Capra's The Tao of Physics

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. 3rd Ed. Boston: Shambhala, 2010. Print.

Particle physicist and ecologist Fritjof Capra examines how philosophical principles of Eastern mysticism have anticipated developments in modern physics.

Preface to the Fifth Edition

In the preface, Capra notes his book has been published in over forty editions around the world, and that mysticism is starting to be taken seriously in the scientific community (5).  Capra suggests that our vision of reality is changing away from a body-as-machine metaphor, following the shift in scientific view from Newtonian mechanics as an ultimate explanation to General Relativity and beyond (7-8). 

Capra promotes a perspective of deep ecology, which considers objects as interconnected and interdependent, looking at humans “as just one particular strand in the web of life (8). This connection, for Capra, is “the very essence of spirituality” (8). Capra defines “spiritual experience” as “an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unit,” a unity transcending “the separation of self and world” (8).

Capra states: “The sense of oneness with the natural world, which is characteristic of spiritual experience, is fully borne out by the understanding of life in contemporary science . . . we realize how tightly we are connected with the entire fabric of life” (Capra 9).

Finally, Capra notes that he has updated the book to account for developments in physics research, but that “none of these recent developments has invalidated anything I wrote 35 years ago. In fact, most of them were anticipated in the original edition” (9). 

Chapter 1: Modern Physics: A Path with a Heart?

Capra begins by noting the importance of physics in modern society, in terms of technological development and cultural reactions (17). He writes that the modern vision of the world physics has helped inspire parallels a view of the world held in Eastern mysticism, quoting Julius Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg, who each made this same connection (Capra 17-18).

Capra states that by “Eastern Mysticism” he refers to “the religious philosophies of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism” (19). Acknowledging their differences, then their basic similarities, he notes that all mystical traditions share these concepts (Capra 19).

Capra mentions that physics began in ancient Greece, when it was the same as philosophy and religion, specifically noting the Milesians, Anaximander, Ephesus, and Heraclitus (Capra 20).  He writes that “Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal ‘Becoming’ . . . Heraclitus taught that all changes in the world arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites and he saw any pair of opposites as a unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, he called the Logos” (Capra 20). He explains how this idea changed as spirit-matter (and mind-body) dualism took hold of Greek thought (Capra 21).

Capra follows the development of Western philosophy into the enlightenment with Galileo and Descartes, asserting that the Cartesian division of body and mind parallels our ideas of outward divisions of objects in the world and divisions within global society (22-23). Contrasting this view, Eastern mystics perceive ultimate reality as unified, interrelated, and dynamic, ever-changing and fluid (24-25).

Chapter 2: Knowing and Seeing

This chapter examines basic epistemological questions related to the ineffability of experience and the limitations of language (Capra 26).  Capra distinguishes between scientific/rational knowledge and religious/intuitive knowledge as functions of different mental modes: the tendency to divide, categorize, and compare (rationality) and the tendency to look at the “indeterminate ‘suchness’” of direct experience (intuitive knowledge) (Capra 27-29).

The goal of this chapter is to show that science and training toward mystical experiences both demonstrate a preference for repeatability and direct experience (Capra 33-37).

Capra shares a quote from Einstein describing the difficulty of relying on scientific theories and models: “’As for as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality’” (Capra 41).

Capra connects the idea of India’s polytheism—of “many faces of reality” with how the Taoists handle “the language problem” through paradoxes: both are indirect methods, as Truth cannot be accessed directly through language (Capra43).

Chapter 3: Beyond Language

Language cannot describe reality, but can at best remind us of the paradoxes of existence.

“The study of the world of atoms forced physicists to realize that our common language is not only inaccurate, but totally inadequate to describe the atomic and subatomic reality” (Capra 45). There are inevitable contradictions in our language (46).

Capra describes the photoelectric effect—that electromagnetic waves, which spread out over a great distance, behave as particles which are “confined to a very small volume” (Capra 47). Scientists needed to get comfortable with a new, paradoxical awareness of reality (Capra 49-50).

Capra notes that the indirectness of language parallels the indirectness of understanding gained through scientific observation: that the results of scientific studies are “never the investigated phenomena themselves but always their consequences” as the truth is inherently too big or too small or too far for us to see with our own direct perception (Capra 51)

Chapter 4: The New Physics

“All physical events are reduced, in Newtonian mechanics, to the motion of material points in space, caused by their mutual attraction, i.e., by the force of gravity”’ (Capra 56). Newtonian mechanics had falsely suggested a backdrop of determinism—that motion, and thus causation is predictable (Capra 56).

The Newtonian universe and the model of the Greek atomists “were based on the distinction between the full and the void, between matter and space, and in both models the particles remained always identical in their mass and shape“ (Capra 55).  When Faraday and Maxwell discovered a new force, electromagnetism, they were the first to step beyond Newton’s theories (Capra 59).  Maxwell indicated that “electromagnetic fields were physical entities in their own right which could travel through empty space and could not be explained mechanically” (Capra 61). 

Albert Einstein reconciled the theory of electromagnetism and Newtonian mechanics (which relied on a linear, constant flow of time) in his theory of special relativity which views space and time as a single entity—spacetime (Capra 62).  At the heart of the idea of special relativity is “the realization that mass is nothing but a form of energy” which can be described in relation to the constant c, the speed of light (Capra 63).

Einstest in expanded special relativity in 1915 to include gravity which became the theory of general relativity; the consequence of this idea is that spacetime curves based on mass, so time and space take different shapes in various areas of the universe, meaning that no measurement is absolute, but always relative (Capra 63-4).

Capra describes Rutherford’s experiments with alpha particles and radioactivity, which indicated that subatomic particles could be used to understand the structure of atoms (Capra 65). 

Max Planck discovered that heat radiates in energy packets rather than continuously, and this led to the understanding of wave-particle duality: that photons, particles of light, travel as waves yet can behave as particles (Capra 67).  None of this can be measured absolutely—only with probabilities, as the particles only show “tendencies to exist” or “tendencies to occur” (Capra 68).

“A careful analysis of the process of observation in atomic physics has shown that the subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities, but can only be understood as interconnections between the preparation of the experiment and the subsequent measurement. Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe . . . As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks,’ but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole . . . the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of an objective description of nature is no longer valid. The Cartesian partition between the I and the world, between the observer and the observed, cannot be made when dealing with atomic matter. In atomic physics, we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves” (Capra 68-9).

Now, given our understanding of how energy creates substances in various forms, we look at particles as “patterns” rather than basic chemical materials, as mass is only an appearance of energy (Capra 77).