SCIENCE AND MYSTICISM

By N.Srinivasan

Fritjof Capra has already become internationally famous for his book "THE TAO OF PHYSICS", which he wrote about twelve years ago. In this book he claims to provide a scientific basis for ancient Indian scriptures and marry it to modern physics (Science). Since he strongly feels that scientists should make peace with mysticism. If we only listen to the ancient rishi's, they will tell us what science has only managed to find out, with great deal of difficulty, pain, suffering and strife is exactly what ancient Indian sages can provide us through their revelations, which is divine in Capra's opinion.

Further Capra in his recent book: 'The Turning Point' in which he claims to provide "A Synthesis of Modern Science and Eastern Wisdom", which he describes as the "New Vision of Reality". I shall discuss the details and merits of both these treatises later. Now let me say a few words about Fritjof Capra: He has a Ph.D., in Physics from the University of Vienna, obtained in 1966. And the introduction in the book tells us that Capra is currently a professor of physics, at the University of California, Berkley. Capra nodoubt has a sound education in modern physics and has done some good research in the theory of elementary particles. But looking at the contents of both his treatises, one will have to simply conclude that Capra has lost touch with most recent developments in modern physics, particularly in the last two decades. For example: Capra's ideas are a sort of antique charm to any practising particle physicist. Since the Theoretical Models which he is most enthusiastic about, the so-called "S-matrix theory" and the bootstrap theory", which had certain interest about fifteen years ago are at best currently of academic interest to most contemporary researchers in the field. On the other hand, the atomic model of elementary particles, the model according to which quarks remain confined within these objects which Capra is in despair of, as not being able to provide a detailed dynamic theory - has never enjoyed more success that it does at present. What really is important to understand is his methodology - his use of what appears to be accidental similarities of language as if these were somehow evidence of deeply rooted connections. I can summarise my appraisal how he goes about by means of an anology: "What did Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein have in common? Answer: They both had beards except for Einstein."

As it tempts Fritjof Capra, who has written "The Tao of Physics", he thinks apparently, that what the physicists have found with great deal of difficulty Eastern sages have known all along. There is the old mountain peak. Capra cites the notion of yin and yang, where yin represents the rationale mode of thought and yang the intuitional, in the Chinese school of philosophy, and describe them to be the "two sides of the same reality" or "polar areas of single whole".

All right. No arguments, every scientist uses both reason and intuition in attacking problems - but in the end two are not equal. If intuition overwhelmingly suggests as conclusion, it still must be supported by reason, or else it is only a mere soap bubble speculation. If on the other hand, the conclusion of reason goes against intuition, then reason must nevertheless be supported and intuition dismissed. Capra seems to imply that they are equal, and he points out that modern physics, in probing into the most fundamental aspects of matter and energy, has come up with a picture in which the universe seems to be a "continuous dancing and vibrating motion whose rythmic patterns are determined by the molecular, atomic and nuclear structures."

He then quotes a Taoist Text to the following effect: "The stillness is not the realness. Only when there is stillness in movement can the spiritual rythm appear which pervades heaven and earth". This, says Capra is "exactly the message we get from modern physics". But what does the Taoist text mean? I can see that "stillness in movement" represents a dynamic equilibrium and that it is the latter that is important in the universe - but that is my interpretation based on my knowledge of science. What did it mean to the fellow who first said it? And what other interpretations can be made of it by people who do not possess the particular frame of ideas which exist in my mind.

Many Eastern sages have said many things in elliptical and obscure language, even in the original, which suffer further in translation. Anyone as imaginative and dedicated as Fritjof Capra or even someone limited, such as myself can go through the vast amounts of Eastern sage revelations and come up with parallels that can match and interpret it to suit any scientific conclusion.

Capra says that all mystical traditions East and West, agree with modern physics. Of course they do, if one person (Capra for instance) undertakes to interpret selected scraps of statements from each of them in his own way. And if modern physics has changed its mind, as it has in the past when new evidence comes in, what then? In that case no doubt, one person still Capra, perhaps, will find other scraps of mystical tradition and subject them to new interpretations and come up with another match to suit a new set of scientific conclusions.

But if intuition is as important to the world as reason, and if Eastern sages are as knowledgeable about the universe as physicists are, then why not take matters in the reverse? Why not use the wisdom of the East as a key to probe some of the unanswered questions in physics? For instance: What is the basic component making up a subatomic particles that physicist call "quark"? How many different quarks are there? What is the relationship between the intensity of their interactions and distance? Are the leptons - the lightest particles such the electron - made up of anything simpler? Are there any additional heavy leptons? How many: What is the relationship between quarks and leptons? And so on. Physicists are attempting to find answers to these questions by using enormously expensive instruments to study cosmic rays and understand high-energy particle interactions - that is, the smashing together of sub-atomic particles at enormous speeds to observe what changes are produced. It would be much simpler to study taoist text for these answers. But if Taoist texts can be properly understood after physicists reach the answers, then of what scientific use are these taoist Texts?

