Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra

Is the a priori nature of mysticism incompatible with inductive reasoning?

Can there be reconciliation between metaphysics and rationality?

Or, practically speaking, why can't we incorporate wisdom from our ancestors with our scientific discoveries for a better understanding of our world?

As a recovering materialist, I find myself drawn to these kinds of queries and subsequently seeking out books that explore them.

The Tao of Physics was published over 30 years ago. And though countless books examining the overlay between science and mysticism have been written since, it remains as clear and compelling an analysis as you’re likely to find.

As a physicist interested in mysticism, I find Capra’s angle infinitely more satisfying than the glut of mystics trying to explain physics. Being a scientist, his organization is logical and his approach, which takes the form of a comparison, effective.

He divides his treatise into three sections, flavoring each liberally with quotes from luminary physicists and ancient spiritual masters alike.

The first, titled The Way of Physics, gives us a breakdown (in layman’s terms) of the discoveries of 20th century physics (namely Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics) and sets up the terms for his comparison.

When attempting such a comparison, a problem emerges almost immediately; how does one find a common denominator for the objectively demonstrable nature of science (measurement, mathematics, etc.) and subjectively experiential nature of mysticism? Mysticism, after all, does not easily lend itself to a second hand account via language.

Taking a page straight from Wittgenstein, Capra surmises that language itself is an obstacle in this sort of pursuit. So rather than trying to bridge the gulf directly, he shifts gears. In the second section, The Way of Eastern Mysticism he explains in very general terms some core tenets of Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.

We get the Four Noble Truths and the root of suffering from the Buddhism chapter; the eternally dynamic nature of reality from the Taoism chapter and the timeless unity of creation (Brahman) from the chapter on Hinduism.

Illusion, impermanence and underlying oneness are perennial themes in Eastern thought. And part three, The Parallels, is about looking more in depth at the findings of the “new physics” and interpreting them in a manner consistent with these themes.

The standard Newtonian view of the physics, we are told, traces its lineage back to ancient Greece; Euclidean geometry and the Atomists.

Euclid’s teachings held up to the rigors of science for hundreds of years until being annihilated by, first Einstein’s Special and General Relativity Theories which proved that standard geometry and linear time are constructs of our perception and then by quantum mechanics which turned our understanding of matter on its ear.

As opposed to the Atomists, who believed that matter at its basic essence consists of fundamental units, the quantum view holds that rather than discreet particles, the underlying nature of matter must be understood as a series of inter-related events in which particles are continuously engaging (thus rendering any attempt to isolate and analyze a particle from its greater whole is misguided and ultimately futile).

Capra’s book is philosophical in nature, but rather than asserting a position, he wants us only to consider its plausibility (that he uses the word parallel is instructive). His only real claim is the premise is that, both science and mysticism point to an underlying reality very different from the world of our experience.

It was hardly even new territory – Heisenberg and Bohr drew similar kinds of philosophical conclusions (read: Physics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Interpretation, etc.) – and yet this book continues to be controversial.

The vitriolic rebuke Capra's received from some in the scientific community, for this relatively mild conclusion, is telling. It seems there are those comfortable with bringing philosophy into the fray to fill in gaps and those utterly and violently opposed.

The ideological sensitivity of some materialists is fascinating to me. That their minds can snap shut so quickly at any perceived challenge to cherished belief while they simultaneously trumpet the virtues of rationality, can be almost comical.

Science may be an objectively bias free tool, but that doesn’t guarantee that those who wield it are free from bias and subjectivity.

If you like to think of science and spirituality as chocolate and peanut butter (two great things that are even better together) rather than say, oil and water, then check this out.

No comments: