The Tao of Physics

Modern Physics - A Path with a Heart?

Any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you ... Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question ... Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't it is of no use.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Modern physics has had a profound influence on almost all aspects of human society. It has become the basis of natural science, and the combination of natural and technical science has fundamentally changed the conditions of life on our earth, both in beneficial and detrimental ways. Today, there is hardly an industry that does not make use of the results of atomic physics, and the influence these have had on the political structure of the world through their application to atomic weaponry is well-known. However, the influence of modern physics goes beyond technology. It extends to the realm of thought and culture where it has led to a deep revision in man's conception of the universe and his relation to it The exploration of the atomic and subatomic world in the twentieth century has revealed an unsuspected limitation of classIcal ideas, and has necessitated a radical revision of many of our basic concepts. The concept of matter in subatomic physics, for example, is totally different from the traditional idea of a material substance in classical physics. The same is true for concepts like space, time, or cause and effect. These concepts, however, are fundamental to our outlook on the world around us and with their radical transformation our whole world view has begun to change.

These changes, brought about by modern physics, have been widely discussed by physicists and by philosophers over the past decades, but very seldom has it been realized that they all seem to lead in the same direction, towards a view of the world which is very similar to the views held in Eastern mysticism. The concepts of modern physics often show surprising parallels to the ideas expressed in the religious philosophies of the Far East Although these parallels have not, as yet, been discussed extensively, they have been noticed by some of the great physicists of our century when they came in contact with Far Eastern culture during their lecture tours to India, China and Japan. The following three quotations serve as examples:

The general notions about human understanding... which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer

For a parallel to the lesson of atomic ....... [we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.

Niels Bohr

The great scientific contribution in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory.

Werner Heisenberg

The purpose of this book is to explore this relationship between the concepts of modern physics and the basic ideas in the philosophical and religious traditions of the Far East. We shall see how the two foundations of twentieth-century physics-quantum theory and relativity theory-both force us to see the world very much in the way a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist sees it, and how this similarity strengthens when we look at the recent attempts to combine these two theories in order to describe the phenomena of the submicroscopic world: the properties and interactions of the subatomic particles of which all matter is made. Here the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism are most striking and we shall often encounter statements where it is almost impossible to say whether they have been made by physicists or by Eastern mystics.

When I refer to 'Eastern mysticism; I mean the religious philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Although these comprise. a vast number of subtly interwoven spiritual disciplines and philosophical systems, the basic features of their world view are the same. This view is not limited to the East, but can be found to some degree in all mystically oriented philosophies. The argument of this book could therefore be phrased more generally, by saying that modern physics leads us to a view of the world which is very similar to the views held by mystics of all ages and traditions. Mystical traditions are present in all religions, and mystical elements can be found in many schools of western philosophy. The parallels to modem physics appear not only in the Vedas of Hinduism, in the I Ching, or in the Buddhist sutras, but also in the fragments of Heraclitus, in the Sufism of lbn Arabi, or in the teachings of the Yaqul sorcerer Don Juan. The difference between Eastern and Western mysticism is that mystical schools have always played a marginal role in the West, whereas they constitute the mainstream of Eastern philosophical and religious thought I shall therefore, for the sake of simplicity, talk about the 'Eastern world view and shall only occasionally mention other sources of mystical thought.

If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2,500 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.

The roots of physics, as of all Western science, are to be found in the first period of Greek philosophy in the sixth century B.C., in a culture where science, philosophy and religion were not separated. The sages of the Milesian school in Ionia were not concerned with such distinctions. Their aim was to discover the essential nature, or real constitution, of things which they called 'physis'. The term 'physics' is derived from this Greek word and meant therefore, originally, the endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things.

This, of course, is also the central aim of all mystics, and the philosophy of the Milesian school did indeed have a strong mystical flavour. The Milesians were called 'hylozoists', or 'those who think matter is alive', by the later Greeks, because they saw no distinction between animate and inanimate, spirit end matter. In fact, they did not even have a word for matter,since they saw all forms of existence as manifestations of the 'physis', endowed with life and spirituality. Thus Thales declared all things to be full of gods and Anaximander saw the universe as a kind of organism which was supported by 'pneuma', the cosmic breath, in the same way as the human body is supported by air.

The monistic and organic view of the Milesians was very close to that of ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the parallels to Eastern thought are even stronger in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal 'Becoming'. For him, all static Being was based on deception and his universal principle was fire, a symbol for the continuous flow and change of all things. Heraclitus taught that all changes in the world arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites and he saw any pair of opposites as a unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, he called the Logos.

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.

A drastic step in this direction was taken by Parmenides of Elea who was in strong opposition to Heraclitus. He called his basic principle the Being and held that it was unique and invariable. He considered change to be impossible and regarded the changes we seem to perceive in the world as mere illusions of the senses. The concept of an indestructible substance as the subject of varying properties grew out of this philosophy and became one of the fundamental concepts of Western thought.

In the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosophers tried to overcome the sharp contrast between the views of Parmenides and Heraclitus. In order to reconcile the idea of unchangeable Being (Of Parmenides) with that of eternal Becoming (of Heraclitus), they assumed that the Being is manifest in certain invariable substances, the mixture and separation of which gives rise to the changes in the world. This led to the concept of the' atom, the smallest indivisible unit of matter, which found its clearest expression in the philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus. The Greek atomists drew a clear line between spirit and matter, picturing matter as being made of several 'basic building blocks'. These were purely passive and intrinsically dead particles moving in the void. The cause of their motion was not explained, 'but was often associated with external forces which were assumed to be of spiritual origin and fundamentally different from matter. In subsequent centuries, this image became an essential element of Western thought, of the dualism between mind and matter, between body and soul.

