Fritjof Capra

©2015 Peter Fritz Walter. Some rights reserved.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, New York: Bantam Books, 1984 (Quoted Edition), New York Shambhala, 2000, Originally published in 1975.

5 Stars

Review

Much was written about The Tao, and it is almost always considered as a synthetic and holistic vision of modern physics seen through the glasses of ancient mysticism! But more importantly, let us ask how the author made his point?

Fritjof Capra made his point by assembling a number of small points, one after the other, for finally proving the whole of his thesis or theory. To begin with, Capra writes:

If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2500 years ago. It is interesting to follow the evolution of Western science along its spiral path, starting from the mystical philosophies of the early Greeks, rising and / unfolding in an impressive development of intellectual thought that increasingly turned away from its mystical origins to develop a world view which is in sharp contrast to that of the Far East. In its most recent stages, Western science is finally overcoming this view and coming back to those of the early Greek and the Eastern philosophies. This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism./5–6

An important discourse in is Capra’s report about the Eleatic school because it gives us an important clue for the origins of our intellectual dualism:

The split of this unity began with the Eleatic school, which assumed a Divine Principle standing above all gods and men. This principle was first identified with the unity of the universe, but was later seen as an intelligent and personal God who stands above the world and directs it. Thus began a trend of thought which led, ultimately, to the separation of spirit and matter and to a dualism which became characteristic of Western philosophy./7

Capra’s book is of course attempting to overcome that very dualism by showing that upon a deeper look a synthesis between Western scientific thought and Eastern philosophy is the only intelligent way out of the dilemma. What I call in my writings the schizoid split in the internal setup of our culture, Capra called it the division between spirit and matter.

As the idea of a division between spirit and matter took hold, the philosophers turned their attention to the spiritual world, rather than the material, to the human / soul and the problems of ethics. These questions were to occupy Western thought for more than two thousand years after the culmination of Greek science and culture in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C./6–7

And the next step, then, in the building of that cultural paranoia was the turn of events starting with the reductionist science philosophy of French philosophers La Mettrie and René Descartes. Capra explains:

The birth of modern science was preceded and accompanied by a development of philosophical thought which led to an extreme formulation of the spirit/matter dualism. This formulation appeared in the seventeenth century in the philosophy of René Descartes who based his view of nature on a fundamental division into two separate and independent realms: that of mind (res cogitans), and that of matter (res extensa). The Cartesian division allowed scientists to treat matter as dead and completely separate from themselves, and to see the material world as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine./8

What Capra was showing here is the missing link between our modern-day separative and highly individualistic worldview, and its historical origins. And it explains conclusively why we are torn up, fragmented and unwhole (unholy):

This inner fragmentation mirrors our view of the world outside, which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events. The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society, which is split into different nations, races, religions and political groups./8

After having shown how a fragmented worldview came about historically, Capra presents the Eastern worldview:

In contrast to the mechanistic Western view, the Eastern view of the world is organic. For the Eastern mystic, all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected, and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality. (…) In the Eastern view, then, the division of nature into separate objects is not fundamental and any such objects have a fluid and ever-changing character. The Eastern / world view is therefore intrinsically dynamic and contains time and change as essential features. The cosmos is seen as one inseparable reality — forever in motion, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time./10–11

The danger of fragmentation, Capra explains conclusively, is that we try to find absolute points of reference behind each of our fragmented concepts, and we do this probably unconsciously in an attempt to heal our inner split. Yet ultimately by doing so we bring about a distorted perception of reality, by taking the map for the landscape.

Looking at the paradoxical behavior of electrons in the quantum world, Capra asked the question why Westerners are so terribly confused, and even shocked, when encountering a paradox, or simply an illogical behavior? He found the answer in comparing Western thought with Eastern philosophy.

Eastern mysticism has developed several different ways of dealing with the paradoxical aspects of reality. Whereas they are bypassed in Hinduism through the use of mythical language, Buddhism and Taoism tend to emphasize the paradoxes rather than conceal them./35

I think this difference between Indian thinking and Chinese and Japanese philosophical traditions is important, as Joseph Campbell has emphasized it as well in his book Oriental Mythology. The Zen tradition, derived from its original Chinese root philosophy (where it was called Chan Buddhism), is very fond of putting the stress on the paradox for a simple reason: the paradox teaches us the limitations of rational thinking and thereby shows us the relativity of a merely rational worldview.

