{A look at quantum physics and eastern mysticism}

get the PDF; revised 11 September 2005

Science and religion have always fulfilled the roles of archnemeses, the former a heathenous pursuit of reason at the expense of righteousness, the latter a blind capitulation to superstition and a forfeiture of personal liberties. They have clashed since the age of Galileo, when observation contradicted scripture (or, more accurately, the word of the Church), and clash even unto this day with feuds regarding creationism and bioethics, and the subtle injection of Christian values into the secular government. It seems as though the spirituality of the western and middle eastern world (read: Judeo-Christian-Islamic god of Abraham) is completely irreconcilable with scientific thought, perhaps not so much by the absence of mutual evidence, but by starkly different methodologies of belief. As has often been pointed out to me, freedom from a hierarchical or divisive dogma is not equatable to complete atheism, which is another topic entirely. The question becomes this: should I and can I embrace spirituality and science concomitantly?

The question has already been posed. In 1975, Fritjof Capra wrote The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Since this book is exactly the sort of wise tome that I need, I naturally was unable to find it anywhere, despite being on its fourth edition and revered by some as a landmark work. Later in my research, I was able to uncover snippets of the book: a preface here, a long quoted passage there; enough to piece together some of its queer ideology. Many areas of science have for years been at odds with various religions: astronomy, archæology, biology, just to name a few. Part of this stems from the way each tries to explain the process for creation and evolution (in the general sense). As neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins asserts, the natural progression of virtually anything on this earth is the “nonrandom survival of randomly varying genetic instructions” (“Richard Dawkins” 1). Religion places all unanswerables in a handy catch-all ubiquitous father god, caring but marginally for the machinations that made it so (Haack 2).

As early as the year 1900, the concepts set forth by classical (Newtonian) physics were ready to be replaced by a new school of thought, based upon the idea of discrete quantities of matter or energy called “quanta,” so coined by Max Planck and taken further by the better-known Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity was a cornerstone for quantum physics, as the new branch was to be called.

Quantum physics affects virtually every branch of science, because it deals fundamentally with matter and energy on it’s smallest form, and hypothesizes about the waveforms inherent not only to energy and light, but matter as well. Quantum physics has provided new insight into time travel, astrophysics, astronomy, historical science, computing, and medical science.

Quantum mechanics, born out of a mathematical discovery in 1925, produced a new way of looking at electron orbits (replacing the antiquated Bohr model, among others) based on a “Fourier” spread of their emitted radiation. Perhaps the most fascinating of quantum discoveries (made in part by the aforementioned Bohr) was that an event’s (matter or energy) waveform represented several different probabilities, with the most likely wave having the strongest electromagnetic intensity. The possibilities arriving from this kind of idea were mind-boggling, to say the least. Especially in terms of philosophical ideas, quantum physics opened doors to an almost Eastern interpretation of reality, which, in fact, many authors would propose in the future.

Infamous though the belief structures of the western world have been, I have never heard much of an argument between Eastern religions and any manner of science. Perhaps this is simply because the faiths and philosophies of the Far East get little airplay, or perhaps they really are less invasive and more compatible with science’s discovered truth. Given the nature of Eastern mysticism, I chose (quantum) physics as a testbed for my comparison, partly because I have a vested interest in the subject and partly because I hoped such heady information would be easier to spin at the last minute, if need be.

Immediately, my research indicated that grouping the manifold flavours of Eastern mysticism into a tidy singularity was impossible in an objective sense and at least unwise in a subjective sense. Peter Bussey’s “Eastern religions and modern physics – a further examination” establishes two important aspects by which these disparate pieces may be reconciled. First, the mystical belief in an “Ultimate Reality” (perhaps or perhaps not a deity) that exists pantheistically, that is, around rather than beyond. Secondly, most eastern mystic faiths teach a sort of “nirvana” or supreme state and differing techniques for achieving it (113).

Ironically enough, eastern religions seem almost a vacuum of intellect, hardly the sort of place one would attempt to tie in man’s iconic Science.

