on January 30, 2005
In 1975, physicist Fritjof Capra wrote an unusual book about physics and Eastern mysticism entitled "The Tao Physics". Though some of Mr. Capra's colleagues were offended that any physicist would compare the science of modern physics with the religious practices of Eastern mystics (primarily the beliefs & practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism), the reality is that there are some very striking similarities with the intuitively Eastern mystical view of reality and the experimentally rational view of quantum theory. Part of the reason for this is that both physicists and Eastern mystics find it very difficult to explain their observations in language (including the language of mathematics) because each of their experiences is not encountered in our everyday, mechanistic macro world. Up until the time of Einstein, physicists were comfortable with explaining the world using Newton's mechanistic theories. However, Einstein realized that there was a fatal flaw with the Newtonian view that presumed that gravity is felt instantaneously regardless of distance. Also, Newton's law of gravity really didn't explain exactly what gravity is. With a stroke of insight, Einstein realized that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, including gravity; and several years later was able to explain gravity as being the consequence of the curvature of four-dimensional space-time due to mass. These discoveries through the world of Newtonian physics upside-down, but as Einstein's theories demonstrated, the Newtonian view was still valid for objects whose speeds come nowhere near the speed of light. Hence, Newton's laws of motion and gravity were still valuable, but in actuality, are only good approximations that can be used to explain movement in our frame of reference. Einstein, however, could not accept the views being developed by his contemporaries in the field of subatomic particles because Einstein maintained that elegant simplicity and orderliness existed at all levels of the physical Universe. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, on the other hand, discovered that the subatomic world was anything but simple and orderly. Instead, they, and the physicists who followed them, discovered that the subatomic world is not comprised of hard, independent and quantifiable particles; but of highly unpredictable and interconnected packets of energy that display characteristics both as particles with mass and waves of energy that can only be partially explained through the use of probabilities.
It was the discovery of quantum theory that modern physics has come to some strikingly similar conclusions that Eastern mystics came to over 2500 years earlier: namely, that everything in the Universe is interconnected, there are no completely independent parts, and that human consciousness is not independent of the Universe either. By entering deeply meditative states of consciousness, Eastern mystics for centuries have experienced intuitively the interconnected wholeness of reality (referred to the Tao in Taoism, the Brahman in Hinduism and the Dharmakaya in Buddhism) once they are able to set aside all other conscious thought and language. To Eastern mystics, language, which attempts to distinguish between various things, creates the illusion of separateness and independence that is the hallmark of Western science and philosophy as culminating in Newtonian physics. The notion that objects could be broken down into independent and mutually exclusive, lifeless parts was the philosophy embraced by many early Greek philosophers, such as Leucippus, Democritus and Aristotle; in contrast to the Greek philosophers of Parmenides and Heraclitus who were hylozoists and Eastern mystics. The popular Western view of separateness is also part of the driving patriarchal, anthropocentric view of Christianity ("yang" in Taoists terms); as opposed to the intuitive, interconnected and interpenetrative view of Eastern mysticism ("yin" in Taoists terms) that is also part of quantum theory.
Some portions of "The Tao of Physics" may be quite difficult for someone with very little background in physics to fully understand, but Mr. Capra avoided use of complex mathematics in his very accurate explanations of observations made in subatomic physics. He also did a superb job of explaining the views of three different Eastern religions that many readers may be introduced to for the first time in this book. Though there was a time when physicists and Western philosophers believed the Universe and inorganic matter are static that could be easily explained with simple equations, modern physics has come to the same conclusion that Eastern mystics did 2500 years ago: the Universe is an extremely dynamic and ever-changing reality governed not by abstract fundamental laws, but by interactions of all matter and energy throughout and that matter itself is pure energy, impermanent, ever-changing and ever-transforming just as the Hindu's explained by the always-dancing Shiva. Further, modern science cannot explain everything; it can only provide approximate explanations for particular situations: the Universe in its totality could never be fully explained, just as the Tao cannot be fully explained. Overall, I rate "The Tao of Physics" with a resounding 5 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it.