The Cosmic Dance

By seeing our obvious limitation, we can go beyond the hyper-rationalistic worldview and develop a holistic, integrative, worldview that gives the necessary space for the irrational, for the fantastic, the imaginal and scurrilous in nature, and also in our human nature. Without the latter, humor, for example, as an expression of humanity, is not possible.

This fundamental change in how we perceive reality as modern scientists is important primarily because our whole science is going to shift, and must shift, according to this reorientation of the observer. Capra makes it clear that we cannot remain with the old demons:

The mechanistic view of nature … is closely related to a rigorous determinism. The giant cosmic machine was seen as being completely causal and determinate. All that happened had a definite cause and gave rise to a definite effect, and the future of any part of the system could — in principle — be predicted with absolute certainty if its state at any time was known in all details. (…) The philosophical basis of this rigorous determinism was the fundamental division between the I and the world introduced by Descartes. As a consequence of this division, it was believed that the world could be described objectively, i.e., without ever mentioning the human observer, and such an objective description of nature became the ideal of all science./45

The result was that we discarded nature out of science and by doing so, we created a fundamentally nature-hostile science, a science that destroys us by destroying our planet. This science, then, reflected exactly the distorted view prevalent since patriarchal times in our culture that says the male is superior to the female. This cult of male supremacy led straight to a never-ending course of violence that slowly but definitely suffocates us today.

Western society has traditionally favored the male side rather than the female. Instead of recognizing that the personality of each man and of each woman is the result of an interplay between male and female elements, it has established a static order where all men are supposed to be masculine and all women feminine, and it has given men the leading roles and most of society’s privileges. This attitude has resulted in an over-emphasis of all the yang — or male — aspects of human nature: activity, rational thinking, competition, aggressiveness, and so on. The yin — or female — modes of consciousness, which can be described by words like intuitive, religious, mystical, occult, or psychic, have constantly been suppressed in our male-oriented society./133

And the same biased perception of reality, distorting the harmony between the male and the female principle, is to be seen throughout Western philosophy, in its abysmal dualism, which lacks the fundamental ability to find the synthesis that Oriental thought is so apt to establish. Capra conforms with the Eastern worldview that says all opposites are complementary and ‘merely different aspects of the same phenomenon.’

Capra wistfully remarks that in the East, ‘a virtuous person is therefore not one who undertakes the impossible task of striving for the good and eliminating the bad, but rather one who is able to maintain a dynamic balance between good and bad.’

When you look at the Tao of Physics from this perspective, from the big picture behind the details of quantum physics, you will see that Capra’s deeper message in this revolutionary book goes way beyond a redefinition of modern physics. Capra has prepared the ground in this earliest of his books for the giants to come. While The Tao remains Capra’s most popular book it is perhaps not his best book.

The genius trick was that he developed the original idea further and found something like a new holistic concept for all sciences, but did not label it fashionably as ‘A Theory of Everything.’

He termed his new concept ecoliteracy.

