August 14, 2010

1. The Tao of Physics

A. Western Dualism, Eastern Monism

I started The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra (e-text here) . It was written 35 years ago, and achieved wide popularity. One might compare it to The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav, which was written about 30 years ago, and which I discussed in an earlier issue. I have a strong interest in quantum physics, and also in Eastern philosophy, so I want to read another book that compares the two subjects. Everyone with a mystical bent, a non-rational bent, is fond of quantum physics. On these particles we will found our church.

While he compares quantum physics to Eastern philosophy, one might wish that Capra would also compare quantum physics to the occult. Here, perhaps, Zukav does a better job than Capra. On the whole, though, Capra’s book is excellent, and deserves its high reputation.

In Chapter 1, Capra notes the significance of the Descartes-Kepler-Newton Revolution, the rational-scientific revolution that smashed the traditional view of the world as an organic whole, smashed the world into separate objects. And Capra notes that this revolution had antecedents in the ancient world, that certain Greek thinkers had a rational-scientific worldview. Thus far, he’s reviewing what I already know.

But he also taught me some new things. He points out that Descartes’ sharp division between mind and matter, Descartes’ dualism, is an integral part of his worldview. Descartes stripped matter of all mind, all intelligence; he viewed matter as dumb. He overlooks the fact (or isn’t aware of the fact) that mind evolved from matter, the organic from the inorganic. Perhaps Descartes believed that mind was a gift from God, and that life, too, originated by divine fiat.

By dividing matter and mind, Descartes broke the unity of the world. In the East, this unity was never broken; “In the Eastern view... the cosmos is seen as one inseparable reality — for ever in motion, alive, organic; spiritual and material at the same time.”1 In the East, the divine is within things, not above things.

This worldview, which might be called the traditional view or the Eastern view, is found among many pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, especially the Milesian School (Thales, Anaximander, etc.). “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.”2 These Milesians were called “hylozoists,” meaning “those who think matter is alive.”

On the other hand, some later Greek philosophers remind one of Descartes. “The Greek atomists drew a clear line between spirit and matter, picturing matter as being made of several ‘basic building blocks.’ These were purely passive and intrinsically dead particles moving in the void.”3 According to the rational view, matter is dumb, dead, and moved by outside forces; according to the Philosophy of Today, matter has energy and is moved from within, matter has a kind of life, a kind of consciousness.

Capra quotes Oppenheimer, who realized that the new physics-philosophy was akin to old ideas, especially old Eastern ideas. Oppenheimer said that the new physics-philosophy was “an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom”4 (in my book of aphorisms, I said that the new physics-philosophy didn’t give us new ideas, but rather confirmed our existing ideas).

Capra also quotes Heisenberg, who said, “In the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet.”5 My approach is to combine “different lines of thought” — combine philosophy and psychology, combine East and West, combine the sciences and the humanities, etc. In order to make these combinations, I sacrifice specialized knowledge for general knowledge, sacrifice the microscopic for the macroscopic.

So much for Chapter 1. Chapter 2 is less interesting. It argues that quantum physics and Eastern mysticism both emphasize seeing, observing, experience, and both insist that experience can’t be completely captured in words. After saying that scientists often make discoveries by intuition,6 Capra says

Another well known example of spontaneous intuitive insights are jokes. In the split second where you understand a joke you experience a moment of “enlightenment.” It is well known that this moment must come spontaneously, that it cannot be achieved by “explaining” the joke, i.e. by intellectual analysis. Only with a sudden intuitive insight into the nature of the joke do we experience the liberating laughter the joke is meant to produce. The similarity between a spiritual insight and the understanding of a joke must be well known to enlightened men and women, since they almost invariably show a great sense of humor. Zen, especially, is full of funny stories and anecdotes, and in the Tao Te Ching we read, “If it were not laughed at, it would not be sufficient to be Tao.”7

Chapter 3 is a short chapter that says the statements of modern physicists are “paradoxical and full of logical contradictions.”8 Chapter 3 compares quantum physics to a koan, and says that the pioneers of quantum physics, like Heisenberg and Bohr, were as baffled as a Zen novice confronted by a koan. Capra quotes Heisenberg:

I remember discussions with Bohr [in 1927] which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?9

