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The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism Paperback – September 14, 2010
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Here is the book that brought the mystical implications of subatomic physics to popular consciousness for the very first timeâway back in 1975. This special edition celebrates the thirty-fifth anniversary of this early Shambhala best seller that has gone on to become a classic. It includes a new preface by the author, in which he reflects on the further discoveries and developments that have occurred in the years since the book’s original publication. “Physicists do not need mysticism,” Dr. Capra says, “and mystics do not need physics, but humanity needs both.” It’s a message of timeless importance.
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In order to fully appreciate the force of this book, it is important to keep in mind not only the results of physics, but also the scientific endeavor itself. That endeavor consists of an incredibly strenuous exertion of the human rational faculties to uncover truths about reality that we do not know ahead of time, and to systematize the results of investigation into rigorous theories explaining the phenomena. In contrast to this, according to Capra, "all concepts about reality formed by the human mind are void" (p. 97); "the human intellect can never comprehend the Tao" (p. 113); "whenever you want to achieve anything, you should start with its opposite" (p. 115); "words can never express the ultimate truth" (p. 122); "to believe that our abstract concepts of separate 'things' and 'events' are realities of nature is an illusion" (p. 131); the particles of modern physics "are merely idealizations which are useful from a practical point of view, but have no fundamental significance" (p. 137); "all the concepts we use to describe nature . . . are not features of reality, as we tend to believe, but creations of the mind" (p. 161); "the idea of a constant 'self' undergoing successive experiences is an illusion" (p. 212); "all phenomena in the world are nothing but the illusory manifestation of the mind and have no reality on their own . . . what appears to be external does not exist in reality" (p. 277); "ultimately, there are no parts at all in this interconnected web" (p. 330); "there is no absolute truth in science" (p. 337). This collection of quotes does indeed give an excellent picture of the foundation that Eastern mysticism has to offer for science, but is it even possible to think that this view of the world constitutes fertile soil for the scientific enterprise?
A striking feature of many of Capra's central arguments is the profound gulf between his premises and his conclusions, which would be simply laughable if it were not for the fact that so many people stand to be badly led astray. For instance, Capra leaps from Einstein's famous equation E=mc^2 to the most astounding claim in the whole book, that "modern physicists . . . deny the existence of any material substance" (p. 204). Can this be serious? This is the logical equivalent of saying that "magnetism has been discovered to be an aspect of an electromagnetic field, therefore magnetism doesn't exist" or "scientists have discovered that houses are made of wood, therefore houses don't exist". One of Capra's favorite mantras is that modern physics has discovered that material particles "are not distinct entities" (p. 209). Even if we accept for the sake of the argument his repeated confusion of existence and measurability, it is difficult to see how the fact that particles interact, influence each other, and in some cases are even indistinguishable, means that they are not distinct entities.
If it were not enough to repeatedly outrage every principle of sound reasoning, Capra is equally adept at mangling the most profound discoveries of 20th century physics. He dwells at length on Einstein's General Relativity, arguing that it proves that "geometry is not inherent in nature but is imposed upon it by the mind" (p. 162). In actual fact, General Relativity is the scientific rock upon which all the floundering ships in the fleet of subjectivism are dashed. From Einstein we have learned that the true structure of space and time is actually so incredibly foreign to our everyday intuitions that it is not even possible to understand it without the formidable apparatus of non-Euclidean geometry. Capra goes on in the same chapter to give an example that "shows that we can always determine whether a surface is curved or not, just by making geometrical measurements of its surface, and by comparing the results with those predicted by Euclidean geometry. If there is a discrepancy, the surface is curved; and the larger the discrepancy is - for a given size of figures - the stronger the curvature" (p. 176). But what is it that is curved or not? Something created by our mind? Why are we doing an experiment at all if the geometry of space is nothing but a creation of the mind? But a mind sunk in the quagmires of Eastern mysticism cannot readily recognize such an obvious point. In all of science there is nothing more "objective" than Einstein's General Relativity, a fact of which Einstein himself was well aware.
But this discussion brings up another important point. I would like to know, if it is true that in modern physics "cause and effect lose their meaning" (p. 81) how, even in principle, anyone could ever do a scientific experiment in atomic physics. If the answer is that cause and effect are just illusions of the sensory world, then the question remains, how can we ever do a scientific experiment? Whence comes this illusion, and how can it possibly be trusted to be reliable? If the answer is that cause and effect are indeed principles of macroscopic and sensory reality, but that they are not a part of the unseen "ultimate reality" which underlies all the rest, then I ask, from whence arises this lawfulness in sensory reality? How do we build up from the constituents of a reality where cause and effect are meaningless to an observable world where they are no longer meaningless? This constitutes as insurmountable a leap for logic as it does for science.
As the book drags on, Capra continues to weary us with his absurdities. On p. 288 he claims that fundamental constants are "arbitrary parameters". What does this even mean? Is Planck's constant arbitrary? I would like to see Capra replace it with something else. On p. 334 he says that "scientists do not deal with truth (in the sense of a precise correspondence between the description and the described phenomena); they deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality." This is certainly contradicted by the staggering precision achieved in modern physics, both in theories and experiments, but such a consideration would most likely not intimidate a mind infatuated with contradictions. Such was certainly not the mind of Johannes Kepler, who spent several years of his life working to account for barely a one tenth of one degree of angle disparity between the orbit of Mars and theory, convinced that the human mind, created in the image of a rational God, could precisely learn the truth about the rational creation of that God. How foreign such a mindset must really be to Eastern mystical thought. Would Kepler have undergone such Herculean intellectual exertions had he shared Capra's conviction that he could attain only limited and approximate knowledge, or would he simply have shrugged his shoulders and decided that Ptolemaic astronomy was "close enough"?
But it is least of all to history that we should look for confirmation of Capra's thesis. In the early chapters he blames Aristotle and Christianity for the ensuing "lack of interest in the material world" (p. 22). But what cultures ever displayed a more profound and studious disregard for the material world than the Eastern mystical traditions? And why would they hold in high regard something that is at best a creation of the human mind and at worst a deceptive illusion? On p. 198-199 Capra considers the idea of an oscillating and organic universe, and goes on to say that "the scale of this ancient myth is indeed staggering: it has taken the human mind more than two thousand years to come up again with a similar concept." But on the contrary, it took the human mind so many thousands of years to overcome organismic and oscillatory theories of the universe. These theories were ubiquitous in all the great ancient cultures, from the Egyptian to the Babylonian to the Indian to the Chinese to the Mayan to the Greek, and it was exactly this conception that so effectively stifled the optimistic and rational view of nature that is indispensable for science.
In conclusion, Capra has done a masterful job of presenting the relevance of Eastern mysticism to modern physics, but even a passing consideration readily reveals that this relevance is only the thorough incompatibility of Eastern mysticism with science of any kind. As Western culture steadily abandons rationality and the human ability to know truth, the philosophies of Eastern mysticism do indeed continue to gain credence and ascendance, but to exactly the same extent we will surely witness the decline of science.
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.
Most recent customer reviews
If you are into physics great book if you are a student of the mystic don't buy.
Wanted to have books I grew up with in my kindle library and this is clearly one of them