Quotes

New York: Bantam Books, 1984

  • Modern physics has had a profound influence on almost all aspects of human society. It has become the basis of natural science, and the combination of natural and technical science has fundamentally changed the conditions of life on our earth, both in beneficial and detrimental ways. Today, there is hardly an industry that does not make use of the results of atomic physics, and the influence these have had on the political structure of the world through their application to atomic weaponry is well known. However, the influence of modern physics goes beyond technology. It extends to the realm of thought and culture where it has led to a deep revision in our conception of the universe and of our relation to it. /3
  • This view is not limited to the East, but can be found to some degree in all mystically oriented philosophies. The argument of this book could therefore be phrased more generally by saying that modern physics leads us to a view of the world which is very similar to the views held by mystics of all ages and traditions. Mystical traditions are present in all religions, and mystical elements can be found in many schools of Western philosophy. The parallels to modern physics appear not only in the Vedas of Hinduism, in the I Ching, or in the Buddhist sutras, but also in the fragments of Heraclitus, in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, or in the teachings of the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan. The difference between Eastern and Western mysticism is that mystical schools have always played a marginal role in the West, whereas they constitute the mainstream of Eastern philosophical and religious thought. /5
  • If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2500 years ago. It is interesting to follow the evolution of Western science along its spiral path, starting from the mystical philosophies of the early Greeks, rising and / unfolding in an impressive development of intellectual thought that increasingly turned away from its mystical origins to develop a world view which is in sharp contrast to that of the Far East. In its most recent stages, Western science is finally overcoming this view and coming back to those of the early Greek and the Eastern philosophies. This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism. /5–6
  • The roots of physics, as of all Western science, are to be found in the first period of Greek philosophy in the sixth century B.C., in a culture where science, philosophy and religion were not separated. The sages of the Milesian school in Ionia were not concerned with such distinctions. Their aim was to discover the essential nature, or real constitution, of things which they called ‘physis’. The term ‘physis’ is derived from this Greek word and meant therefore, originally, the endeavor of seeing the essential nature of all things. This, of course, is also the central aim of all mystics, and the philosophy of the Milesian school did indeed have a strong mystical flavor. The Milesians were called ‘hylozoists’, or ‘those who think matter is alive’, by the later Greeks, because they saw no distinction between animate and inanimate, spirit and matter. In fact, they did not even have a word for matter, since they saw all forms of existence as manifestations of the ‘physis’, endowed with life and spirituality. Thus Thales declared all things to be full of gods and Anaximander saw the universe as a kind of organism which was supported by ‘pneuma’, the cosmic breath, in the same way as the human body is supported by air. The monistic and organic view of the Milesians was very close to that of ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the parallels to Eastern thought are even stronger in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal ‘Becoming’. For him, all static Being was based on deception, and his universal principle was fire, a symbol for the continuous flow and change of all things. Heraclitus taught that all changes in the world arise form the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites, and / he saw any pair of opposites as unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, he called the Logos. /6–7
  • The split of this unity began with the Eleatic school, which assumed a Divine Principle standing above all gods and men. This principle was first identified with the unity of the universe, but was later seen as an intelligent and personal God who stands above the world and directs it. Thus began a trend of thought which led, ultimately, to the separation of spirit and matter and to a dualism which became characteristic of Western philosophy. /7
  • A drastic step in this direction was taken by Parmenides of Elea, who was in strong opposition to Heraclitus. (…) This led to the concept of the atom, the smallest indivisible unit of matter, which found its clearest expression in the philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus. /7
  • As the idea of a division between spirit and matter took hold, the philosophers turned their attention to the spiritual world, rather than the material, to the human / soul and the problems of ethics. These questions were to occupy Western thought for more than two thousand years after the culmination of Greek science and culture in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. /6–7
  • The scientific knowledge of antiquity was systematized and organized by Aristotle who created the scheme which was to be the basis of the Western view of the universe for two thousand years. But Aristotle himself believed that questions concerning the human soul and the contemplation of God’s perfection were much more valuable than investigations of the material world. The reason the Aristotelian model of the universe remained unchallenged for so long was precisely this lack of interest in the material world, and the strong hold of the Christian church which supported Aristotle’s doctrines throughout the Middle Ages. /8
  • Galileo was the first to combine empirical knowledge with mathematics and is therefore seen as the father of modern science. /8
