Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mystics envy

Why do physicists keep getting mystical on us? A review of "The Tao of physics".

"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.

  • Roubini lays down the law on what must be done.
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  • Granholm on our public policy decline.
  • Cartoons become reality: "... detonating an explosive device that was hidden in his turban."
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  • Economics quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell:
"... why the hell is the ECB prepared to bail out banks but not countries – with what are effectively unlimited low-cost loans? Similarly, why is the US Federal Reserve prepared to proved unlimited US dollar credit lines to Europe with no firm collateral? The words 'appease elites' creep in when I wonder about those questions and 'damn the unemployed'."
"Who is benefiting? In each of the nations which have engineered a major redistribution of national income away from wages towards profits, it is the elites who have usurped what growth has been achieved."
  • Economics graph of the week, from Fed data:
Morning in America- consumer debt started to rise (light line),
and assets fall (dark line), in the early 1980s.


  1. Burk, as always, a pleasure - and challenge - to hear from you. I wanted to make a general point, related to when you quote Capra: "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."
    I think that you're right in asserting that space and matter is not flat-out generated by the mind, but I don't feel like that's the aim of messages like these (that they're really not so "physical" in nature). As Bohm said, and as we know experientially, we are in a way "creating" the universe we perceive, because our perception of fundamental reality is not the same as fundamental reality. The universe as it appears inside our heads is not the same as the universe in reality; and that is, I think, the point of emphasizing that observed and observer are intimately connected. We see what we want to see, even in science. As perceptive beings, we can never be truly objective. The scientific method gives us perhaps the strictest way to approximate objectivity, but it still relies upon us, the observers, to observe (and observation is not objective). This is actually one reason to like the idea of God - it asserts that there does exist a "perfect observer" who "sees" all as it really is, not as it is perceived by lesser beings.

  2. Or else you could go with the multiverse theories, which would allow for each observation to create a new universe... ;-)

  3. Hi, Kelly-

    Thanks for your comment! It is a fine line, separating perception / conception from reality- one that theists and philosophers tend to cross time and again. The Platonic idea that ideas are the only reality, and all the gross instances of concrete reality are their imperfect manifestations ... the Eastern idea that if we think hard enough, we can transcend reality, exemplified by all the attempts at austerities, prayer/meditation for desired outcomes, etc.

    It would be great if you were right and mystics merely were commenting on our subjective, fallible, and entangled epistemological state. But I don't think it stops there.

    As for the "likability" of god as the perfect observer.. you've got me there. Different folks clearly have different likes! This was Kant's fixation as well, on the Ding an sich and its transcendent observer.

    The urge to transcendence (mania, one might even say) is all very well when kept to the disciplined tracks of gaining knowledge and mastery as far as our capacities allow. It is one of the great human traits. But it seems a perpetual temptation to go beyond that, to imagine ourselves or "beings" living a perfect dream, so to speak. Nothing wrong with dreaming, but that isn't even modeling reality .. it is something else again.

  4. Sure... there's something to introspection and seeking transcendence, but I agree with you generally that it's on the human side and not the metaphysics side (we seek to find ourselves, if you will). Though the creativity of dreams has led to some fascinating scientific insights. But to convince yourself that you are actually generating reality... not sure.

  5. The Eastern idea of the self may be a bit different than ours. It's not so distinct. Alan Watts might say something like - Who is beating my heart? Who is generating my will? If it is me, then aren't I not also shining the sun? If it is not me, then what do we mean by "me"?

    Is "me" the particular set of actions this body is performing of which I am conscious? And what is in control of the consciousness? Isn't it of the same stuff as everything else?

    Our humanity tells us things about the universe, perhaps something about what it is striving for? Who knows.

    I realize that there is a useful distinction between me and everything else in day to day life, but when looking at things at a different level of zoom, when thinking in more ultimate terms, then we are of the same stuff as everything. And studying our humanity, our dreams, our hopes, etc. tells us things about the stars just like studying the stars tells us things about us.

    And this is entirely consistent with a naturalistic worldview. Hooray for science - I don't see it as a binary with introspection, but rather as a sharpener of our focus. I suppose.

  6. Said the Buddhist to the hot dog vendor, "Make me one with everything."

  7. Steven - nice.
    (I just finished some David Bohm, incidentally, and he'd agree.)

  8. Steven-

    That is all well-put. Let me give a couple responses.