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. The scientific knowledge of antiquity was systematized and organized by Aristotle, who created the scheme which was to be the basis of the Western view of the universe for two thousand years. But Aristotle himself believed that questions concerning the human soul and the contemplation of God's perfection were much more valuable than investigations of the material world. The reason the Aristotelian model of the universe remained unchallenged for so long was precisely this lack of interest in the material world, and the strong hold of the Christian Church which supported Aristotle's doctrines throughout the Middle Ages.

Further development of Western science had to wait until the Renaissance, when men began to free themselves from the influence of Aristotle and the Church and showed a new interest in nature. In the late fifteenth century, the study of nature was approached, for the first time, in a truly scientific spirit and experiments were undertaken to test speculative ideas. As this development was paralleled by a growing interest in mathematics, it finally led to the formulation of proper scientific theories, based on experiment and expressed in mathematical language. Galileo was the first to combine empirical knowledge with mathematics and is therefore seen as the father of modern science.

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. Such a mechanistic world view was held by Isaac Newton who constructed his mechanics on its basis and made it the foundation of classical physics. From the second half of the seventeenth to the end of the nineteenth century, the mechanistic Newtonian model .of the universe dominated all scientific thought It was paralleled by the image of a monarchical God who ruled the world from above by imposing his divine law on it. The fundamental laws of nature searched for by the scientists were thus seen as the laws of God, invariable and eternal, to which the world was subjected.

The philosophy of Descartes was not only important for the development of classical physics, but also had a tremendous influence on the general Western way of thinking up to the present day. Descartes' famous sentence 'Cogito ergo sum'-'I think, therefore I exist'-has led Western man to equate his identity with his mind, instead of with his whole organism. As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing inside' their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instincts. Each individual has been split up further into a large number of separate compartments, according to his or her activities, talents, feelings, beliefs, etc, which are engaged in endless conflicts generating continuous metaphysical confusion and frustration.

This inner fragmentation of man mirrors his 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, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments-in ourselves, in our environment and in our society-are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, ecological and cultural crises. It has alienated us from nature and from our fellow human beings. It has brought a grossly unjust distribution of natural resources creating economic and political disorder; an ever rising wave of violence, both spontaneous and institutionalized,and an ugly, polluted environment in which life has often become physically and mentally unhealthy.

The Cartesian division and the mechanistic world view have thus been beneficial and detrimental at the same time. They were extremely successful in the development of classical physics and technology, but had many adverse consequences for our civilization. It is fascinating to see that twentieth-century science, which originated in the Cartesian split and in the mechanistic world view, and which indeed only became possible because of such a view, now overcomes this fragmentation and leads back to the idea of unity expressed in the early Greek and Eastern philosophies.

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. Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world is seen as an illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality. It is called avidya, or ignorance, in Buddhist philosophy and is seen as the state of a disturbed mind which has to be overcome:

When the mind is disturbed, the multiplicity of things is produced, but when the mind is quieted, the multiplicity of things disappears.

Although the various schools of Eastern mysticism differ in many details, they all emphasize the basic unity of the universe which is the central feature of their teachings. The highest aim for their followers-whether they are Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists-is to become aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things, to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality. The emergence of this awareness-known as 'enlightenment'-is not only an intellectual act but is an experience which involves the whole person and is religious in its ultimate nature. For this reason, most Eastern philosophies are essentially religious philosophies.

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-for ever in motion, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time.

Since motion and change are essential properties of things, the forces causing the motion are not outside the objects, as in the classical Greek view, but are an intrinsic property of matter. Correspondingly, the Eastern image of the Divine is not that of a ruler who directs the world from above, but of a principle that controls everything from within:

He who, dwelling in all things,
Yet is other than all things,
Whom all things do not know,
Whose body all things are,
Who controls all things from within-
He is your Soul, the Inner Controller,
The Immortal.

The following chapters will show that the basic elements of the Eastern world view are also those of the world view emerging from modern physics. They are intended to suggest that Eastern thought and, more generally, mystical thought provide a consistent and relevant philosophical background to the theories of contemporary science; a conception of the world in which man's scientific discoveries can be in perfect harmony with his spiritual aims and religious beliefs. The two basic themes of this conception are the unity and interrelation of all phenomena and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe. The further we penetrate into the submicroscopic world, the more we shall realize how the modern physicist, like the Eastern mystic, has come to see the world as a system of inseparable, interacting and ever-moving components with man being an integral part of this system.

The organic, 'ecological' world view of the Eastern philosophies is no doubt one of the main reasons for the immense popularity they have recently gained in the West, especially among young people. In our Western culture, which is still dominated by the mechanistic, fragmented view of the world, an increasing number of people have seen this as the under-lying reason for the widespread dissatisfaction in our society, and many have turned to Eastern ways of liberation. It is interesting, and perhaps not too surprising, that those who are attracted by Eastern mysticism, who consult the I Ching and practise Yoga or other forms of meditation, in general have a marked anti-scientific attitude. They tend to see science, and physics in particular, as an unimaginative, narrow-minded discipline which is responsible for all the evils of modern technology.
This book aims at improving the image of science by showing that there is an essential harmony between the spirit of Eastern wisdom and Western science. It attempts to suggest that modern physics goes far beyond technology, that the way-or Tao-of physics can be a path with a heart, a way to spiritual knowledge and self-realization.

Quantum theory thus reveals an essential interconnectedness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, we find that it is made of particles, but these are not the 'basic building blocks' in the sense of Democritus and Newton. They are merely idealizations which are useful from practical point of view, but have no fundamental significance.In the words of Niels Bohr, 'Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems.'

[From "the Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra]

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