"The Tao of Physics" took the world by storm over three decades ago, leading to a mini-industry of East-West mind-melds and tortured theories of grand spiritual unification. Has anything resulted from this, or changed? No, I don't think either physics or mysticism has changed in its wake, though perhaps our cultural recognition of the universality of certain psychological tropes has increased. I happened across this book recently, and thought it might make enjoyable reading.
Fritjof Capra gives very nice introductions to the physics of his day, and also capsule summaries of the major Eastern spiritual traditions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and the somewhat complementary Chinese systems of Confucianism and Taoism. His technique is generally to mash up the most mystical-sounding quotes from leading physicists with the most physics-sounding quotes from various mystics. Naturally, the questions each are grappling with have some resemblence, in that they are highly mystifying. And each are thinking about deep aspects of time, space, matter, and change. So the Buddhist Ashvaghosha is thought to have said:
"Be it clearly understood that space is nothing but a mode of particularization and that it has not real existence of its own ... Space exists only in relation to our particularizing consciousness."What can one make of this? Probably something along the lines of mind-over-matter, perhaps an extreme Platonic sort of conception that "reality" doesn't exist outside our minds, and that with enough mind-power, we can fundamentally alter our relation to reality, even reality itself.
When placed within a discussion of Einstein's relativity, (as it is), this doesn't really make a great deal of sense. Einstein didn't dispute the existence of space, indeed he created a mathematical system of unprecedented accuracy to describe it and its relations to time, light, and gravity. The nature of space in modern physics is certainly odd, since it serves as the matrix for gravitation's effects, and generates virtual particles all the time, especially in the vicinity of condensed forms of energy that are regular particles. There is far more to the nature of space than we currently appreciate.
So there is no denying that space is a strange beast, (among much else in the phantasmagoria of fundamental physics), but whether the mystics understand anything about it, rather than offering empty riddles, and perhaps taking some ultimately subjective view of all forms of reality in relation to their personal voyages of meditation ... is, frankly, doubtful. And so it goes through the book.
A typical problem is the enormously different standards of evidence demanded of the two fields. The mystics have only to make bald and piquant assertions (hopefully also agreeing with each other on some vague metaphorical plane) to be taken seriously. In contrast, physics hews to an empirical standard where theories can actually fail. For example, in the epilog, Capra bemoans that lack of unified theory of relativity and quantum phenomena, which continues to this day:
"At present there are two different kinds of 'quantum-relativistic' theories in particle physics that have been successful in different areas. ... A major problem that is still unsolved is the unification of quantum theory and general relativity ino a quantum theory of gravity. Although the recent development of 'supergravity' theories may represent a step towards solving this problem, no satisfactory theory has been found so far."
That is a remarkable statement that no mystic would ever make. Do we have a thorough understanding of reincarnation? Has it been "solved"? How could we ever tell? With such imaginary, ethereal ideas, it would be simply impolite to press for details or evidence.
Yet Capra has previously in the book pushed the analogy far, far beyond the breaking point:
"Anybody who wants to repeat an experiment in modern subatomic physics has to undergo many years of training. Only then will he or she be able to ask nature a specific question through the experiment and to understand the answer. Similarly, a deep mystical experience requires, generally, many years of training under an experienced master and, as in the scientific training, the dedicated time does not alone guarantee success. If the student is successful, however, he or she will be able to 'repeat the experiment'. The repeatability of the experience is, in fact, essential to every mystical training and is the very aim of the mystic's spiritual instruction."
But just what is being experienced here, what experimented with, and what found? These journeys are introspective, finding things that are already there, indeed finding mental contents and instructions in large part put there by the culture and the teachers. While the traditions may generate and carry great social and psychological wisdom from this focus on the mind, they are on a great navel-gazing merry-go-round that could not possibly develop insights into physics and cosmology. They are humanistic disciplines all the way down.
Most unfortunately, Capra spends the climactic chapters on a theory of the constituents of protons/neutrons, called S-matrix theory, which has since been carted off to the scap heap of failed science. It has been replaced by the quark theory, with its gluons and very well-worked out chromodynamics. This wasn't just a scientific blind alley, but also a mystical one, since S-matrix theory denied the very existence of particles like quarks, and led to inflated claims of consciousness being the royal road to conjuring the particles themselves:
"Such a theory of subatomic particles reflects the impossibility of separating the scientific observer from the observed phenomena, which has already been discussed in connection with quantum theory, in its most extreme form. It implies, ultimately, that the structures and phenomena we observe in nature are nothing but creations of our measuring and categorizing mind."
Note the subtle switch from the structures of phenomena, which may very well be functions of how we look at them, to the phenomena themselves. He goes on.. "The Eastern mystics tell us again and again that all things and events we perceive are creations of the mind, arising from a particular state of consciousness and dissolving again if this state is transcended."
And there is the basic problem, since if we know anything, (which itself is not a certainty, indeed, but what else do we have?), it is that we are not a dream and the world is real, both in its capacity to afflict us and in its vast beauty. Transcending it is a pipe dream, while escaping it is all too easy, through such means as drugs, meditation, philosophical day-dreaming, or death. Intellectual adventures are laudible, but only give us the reward of truth if they are disciplined by the usual mundane attention to logic and evidence.
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