What is Reality?

In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra sets out to establish a parallelism between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. His task is regrettably made easy by philosophical statements uttered by some well-known physicists.

CapraAs these physicists came in contact with the Far Eastern culture during their lecture tours to India, China, and Japan, their pre-existing sympathetic philosophical stance found a friendly partner in that region’s theosophy. Thus, we find Capra ecstatically quoting Werner Heisenberg as saying “The great scientific contributions in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory;” or J. Robert Oppenheimer as saying “Even in our own culture [discoveries in atomic physics] have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom;” and Niels Bohr as saying “For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory … [we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tsu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.” As great physicists as the authors of these quotes were, their philosophical statements have nothing in common with the groundbreaking contributions they made to science.

How could there be any connection between the highly abstract, counter-intuitive, and immensely mathematical modern physics and Eastern philosophy, which, by its very nature, is subjective?  The most powerful – and arguably the only – weapons available to the New Age gurus are quotes similar to the ones above.  Mystagogues put a statement by a famous physicist next to one made by an Eastern monk and point to the difficulty in telling them apart. This similitude has been so trivialized that even the use of the same metaphor by physicists and Eastern monks is sufficient proof for the parallel between modern physics and Eastern theosophy! If a Zen master describes his mystical experience as “the bottom of a pail breaking through,”  and Heisenberg describes quantum theory as ” … the foundation of physics has started moving; and this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science,” then, Capra argues, there must be a parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.

Another ploy of the mystics, as well as the purveyors of any kind of philosophical, political, or  religious belief system, is to camouflage certain familiar key words with a fabricated meaning, and throw them at their naive audience over and over again. (Consider the dictionary definitions of the word “liberal”: open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform; and compare it with the meaning that religious conservatives have attached to it.) The two key words that Capra uses in this manner are “knowledge” and “reality.” He talks about intuitive and rational knowledge without delving into the meaning and characteristic of knowledge. What if real knowledge does not even allow such division? (N.B. If your listeners do not know exactly what an atom is, you can talk about green atoms and blue atoms, and the listeners would not question such nonsensical categorization, especially if they have already accepted your authority.)

One thought on “What is Reality?”

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