In many ways, the book that started my journey connecting the dots … another timeless classic, in this case a signed copy of a first edition from 1975 … had ‘ta boast about that.
When I sat down to write, i came across an online review posted on GoodReads.com. The review was from someone called ‘Ben’. A bit of a scathing review actually, but it interested me nonetheless. I realized as I read it that Ben was a little short sighted on the message the book was giving. I found myself crapping on every sentence he wrote. I realized that my rebuttals could act as a perfect review itself, and so I set to work. Anyway, hope you enjoy me grilling poor ol’ Ben … although he is not aware of this to at least defend himself, so a bit of a spineless move on my part, oh well. Here it goes: Below, you will find Ben’s biting words in italics, and my comments indented throughout, addressing each point as its made. Enjoy
A response to Ben’s review of the ‘Tao of Physics’; on GoodReads.com
BEN: It is widely recognized, at least by those outside of science, that scientists are notorious bunglers when it comes to philosophical matters.
Is this truly ‘widely recognized’?
This is an odd statement … the physical sciences deal with the physical, the philosophical is something entirely different, dealing with ideas of being and morality. Why people would criticize scientists for ‘bungling’ a topic of study that is not part of their expertise, is strange. It has me wonder if Ben has a bone to pick.
However, we are all philosophers actually. As we navigate through our lives, we naturally have observations and opinions. However, if pressed to come up with an example of a scientist that kept philosophy close, I would have to say Neils Bohr.
Bohr was confronted with philosophical problems early in his career as he was a physicist and a pioneer of quantum theory. The famous ‘quantum strangeness’ is what plagued him and others in the 1920’s, stressing the notion of what exactly constituted matter. As you may recall, the atomic world is conspicuously devoid of anything that is classically physical. Reducing the idea of ‘matter’ to a groundless opinion rather than an indisputable fact of reality. Philosophy comes rocketing in obviously, and Neils Bohr was very taken by the implications. Something he had openly expressed and never shook off his entire career. Ultimately, he was a great physicist and contributor to physics, all the while, captivated by the paradoxes of existence deep in his science. He balanced this quite well and is revered by many throughout history.
BEN: So it is not surprising, though hardly excusable, that Capra’s book displays a level of incompetence that should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a cursory background in logic or philosophy.
Wow, a bit harsh. Looks like the author did want to waste any time going on the attack here.
BEN: As a matter of fact, it would be surprising if such an unqualified admirer of Taoism, whose writings Capra notes approvingly are “full of passages reflecting the Taoist’s contempt of reasoning” (p. 113), should display much in the way of sound reasoning. While I was not especially sympathetic to Capra’s thesis even before I read the book, I at least had high hopes for a compelling argument for his case, but that was wishful thinking.
Is there such thing as a ‘qualified admirer’ of Taoism? It seems to me Capra has done much research to familiarize himself with the subject, enough to sell millions of copies of his book world wide over the past near half-century. In fact, it has had so much exposure to so many people across the globe that if he were wrong, the sales of his book should reflect this fact. Hint: it doesn’t.
Ben is certainly an advocate for big-boy words and stringent talk of a scientific nature, he must be a bunch of fun a parties… Imagine how upset he would get if you didn’t use ‘sound reasoning’ or demonstrate the merits of a ‘compelling argument’… geesh, relax dude.
BEN: The thesis is that the worldviews of Eastern mysticism provide the best framework for understanding modern physics, and that all the advances in physics in the 20th century unanimously confirm these worldviews.
No, this is not what Capra is trying to say at all—‘modern physics’ is the best frame work to understand ‘modern physics’ from. Science is science, a wonderful point of view, full of great understanding and relative truth. However, it is a ‘point of view’.
Please keep in mind, science doesn’t own reality. It sits inside of it, measuring what it can measure, deducing what it can deduce, painting a picture of logic in as many colours as it can. And when it can’t, it doesn’t, and moves on regardless. Science is ultimately a filter to reality, a very useful one. But ultimately it makes models of it in relation to our experiences. This is why it is ‘relative’.
When you confuse the ‘products of mind’ as being ‘absolute reality’, your ‘science’ becomes your religion. It blinds you to only accept ‘sound reasoning’ in everything.
Where were you before you were conceived? Where will you be after you die? Why is there something, rather than nothing? Where is the ‘physical stuff’ in the atom?
Tell me how your ‘sound reasoning’ reckons these questions?
You go on the defense when ‘eastern philosophy’ is mentioned, why?
It has nothing to do with science. Science is a subset of reality, perfectly useable and with merit. Why must science be expanded into a world-view? This is the trap. This is when it becomes a religion. Can you not differentiate between relative and absolute?