Chapter 4 is a longer chapter, and reviews the history of physics, contrasting modern physics with classical, Newtonian physics. Capra writes in a lucid manner that’s suitable for the non-scientist. He points out that classical physics viewed space, time, and matter as absolute and independent, whereas modern physics views everything as inter-connected — everything is relative to everything else. For example, mass and energy are forms of each other (as we see in Einstein’s e=mc2). Space and matter are inter-connected because space curves in the neighborhood of massive objects. Nothing stands alone:

The properties of a particle can only be understood in terms of its activity — of its interaction with the surrounding environment... the particle, therefore, cannot be seen as an isolated entity, but has to be understood as an integrated part of the whole.10

The modern physicist says that nothing is solid, absolute, and independent, everything is a form of everything else. (One is reminded of the modern philosopher — Nietzsche, for example — who says that virtue and vice aren’t absolutes, they’re inter-connected.) The universe isn’t made up of separate objects, it’s an inter-connected whole, an organic whole. This has long been understood in the East; in a recent issue, I quoted a Tibetan writer: “Nothing has any inherent existence of its own when you really look at it, and this absence of independent existence is what we call ‘emptiness.’” According to Eastern sages, everything is empty, everything is nothing. But they see no reason to despair; in this nothing, they find their all.

Chapter 5 is a quick summary of Hinduism. Capra says that “the basis of... all Hinduism is the idea that the multitude of things and events around us are but different manifestations of the same ultimate reality.”11 This ultimate reality is called Brahman. Brahman eludes definition; Brahman “cannot be comprehended by the intellect, nor can it be adequately described in words.”12 The human soul is called Atman, and according to Hinduism, Atman and Brahman are one; your soul and the soul of the world are the same. Since Brahman underlies everything, there’s no distinction between mind and matter, thought and substance; Hinduism is monist, not dualist.

B. Buddhism

Chapter 6 discusses Buddhism. While the origins of Hinduism are lost in the “dark backward and abysm of time,” Buddhism begins in India around 550 BC, with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. While Hinduism in encrusted with a multitude of deities and rituals, Buddhism focuses on the inner life, on calming the mind. The Buddha “was concerned exclusively with the human situation, with the suffering and frustrations of human beings. His doctrine, therefore, was not one of metaphysics, but one of psychotherapy.”13 The Buddha is often portrayed in meditation: “For the Eastern world, the Buddha’s image in the state of meditation is as significant as the image of the crucified Christ for the West.”14 An image of meditation seems to represent a higher level of civilization than one of crucifixion.

According to Buddhism, the human condition is one of suffering and frustration. Everything in the world is transitory, but we often “resist the flow of life and try to cling to fixed forms... things, events, people or ideas.” Even our own self, our own ego, is not a fixed, durable entity; “there is no ego, no self which is the persistent subject of our varying experiences.”15 Our mind makes separate things, fixed categories, and we cling to these phantoms; this clinging and grasping causes suffering.

Capra praises a small book called The Awakening of Faith, which he says was written in the first century AD by Ashvaghosha, an Indian writer. Capra calls it a “lucid and extremely beautiful text.”16 Wikipedia, however, says “modern scholars agree that the text was composed in China.” Wikipedia refers to the book as Awakening of Mahayana Faith (or Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana), and spells the name of the reputed author “Asvaghosa.” But everyone seems to agree that it’s a Buddhist classic.

Capra says that Ashvaghosha probably influenced Nagarjuna, a leading Buddhist philosopher who lived around 200 AD. Nagarjuna says reality is void, empty, sunyata. Capra calls Nagarjuna “the most intellectual Mahayana philosopher, who used a highly sophisticated dialectic to show the limitations of all concepts of reality.... When the futility of all conceptual thinking is recognized, reality is experienced as pure suchness [tathata].”17 Alan Watts recommends a book called The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, which deals with Nagarjuna’s philosophy.18

C. Taoism and the Dialectic

Chapter 7 is called “Chinese Thought.” The Chinese referred to the ultimate reality, the world-essence, as Tao. Here again, as in Indian thought, there’s no distinction between mind and matter; the world is one. The Tao is movement, change, and this movement is cyclical. According to Lao Zi, “Returning is the motion of the Tao.... Going far means returning.”19 This is what Hegel called the dialectic, and what Heraclitus called enantiodromia.

