Rereading 'The Tao of Physics'

An exploration of the parallels between modern Physics and Eastern mysticism

Tao Earth
Tao Earth
23 SEP 2016

A book which is a classic is like an old friend: it is always there at your disposal, and each time you open a page, even at random, you find a useful suggestion for living - even for living today. Which also means, that a classic book never gets old. It is eternally fresh. And so it is for The Tao of Physics (an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism) of Fritjof Capra. In these few lines I would like to convey to you this sense of freshness that I felt after taking picking up the book again after –well, say twenty years…

This is impressive, but I believe that the most impressive thing about the book was (is) its impact on the reader. I know of some people who claim that their life has been changed after reading this book, and this holds for scientists as well as for lay people. This happens when a book has the power of opening a new horizon: you see the world with new eyes, you ask yourself questions you never dreamed of asking, whether or not you gave yourself answers, - that is not so important – you simply ascended with your questioning to a higher state of consciousness.

You should read the preface by the author to the first and second edition in order to get an idea of the climate surrounding the birth of the book - the main point being that at that time, namely in the seventies of last century, the idea of contaminating the holy grail of physics with the remote, odd and still unfamiliar traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, and Vedanta, was something completely revolutionary, bordering on blasphemy. This helps to explain two things about the original publication of this book. First, it did not help the scientific career of Fritjof, at that time a researcher in high energy physics in an important university in the United States (an Austrian, with a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna). Secondly, it did not make it easy to publish the book right away. However, quite soon, the book was received enthusiastically in the UK and the USA, and then was hugely successful all over the world.

The main message of the book, as I said, concerns the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. Why and how should these two things have something in common? The first simple answer is, that both science and religious traditions are looking for the same thing: the truth. Or, to be a little more specific, they both want to find out what reality is. Another important point is that the Eastern religious traditions are not generally based on the idea of a creator God, like Christianity or Islam. They steer clear of those forms of fundamentalism typical of monotheistic religions, like the “holy” Christian crusades, or, to jump to today’s problems, the ill-digested Islamism of the IS murderers.

Let us now look at the book together. It consists of three main parts: I. The way of physics; II. The way of eastern mysticism; III. The parallels - with a preface and an epilogue. Each of the three main parts is in its turn, divided into various chapters.

Part One

In chapter 1, (Modern physics - a path with a heart) you find some basic concepts about the progress of science, and physics in particular, with important quotations from founding fathers like Oppenheimer, Bohr, and Heisenberg, which, although written in the fifties or sixties, already mention the Buddha and Lao Tsu. This shows that the basic intuition of the parallelism between physics and the Eastern religious traditions was already present in the field before Capra. And Capra, talking about Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, writes that physics today leads to a world view which is essentially mystical.

The world “mystical” may here may need some clarification: you should not think of ascetics, or of holy sages having transcendental visions of sainthood. As Capra says p. 23): “when I refer to mysticism, I mean the religious philosophies of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism…”, adding that although these three eastern avenues differ and are each open onto a large number of pathways, “the basic features of the world view are the same”.

This leads to the question, how can we see and know the world? This is dealt with in chapter 2 (Knowing and Seeing). Here a main emphasis is on intuitive knowledge, the direct experience of reality which, in Eastern mysticism, “transcends not only intellectual thinking but also sensory perception” (p. 36). Of course, physicists themselves are mainly concerned with rational knowledge, but Capra shows that both types of knowledge may occur in both fields - science and eastern traditions.

One major problem is language (chapter 3, Beyond Language). It is a problem, because language does not really correspond to reality. Here, the Korzybski’s metaphor, frequently cited by Capra, is particularly relevant: “The map is not the territory”. Words are only a qualitative and coarse description of things. Light is light, but when we wish to describe it with words, it becomes either waves, or corpuscles. The problem is not the light, but our wording of it. (The Tao that can be told is not the real Tao). Because of this limitation, Capra emphasises the importance in science and in the Eastern tradition of logical paradoxes. “Whenever the essential nature of things is analysed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical” (p. 58). All this is found in more detail in chapter 4, (The New Physics) with many examples of these paradoxes in the principles of relativity, the notion of time-space, the nature of light.