Please understand, there is more to reality than what can be calculated… I think you know this. But you struggle to admit this to yourself. You must remember, science deals with a subset of reality, one that is in relation to our experience and thought processes. To correlate ‘products of the mind’ to ‘absolute reality’, is a delusion. This is Capra’s message, this is the message of eastern philosophy. Do not stack your chips all on one number, best to forget the chips entirely, and do not play games.
You’re trying to pick a fight here, as if your science has been bruised and must go on the defence to ward off the competing ideals of the Eastern mindset. Relax. There is no competition here. You’re behaving much like religions have over the millennia, with contempt for ideas that don’t look like yours. Your church of logic is good and fine, built strong to last the ages, towering over us all, it is wonderful, and I like to look in windows as I pass by, but I pass by as walk freely from building to building, from field to field, and mountain to mountain. It is all a wonderful landscape. Have you grown too old to come out and play? Let’s go for a walk.
BEN: However, the picture that emerges is rather one of the utter incompatibility of Eastern mysticism with physics of any kind, classical or modern. In order to fully appreciate the force of this book, it is important to keep in mind not only the results of physics, but also the scientific endeavor itself. That endeavor consists of an incredibly strenuous exertion of the human rational faculties to uncover truths about reality that we do not know ahead of time, and to systematize the results of investigation into rigorous theories explaining the phenomena.
Yes, a ‘relative’ truth. You’re so close.
BEN: In contrast to this, according to Capra, “all concepts about reality formed by the human mind are void” (p. 97);
This is a statement about ‘conceptualization’ contrasted to the essential nature of reality. Reality is not a ‘concept’, ‘products of the mind’ are concepts. Reality ‘is’. Again, you missed it.
BEN: “the human intellect can never comprehend the Tao” (p. 113);
Yes, the intellect is tied too tightly to knowledge, to what it can know, and this is not the entirety of reality. The Tao, for the Taoist, is the ground of all being, untouchable by description and calculation.
BEN: “whenever you want to achieve anything, you should start with its opposite” (p. 115);
This quote from p. 115 was about ‘subtle wisdom’. If the reader knew about Taoism, this subtle wisdom could have been tapped. Again, missed another one Ben.
BEN: “words can never express the ultimate truth” (p. 122);
BEN: “to believe that our abstract concepts of separate ‘things’ and ‘events’ are realities of nature is an illusion” (p. 131)
The exact findings of quantum theory.
BEN: “the particles of modern physics “are merely idealizations which are useful from a practical point of view, but have no fundamental significance” (p. 137);
the exact findings of quantum theory.
BEN: “all the concepts we use to describe nature . . . are not features of reality, as we tend to believe, but creations of the mind” (p. 161);
BEN: “the idea of a constant ‘self’ undergoing successive experiences is an illusion” (p. 212);
Admittedly, I begin to waver here.
BEN: “all phenomena in the world are nothing but the illusory manifestation of the mind and have no reality on their own . . . what appears to be external does not exist in reality” (p. 277);
I’m not sure I agree with Capra here actually.
BEN: “ultimately, there are no parts at all in this interconnected web” (p. 330);
I struggle here a little.
BEN: “there is no absolute truth in science” (p. 337).
Yes. Science isn’t about truth, it’s about understanding.
BEN: This collection of quotes does indeed give an excellent picture of the foundation that Eastern mysticism has to offer for science, but is it even possible to think that this view of the world constitutes fertile soil for the scientific enterprise?
the east offers nothing to science, science doesn’t need anything.
BEN: A striking feature of many of Capra’s central arguments is the profound gulf between his premises and his conclusions, which would be simply laughable if it were not for the fact that so many people stand to be badly led astray.
‘Premise’ and ‘conclusion’ ? … are you still clinging to these silly words? How much longer do you wish to keep your consideration veiled? Let it go… you don’t have give over to anything if that’s what you are afraid of … in fact, forget about Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism… forget all ‘ism’s actually. You don’t have to follow anything, you just have to be willing to see what’s being pointed at.
BEN: For instance, Capra leaps from Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 to the most astounding claim in the whole book, that “modern physicists . . . deny the existence of any material substance” (p. 204). Can this be serious?
Yes, this is serious. This is the exact finding of quantum theory. Are you not familiar with modern physics?
Where is material substance? Do you know? Science cannot find it. Instead it finds interconnected processes, this is the message, not independent phenomena, but a mixture of many. Labelling something as a proton, or an electron, does not make it a thing, does not make it ‘substance’, it only makes it easier to refer to on a scientific report. The reality of it is subjective, not absolute.
Ben, you claim to identify with science, so why can’t you follow this?
It’s completely OK to disregard eastern philosophy, but if you’re all about science, try to keep up with it at the very least.
BEN: This is the logical equivalent of saying that “magnetism has been discovered to be an aspect of an electromagnetic field, therefore magnetism doesn’t exist” or “scientists have discovered that houses are made of wood, therefore houses don’t exist”.