on November 11, 2000
I've read "The Tao Of Physics" two and one half times. The first time was fifteen years ago (the original paperback was a different edition, with a far more thought provoking cover). I then read this edition when it came out (I need to read it a third time, this time with more life experience to draw from). I'm sure most readers struggled with the technical dialogue and laws of physics throughout. I was more able to intuitively appreciate these tougher chapters than intellectually understand these sometimes very abstract and difficult theories and concepts. Mysticism at times can seem equally abstract and difficult when one has not expereinced specific "mystical" experiences or enough of life itself. However, I intuitively connected to the threads which Capra so painstakingly weaved into his book. I was not looking for the answers to the universe in this book. What I was hoping to find was guidance, and a springboard in which to think in a larger universe. And when I look back, I realize my awareness and receptiveness to a "universe"and "consciousness" which is infinitely larger and wiser than the human experience and consciousness does indeed exits. "The Tao Of Physics" opened a window or two for me, and the inertia in which I had formed my opinions and prejudices and, then, learned to see and feel and judge the world around me, seemed embarrassingly narrow, lacking and unwise. That was a great insight for this young man at that time. "The Tao Of Physics" remains one of those books and experience that initially changed me in a small way, that eventually evolved into a substantive life change in how I think and perceive the world around me, and my relationship to it.
In this book Fritjof Capra dwells on the parallels between modern physics and traditional Eastern thought. In classical physics and in most Western thought, the tendency is to break down the universe into smaller and smaller objects and systems that are supposedly self-contained and only interact in a linear cause-and-effect pattern. These views started to break down with Einstein's relativity, which shows the duality (or inseparability) of space and time, and even more so with quantum mechanics. The key aspect of QM used here is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which basically states that you can't observe a subatomic particle (or possibly any part of the universe) without interacting with it. It turns out that these new physical concepts of duality and interconnectedness, while a major shock to Western minds, are right in line with what has been thought in the East for thousands of years. In fact, many modern theoretical physicists have become interested in Eastern mysticism to help interpret their seemingly strange findings.
With that aside, this book is not quite convincing as Capra attempts to draw these parallels into an overall unified theory, and unfortunately he is quite a dry and repetitive writer. The book starts usefully with an intro to modern physics, then intros to the main schools of Eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism). Things start to break down however, in the third part of the book as Capra begins to analyze the parallels between the two worlds. Capra tends to explain the same concepts again and again is slightly different ways, in an attempt to beef up the book, only to reveal the shaky foundation on which these concepts stand. Alas, while there are certainly intriguing parallels, the grand connection fails to materialize as the book drags on. When this book first appeared in the 70's, it kicked off a new mini-revolution of deep thoughts, and Capra is surely on to something big here. Unfortunately this book doesn't quite bring home the true revolution in Western thinking. Perhaps the last 30 years of deep thoughts that this book inspired will lead to a true manifesto by Capra or one of his followers, but this book can only be seen as a good start.
on September 26, 1998
The book is a well organized presentaion of the simple observation that science, religion, and philosophy are all trying to describe the same reality in different terms and from different perspectives. Taoism and modern physics both take a minimally subjective approach to the task of realizing what life is and are both extremely helpful to anyone searching for the source of true spirituality. The first review in this set refers to Taoism as a branch of metaphysics, which it certainly is not. Although the book deals with various major Eastern religions, it is a good introduction to Taoism and, for those searching, should be preceded by, concurrently read with, and perpetually followed by reference to the Tao Te Ching. Most importantly, awareness of ones own life and its relationship with the rest of the universe is the key; the answers can not be found in any book.
on January 21, 2000
Capra takes a step backwards to get everything into the picture and shows how a selection of eastern schools of thought and modern physics think so much alike. He manages this without shoving religious dogma down your throat or losing you in mathematics. As a physicist, I was sceptical about this book as often modern physics has been taken completely out of its context and misinterpreted. Capra shows a thorough understanding of the quantum mechanical and relativistic principles illustrated in this book. For the non-physicist I would advise reading up some material on introductory relativity and quantum physics beforehand, just as I felt disadvantaged not having a good background in eastern philosophy. This book strengthens my belief that an understanding of the human situation comes not from a single spiritual or intellectual paradigm, but from a unification of the fruits of all human endeavours.
on September 11, 2004
Shows interesting parallels between Taoist philosophy and western science. I've read three different sources in Taoist thought and I have to say that Mr. Capra has done a great job in making this book readable to the average "joe". Although I've long given-up my "eastern philosophy phase", I would still recommend this book. To put it simply, it's poetry in motion. Whatever your thoughts, I would suggest you read Lao Tzu's TAOISM first, then after reading this book make-up your own mind.
on October 14, 2003
This is one of the most wonderful books relating modern science to Eastern philosophical traditions. I have always combined an interest in physics as well as an interest in eastern philosophies, so it was natural that I get attracted to this book. I have read the second edition nearly 15 years ago, and can certify that this book delivers what it promises. Recently it has become a phenomenon to see "Tao of ..." or "Zen of ..." books that are really deficient in many respects: some books know little about the Eastern philosophies they claim to compare to, others know little about the Western science, and yet others fail to point to more than a flimsy relationship. It appears "Tao of something" has become a major marketing scheme and not much more.