The Chinese believe that whenever a situation develops to its extreme, it is bound to turn around and become its opposite. This basic belief has given them courage and perseverance in times of distress and has made them cautious and modest in times of success.... In the Chinese view, it [is] better to leave things undone than to overdo them.20

According to the Chinese, reality is Tao, and Tao is a play of opposites, a play of yin and yang. “That which lets now the dark, now the light appear is Tao.”21 Yang is bright, male, movement, Heaven, clear, rational, Confucian, while yin is dark, female, rest, Earth, intuition, Taoist. According to Zhuang Zi, life is “the blended harmony of the yin and yang.”22

Capra is a physicist by training, and he seems to have the distaste for the occult that most scientists have. When he discusses the Book of Changes (the I Ching), he doesn’t want to admit its occult character, its prophetic character. He says, “The use of the I Ching as a book of wisdom is, in fact, of far greater importance than its use as an oracle.”23

Chapter 8 is on Taoism. Capra says Taoism tries to go beyond opposites, tries to see opposites as inter-related; earlier we compared this view to Hegel’s dialectic. This view plays a key role in my philosophy of history, so I find it interesting. Is it a confirmation of my theory, or is my theory a confirmation of the Taoist view? As Schopenhauer said, Truth agrees with itself and confirms itself.

The Taoists saw all changes in nature as manifestations of the dynamic interplay between the polar opposites yin and yang, and thus they came to believe that any pair of opposites constitutes a polar relationship where each of the two poles is dynamically linked to the other. For the Western mind, this idea of the implicit unity of all opposites is extremely difficult to accept. It seems most paradoxical to us that experiences and values which we had always believed to be contrary should be, after all, aspects of the same thing. In the East, however, it has always been considered as essential for attaining enlightenment to go ‘beyond earthly opposites,’ and in China the polar relationship of all opposites lies at the very basis of Taoist thought.24

When discussing my theory of history, I argued that the opposites renaissance and decadence are produced by opposing instincts, the life-instinct and the death-instinct. I said that these opposing instincts are closely related — they’re on the same spectrum, the same see-saw, and they could be viewed as two versions of the same instinct. So my theory agrees with the Taoist view that opposites are connected, related. Another way in which my theory resembles the Taoist view is that I view the instincts of societies as natural, spontaneous, unconscious; they have nothing to do with conscious thought or will or reasoning. Perhaps I should call my book The Tao of History!

While Capra stresses the opposites, the dialectic, he overlooks synchronicity in Chinese thought — that is, he overlooks the Chinese tendency to see connections between things, affinities between things. For example, the Chinese thought that the death of an emperor and an earthquake were connected; such a connection was occult, synchronistic, acausal. The Chinese found such connections everywhere. As Marie-Louise von Franz said,

As soon as we notice that certain types of event ‘like’ to cluster together at certain times, we begin to understand the attitude of the Chinese, whose theories of medicine, philosophy, and even building are based on a ‘science’ of meaningful coincidences. The classical Chinese texts did not ask what causes what, but rather what ‘likes’ to occur with what.25

This is an important part of Chinese thought, and Capra overlooks it completely.

D. Taoism and Nietzsche

When Capra speaks of going beyond earthly opposites, one thinks of Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil.” And indeed the Taoist view has implications for morality; Capra says that, of all opposites, moral opposites are the “first and foremost”26 to be related and relativized. (Capra creates confusion by speaking of “good and bad” rather than “good and evil,” but it’s clear that he’s talking about moral opposites.) There’s a striking agreement between Nietzsche’s view and the Taoist view; again, truth agrees with itself and confirms itself. The Straussians said that Nietzsche’s theory was a modern mistake, but actually Nietzsche’s theory is neither modern nor mistaken.

Nietzsche failed, however, to see the relativity of opposites as a universal principle. On the other hand, Hegel may have realized that it was a universal principle, but Hegel failed to see its application to morality. The old Taoists saw what Hegel saw, and also what Nietzsche saw.

According to Zhuang Zi,

The ‘this’ is also ‘that’. The ‘that’ is also ‘this’. That the ‘that’ and the ‘this’ cease to be opposites is the very essence of Tao. Only this essence, an axis as it were, is the center of the circle responding to the endless changes.27

When a Jungian like myself hears the phrase “center of the circle,” he sits up straight, and if he was starting to nod off, he’s suddenly wide awake. The Jungians, like the Taoists, strive for wholeness, strive for the center of the circle, a center that is beyond opposites, includes opposites. The Jungian strives not for the Good, but for the Center.