Part Two

The Way of Eastern Mysticism consists of five chapters, starting with Hinduism (chapter 5). The term Hinduism is a term which, according to some Indian philosophers, should not be used, as it was invented by the British colonialists to summarize the complexity of Indian religious culture. But Capra succeeds quite well in illustrating the main, common features of “Hinduism”, from the old Vedic traditions to the Bhagavad Gita, from the relationship between Brahman and Atman, to the notions of Karma, maya and yoga, and the many gods and goddesses.

The idea that all is mutually interconnected is also the basis of Buddhism (chapter 6). Here we find the world of Nagarjuna, the notion of emptiness, and the corresponding concepts of non-self, impermanence, and compassion. Capra proceeds then to Chinese thought (chapter 7) with the description of the two main schools, Taoism and Confucianism, together with the notion of yin/yang, the I Ching and its hexagrams (famously discussed by C.G. Jung), and the Taoist Tao Te Ching (attributed to Lao Tsu in the fourth century B.C.E). Capra devotes the whole of chap. 8 to Taoism, as this is centred on intuitive knowledge and intuitive wisdom - a notion particularly present in Zen Buddhism (chap. 9), which is also characterized by learning with paradoxes, the so-called koan (What is the clapping of only one hand?).

Part Three

The common denominator of all these traditions, according to Capra, “is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena … as manifestations of a basic oneness”. This general concept is, among others, very important for Capra, being the basis of his last book, The Systems View of Life, written with me.

Capra takes a closer look at the parallels in the eight chapters of Part Three, which is of course the most challenging both for the writer and for readers. Thus, chapter 10 (The Unity of All Things) treats the well-known problem of the duality between subject and object based mostly on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which actually shows that this separation cannot hold. This touches on the notion of objectivity in the scientific tradition and on the notion of experience - as the subjective dimension - in the eastern religious traditions. This is picked up and expanded in chapter 11, (Beyond the World of the Opposites) where we find again the dual character of light, the dichotomy yin/yang, the concept of complementarity, and the uncertainty principle.

The rather dense chapter 12 deals with space/time, and here we see that what in Newtonian physics were considered two clear, distinct things, become one unit in relativity (the famous curved space-time). None of this is ever static. Instead, it is the expression of a dynamic universe (chapter 13) - where together with the transformation of one particle into another, or of mass into energy, (remember the famous equation E= mc2) - we also find the Taoist I Ching and the Buddhist notion of impermanence again. There are no things, but only events and processes.

All these points are reiterated in chapter 14 Emptiness and Form, where the notion of field, and in particular the quantum field is emphasised. Here Capra dwells on the Eastern notion of form/emptiness, seen as two aspects of the same reality (p. 238). Movements, changes, and transformations are emphasized in chapter 15 (The Cosmic Dance) where the dance of Shiva is taken as a metaphor for the dance of continuous transformations of particles and mass/energy. One cannot talk about modern physics without mentioning quarks, hence chapter 16 (Quark Symmetries - a new koan?) is a rather difficult one about baryons and mesons - with a very interesting section on symmetry. Chapter 17 is also somewhat difficult for the common reader (Patterns of Change) with its many Feynmann diagrams, which are linked to the I Ching hexagrams.

Chapter 18 (The Interpretation) is in a way a summary of all the previous concepts, with an emphasis on the interconnection of matter, mass, energy, so that reality cannot be reduced to solid building blocks with certain fundamental properties, as in the Newtonian outlook, but “has to be understood entirely through its self-consistency, as expressed in the “bootstrap theory”. Capra thus concludes “the (our?) view of nature has come ever closer to the Eastern world view and is now in harmony with Eastern thought, both in its general philosophy and its specific view of matter”.

At this point, at the end of this article, the reader may feel that it is hardly appropriate to condense a book like The Tao of Physics into a simple article of only 1500 words. I couldn’t agree more, and I would say: this is why you should get a copy of the book and read it from beginning to end.

F. Capra, The Tao of Physics, third edition, 1982
F. Capra and P.L. Luisi, The systems view of life, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014, italian edition Vita e natura. Una visione sistemica Aboca Museum