"The Tao of Physics" however is free from those weaknesses. In fact, it is in a class of its own - possibly one of the most thought-provoking and inspirational texts in the modern world. Written by a world-class Indian physicist, this book exhibits the deep understanding of its author into the myriad complexities of modern physics. The beauty of it all is that some of the most complex ideas are explained in very simple language that even a high school student can understand: quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, particle physics, string theory, symmetries, etc.
This strength in physical understanding does not weaken the depth of perception regarding Eastern mysticism. Au contraire, the second part of the book, describing Eastern philosophy, is a tour de force of the various branches of Eastern thought: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc. Topics like the I-Ching, the mythology of the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, and the Tao Te Ching are introduced in very clear language aimed at capturing a Western audience.
The third and largest part of the book is devoted to drawing parallels between the two traditions: the Western scientific and the Eastern philosophical. Of course, at this stage of human development one cannot reach certainties about such thing, and the discourse is restricted to pointing out the parallels and illustrating the convergence of thought. More questions are raised than are actually answered, which is perhaps the signature of a really good book. Since reading it I have become fascinated with modern physics and pursued a science education. My interest in Eastern religions has also been enhanced. Currently I am in the process of re-reading this gem. I definitely recommend it to everyone seeking substance in "Tao of ..." books.
on July 5, 2004
A Profoundly Important Book
I am aware of the much resistance of the ideas purported in this book, both from the scientist/skeptic league and mystic/philosopher league for diametrically opposed reasons. I will try to address them (please visit my website for a complete review) and highlight the biases of these people. Before I go further, I would like to comment on one of the reviewers here from Detroit who referred to quantum physics as objective and Eastern mysticism as subjective. This is an extremely, unbelievably inane comment from someone who apparently hasn't read the book thoroughly which in the first place talks about why physics or science can't be considered objective truth anymore. Capra, throughout the book, clearly and repeatedly speaks of cases and solid arguments in which science falls short of being called objective in the classic way. Today, no body can deny that science, with its strict boundaries and fragmented world-view, could merely talk about approximate descriptions instead of reality or truth.
One of the prominent critics of this book form the mystic/philosopher league happens to be Ken Wilber, whose genius is a source of my inspiration. It needs to be taken into account that Wilber's background is science (biochemistry), which he left because of its extreme limitation for an intense, scholarly study of consciousness. Let me quote what he said in Grace and Grit, "I disagreed entirely with books such as "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Masters," which had claimed that modern physics supported or even proved Eastern mysticism. This is a colossal error. Physics is a limited, finite, relative, and partial endeavor, dealing with a very limited aspect of reality. It does not, for example, deal with biological, psychological, economic, literary, or historical truths; whereas mysticism deals with all of that, with the Whole. To say physics process mysticism is like saying the tail proved the dog......Simply imagine what would happen if we indeed said that modern physics support mysticism. What happens, for example, if we say that today's physics is in perfect agreement with Buddha's enlightenment? What happens when tomorrow's physics supplants or replaces today's physics (which it most definitely will)? Does poor Buddha then lose his enlightenment? You see the problem. If you hook your God to today's physics, then when that physics slips, that God slips with it."
It's clear that Wilber's objection is based on his adoration of mysticism, especially Buddhism, over science and motivated by his unnecessary "paranoia" that the dynamics of science will adversely affect the "reputation" of the "object of his fixation." Like Wilber, I am a number one fan of the Buddha but I don't see this observable fact -not a mere idea-- of parallelism as a threat to his unblemished integrity; nothing could be as 2500 years of his Dharma have proven its timelessness and sensibility beyond the shadow of a doubt. As Capra pointed out in his answer to this particular criticism, much of his concern is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific research that it could arbitrarily change the results of previous researches (which is not the case at all). Nobody is trying to prove anything with anything else here, what Capra does is simply bringing to a coherent, systematic erudition something that many people could see for themselves the way they couldn't mistake the blaring morning sun. What I naturally object from these instant critics is that after someone has dedicated years of research and carefully transferred the results in over 350 pages, then out of nowhere, these people, with a modest one or two sentences, vehemently rejects his work. Excuse me? You need a whole bloody book in itself, or at least a thesis with a decent amount of pages, to refute it. You need to elaborate which points/parts of his book that are distorted and why and please provide the likely alternative explanation or argument to them.