The deepest problem is that the above religions have no ultimate place for intellectual things. This is perhaps the most critical difference between East and West. God in the West is in a profound sense incomprehensible to human beings, but nonetheless rational and able to reveal something of Himself to humanity in ways we can understand. Ultimate Reality in the East is beyond rationality and, indeed, beyond all words. This allows New Age neo-orientalism to fit in nicely with postmodernism in allowing a variety of contradictory viewpoints to coexist, even within a single person. Ultimate Reality is ‘beyond all that.’

I pressed on to learn some of the important principles of quantum mechanics. The first is called complementarity, also referred to as an “uncertainty” or “indeterminacy” principle. Pioneered by Werner Heisenberg, this principle states that for two unknown physical properties of a particle, for instance its position and its momentum, one can only be measured more accurately by knowing the other less accurately (Hilgevoord 3). Neils Bohr, another famous quantum physicist, is often said to have tied Taoism and quantum mechanics together. Often cited is Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, which contains lines such as “Long and short contrast each other. High and low rest on each other.” However, these are all logical opposites, stemming from Tao’s yin and yang1, or dualistic, nature. There seems to be little or no parallel to the negative relationship between the indeterminacies of quantities (Bussey 115). Furthermore, the characteristics themselves can be used singularly for a purpose of measurement. When studying the behaviour of an electron, scientists look exclusively at its wave-function, an equation describing the electron’s positional properties. When dealing with high-energy particles, on the other hand, scientists deal with their momentum. In Taoism’s dualistic yin and yang, neither part alone is a mode of thought or a description of an event: they must be put together before they have any significance (116). Taoism and quantum mechanics are similar only in the sense that they appear to resolve conflicting quantities.

Buddhism, another flavour of mysticism, seeks to transcend opposites altogether. D.T. Suzuki writes that a Buddhist’s intention is “…to pass beyond the world of opposites, a world built up by intellectual distinctions and emotional defilements, and to realize the spiritual world of non-distinction, which involves achieving an absolute point of view” (Qtd. in Capra 158). Again, this differs quite hardily from science, which seeks to understand the world rather than surpass it.

Another remarkable proclamation of quantum physicists is the idea that not only does an observed quantity affect the observer, but the observer can affect the quantity. For instance, classical (Newtonian) physics state that a man watching an atom is affected by said atom in that sense that his knowledge has increased. Quantum physics states that a billion years ago, an atom speeding across the universe has the option of traveling one of many billions of possible paths. When the man observes the atom a billion years later, then and only then does the atom’s probability wave collapse and its path “cement,” so to speak. In other words, the man’s actions today affect(ed) the atom’s behaviour one billion years in the past (Bryson 175).

Proponents of a marriage between eastern mysticism and quantum physics insist that the very nature of this principle is congruent with the eastern view that all things are one; that, in fact, the observer and the observed were never really separate at all. The unity implied in eastern philosophy, however, implies a certain loss of self or identity, which we know does not happen. An observer and an observed are both quantifiably separate entities. An eastern mystic really has no concern for the observer’s effect on the object, merely the conscious of the observer. In fact, much of Buddhism/Hinduism/Taoism’s principles of unity and duality and the like have to do with Being, a rather intangible, immeasurable, and ultimately inconsequential (to physics) noun for a soul or consciousness, a patently archaic and religious idea for which physics has neither answers nor questions. Physics is concerned with patterns and particles and behaviours (Bussey 118).

Central especially to early Buddhist thought was that life consists of “events,” discontinuous in time, and decidedly causal, that is, that one event strictly depended on its predecessor. Modern “loop quantum gravity” theory somewhat mirrors this, but fails an important test: unlike said mysticism, quantum theory dictates a mix of randomness and causality (Smolin 71). Buddhism does not account for random events. Later forms of Buddhism gave up on this view anyway, according to Bussey (120).

I found a number of articles about physics and eastern mysticism. I chose Bussey’s because he fleshed his arguments out the best, but essentially the articles asserted the same conclusion: similarities between the two subjects were superficial at best, mostly good science manhandled to fit within the loose framework of a philosophy (or philosophies) little noticed by the left-brained Western world. The idea that eastern religions are more “scientific” than western faiths is laughable: the former borrows no more methodology in its dogmatic formulations than does the latter. Comparing either simply on a “best fit” basis for describing our quantum universe still fails to favour one over the other, and “best fit” explanations are not highly-regarded in the scientific method, only predictive ones.