I don’t understand the two analogies given here.
BEN: One of Capra’s favorite mantras is that modern physics has discovered that material particles “are not distinct entities” (p. 209). Even if we accept for the sake of the argument his repeated confusion of existence and measurability, it is difficult to see how the fact that particles interact, influence each other, and in some cases are even indistinguishable, means that they are not distinct entities.
‘Not distinct entities’— yes, that is correct.
Measurability still happens in quantum theory, it is based upon probabilistic calculation to overcome the ‘non-distinctiveness’. No issue here, the findings of quantum theory are sound, as they have been for nearly a century. Ask yourself if you have ever seen a distinguishable particle for yourself? Now investigate why, and don’t stop until you have the answer.
BEN: If it were not enough to repeatedly outrage every principle of sound reasoning, Capra is equally adept at mangling the most profound discoveries of 20th century physics. He dwells at length on Einstein’s General Relativity, arguing that it proves that “geometry is not inherent in nature but is imposed upon it by the mind” (p. 162).
If every single human, or lifeform with higher intelligence, was gone from the universe, where would geometry be?
BEN: In actual fact, General Relativity is the scientific rock upon which all the floundering ships in the fleet of subjectivism are dashed. From Einstein we have learned that the true structure of space and time is actually so incredibly foreign to our everyday intuitions that it is not even possible to understand it without the formidable apparatus of non-Euclidean geometry.
The idea of space-time is a useful concept, the math that is involved is fruitful and has provided much understanding of the universe, gravity, etc.
BEN: Capra goes on in the same chapter to give an example that “shows that we can always determine whether a surface is curved or not, just by making geometrical measurements of its surface, and by comparing the results with those predicted by Euclidean geometry. If there is a discrepancy, the surface is curved; and the larger the discrepancy is – for a given size of figures – the stronger the curvature” (p. 176). But what is it that is curved or not? Something created by our mind? Why are we doing an experiment at all if the geometry of space is nothing but a creation of the mind? But a mind sunk in the quagmires of Eastern mysticism cannot readily recognize such an obvious point. In all of science there is nothing more “objective” than Einstein’s General Relativity, a fact of which Einstein himself was well aware.
Again, you are arguing from within a bubble of understanding. Yes, science works, it is fruitful. Yay science!
You are so close to getting it, all that is left is to see the bigger picture. Burst that bubble and move beyond ‘understanding’. It is hard. It is not intuitive, but we have the capacity to do it. Zen monks spend decades working to see it.
Your hint is: conceptualization is not the basis of reality, concepts do not have a perfect identity to reality, no matter how many decimal points you imagine.
BEN: But this discussion brings up another important point. I would like to know, if it is true that in modern physics “cause and effect lose their meaning” (p. 81)
For us, cause and effect is the structure to our reality. It is governed by the principle of locality, meaning that an object is directly influenced only by its immediate surroundings. Influence must travel through space between two points to carry its effect. The speed at which this influence travels is the speed of light.
This is the basis of the realism we perceive.
This poignant fact is, this realism that we comprehend, dissolves on the atomic level. In particular, in quantum physics there is the phenomena called Entanglement which has entangled particles affecting each other instantaneously across vast distances. The cause and effect, in this case, travels faster than the speed of light, which breaks Einstein’s theory of relativity, which is why he contested it in his EPR thought experiment. Does ‘cause and effect lose their meaning’ in science? In some cases, yes.
BEN: how, even in principle, anyone could ever do a scientific experiment in atomic physics. If the answer is that cause and effect are just illusions of the sensory world,
These are not illusions, they are perceived by you and are real with respect to you. It is a relative truth (the other side of the coin). However, because entanglement has been experimentally confirmed, it’s yet another example of how science is showing us the limits of human knowledge and understanding. Science is basically demonstrating the edges of the bubble of knowledge we maneuver within. There is more outside the bubble, it just can’t be ‘reasoned’ into existence, and put neatly into an equation that fits onto a T-shirt. Get it?
BEN: then the question remains, how can we ever do a scientific experiment? Whence comes this illusion, and how can it possibly be trusted to be reliable? If the answer is that cause and effect are indeed principles of macroscopic and sensory reality, but that they are not a part of the unseen “ultimate reality” which underlies all the rest, then I ask, from whence arises this lawfulness in sensory reality? How do we build up from the constituents of a reality where cause and effect are meaningless to an observable world where they are no longer meaningless? This constitutes as insurmountable a leap for logic as it does for science.
Ben, why does reality have to be either/or with you. The Buddhist doctrine of two truths is all about this; there is conventional truth and ultimate truth, two sides of the same coin. Again, you don’t have to become a Buddhist to gleam from this, just get it, and carry on.
BEN: As the book drags on, Capra continues to weary us with his absurdities.
Starting to feel that way about yours Ben.