Recognizing the relativity of... all moral standards [Capra writes], the Taoist sage does not strive for the good but rather tries to maintain a dynamic balance. Zhuang Zi is very clear on this point:

The sayings ‘Shall we not follow and honor the right and have nothing to do with the wrong?’ and ‘Shall we not follow and honor those who secure good government and have nothing to do with those who produce disorder?’ show a want of acquaintance with the principles of Heaven and Earth and with the different qualities of things. It is like following and honoring Heaven and taking no account of Earth;28 it is like following and honoring the yin and taking no account of the yang. It is clear that such a course cannot be pursued.29

From their theory of the inter-relation of opposites, the Taoists deduced two rules of conduct:

  1. when you want to achieve something, start with its opposite (for example, in order to take, start by giving)
  2. when you want to retain something, “admit in it something of its opposite”; for example, “Be bent, and you will remain straight” (is this why people do yoga?)

In an earlier issue, we discussed Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, and we noted that The Idiot presents good and evil as relative, complementary, not completely distinct. Dostoyevsky’s ideal person, Prince Myshkin, has a “dark underside”:

Myshkin’s personality has its share of violent and lustful drives, but these drives are repressed; “Myshkin’s goodness is obviously problematic; it has a dark underside of which Myshkin himself is aware in the form of what he calls ‘double thoughts.’”

Dostoyevsky’s Idiot illustrates the idea that morality is relative, illustrates the Taoist-Nietzschean view of morality.

E. Taoism and Natural Morality

Taoist morality consists in following the Tao, following nature. Taoists sometimes remind one of those Western writers, like Montaigne, who preached natural ethics (Nietzsche was fond of these preachers of natural ethics30). The Taoist sage, says Capra, “does not need to force himself, or anything around him, but merely adapts his actions to the movements of the Tao.”31 The Taoist principle of wu-wei (non-action) can be translated “refraining from activity contrary to nature.” As Zhuang Zi said, “Non-action does not mean doing nothing and keeping silent. Let everything be allowed to do what it naturally does, so that its nature will be satisfied.” Follow nature, don’t force things. Do nothing, and everything will be done. “The sage,” said Lao Zi, “carries on his business without action and gives his teachings without words.”32

F. Lao Zi and Heraclitus

Capra says there’s a striking agreement between Lao Zi and Heraclitus. Like Lao Zi, Heraclitus said everything is changing, change is cyclical, and opposites are related:

It is easy to see how the concept of change as a dynamic interplay of opposites led Heraclitus, like Lao Zi, to the discovery that all opposites are polar and thus united. ‘The way up and down is one and the same,’ said the Greek, and ‘God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger.’33

G. Taoism and Analytic Philosophy

Taoism has little use for learning, and little use for reasoning. According to Zhuang Zi, “the most extensive knowledge does not necessarily know [the Tao]; reasoning will not make men wise in it.... Disputation is a proof of not seeing clearly.”34 Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, seem to think that disputation is an essential part of philosophy. What academia calls “philosophy” is in sharp contrast with mystical schools of thought, such as Taoism. Taoism tries to grasp the way of nature, the process of nature; it’s interested in the natural, not the artificial. “Logical reasoning was considered by the Taoists as part of the artificial world of man, together with social etiquette and moral standards. They were not interested in this world at all.”35

H. Taoism and Soft Primitivism

Like other non-rational schools, Taoism subscribed to “soft primitivism”, that is, Taoism took a positive view of primitive life. Zhuang Zi said,

The men of old... shared the placid tranquility which belonged to the whole world. At that time, the yin and the yang were harmonious and still.... This was what is called the state of perfect unity. At this time, there was no action on the part of anyone — but a constant manifestation of spontaneity.36

I. Capra on Zen

Chapter 9 is the last chapter in Capra’s survey of Eastern philosophy; it deals with Zen. Capra says that the Zen student initially accepts reality as it is, then becomes distracted by theories, and finally regains the simple-minded approach to everyday reality:

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.37

So the intellectual regains the simple-minded attitude, though perhaps on a higher level. One is reminded of Lichtenberg’s comment on the occult:

There is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again. Still to believe that the moon affects the plants reveals stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again is a sign of philosophy and reflection.38

One might say that education is regaining the simple-minded attitude, though perhaps on a higher level.

