of reality to get lost in. The real question is, can we wake up from the dream we’re in already?”

C. G. Jung

I prefer the analysis that C. G. Jung provided in the 1949 forward to the Whilhem/Baynes translation of the I Ching. He explained that the way that the I Ching looks upon reality seems to disfavor our Western “causalistic procedures.” Because when we focus our attention on a moment in time, our observations seem to be more about chance, than about a clearly defined result of concurring causal processes.

Jung said that the while the Western mind carefully sifts, weighs, selects, classifies, and isolates, the Chinese picture of the moment encompasses everything down to the minutest nonsensical detail, because all of the ingredients make up the observed moment.

“So when we throw the three coins, or count the 49 yarrow stalks, these chance details enter into the picture of the moment of observation and form a part of it—a part that is insignificant to us, yet most meaningful to the Chinese mind,” said Jung.

Jung also said that the I Ching is not easy to approach: “Like a part of nature, it waits to be discovered. If offers neither facts nor power, but for lovers of self-knowledge, of wisdom—if there be such—it seems to be the right book. To one person, its spirit appears as clear as the day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.”

Wilhelm’s remarkable life is chronicled in a new documentary film, Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching. Written and directed by Bettina Wilhelm (his granddaughter), it was screened at a March 2014 conference held at the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco.

— DJ

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