What is rather perplexing is the fact that in "No Boundary," Wilber basically purports the same parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism so I wonder why he sort of changed his mind.
I didn't know anything about this book when I was in High School and trying to explain the Buddhist concept Anatta (without "I" or without soul) to a non-Buddhist friend. The interesting part was I, inevitably, always ended up using the analogy of the ever- divisible atom to describe this most profound concept because, even as a 16 year old who knew very little about physics or chemistry, I could see the striking parallel between the atomic principle and Anatta and knew no other more accessible way to describe the latter. In fact in the Buddhist metaphysics book, the Abhidhamma, Buddha talked about the smallest substance of matter that he termed paramanu, which he said didn't exist independently but composed of interdependent elements. And he, in relation to this no-basic-building-block-of-the-self-and everything-else-in-the-universe concept, further postulated that "all compounded things are impermanent, " the same exact conclusion that physicists reached 2500 years later to describe the dynamic nature of quantum phenomena. And are you going to just dismiss it by saying that both are mere coincidence? I don't think so. And for Wilber to have such a fragmented world-view -something that he through his books is very much critical of- that the world that modern physics talks about is entirely different than the world of mystics is most ironic. As Capra wrote and I very much agree with, there is only one world -this awesome and mysterious world. One might deal with the world infinitely small, and the other infinitely vast but both are different aspects of one and the same reality and that's why both speak in the same language. Remember, all parts have an intimate, harmonious and interdependent correlation with the whole. The fact that someone of Wilber's calibre -who is aware that opposites, in both scientific and mystical point of view, are the product of mind construct or abstraction that has little substance- could have missed it is mind-boggling.
on January 16, 1998
Capra's discussion of physics is interesting reading, as are the "parallels" with Eastern Mysticism (though I follow a reviewer below in evaluating the arguments as hazy). Where Capra sells his reader short is in the criticism of the western mentality.
According to Capra, the western mind is not acclimated to mystical thought of the kind described in Tao of Physics. Serious students will detect a problem with this assertion: Heraclitus, Plotinus, Augustine, John of the Cross, and even the empiricist Francis Bacon evade Capra's criticism--but one must go to the actual writings, not generalizations about them, in order to discover this. In more recent philosophy, I'm reminded of Paul Tillich's notion of "historical realism," which would provide any reader with material for a re-critique of Capra's critique.
You might notice I still give this book a 6, despite these major flaws. This is because it is an accessible introduction to a major premise in modern thought: the compulsion toward extramaterial/extratechnological worlds. My fear is that some (note reviews below) might consider it the last word on a subject that merits extensive study.
As an analogy, take the seemingly common opinion that the film "Contact" is the last word on the science-religion question.
on November 1, 2005
For the college freshman who's struggling through classes in physics and philosophy, this is a book for you. I haven't read another book that summarizes the history of Western thoughts better, from Aristotle to Einstein. Also, Capra is the first author who finally cleared up for me all the different kinds of Buddhism and the reason behind the multiple gods in Hinduism. Capra is obviously a brilliant lecturer who has done an exhaustive analyses of the history of Western/Eastern philosophies as well as Phyics. His work is easy to read and follow, and Capra guides the reader through his very enjoyable and informative arguments on how the advanced physics and eastern thoughts converge at the most abstract conceptual level.
Capra makes a mighty effort, and his readers are all the richer for it. It's a very important book, and I'm grateful for Capra for writing this very brave book. That said, the book does not succeed completely in convincing the heart of even a willing listener like myself. In the end, everyone knows that the String Theory and the Diamond Sutra really are not related and cannot be compared even at a very abstract level.
However, those who enjoyed this book at all should follow up with "Nine-Headed Dragon River" by Mattiessen and the perennial classic "Siddhartha" by Hesse. These two great writers help clarify the Eastern thoughts from the Western perspective.