Capra concludes the chapter on Zen with enthusiastic praise for Zen in the Art of Archery. Capra says that the author, Eugen Herrigel, studied archery in Japan for five years. “When he reached the height of perfection, bow, arrow, goal and archer all melted into one another and he did not shoot, but ‘it’ did it for him. Herrigel’s description of archery is one of the purest accounts of Zen, because it does not talk about Zen at all.”39

The Tao of Physics (Part 2)
The Tao of Physics (Part 3)

2. Travel Plans

I’m going to Prague on August 18, and spending two weeks in the Czech Republic and Germany. At first, my plan was to cycle along the Elbe. But I didn’t think I had enough time to do the whole 700-mile ElbeWay, and when I started looking at guide books, many other places in Germany seemed attractive. Also, the first hundred miles of the ElbeWay, in the Czech Republic, isn’t very attractive to me. So now I’m planning to spend a few days in Prague, then take a train to Dresden, then perhaps visit Leipzig, Weimar, Erfurt, and Berlin. Erfurt is twenty miles north of Ilmenau, which has a 12-mile hiking trail called the Goethewanderweg; several Goethe houses/museums are along this trail. Goethe often walked in this area.

I’m considering a Nietzsche pilgrimage, too, since much of Nietzsche’s life was spent near Leipzig. He was born in the village of Rocken, about ten miles southwest of Leipzig, and he’s buried in Rocken. When he was four, his father died, and his mother moved the family to Naumburg, where her parents lived; Naumberg is about ten miles southwest of Rocken. Nietzsche spent several years in Naumberg, and at the end of his life, when he was insane, his sister brought him back to Naumberg; there’s a Nietzsche House in Naumberg (Naumberg is also known for its cathedral). From age 14 to 20, Nietzsche attended a private school near Naumberg, Schulpforta, which is still going today (whether they welcome Nietzsche pilgrims, I’m not sure). Nietzsche also studied for a time at the University of Leipzig (Goethe was also a student at Leipzig, and a scene in Faust takes place in a Leipzig bar, Auerbach’s Cellar.)

I also considered a hiking trail called Rennsteig, which passes a few miles south of Ilmenau. Rennsteig is about 110 miles long, and it’s one of Germany’s most popular and ancient trails. It starts near Eisenach, which is known for Wartburg Castle, a UNESCO site where Martin Luther stayed while translating the Bible into German. From Eisenach, Rennsteig runs southeast to Blankenstein, following the ridge of the Thuringian Mountains. The mountains aren’t very high, and the LonelyPlanet guide book says that “no special skills or equipment are needed” to hike the Rennsteig. A bike trail runs alongside the hiking trail.

I’ve learned something just by studying maps and guide books; you learn about foreign countries not only by visiting them, but also by preparing to visit. I didn’t know, for example, that the Czechs are a Slavic people, and that Czech is a Slavic language, separate from Slovak (perhaps this is one reason that Czechs and Slovaks separated into two countries). But the Czechs’ religion isn’t Orthodox, it’s Catholic, and their alphabet isn’t Cyrillic, it’s Latin. One might compare them to the Poles.

© L. James Hammond 2010
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1. Ch. 1, p. 24 back
2. Ch. 1, p. 20 back
3. Ch. 1, p. 21 back
4. Ch. 1, p. 18 back
5. epigraph, before preface back
6. Ch. 2, p. 31 back
7. Ch. 2, p. 37 back
8. p. 46 back
9. p. 50 back
10. p. 80 back
11. p. 87 back
12. p. 87 back
13. p. 93 back
14. p. 94 back
15. p. 95 back
16. p. 97 back
17. p. 97 back
18. Murti, T. R. V., 1955. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. George Allen and Unwin, London. 2nd edition: 1960. back
19. p. 105 back
20. p. 105 back
21. p. 106 back
22. p. 107 back
23. p. 110 back
24. p. 114 back
25. Man and His Symbols, part 3, p. 211 of hardcover edition back
26. p. 115 back
27. p. 114 back
28. Isn’t this just what some Westerners tried to do — follow Heaven and take no account of Earth? Pursue the Good and lose the Center? back
29. p. 115 back
30. See Chapter 14, footnote 9, of my book of aphorisms. back
31. p. 117 back
32. p. 117 back
33. p. 116. The Straussians admire Greek philosophy, but they prefer the later philosophers, like Aristotle, and seem to have little use for Heraclitus. Nietzsche, on the other hand, took a dim view of the later philosophers, but admired pre-Socratics like Heraclitus. back
34. p. 113 back
35. pp. 113, 114 back
36. p. 118 back
37. p. 124 back
38. The Lichtenberg Reader, Boston, Beacon Press, 1959, Aphorisms, “1775.” I quoted this passage in an earlier issue. back
39. p. 126. If you’re interested in Zen literature, consider Kakuzo’s Book of Tea. back