    "Is "me" the particular set of actions this body is performing of which I am conscious? And what is in control of the consciousness? Isn't it of the same stuff as everything else?"

    It is weird how people take a rather divided attitude to all this. On the one hand, we rightly consider ourselves amazingly special beings, with the fortune to have consciousness which seems far and away more broad than any other organism, and completely absent from inanimate material. Yet on the other hand, we seek unity with everything and see all kinds of meaning in the farthest and minutest things of beauty.

    Consciousness does arise from the same stuff as everything else, but that is like saying that ice cream is of the same stuff as compost ... just differently arranged. Well, yes, but in that difference lies everything important. And to think that the material basis of the mind enables it to mystically commune and know about all material phenomena ... that also seems quite mistaken, as though silicon chips were especially suited to use in the study of geology.

    "Our humanity tells us things about the universe, perhaps something about what it is striving for? Who knows. ... And studying our humanity, our dreams, our hopes, etc. tells us things about the stars just like studying the stars tells us things about us."

    I'd differ pretty stringently. If you are talking of our projections and artistic involvement with the stars and universe, then yes.. it is all about our humanity, hopes and dreams. But that is exactly the mystic path, taking our response as the metric of what is otherwise objectively out there and distinct from us. In short, I don't think Shakespear's various metaphorical stars contributed one whit to our knowledge of actual stars, however much they contribute to our insight into ... us.

    It seems fundamentally mistaken to over-interpret introspection- to over-think it, as it were. Introspection can't even figure out how our minds work or much of our truly vast unconscious spectrum of processes, from the images of dreams down to the mechanisms behind reading and other sensations. So to think that it tells us about other things like the universe or the super-universe, etc. has simply no basis. It is yet another dream- understandable, even psychologically interesting and pleasant, but, if I may use the word, a delusion.

  9. Hey Burk!

    I don’t disagree with much of what you say. I think the difference is that I am thinking in terms of ultimate meaning, the aggregate (macro vs. micro). I can see that my statement about the stars probably did not reflect this accurately enough.

    When I say that our poetry tells us about us and therefore tells us about the stars, it is because it tells us about something that the stars were striving to create through us. Or, perhaps better, it tells us of something that the universe was trying to become of which the stars are obviously a huge part.

    I don’t think poetry will teach us about the material makeup of the stars, but it may help us to discover the most effective point of view when thinking “what’s it all about?” , and the stars’ role in that.

    And if a person decides that thinking in terms of the aggregate, from a certain point inside of it, is meaningless because there are no firm definitions, etc. then so be it. I cannot say they are wrong. But I cannot say I am wrong either. It’s a choice.

    Yes, consciousness is definitely different, I don’t mean to imply that our self-reflective abilities are no different than anything else. However, the idea of “emergence” is something that is contingent on point of view. There is no individual consciousness when looking at the micro-workings of our brain. There is no individual consciousness when looking at the earth as a whole (unless we see the earth as a self-organizing “conscious” entity on a different level of zoom).

    It is similar with the ice cream and compost analogy. The sweetness and acridness are products of our point of view. Sweetness does not exist except that we are here to create it in our response to it. And they exist on our level of zoom. There is no sweetness in an atom ( I don’t think!) or on the earth from the point of view of the moon. Our emergent world is the product of our point of view and level of zoom.

    So therefore, is it completely worthless to wonder about the point of view, the “zoom”, of the aggregate?

    “Introspection can't even figure out how our minds work or much of our truly vast unconscious spectrum of processes, from the images of dreams down to the mechanisms behind reading and other sensations.”

    Yes, thinking from a micro point of view about another micro aspect of the cosmos is contingent on what data we have to work with. Basically, science seems a very efficient means to create a more focused version of introspection, our inner computing, on other aspects of the whole, to better interpret them.

    But keeping the traditional view of introspection as a way to traverse our own thoughts and feelings, wondering about it all, I don’t think that it should be over-valued or under-valued. It should be focused by empirical data, but when thinking of things, wondering about deeper levels, I see zero problem with exploring our thoughts and discovering which descriptive myth seems to give us the most success in life. Science too is ultimately about what gives us success in our endeavors and what does not.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, I always love reading them and give weight to them - I too strive to value rationality and despair for the general lack of it in our public discourse. But I still think there is a place for responsible leaps of faith in ultimate seeking.