  • The birth of modern science was preceded and accompanied by a development of philosophical thought which led to an extreme formulation of the spirit/matter dualism. This formulation appeared in the seventeenth century in the philosophy of René Descartes who based his view of nature on a fundamental division into two separate and independent realms: that of mind (res cogitans), and that of matter (res extensa). The ‘Cartesian’ division allowed scientists to treat matter as dead and completely separate from themselves, and to see the material world as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine. /8
  • This inner fragmentation mirrors our view of the world ‘outside’, which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events. The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society, which is split into different nations, races, religions and political groups. /8
  • In contrast to the mechanistic Western view, the Eastern view of the world is ‘organic’. For the Eastern mystic, all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected, and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality. /10
  • In the Eastern view, then, the division of nature into separate objects is not fundamental and any such objects have a fluid and ever-changing character. The Eastern / world view is therefore intrinsically dynamic and contains time and change as essential features. The cosmos is seen as one inseparable reality — forever in motion, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time. /10–11
  • Rational knowledge is derived from the experience we have with objects and events in our everyday environment. It belongs to the realm of the intellect, whose function is to discriminate, divide, compare, measure and categorize. In this way, a world of intellectual distinctions is created; of opposites which can exist only in relation to each other, which is why Buddhists call this type of knowledge ‘relative’. /14
  • For most of us it is very difficult to be constantly aware of the limitations and of the relativity of conceptual knowledge. Because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality. It is one of the main aims of Eastern mysticism to rid us of this confusion. Zen Buddhists say that a finger is needed to point to the moon, but that we should not trouble ourselves with the finger once the moon is recognized. /15
  • In the West, the semanticist Alfred Korzybski made exactly the same point with his powerful slogan, ‘The map is not the territory’. /16
  • What Eastern mystics are concerned with is a direct experience of reality which transcends not only intellectual thinking, but also sensory perception. /16
  • Eastern mysticism has developed several different ways of dealing with the paradoxical aspects of reality. Whereas they are bypassed in Hinduism through the use of mythical language, Buddhism and Taoism tend to emphasize the paradoxes rather than conceal them. /35
  • Zen Buddhists have a particular knack for making a virtue out of the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication, and with the koan system they have developed a unique way of transmitting their teachings completely nonverbally. Koans are carefully devised non-sensical riddles which are meant to make the student of Zen realize the limitations of logic and reasoning in the most dramatic way. The irrational wording and paradoxical content of these riddles makes it impossible to solve them by thinking. They are designed precisely to stop the thought process and thus to make the student ready for the nonverbal experience of reality. The contemporary Zen master Yasutani introduced a Western student to one of the most famous koans with the following words:
  • One of the best koans, because the simplest, is Mu. This is its background: A monk came to Joshu, a renowned Zen master in China hundreds of years ago, and asked: ‘Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?’ Joshu retorted, ‘Mu!’. Literally, the expression means ‘no’ or ‘not’, but the significance of Joshu’s answer does not lie in this. Mu is the expression of the living, functioning, dynamic Buddha-nature. What you must do is discover the spirit or essence of this Mu, not through intellectual analysis but by search into your innermost being. Then you must demonstrate before me, concretely, and vividly, that you understand Mu as living truth, without recourse to conceptions, theories, or abstract explanations. Remember, you can’t understand Mu through ordinary cognition; you must grasp it directly with your whole being. (Referencing Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen, Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, p. 135).
  • Questions about the essential nature of things were answered in classical physics by the Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe which, much in the same way as the Democritean model in ancient Greece, reduced all phenomena to the motions and interactions of hard, indestructible atoms. The properties of these atoms were abstracted from the macroscopic notion of billiard balls, and thus from sensory experience. Whether this notion could actually be applied to the world of atoms was not questioned. Indeed, it could not be investigated experimentally. /37
  • The discoveries of modern physics necessitated profound changes of concepts like space, time, matter, object, cause and effect, etc.; and since these concepts are so basic to our way of experiencing the world, it is not surprising that the physicists who were forced to change them felt something of a shock. Out of these changes emerged a new and radically different world-view, still in the process of formation by current scientific research. /42
  • The world-view which was changed by the discoveries of modern physics had been based on Newton’s mechanical model of the universe. This model constituted the solid framework of classical physics. It was indeed a most formidable foundation supporting, like a mighty rock, all of science and providing a firm basis for natural philosophy for almost three centuries. The stage of the Newtonian universe, on which all physical phenomena took place, was the three-dimensional space of classical Euclidean geometry. It was an absolute space, always at rest and unchangeable. /43