What nonsense all this supposed intuitional truth is, and how comic is the sight of genuflections made to it by rationale minds who have lost their nerve. No it is really not comic; it is rather tragic. In fact there are several factors motivating science but pertinent one here could he usefully isolated by considering the conceptual usage not only for physics and mysticsm, but also for Greek science, had by the end of its development, learned to use all the epistemological modes accepted by modern science including experimentation. Yet modern science traces its experimentation roots from Galileo, not from the Greeks. The reasons are valuable, not only to show why Greek science died out, but also indicate why mysticism, with its ancient concepts so similar to those of physics, has advanced so little to offer physics. Greek science failed because it was not motivated by the "Social function", its conceptual fruits were not applied to improve the means of production. It is relevant that the mystical concepts also have been little applied to social benefit recall the monastic monk and the hermit guru - and there also appears to have been little original mystical development since before our middle ages. The implications of this becomes forcefully clean and can show as well as anything any physics and science are more viable than mysticism. While it is true that science and technology have helped to bring about or exacerbate many of our present social problems, they have also improved our standard of living. Mysticism may have similar concepts and be less manipulative of our environment: But it has done little to help society survive more confortably. It may be that science and technolgy really have been less benign than mysticism about our world but they have been more willing to help us survive in it. Thus Isaac Asimov has succintly summarised "There has been atleast one other such occasion in history, when Greek secular and rational thought bowed to mystical aspects of Christianity and what followed was a Dark Age. We can't afford another".

Finally even an eminent physicist and Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, in an interview (The Illustrated Weekly of India, 1 February, 1981), while commenting on the parallels being drawn between Modern Physics and religion says, "We must be careful about religion in the sense of superstition. Another thing which I find is the tendency to read modern physics into our scriptures which have a deeper meaning. All our scientific concepts can be changed tomorrow. Does that mean you will change your scriptures with them? This was the root cause of conflict between the church and science in Europe - the lack of reconcilation between ancient religious dogma and scientific findings". Further while commenting on Capra's book, The Tao of Physics, said Salam: "Precisely, the book was written in my department and I think it is cheapening both fields - religion and science". This comment from Abdus Salam is entirely accurate and fair.

Equally important is Capra's latest chief D'oeurve, "The Turning Point": in this book once again Capra presents neither any evidence or proper arguments. His book is clearly obsolete. What Capra has failed to realise is to hitch religious philosophy and compare it with science leads Capra to nowhere near his target to overthrow the narrow mechanistic view of reductionism. Further by simply mystifying the limitations of Cartesianism which Capra tries to replace with words like "Holism" and "Ecology" provides no solution which he attempts to raise in the book. It is pretty clear and obvious that the objective of providing an Holistic world view in place of cartesian reductionism has already been achieved by the dedicated scientists in their respective disciplines of research through their patient labour and hard work without much fanfare and thus his new attempt to write a treatise on this subject is not only absurd but also he has not done any research on the area of ecology or Holism and makes himself a laughing stock. Since the Turning Point which Capra has already occured in which it has overcome the limitations of cartesian reductionism and overthrow the entire mechanistic model of the world. A holistic appraoch which is entirely consistent with the rigour of experimental verification logic etc., has already emerged and produced fruitful results especially in the area of modern physics, evolutionary theory, and molecular biology are a result of this new appraoch.

For example in the field of molecular biology there is an excellent lesson which one learns through the work of Babara McClintock. Her triumph is no doubt great since she has followed an unconventional style. She chose to work as a naturalist with complex organism that most of her colleagues would not touch. With maize, she could study the basic problems that bacteria do not well exemplify - genetic regulation of timing in growth and morphegensis, for example. But when she made her unanticipated and greatest discovery of transposable elements, confirmations and generalisations required the different procedures of reductionistic molecular genetics. In fact through "global. intuitive insight", Babara McClintock has won numerous awards, including a Nobel Prize, for her brilliant work in plant genetics which indicate her triumph as a "Naturalist".

Equally important in modern physics is the current search for a unified field theory (Einstein's last dream) of a Space-time unification of Fundamental forces in which physicists have unified three basic forces: the Electromagnetic Force, the Weak Nuclear Force, and the Strong Nuclear Force, for which in 1979 the Nobel prize in Physics was jointly awarded to Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam. Presently physicists are attempting to unify the fourth interaction namely the Gravitational Force to the Electro-weak Unification thus to complete the quartet which are seemingly distinct into one single basic force of which the four known forces are made of different facets. Einstein even went further, he wished to comprehend this single unified force assuming that it existed as a geometrical property of space-time manifold we live today. If this dream of unification turns out to be correct, of course, it will be of enormous consequence, which could follow from the unification of forces and their enshrinement within the space-time structure. Thus it is clear example of overthrowing the narrow frame work of cartesian reductionism.

This clearly shows that Capra has not understood any of the issues that he has raised in this new treatise (The Turning Point).

Finally I agree with Capra when he says, "Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both". What nobody needs in my opinion, is this kind of superficial and profoundly misleading exercise which Capra has attempted in misdirection, both his books can be treated as a grand Noble failure! Both these treatises represent the classics of the 20th century pseudoscience by Fritjof Capra. This is a dubious honour for Capra. Since Mysticism and superstition masquerade as Science. This no doubt is a Capra!


The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Gerald_Huber@r.maus.de

Last update: 8 July 1998