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ETpro's avatar

What might we define as the Tao of Physics?

Asked by ETpro (34581points) February 17th, 2012

There are interesting philosophical beliefs revealed in ancient Eastern religion which match amazingly well with what subatomic physics is revealing about the nature of the Universe. How do you think the ancients recognized truths it has taken Western science many millennia to uncover? What might we define as the Tao of Physics?

For instance, while touring and lecturing in the Far East, Werner Heisenberg noted, “The great scientific contribution 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 Schrodinger.”

Speaking of Vishnu, Robert Oppenheimer said, “The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find [in modern physics] is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.”

Niels Bohr said, “For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory regarding the limited applicability of such customary idealizations, we must in fact turn to quite other branches of science, such as psychology, or even to that kind of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.”

What do you think these giants of Physics meant. How do you think the ancients were able to be so prescient about things they couldn’t possibly test or observe?

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16 Answers

janbb's avatar

I was actually discussing this with someone recently (maybe @thorninmud).? My brain is fuzzy from a headache right now but I think I was relating it to T.S. Eliot as well and the idea of something being both a particle and a wave at the same time seems very Eastern. Also, the concept that the observation of an object changes its nature is a part of Quantum Physics and seems also very Buddhist.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

T.S. Elito, “Little Gidding”

flutherother's avatar

Eastern philosophies seem more in tune with the natural world than the popular religions of the West. Eastern thought and modern scientific thought examine the same actuality from quite different perspectives but sometimes come to similar conclusions. For example the Hindu idea of Maya, is not unlike the latest scientific insights which tell us that the world we experience is not the ultimate reality but is based upon an underlying quantum reality which we cannot experience directly.

At the heart of Taoism is the idea that things are relative and everything depends on one’s viewpoint which is a description of the universe of Einstein’s equations. ‘Nothing in the world is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount T’ai is small’ is a truth that physicists are struggling to come to terms with today as they attempt to unite theories of the quantum world with those of cosmology in the knowledge that our entire universe was once the dimensions of a grain of pollen.

thorninmud's avatar

I’ve seen a whole lot of attempts to link Eastern mystical teachings to modern physical theories. I’m sympathetic with that effort, but much of it overreaches.

I’m a Buddhist, but not a scientist, so I’ll tread lightly on the science and stick more to the mystical perspective. I do see some convergence.

Here is pretty much the sum total of what the Buddha had to say about the nature of reality:

All things change (the teaching of impermanence).

All things are devoid of a fixed essence (the teaching of emptiness).

All things are interdependent.

All things are incapable of giving lasting satisfaction (the teaching of dukkha).

The last of these is clearly outside the purview of the pure sciences, and really just follows from the other three, so let’s leave that aside.

The first two are related. The teaching, simply put, is that “thing-ness” is a property that we project onto our world of experience. We treat things as solid entities, having a kind of independent existence, when they’re actually just temporary manifestations of a never-ceasing flux, and that this flux is itself a manifestation of…what, exactly? Here, the mystics are silent because whatever that might be, it is certainly not a thing.

Physics too understands our world of things to be largely insubstantial and transmutable. The vast majority of matter itself is, after all, empty space; and what remains is what, at its most fundamental level? Even if you take string theory as the truth in this regard, string theory supporters say that these “strings” can’t properly be called things. What are they then? Energy? Do we actually know what that is?

The interdependence of all things seems to be accepted as a near banality in modern physics, and is really at the heart of what @janbb was getting at.

The mystics were mainly concerned with dispelling illusion, not with putting forward an alternative view. They said, in effect, “Let go of your ideas about how things are, and just see, without the filter of concepts; then the nature of reality will be self-evident.” That’s clearly not the way physicists go about things.

The mystics were trying to get at the problem of suffering. They saw the heart of this problem as being the belief in an abiding self, some essential “I” that we fret over and whose interests we anxiously try to advance. It was by being willing to question the existence of this self, and by systematically deconstructing it, that they arrived at this understanding of impermanence and lack of an essence in their own being. That accomplished, it became clear that the same was the case for everything.

