The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra

It took me a long time to sit down for a summary for this book because there were too many notes. Even if I divided the story into several parts, it would be difficult to fit it all in. I tried to condense the quotes, so there will be a lot of dots, don’t be surprised.

This book helped me clear up some things that have been swirling around in my head lately, so I suggest you read it in its entirety yourself. But first things first, let’s start reading it. All italics are mine.

The book talks about the similarities between modern physics and Eastern philosophies: Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

It begins with examples of how Western civilization carefully separates sensual experience from rational experience:

His [René Descartes’] worldview was based on the fundamental division of our view of the world around us into two independent spheres: the sphere of consciousness and the material world. As a result, scientists were able to see matter as something inanimate and completely independent of them, and the material world as a vast, complex system

…The human mind knows two ways of knowing, of consciousness: rational and intuitive—and they are traditionally associated with science and religion, respectively

But according to the author, this is not as productive as we are used to thinking. The most harmful thing about this division is the inaccuracy of our knowledge in the end:

The scientific method of abstraction is effective, but it comes at a price… We define the system of concepts more precisely and perceive more strictly the interrelationships in the universe, and our method becomes more and more distant from reality.

…It is easier for us to understand our conceptions of reality than reality itself, and we often confuse one with the other and mistake our ideas and symbols for reality. One of the primary purposes of the mystical teachings of the East is to free us from this confusion

The belief that our abstract notions of individual “things” and “events” reflect the realities of our world is nothing more than an illusion

All the concepts we use to describe nature are limited; they are not facts, but products of our thinking—parts of a drawn map, not the real terrain

One of the most difficult and at the same time most important tasks in creating a model is to determine the limits of its application… Once a model or theory starts to work, you have to ask yourself these questions: Why does it work? What are its limitations? What exactly is its approximation?

In Newtonian physics, this approach worked, but not in modern physics. Because the more accurately scientists try to describe the laws of nature, the more paradoxical they seem:

The deep essence of being always seems paradoxical and absurd if one seeks to comprehend it only by the power of the intellect. Mystics have always recognized this, and science has encountered such a problem recently

Now the observer can no longer be merely an “observer,” but becomes a “participant” in the event he observes. Therefore, too, the rational method will sooner or later cease to work:

In atomic physics, the scientist cannot play the role of an objective observer; they become part of the observed world… John Wheeler… suggests replacing the word “observer” with the word “participant.”

One day a point will be reached where the unexplained element… will turn out to be the scientific context itself. Then the theory will no longer be capable of expressing the results in words or rational concepts and… will go beyond science… The knowledge contained in such a vision will be complete, but it will be impossible to put it into words. It will become the knowledge that Lao Tzu meant… “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”

Then the book shows how this division has affected the way we think:

Descartes’ teachings… had a strong influence on Western philosophy… “I think, therefore, I exist” was understood in Western culture to mean that one identifies with one’s mind rather than with the whole organism… And most people perceive themselves as a separate ego existing “inside” their body

Instead of recognizing that everyone’s identity is the result of a complex interweaving of masculine and feminine elements, society established a static order that all men should be only masculine and women only feminine. As a result, all social privileges and leading roles belonged to men

And then the author turns to sense experience and shows that it, too, is an important part of knowledge and an insurmountable limitation in the process of knowledge:

Eastern mystics argue that overcoming the knot of time allows us to push the boundaries of a world in which cause and effect exist. Like conventional notions of space and time, the notion of causality is limited by our experience of the worldview

As long as we seek to explain, we are bound by the bonds of karma and become hostage to our network of concepts. To go beyond words and explanation is to break the bonds of karma and attain liberation

[In Taoism] recognizing the relativity… of the norms of morality, the sage does not seek the good… He tries to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between good and evil

The author often points out how Eastern philosophies differ from the Western rational method of knowledge:

Eastern mystics want to emphasize the empirical nature of their knowledge… The stage of experimentation in research corresponds to the “epiphany” of the Eastern mystic, and scientific models and theories correspond to the ways of interpreting it

Shows that without accepting sensory experience it is difficult to express and perceive what is going on around us:

There is a paradoxical contradiction for the common man: we need words to tell of our inner sensations, which by nature transcend language

Before we start talking about the concepts themselves, the book explains what their purpose is and what they are trying to convey:

Their highest purpose…—the realization of the unity and interconnectedness of all things, the overcoming of the sense of separateness and merging with a higher being

The essence is to realize the unity and interconnectedness of things and phenomena, to see everything as a manifestation of unity.

One of the highest goals of man in the spiritual traditions of the East is the realization that all opposites are polar, and thus form a unity

The author then talks about the basics of the concepts and their key concepts. About Hinduism:

…Does not mean that the world is an illusion. It is only our thoughts that forms and structures, things and events are real manifestations of nature that are deceptive. It is only a chain of concepts with which we think, measuring and categorizing the world. Maya is our illusion, arising from the identification of concepts with reality, or maps of terrain with terrain itself

To understand how Hindus can live with so many deities, one must realize its basic premise: all deities are essentially the same. They are manifestations of the same reality, embodiments of different sides of the infinite, ubiquitous and totally incomprehensible Brahman

About Buddhism. I found a lot of common ideas with the book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”:

The assertion … that emptiness is the basic essence of reality is not to be understood in a nihilistic sense. It means that all notions of reality formed by the human mind are not true