When I finally read the preface to Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I was taken aback by how remarkably hokey and New Age it sounds. He refers to a “grand cosmic dance” while concomitantly referring to subatomic particles like any rational scientist. Reading this, I suddenly remembered the question that I initially posed, namely, should I and can I embrace science and religion/mysticism at the same time. By now, my research has led me to understand that I cannot, but I have yet to decide that I should not. Capra seemed ecstatic to have discovered within himself the belief that an ancient manuscript’s schema for the universe sort of overlapped that of science, circa 1975. However, the more I think about it, the less inclined I am to think that any of it is really necessary. At its best, mysticism offers a comfort to the confused. At its worst, it impedes the progress of knowledge. Most eastern religions, in a semi-Christian manner, stress the transcendence of earthly limitations and the infinity of the conscious and a universal Oneness, concerned only with the observer and not the observed. Moreover, they do not account for why things happen (beyond the flip of a creationist light switch), merely that they do on some vague and meaningful level. Bussey concludes that the similarities proposed by Capra fail to stand the test of specificity (126). When painted with broad strokes, some novel aspects appear to match up to true scientific theory, but as a guideline for scientific belief, or a bridge or catalyst for the space between theism and empiricism, eastern philosophy—or any philosophy/religion/mysticism, for that matter—doesn’t even come close.

Works Cited

  • Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. 167-189.
  • Bussey, Peter J. “Eastern religions and modern physics – a further examination.” Science & Christian Belief 11 (1999): 113-127.
  • Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. 4th ed. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1999.
  • Haack, Susan. Defending Science – Within Reason. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2003. 356-402.
  • Richard Dawkins. 15 Nov. 2002. BetterHumans. 15 Apr. 2004 <http://www.betterhumans.com/Resources/Encyclopedia/article.aspx? articleID=2002-05-21-7>.
  • Smolin, Lee. “Atoms of Space and Time.” Scientific American Jan. 2004: 66-75.
  • The Uncertainty Principle. Comp. Jan Hilgevoord, and Jos Uffink. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Vers. Winter 2001. 26 Oct. 2001. Stanford University. 15 Apr.2004 <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2001/entries/qt-uncertainty>.
  1. Yin in Chinese thought denotes the dark, subtle, passive, “feminine” aspect of reality, while yang denotes the light, clear, active, “male” aspect[]
§413 · November 8, 2004 · Tags: , ·

2 Comments to “Schrödinger’s Cat Achieved Nirvana”

  1. Andy says:

    Eastern thought and modern physics gel only in their scorn for notions of “truth” and a seeming apathy towards a need for actual proof.

    Western thought and even Christianity gave rise to modern scientific methodology. Easterners’ unbelief in linear time is antithetical to the very nature of experimentation. When one’s calendar is based on the repetition of seasons for planting and harvesting, there is no need to figure out the whys or hows. Indeed much of the belief of a creed such as Confucionism is based on intuition rather than experimentation or even observation. There are x bones in the body because there are x days in the year, neither of which was correct or questioned. In addition, the animism of many eastern religions discouraged (es) experimentation or dissection as blasphemous.

    But a belief in linear time and a desire to find their place in the Universe led many Christian scientists to explore the world and find its design. Newton and many of the early astronomers were Christians; that their findings were sometimes against contemporary church teachings or were suppressed does not change their own beliefs. Even Einstein himself often spoke, perhaps metaphorically, of a Guiding Hand.

  2. Ben says:

    I’m not sure Christian or not Christian factors into it. Western thought produced what we would think of as the modern scientific method, but eastern (far east and middle east) were more advanced far earlier: combustion, algebra, medicine, etc. I would argue also that time may very well not be linear in the way that we perceive it.

    To play Devil’s advocate, I would also call into question the insinuation that eastern thought and physics scorn “truth” and “proof.” Eastern thought, maybe, but while theoretical physics may have trouble producing tangible results, it is no less devoted to measurable and decisive data. Certainly Christianity by its very definition is no better in that regard.

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