Well, that’s enough for one go, I guess.

janbb's avatar

@thorninmud The interdependence but also the changing nature of matter which is at the heart of Heisenberg’s (and Nils Bohr’s) theory as I vaguely understand it. But you are basically saying they are quite different.

thorninmud's avatar

@janbb Certainly different in methodology, though I’ll grant that the conclusions can be strikingly similar. The “double slit” experiments that explored the particle wave nature of photons/electrons, Heisenberg, Bohr, etc. all point to the impossibility of untangling subject and object. Science, in principle at least, aspires to pure objectivity, but it’s unclear whether such a thing is even possible in the quantum realm.

Buddhism has always said that the distinction we make between subject and object is illusory—they can’t be separated. That perceived separation is a figment of how the brain parses experience, but not a feature of reality itself. This a corollary of the teaching of interdependence.

janbb's avatar

Can I come and study at your feet under the Lotus tree? I will bake (very real) brownies.

thorninmud's avatar

Well, that depends…

janbb's avatar

On the quality of the brownies or the student? I forgot that you were a chocolatier in your other costume.

Paradox25's avatar

Positive and negative energy according to Pearson (whose theories I know that you don’t care for) likens these to the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy. Negative energy is not necessarily a new idea but it is mathematically possible to exist, and I’m not talking about antimatter or antiparticles. Alot of discoveries in quantum mechanics during the twentieth century was compared to mysticism hence the Copenhagen Interpretation. The Many Worlds Theory became invented as a response to the Copenhagen Interpretation by diehard physicalists. Perhaps the new scientists of the twentyfirst century will answer your question.

ETpro's avatar

@janbb Great TS Elliot Poem and right in keeping with the topic. Thanks for sharing it. I sincerely hope your headache gets better soon.

@flutherother Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism all put forward the concepts of relativity and the quantum behavior of subatomic particles. They are comfortable with the idea that a photon is both a wave and a particle. The double slit experiment would hold no surprise to them. Where both modern Physics and the ancient mystics fall short is in a grand unification theory that merges Newtonian physics, Einstein’s Relativity,and Quantum Mechanics at the subatomic level. But they clearly do merge. It’s just that no thinker on Earth has yet articulated how, and why, That;s what I want to ask the elves within the machine about. They appear to move about at the subatomic level but permeate everything that exits at the macro oevel.

janbb's avatar

@ETpro It’s worth reading all of Eliot’s Four Quartets from which this is only a part. It is very deep, mystical and draws from a variety of classical antecedents.

thorninmud's avatar

Here’s one way to look at the convergence: If subject and object are not fundamentally separate, then by carefully examining the subject, one should arrive at the object, and by carefully examining the object one should bump into the subject.

Mysticism and science go at it from opposite angles. Mysticism tackles the subjective and, in so doing, finds that the object is in there too. Zen master Dogen, back in the 13th century, put it this way (doing this from memory because I don’t have time to look it up): “To study the Tao is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self, To forget the self is to be awakened by the myriad things”. He also said (again from memory), “You think your mind is feelings, thoughts and memories, but in reality it is mountains and rivers, wood and tiles”

Science starts the exploration from the objective and ends up bumping into the observer, the subject, down on the quantum level.

They’re traveling in opposite directions on the same circle.

janbb's avatar

I love it when he talks mysticism.

flutherother's avatar

@thorninmud Franz Werfel put it this way: “Without inwardness there can be no external world, and without imagination there can be no reality.”

ETpro's avatar

@janbb I’ll be sure to read them in entirety.

@thorninmud Beautiful quotes. I’ll be sure to ook them up before following them blindly

@janbb Me too. Chills down the back kind of love.

@flutherother That sums it up rathr well.

kitszu's avatar

I think they, like american indians or the pre-christian gaelic people, were tapped into “the collective”. Not the fluther collective but the collective energy of Life itself. They observed the world around them closely, looked at what was going on and applied it in a “cause and effect” kind of way. They didn’t have the kind of scientific basis for explanation that we do now, so they explained it with fables and parables. Not a far cry from the Old Testament though. If your heart lives close to nature, you’ll see it’s paterns. If you’re interested in physics, you can’t help but realize the connection. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav. It deals with the various ways Taoism and physics seem to be intertwined.

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