A friend who also has a healthy interest in physics lent me a book recently: The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra. The book, originally written in 1976, describes a number of parallels or points of agreement between modern physics, especially particle physics, and Eastern mystical traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. I read the second edition, published in 1983, though I see that a new edition was also published in 2010–a real testament to the book’s intriguing ideas and the author’s ability to communicate them well.
Fritjof Capra begins his book by contrasting the Eastern way of thinking about reality, which undergirds these mystical traditions, with the Western way of thinking. He then describes the basic beliefs of these traditions, the philosophical outlook they have in common, and what distinguishes them from one another. After that, the bulk of the book describes discoveries of modern physics and identifies points of agreement with these Eastern traditions. It’s been an interesting read that has sparked some of my own thinking about the relationship between Christian theology and modern physics.
The two most significant points of intersection Capra lifts up are the Eastern view of ceaseless change as the primary characteristic of reality and an emphasis on empiricism and direct experience.
As Capra describes them, the Eastern philosophies understand reality as something that is fundamentally dynamic and always moving. Nothing is static; the universe is constantly changing. The yin/yang symbol represents this idea of change with an image of what Capra calls “rotational symmetry,” capturing the idea that reality continually flows from one opposite into another—light into dark, dark into light, masculine into feminine, feminine into masculine, presence into absence, absence into presence. Every bit of reality—down to the smallest particles and waves—is an expression of the flow from one of these poles towards the other.
Capra shows how the picture of reality painted by modern physics supports this idea of the universe as a realm of ceaseless change. The behavior of fundamental particles can be understood as oscillations and interactions of various fields, not as static, indivisible building blocks that make up matter as we know it. In other words, our usual idea of a fundamental particle as a “tiny hard thing” thing that can’t be divided further is a misperception. Fundamental particles behave as waves, and their precise location can never be pinpointed, only determined within a finite region. They are constantly moving, constantly interacting with other particles. Even what we think of as empty space, the vacuum or void, is continually alive with virtual particles that pop in and out of existence. It’s a strange reality, but it’s the reality that modern theory predicts and experiments confirm with consistency and precision.
Capra also argues that Eastern philosophies place a heavy emphasis on empiricism and direct experience, in contrast to the usual Western worldview that gives a higher place to geometry, regularity, forms, ideas, and physical laws. In the Western view, there are physical laws that govern the behavior of the cosmos. The goal of physics has historically been to uncover these laws and thereby understand the universe. The Eastern view, by contrast, holds that any laws or patterns that humans discover are just constructs of the mind, useful devices that help us describe and speak about reality but, by their very nature, incomplete and provisional. In other words, physical laws don’t constrain or force things to happen—they aren’t real, aren’t out there waiting for us to discover them. Rather, they are our way of describing what does usually happen, and even the best ones can only go so far before they reach their limitation. New laws aren’t discovered so much as they are created, by us, to give a better and more complete, but still limited, view of the world around us. Instead, the Eastern view holds that a direct, unmediated experience of reality is critical. It’s part of the reason such philosophies place so much emphasis on meditation and mystical experience.
Capra shows how modern physics likewise tends to support this view of reality and physical laws. The universe is best understood as an infinitely complex web of relationships, and any attempt to describe one part of the universe can only be complete if it accounts for the whole web of relationships. Only the direct, unmediated experience of the whole thing can fully account for it all. The descriptions of modern physics will always be provisional and incomplete, yet ever more accurate, for this reason.
This book was a fascinating read, although it does have its shortcomings. Chief among these is that the author argues heavily in favor of a particular theory in particle physics, S-matrix theory. So some of his bolder conclusions about the agreement between Eastern mysticism and modern physics depend on this theory–and best I can tell, it’s not the one that most physicists subscribe to. Even so, most of his general ideas stand up just fine regardless of any theory, since he relies primarily on experimental results and points of theory that most will agree on.
I also think that he doesn’t do justice to the richness of Christian philosophy and theology, which has its own mystical traditions and ways of describing reality that are quite compatible with modern physics. Still, he’s not wrong that Eastern philosophies have a different view of reality in many respects from Western ones, and that a number of aspects of the Eastern worldview agree in remarkable ways with what we’ve learned through modern physics.
Of course, as a Christian I believe that there is such a thing as the mind of God, and that as mysterious as it is, human intellect is capable of connecting with it–indeed, it has been revealed to us in a special way in the person of Jesus Christ. So I disagree strongly with the notion that all laws, ideas, or frameworks for understanding reality are only human constructs. There is an Order beyond human order, an Intelligence beyond human intelligence. And when we encounter the ultimate reality of the universe, whether that’s through physics or through mystical experience, worship, or the love of neighbor, I believe we are not encountering the interconnectedness of all things, but the Creator of all things.
The Tao of Physics has helped me tease out some of my own ideas, and it’s pushed the boundaries of my thinking in a lot of ways. For that I am grateful. I believe Christianity can learn much from Eastern mystic traditions, and now I see that science nerds like myself can learn much from them too.