Capra’s Tao of Physics: A Marriage of Brahman and Quanta

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I find it strange that the 20th century was sold to us as the ultimate battlefield of science and religion. Christian demagogues clashed with proponents of Darwinism in what became something of a comic-strip conflict, which in turn created a consensus that the two fields were as irreconcilable as the freshman classes of Duke and UNC. All the yelling and loud noise, meanwhile, actually drowned out the fact that modern physics was beginning to sound suspiciously like an argument for Zen Buddhism. It’s almost surprising that Heisenburg didn’t release his uncertainty principle through a series of haikus.

In 1975, a young Austrian-born physicist named Fritjof Capra decided that the multiple parallels between subatomic physics and Eastern mystical teachings could no longer be ignored, and a book called The Tao of Physics was born. It’s fitting that a yin-yang graces the cover of the 35th anniversary edition, as Dr. Capra succeeds in neatly harmonizing science and religion in much the same way Lao-Tzu and the ancient Chinese philosophers once demonstrated that opposites are but polarities of the same field. By the end, you have to wonder whether or not the Buddha owned a particle collider of his own, such are the similarities of his teachings to modern quantum physics!

In the early 20th century, the scientific community received an existential shock which our greater society, in my opinion, still hasn’t totally absorbed. With the dual revelations of Einstein’s relativity theory on the one hand and anarchic quantum reality on the other, the determinism of a Newtonian universe went the way of the dinosaur. The age-old conception of the universe as a huge mechanism operated by God from a distance was suddenly inadequate, unable to account for the paradoxes suggested by Einstein’s unity of space and time, not to mention the essential paradox of a particle which, you know, might also be a wave!

In the new physics, things didn’t exist; they had the tendency to exist.

Our very phenomenological experience as humans was brought into question by these new frameworks. Take a second and look around the room you’re in–check out the ceiling, the walls, your computer. All perfectly in order, governed by laws of matter and gravity, right? What if someone told you that the solidity of these objects were a fundamental illusion, that their appearance was emergent from a light-speed interaction of interlocking energy patterns which could neither be confirmed or necessarily denied? Such was the dilemma of quantum mechanic pioneers like Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenburg. Grounded in ‘reality’ just a moment before, their research had taken a sharp turn into Wonderland. The certainty of a tree in the front yard was replaced with a gnot of probability waves.

This was all totally unprecedented, right? Wrong. The genius of Dr. Capra’s book is that it demonstrates how Taoist, Buddhist, Zen and Hindu tenets of spirituality operated as a preexisting ‘formalism’ for the discoveries later made in relativistic & subatomic physics–thousands of years beforehand! The author even likens the quantum paradoxes to koans,  Zen riddles whose nonsensical nature is supposed to awaken students from the trap of logical thinking. These parallels are so powerful that Bohr actually decided to put a yin-yang on his official coat-of-arms as a way to symbolize what he had ultimately learned. (There’s a great picture in the book.) Let’s go ahead and take a look at a couple of these points of harmony that Dr. Capra emphasizes…

The Cosmic Dance

Far from the classical notion of forms as living stacks of Jenga ‘building blocks’, we’ve come to realize in the last 100 years that all existence is the result of a dynamic, endless flow of energy manifesting itself as the creation and destruction of different particles. Using collision processes as a guide, scientists have identified four kinds of interactions: weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravitational. Involved are an entire host of particles ceaselessly re-transforming one other and flashing in and out of being, including electrons, neutrons, hadrons, photons and a set of ‘antiparticles’. The constant interplay is what manifests physicality as we know it.

The idea of a cosmic dance of life constantly transforming itself is universal among Eastern philosophies. The Hindu god Shiva, always depicted in celebratory motion, represents the eternal cycles of birth and death. The Taoists saw creation as an ever-changing flow of events and circumstances in which no two moments were the same. And the Buddha, most amazingly, recognized that even inanimate objects were in fact processes constantly in flux.

“In the night of Brahman, Nature is inert and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound and lo! matter also dances, appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena.” (Ananda Coomaraswamy)


The Unity of All Things

One of the ways in which physicists came to cope with the illogical behavior of particles–which includes the trick of vanishing and reappearing, as well as maintaining affinity with one another over great distances of space and time–was to see them as probabilities of interconnection rather than isolated, individual entities. This interpretation reaches its apogee in quantum electrodynamics, where the ‘material’ particle is seen as secondary to the field in which it interacts. The implications are quite profound–all matter and forms of energy are a part of an inseparable web of complex relationships. On a fundamental level, we’re all connected!

This ‘web’ is variously known as the Tao, Brahman, and Dharmakaya and has been well-acknowledged for eons. The illusion of ego is realized through the recognition of oneness; all lifeforms, big and small, are mutually interdependent, and this is consistent through the many modalities of creation.

Compare these two statements, the first from Heisenburg, the second from the Upanisads: 

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

“He on whom the sky, the earth, the atmosphere are woven, and the wind, together with all life-breaths, Him alone know as the one soul.” 


There is something almost comedic in imagining that moment where the pioneer physicists, with all their fancy-schmancy measuring devices at attention and pens poised for some good ol’ causal theory-weaving, suddenly realized that their act of observing was directly impacting the subatomic proceedings. The assumption of Cartesian separation, of lab-coats partitioned from their subject of experiment, was openly laughed at by the universe. Did you not know you were a part of this, too? Talk about your moments in human history…!

The Tao of Physics was a landmark work and, fortunately, is still revered as such today. The book, Dr. Capra might say, is a “dynamic interplay” of modern science and Eastern mysticism, two apparent opposites which become harmonized and thus indicate a beautiful world-view of creativity, interconnectedness and, dare I say, sacredness. As he says towards the end, “Physicists do not need mysticism and mystics do not need physics, but humanity needs both.” Dr. Capra’s work should forever banish the notion that there is somehow a conflict between science and religion. A synthesis of the two just might hold the keys to our future.

“I see science and mysticism as two complementary manifestations of the human mind; of its rational and intuitive faculties. The modern physicist experiences the world through an extreme specialization of the rational mind; the mystic through an extreme specialization of the intuitive mind. The two approaches are entirely different and involve far more than a certain view of the physical world…To paraphrase an old Chinese saying, mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots.” 

Tao of Physics cover

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