The Tao of Physics

The Tao of Physics

An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism

Book - 1991
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Publisher: Boston, Mass. : Shambhala Publications, 1991
Edition: 3rd ed., expanded
ISBN: 9780877735946
0877735948
Characteristics: 366 p. : ill. ; 23 cm

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dnk
Feb 04, 2018

Capra did an excellent job presenting the general history and theories of physics. Esoteric concepts such as objects as processes, nouns as verbs and particles as waves were clearly explained- or at least, as clearly as they can be explained. Capra is aided by the familiarity most of his readers will have with the basic concepts of modern physics, courtesy of Einstein, of matter as energy and time as the fourth dimension of reality. More essentially, he shows the evolution in physics from a construct of reality as a building with basic elements to one of an interdependent universe which cannot be understood in part but must be understood as a whole. I have no argument with his presentation or with the ideas and concepts he presents.

Unfortunately, Capra makes the almost shocking mistake of stove-piping his subjects. He mentions at the very beginning that the Milesian school in Greece in 6th century BC and Heraclitus of Ephesus saw the world as interconnected, dynamic reality. He goes on to describe how Greek scientific philosophy evolved into one of classification and the search for the primal elements- in other words, the exact opposite of their 6th century beginnings. Capra even goes so far as to note the similarities between the Milesian school and Heraclitus and the "Eastern" philosophies he takes up. What I was waiting for- and did not find once, anywhere- was for Capra to ask why those similarities existed in the first place. We know at this point- and I'm pretty sure we knew when this book was written in 1974- that "East" and "West" were not separated by an impenetrable barrier before the 1700s but that there was a rich and varied dialogue of ideas and concepts (and even sophisticated trade). Is it so hard to believe that ideas from "the East" might have made it to Ancient Greece, albeit with some augmentation and alteration along the way? It is not, and that he didn't explore this possibility by the fourth edition baffles me.

By treating these two subjects as standalone items, his conclusion that physics "evolves" to resemble the world view of "Eastern" philosophy and religion takes on this odd, almost messianic undertone. I'm pretty sure that I agree with the belief that reality is defined by its interdependence and that separating elements from each other is a false construct, but the manner in which he describes this evolution almost gives you the impression that a bunch of Asian philosophers and writers are smugly nodding that they told us so. I don't think that's what happened.

My other complaint about the approach the author used is that he treats "Eastern" philosophy- he calls it mysticism- as a monolith. He goes into a brief overview of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, and "Chinese Thought" (mostly Confucianism), but after doing so bundles all of them together because they share, to varying degrees, a belief in the interconnectedness of the universe, an aspiration to experience reality beyond the illusion of the duality of everyday life, and an understanding that the universe/reality is a dynamic organism and therefore no "thing" or state is constant.

Again, I agree with all of the above. However, all of the philosophies he mentions have long, complicated political and intellectual histories which affected the development of their ideas (e.g., the emphasis in some Buddhist countries on reincarnation to enforce the social caste systems, or the bloody internecine struggles in Confucian countries over the importance of nature law versus physical essence). It is a gross over-generalization to put all of them under the same umbrella, especially when he spends so much time explaining certain aspects of physics.

In addition, most of the chapters were formulaic- here is the concept from physics, next is the aspect of Eastern philosophy that's applicable. By the last three chapters, I found the style grating.

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