The First Noble Truth asserts that the basic ingredient of human existence is suffering, which generates disappointment. Disappointment is rooted in our unwillingness to recognize… that everything around us is not eternal and transient

According to Buddhists, suffering arises when we begin to resist the natural flow of life

The Second Noble Truth explains the cause of suffering… “attachment” or “craving.” It’s a meaningless attachment to life arising out of ignorance

According to the Third Noble Truth, suffering and disappointment can be ended. We can get rid of the bonds of karma and achieve total liberation, nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth [calls for] following the Noble Eightfold Path which also leads to the attainment

The Buddha taught that the past, the future, physical space… and personality, all of these are just names, forms of thought, common words, simply artificial reality

About Zen. Here we can directly see how imprecise, complicated, and heavy-handed words are:

…The doctrine of Zen considers the virtue of “the absence of words, explanations, precepts, and knowledge” in its philosophy. The doctrine focuses only on achieving enlightenment, and its followers do not like to interpret their experience… “By talking about something, you lose the thread”

Sit still and do nothing. Spring comes and the grass grows by itself

In conversations, the preceptors try to talk as little as possible and use words to divert students’ attention from abstract reasoning to concrete reality

Enlightenment here doesn’t mean withdrawal from the world, but active participation in daily affairs

When the Zen master Bo-jang was asked to define Zen, he said: “When you’re hungry you eat, when you’re tired you sleep”. It seems simple and obvious… but it’s actually a difficult task.

About Taoism. It’s very much about cyclicality, transformation from one form to another, change of events and phenomena:

The proponents of Taoism were primarily interested in contemplating nature and comprehending its Way, the Tao. According to the Taoists, one achieves happiness when one follows the natural order, acting on impulses and trusting in intuition

Fluidity and changeability are inherent in all of creation… The sage seeks to recognize [the stable patterns of the universe] and acts in accordance with them. He becomes “a man with Tao,” living in harmony with nature

The basic characteristic of the Tao is the cyclicality of its movement and change…

Its basic premise is the idea of ceaseless transformation and transfiguration of all things

Taoism operates on intuitive wisdom rather than rational knowledge. Recognizing the limitations and relativity of reason, Taoism provides a way of liberation from the existing world

They assert: if you want to achieve something, you have to start with its opposite

If the Buddha “so comes and goes,” the Taoist sage is one who “flows… with the flow of the Tao”

Very good about changes, their causes, how to relate to them:

Speaking of the Taoist concept of change, it is important to understand that any change is seen by the Taoists not as the result of an external force, but as a manifestation of the inherent tendency of all things to change. The movements of the Tao are not imposed on it from the outside, they occur naturally and spontaneously. Spontaneity is the principle of the Tao in general, and all human actions must be spontaneous as well

On the essence of the Tao:

…Likens the Tao to a valley between mountains or a vessel, which always remains empty, retaining the capacity to contain all the infinite variety of things

It’s also good about insight:

We sometimes forget… a word and we can’t remember it. It’s on our tongue, but it won’t come off until we give up… And suddenly… we remember… the word. Thinking doesn’t come into play. This is sudden insight. It is particularly characteristic of Buddhism, which holds that our original nature is that of an enlightened Buddha, and we have simply forgotten it.

Also, the author often compares modern physics and philosophies head-on:

Eastern mysticism is based on direct apprehension of reality, while physics is based on observation of natural phenomena through experiments. In both systems of knowledge, observations are interpreted by means of words. Since words are a rough map of reality, verbal descriptions of the results of a scientific experiment or a mystical revelation are imprecise and fragmentary. Both modern physicists and Eastern mystics are well aware of this

About words and paradoxes:

Both mystics and physicists want to convey their knowledge, but when they do so with words, their statements seem paradoxical and full of logical contradictions

On cyclicality and the transformation of forms:

Examples of the unity of opposites in modern physics can be seen at the subatomic level, where particles are simultaneously destructible and indestructible, matter is continuous and discrete…

The concept of an expanding and contracting Universe existing in immense space and time was created not only by modern physicists. The same concept existed in ancient Indian mythology

About fields and the beginning of things:

After the emergence of the concept of the field, physicists began to seek to unify all fields into a single fundamental field within which all physical phenomena could be explained… Concepts such as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya in Buddhism, and Tao in Taoism can be seen as the equivalent of a finite unified field from which originate… all phenomena in general

In Chinese philosophy the idea of the field is already present in the very concept of Tao, which, being empty and formless, gives rise to all forms

On particles as the link between the processes of transformation:

…The particle is an intermediate system, connecting the processes in A and B. It exists and makes sense only as a link between the preparation of experiment and measurement. Its properties cannot be determined independently of these processes

Space and time are completely equivalent to each other… If we want a picture of this interaction, we must take a four-dimensional “snapshot” depicting the time interval and region of space we are interested in

I didn’t cite the quotes that refer to the very hardcore physics with diagrams, formulas, and other stuff, but it’s there, too.

It’s not as easy to read as, for example, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” but if you want to sit down for a couple of evenings and think about your views on the world, I recommend reading it.

What’s worth knowing at least a little bit about before you start reading:

  • Elementary particle physics and the standard model, without them it will be hard to get through the hardcore chapters. A simple university course was enough to me.
  • About the history of Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism. It’s good if you know about how they originated and when, it gives more context. Again, a two-semester philosophy course at university helped me.

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