Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Fritjof Capra and The Tao of Physics
This is part 4 of a series which explores the links between the quantum physics revolution and the worldview of spirituality. It’s been quite some time since I posted the last one, so I’ll begin with a brief recap.
In the first article I outlined why I think the quantum physics revolution is so important for the future of humanity; it appears to be the catalyst for the reunification of science and religion that we so urgently need. In the second article I outlined the ensuing history of this idea — the significant figures and books. In the rest of the series, I intend to summarise and review them one by one, in order to explore in more depth these ideas. In the previous article I looked at Fred Alan Wolf’s Space-Time and Beyond, which I believe was the first to make the relevant comparisons. It was followed soon afterwards by Fritjof Capra’s highly influential book The Tao of Physics¹, which is my topic here.
The most significant difference between them is that Wolf outlines a general spiritual worldview that he believes follows on from the discoveries of quantum physics, whereas Capra makes specific comparisons with Eastern religions, having chapters on Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. He says that “Eastern mysticism provides a consistent and beautiful philosophical framework which can accommodate our most advanced theories of the physical world” (p13). This is important because “the awareness of the profound harmony between the world view of modern physics and the views of Eastern mysticism now appears as an integral part of a much larger cultural transformation, leading to the emergence of a new vision of reality that will require fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions and values” (p16).
It is an interesting question how these ancient sages acquired such a detailed understanding without, we assume, the benefit of modern technology, how they managed to be thousands of years ahead of Western science. Capra believes that it must have been through spiritual, meditative practices. Since he wrote his book, however, there have been many researchers who believe that in ancient times there were civilisations with highly advanced technologies. It is possible therefore that the scientific/spiritual understanding of the Eastern religions was some kind of legacy from these earlier civilisations.
Here are some of the relevant breakthroughs of quantum physics mentioned by Capra. Firstly, “the experience of all phenomena as manifestations of a basic oneness” (p362). The assumption of classical physics that the world can ultimately be understood through a process of reductionism is no longer tenable. There are no fundamental building blocks since the parts can no longer be well defined, rather “the properties of the parts can only be fully understood through the dynamics of the whole” (p361).
Secondly, we do not inhabit a mechanical universe, rather a network of relations. It was previously believed “that there were fundamental structures, and then there were forces and mechanisms through which these interacted, which gave rise to processes”. Now process is primary; “every structure we observe is a manifestation of an underlying process” (p362). Putting these two together, Capra says that the universe is “an interconnected, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interdependent and have to be understood as patterns of a cosmic process” (p363).
Thirdly, as is well known, quantum physics identified the importance of the role of the observer/experimenter in the whole process of science; “we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves” (p363). There has therefore been a shift from objective to epistemic science; it is no longer possible to believe in objective scientific description, independent of the human observer.
As Capra points out, none of these ‘discoveries’ would come as a surprise to any student of Eastern mysticism, thus:
- 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” (p99), a basic oneness called Brahman. This is “a Void which has an infinite creative potential”, and “can easily be compared to the quantum field of subatomic physics. Like the quantum field, it gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which it sustains and, eventually, reabsorbs” (p234).
- the universe is thus perceived to be a complex cosmic web. The Buddhist text, the Avatamsaka Sutra provides a “description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way” (p151).
- “In Eastern mysticism, this universal interwovenness always includes the human observer and his or her consciousness” (p152). Eastern mystical traditions “have always regarded consciousness as an integral part of the universe” (p332).
It is important to note that there are different interpretations of the consistent results of quantum experiments, so that we cannot talk about one unified quantum theory. Capra is heavily influenced by:
- S-matrix theory, which “comes very close to Eastern thought, not only in its ultimate conclusion, but also in its general view of matter. It describes the world of subatomic particles as a dynamic network of events and emphasizes change and transformation rather than fundamental structures or entities” (p307)
- the bootstrap theory of Geoffrey Chew.
The latter is somewhat controversial. Capra believes that this theory is profound, yet it is “so foreign to our traditional scientific ways of thinking that it is pursued only by a small minority of physicists” (p365). He describes it thus:
- Chew’s “bootstrap theory of particles unifies quantum mechanics and relativity theory into a theory that represents a radical break with the entire Western approach to fundamental science” (p360).
- “The bootstrap hypothesis not only denies the existence of fundamental constituents of matter, but accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever — no fundamental laws, equations or principles — and thus abandons another idea which has been an essential part of natural science for hundreds of years… A very different attitude has now been developed. Physicists have come to see that all their theories of natural phenomena, including the laws they describe, are creations of the human mind; properties of our conceptual map of reality, rather than of reality itself” (p317).
The radical nature of this theory might therefore lead one to doubt Capra’s conclusions². As he points out, however, it is completely consistent with the ancient Eastern philosophies:
- “The world view of the Eastern mystics shares with the bootstrap philosophy of modern physics not only an emphasis on the mutual interrelation and self-consistency of all phenomena, but also the denial of fundamental constituents of matter… There is no room for any fixed fundamental entity” (p322).
- “The universe is an interconnected whole in which no part is any more fundamental than the other, so that the properties of any one part are determined by those of all the others” (p323)
- “The experience of interpenetration in the state of enlightenment (as described in the Avatamsaka Sutra), can be seen as a mystical vision of the complete ‘bootstrap situation’, where all phenomena in the universe are harmoniously interrelated” (p324).
Whether or not Capra is justified in accepting Chew’s theory so enthusiastically, his ideas are exciting for me because he:
- speculates about “the intriguing possibility of relating subatomic physics to Jungian psychology and, perhaps, even to parapsychology” (p341)
- says that the bootstrap theory “may lead to the unprecedented possibility of being forced to include the study of human consciousness explicitly in our future theories of matter” (p351)
- speaks favourably about David Bohm, who I believe is the most important of the quantum physicists from a spiritual perspective. (There will be a separate article about him later in the series.) Capra says that he “has perhaps gone further than anybody else in studying the relations between consciousness and matter in a scientific context” (p352).
- sees the quantum physics revolution as a significant aspect of the new emerging paradigm which has the potential to save the planet.
On that last point Capra says: “Before the seventeenth century, the goals of science were wisdom, understanding the natural order, and living in harmony with it. In the seventeenth century this attitude, which one could call an ecological attitude, changed into its opposite. Ever since Bacon the goal of science has been knowledge that can be used to dominate and control nature, and today both science and technology are used predominantly for purposes that are dangerous, harmful, and anti-ecological.
The change of worldview that is now occurring will have to include a profound change of values; in fact, a complete change of heart — from the intent to dominate and control nature to an attitude of cooperation and nonviolence. Such an attitude is deeply ecological and, not surprisingly, it is the attitude characteristic of spiritual traditions. The Chinese sages of old expressed it beautifully: ‘Those who follow the natural order flow in the current of the Tao’ ” (p368).
Amen to that!
Click here for the next article in the series.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- originally published in 1976. Here I’ll be referring to the third edition, Flamingo 1992.
- The bootstrap theory has been undergoing something of a revival. See for example this article, including: “The bootstrap languished for decades at the bottom of the physics toolkit. But recently the field has been re-energized as physicists have discovered novel bootstrap techniques that appear to solve many problems. While consistency conditions still aren’t much help for sorting out complicated nuclear particle dynamics, the bootstrap is proving to be a powerful tool for understanding more symmetric, perfect theories that, according to experts, serve as ‘signposts’ or ‘building blocks’ in the space of all possible quantum field theories”.