  • The mechanistic view of nature is … closely related to a rigorous determinism. The giant cosmic machine was seen as being completely causal and determinate. All that happened had a definite cause and gave rise to a definite effect, and the future of any part of the system could — in principle — be predicted with absolute certainty if its state at any time was known in all details. (…) The philosophical basis of this rigorous determinism was the fundamental division between the I and the world introduced by Descartes. As a consequence of this division, it was believed that the world could be described objectively, i.e., without ever mentioning the human observer, and such an objective description of nature became the ideal of all science. /45
  • Einstein strongly believed in nature’s inherent harmony, and his deepest concern throughout his scientific life was to find a unified foundation of physics. He began to move toward his goal by constructing a common framework for electrodynamics and mechanics, the two separate theories of classical physics. This framework is known as the special theory of relativity. It unified and completed the structure of classical physics, but at the same time it involved drastic changes in the traditional concepts of space and time and undermined one of the foundations of the Newtonian world view. /50
  • The whole development started when Max Planck discovered that the energy of heat radiation is not emitted continuously, but appears in the form of ‘energy packets’. Einstein called these energy packets ‘quanta’ and recognized them as a fundamental aspect of nature. He was bold enough to postulate that light and every other form of electromagnetic radiation can appear not only as electromagnetic waves, but also in the form of these quanta. The light quanta, which gave quantum theory its name, have since been accepted as bona fide particles of a special kind, however, massless and always traveling with the speed of light. (…) At the subatomic level, matter does not exist with certainty at definite places, but rather shows ‘tendencies to exist’, and atomic events do not occur with certainty at definite times and in definite ways, but rather show ‘tendencies to occur’. In the formalism of quantum theory these tendencies are expressed as probabilities and are associated with mathematical quantities which take the form of waves. This is why particles can be waves at the same time. /56
  • The basis of Krishna’s spiritual instruction, as of all Hinduism, is the idea that the multitude of things and events around us are but different manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality, called Brahman, is the unifying concept which gives Hinduism its essentially monistic character in spite of the worship of numerous gods and goddesses. /77
  • Maya … does not mean that the world is an illusion, as it is often wrongly stated. The illusion merely lies in our point of view, if we think that the shapes and structures, things and events, around us are realities of nature, instead of realizing that they are concepts of our measuring and categorizing minds. Maya is the illusion of taking these concepts for reality, of confusing the map with the territory. /78
  • Recognizing the relativity of good and bad, and thus of all moral standards, the Taoist sage does not strive for the good but rather tries to maintain a dynamic balance between good and bad. /103
  • When Po-chang was asked to define Zen, he said ‘When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.’ Although this sounds simple and obvious, like so much in Zen, it is in fact quite a difficult task. To regain the naturalness of our original nature requires long training and constitutes a great spiritual achievement. /110
  • The notion that all opposites are polar — that light and dark, winning and losing, good and evil, are merely different aspects of the same phenomenon — is one of the basic principles of the Eastern way of life. Since all opposites are interdependent, their conflict can never result in the total victory of one side, but will always be a manifestation of the interplay between the two sides. In the East, a virtuous person is therefore not one who undertakes the impossible task of striving for the good and eliminating the bad, but rather one who is able to maintain a dynamic balance between good and bad. /131
  • Western society has traditionally favored the male side rather than the female. Instead of recognizing that the personality of each man and of each woman is the result of an interplay between male and female elements, it has established a static order where all men are supposed to be masculine and all women feminine, and it has given men the leading roles and most of society’s privileges. This attitude has resulted in an over-emphasis of all the yang — or male — aspects of human nature: activity, rational thinking, competition, aggressiveness, and so on. The yin — or female — modes of consciousness, which can be described by words like intuitive, religious, mystical, occult, or psychic, have constantly been suppressed in our male-oriented society. /133
  • Contraria sunt complementa (Opposites are complementary), Niels Bohr acknowledged the profound harmony between ancient Eastern wisdom and modern Western science. /146
  • Our notions of space and time figure prominently on our map of reality. They serve to order things and events in our environment and are therefore of paramount importance not only in our everyday life, but also in our attempts to understand nature through science and philosophy. There is no law of physics which does not require the concepts of space and time for its formulation. The profound modification of these basic concepts brought about by relativity theory was therefore one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science. /147
  • Greek natural philosophy was, on the whole, essentially static and largely based on geometrical considerations. It was, one could say, extremely ‘non-relativistic’, and its strong influence on Western thought may well be one of the reasons why we have such great conceptual difficulties with relativistic models in modern physics. The Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, are ‘space-time’ philosophies, and thus their intuition often comes very close to the views of nature implied by our modern relativistic theories. /159

More Information

More about Fritjof Capra

Buy this Book from Amazon

Buy Review Sampler Paperback

Buy Review eBook from Scribd

See Pierre’s Amazon Reviews


©2015 Peter Fritz Walter. Some rights reserved.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Advertisements