BEN: On p. 288 he claims that fundamental constants are “arbitrary parameters”. What does this even mean? Is Planck’s constant arbitrary? I would like to see Capra replace it with something else.
Numbers are abstract concepts, they have no reality of their own. Does the number ‘1’ exist? Can I go somewhere to see it?
BTW, Planck’s constant has a degree of uncertainty built into it, so your faith in it being some ultimate key to the grand knowledge of the universe is a delusion on your part.
BEN: On p. 334 he says that “scientists do not deal with truth (in the sense of a precise correspondence between the description and the described phenomena); they deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality.” This is certainly contradicted by the staggering precision achieved in modern physics,
Ben, your knowledge of science is far too shallow. Every scientist worth his degree would admit that any conclusion is at best an approximate description of reality. If you could only expand your definition of truth, you could avoid being so blind. I was like you once, I was all about a scientific view of the world. It felt good to know, to have certainty, to kick god off the top of the mountain and put us there instead. Then I saw the relativity of concepts, the relativity of mind and thought. It was uncomfortable and I fought against it for a while. I turned even harder to science, delving deeper into what it could teach me, but it had always left the disappointing taint of uncertainty, always left an element of the unknown. And then I realized, uncertainty arises from the need for certainty, one creates the other. I assumed certainty existed, like a precious diamond, waiting to be discovered. But this is the illusion. Destroy the need for certainty, and uncertainty disappears as well.
This clears the way for you to realize the limitations of human knowledge. You will finally ‘see the bubble’. And the bubble is no real boundary after all. You can move right through it because it’s just a shadow of mind.
I can see you want that certainty, as I did once. It’s all conceptual Ben, wake up dude… nothing is perfect or certain, that is its beauty, it’s simplicity, and complexity.
BEN: Mind creates the need for perfect and certainty. Reality is not a reflection of mind. Therefor perfection and certainty need to be through away.
A description of something isn’t the real something, it’s just a description. Planck’s constant is just a number, an imprecise number, imprecision is the hallmark of reality, the finger print of the ‘is-ness’ that cannot be bottled up, corked and passed around. Throw away relative concepts.
BEN: both in theories and experiments, but such a consideration would most likely not intimidate a mind infatuated with contradictions. Such was certainly not the mind of Johannes Kepler, who spent several years of his life working to account for barely a one tenth of one degree of angle disparity between the orbit of Mars and theory, convinced that the human mind, created in the image of a rational God, could precisely learn the truth about the rational creation of that God. How foreign such a mindset must really be to Eastern mystical thought. Would Kepler have undergone such Herculean intellectual exertions had he shared Capra’s conviction that he could attain only limited and approximate knowledge, or would he simply have shrugged his shoulders and decided that Ptolemaic astronomy was “close enough”?
But it is least of all to history that we should look for confirmation of Capra’s thesis. In the early chapters he blames Aristotle and Christianity for the ensuing “lack of interest in the material world” (p. 22). But what cultures ever displayed a more profound and studious disregard for the material world than the Eastern mystical traditions? And why would they hold in high regard something that is at best a creation of the human mind and at worst a deceptive illusion? On p. 198-199 Capra considers the idea of an oscillating and organic universe, and goes on to say that “the scale of this ancient myth is indeed staggering: it has taken the human mind more than two thousand years to come up again with a similar concept.” But on the contrary, it took the human mind so many thousands of years to overcome organismic and oscillatory theories of the universe. These theories were ubiquitous in all the great ancient cultures, from the Egyptian to the Babylonian to the Indian to the Chinese to the Mayan to the Greek, and it was exactly this conception that so effectively stifled the optimistic and rational view of nature that is indispensable for science.
In conclusion, Capra has done a masterful job of presenting the relevance of Eastern mysticism to modern physics, but even a passing consideration readily reveals that this relevance is only the thorough incompatibility of Eastern mysticism with science of any kind.
Eastern philosophy is not in contention with science. Science lives, breathes and thrives inside what eastern philosophy points at.
BEN: As Western culture steadily abandons rationality and the human ability to know truth, the philosophies of Eastern mysticism do indeed continue to gain credence and ascendance, but to exactly the same extent we will surely witness the decline of science.
Science will continue, because of our fundamental relationship with conventional reality. No need for doom and gloom on that point.
On rationality … I contend that rationality can be better seen when you can move around it freely. Like being trapped inside a box all your life; you can measure its volume, the length of its sides and extrapolate all the math and geometry you want from it, write poems about it, draw beautiful pictures that look like it, but the value of being able to step outside of the box shows you its context, shows you the ground it sits on, shows you all the other shapes in the world too. Stepping outside broadens your consideration and enriches your point of view. Who knows, maybe you might become compassionate to others stuck in boxes and try to free them to show the bigger world.
Anyway, this is enough.