The Tao of Physics


The Tao of PhysicsAn Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, New York: Bantam Books, 1984 (Quoted Edition), New York Shambhala, 2000, Originally published in 1975.

Much was written about The Tao, and it is almost always considered as a synthetic and holistic vision of modern physics seen through the glasses of ancient mysticism! But more importantly, let us ask how the author made his point?

Fritjof Capra made his point by assembling a number of small points, one after the other, for finally proving the whole of his thesis or theory. To begin with, Capra writes:

If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2500 years ago. It is interesting to follow the evolution of Western science along its spiral path, starting from the mystical philosophies of the early Greeks, rising and / unfolding in an impressive development of intellectual thought that increasingly turned away from its mystical origins to develop a world view which is in sharp contrast to that of the Far East. In its most recent stages, Western science is finally overcoming this view and coming back to those of the early Greek and the Eastern philosophies. This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism./5-6

An important discourse in The Tao of Physics is Capra’s report about the Eleatic school because it gives us an important clue for the origins of our intellectual dualism:

The split of this unity began with the Eleatic school, which assumed a Divine Principle standing above all gods and men. This principle was first identified with the unity of the universe, but was later seen as an intelligent and personal God who stands above the world and directs it. Thus began a trend of thought which led, ultimately, to the separation of spirit and matter and to a dualism which became characteristic of Western philosophy./7

Capra’s book is of course attempting to overcome that very dualism by showing that upon a deeper look a synthesis between Western scientific thought and Eastern philosophy is the only intelligent way out of the dilemma. What I call in my writings the schizoid split in the internal setup of our culture, Capra called it the division between spirit and matter.

As the idea of a division between spirit and matter took hold, the philosophers turned their attention to the spiritual world, rather than the material, to the human / soul and the problems of ethics. These questions were to occupy Western thought for more than two thousand years after the culmination of Greek science and culture in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C./6-7

And the next step, then, in the building of that cultural paranoia was the turn of events starting with the reductionist science philosophy of French philosophers La Mettrie and René Descartes. Capra explains:

The birth of modern science was preceded and accompanied by a development of philosophical thought which led to an extreme formulation of the spirit/matter dualism. This formulation appeared in the seventeenth century in the philosophy of René Descartes who based his view of nature on a fundamental division into two separate and independent realms: that of mind (res cogitans), and that of matter (res extensa). The Cartesian division allowed scientists to treat matter as dead and completely separate from themselves, and to see the material world as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine./8

What Capra was showing here is the missing link between our modern-day separative and highly individualistic worldview, and its historical origins. And it explains conclusively why we are torn up, fragmented and unwhole (unholy):

This inner fragmentation mirrors our view of the world outside, which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events. The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society, which is split into different nations, races, religions and political groups./8

After having shown how a fragmented worldview came about historically, Capra presents the Eastern worldview:

In contrast to the mechanistic Western view, the Eastern view of the world is organic. For the Eastern mystic, all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected, and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality. (…) In the Eastern view, then, the division of nature into separate objects is not fundamental and any such objects have a fluid and ever-changing character. The Eastern / world view is therefore intrinsically dynamic and contains time and change as essential features. The cosmos is seen as one inseparable reality—forever in motion, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time./10-11

The danger of fragmentation, Capra explains conclusively, is that we try to find absolute points of reference behind each of our fragmented concepts, and we do this probably unconsciously in an attempt to heal our inner split. Yet ultimately by doing so we bring about a distorted perception of reality, by taking the map for the landscape.

Looking at the paradoxical behavior of electrons in the quantum world, Capra asked the question why Westerners are so terribly confused, and even shocked, when encountering a paradox, or simply an illogical behavior? He found the answer in comparing Western thought with Eastern philosophy.

Eastern mysticism has developed several different ways of dealing with the paradoxical aspects of reality. Whereas they are bypassed in Hinduism through the use of mythical language, Buddhism and Taoism tend to emphasize the paradoxes rather than conceal them./35

I think this difference between Indian thinking and Chinese and Japanese philosophical traditions is important, as Joseph Campbell has emphasized it as well in his book Oriental Mythology. The Zen tradition, derived from its original Chinese root philosophy (where it was called Chan Buddhism), is very fond of putting the stress on the paradox for a simple reason: the paradox teaches us the limitations of rational thinking and thereby shows us the relativity of a merely rational worldview.

The Dance of Shiva
The Dance of Shiva

By seeing our obvious limitation, we can go beyond the hyper-rationalistic worldview and develop a holistic, integrative, worldview that gives the necessary space for the irrational, for the fantastic, the imaginal and scurrilous in nature, and also in our human nature. Without the latter, humor, for example, as an expression of humanity, is not possible.

This fundamental change in how we perceive reality as modern scientists is important primarily because our whole science is going to shift, and must shift, according to this reorientation of the observer. Capra makes it clear that we cannot remain with the old demons:

The mechanistic view of nature … is closely related to a rigorous determinism. The giant cosmic machine was seen as being completely causal and determinate. All that happened had a definite cause and gave rise to a definite effect, and the future of any part of the system could—in principle—be predicted with absolute certainty if its state at any time was known in all details. (…) The philosophical basis of this rigorous determinism was the fundamental division between the I and the world introduced by Descartes. As a consequence of this division, it was believed that the world could be described objectively, i.e., without ever mentioning the human observer, and such an objective description of nature became the ideal of all science./45

The result was that we discarded nature out of science and by doing so, we created a fundamentally nature-hostile science, a science that destroys us by destroying our planet. This science, then, reflected exactly the distorted view prevalent since patriarchal times in our culture that says the male is superior to the female. This cult of male supremacy led straight to a never-ending course of violence that slowly but definitely suffocates us today.

Western society has traditionally favored the male side rather than the female. Instead of recognizing that the personality of each man and of each woman is the result of an interplay between male and female elements, it has established a static order where all men are supposed to be masculine and all women feminine, and it has given men the leading roles and most of society’s privileges. This attitude has resulted in an over-emphasis of all the yang—or male—aspects of human nature: activity, rational thinking, competition, aggressiveness, and so on. The yin—or female—modes of consciousness, which can be described by words like intuitive, religious, mystical, occult, or psychic, have constantly been suppressed in our male-oriented society./133

And the same biased perception of reality, distorting the harmony between the male and the female principle, is to be seen throughout Western philosophy, in its abysmal dualism, which lacks the fundamental ability to find the synthesis that Oriental thought is so apt to establish. Capra conforms with the Eastern worldview that says all opposites are complementary and ‘merely different aspects of the same phenomenon.’

Capra wistfully remarks that in the East, ‘a virtuous person is therefore not one who undertakes the impossible task of striving for the good and eliminating the bad, but rather one who is able to maintain a dynamic balance between good and bad.’

When you look at the Tao of Physics from this perspective, from the big picture behind the details of quantum physics, you will see that Capra’s deeper message in this revolutionary book goes way beyond a redefinition of modern physics. Capra has prepared the ground in this earliest of his books for the giants to come. While The Tao remains Capra’s most popular book it is perhaps not his best book. The genius trick was that he developed the original idea further and found something like a new holistic concept for all sciences, but did not label it fashionably as ‘A Theory of Everything’. He termed his new concept ecoliteracy.

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