Mysticism and Modern Physics: Some Rough Notes Towards a Review Essay

These are some notes I made in October 1988 towards a (never written) review essay of:

What is Capra Trying to Do?

Capra says that his book is an "exploration of parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism". But what are his motives in drawing such parallels? What is he really trying to do?

There are lots of "parallels" (analogies) in the world. For example there are analogies between cows and chairs ("both have 4 legs"), but for the most part the analogies between cows and chairs are of little intrinsic interest. If somebody draws an analogy, it is because they are trying to demonstrate something.

Capra admits what he is trying to demonstrate:

The following chapters will show that the basic elements of the Eastern world view are also those of the world view emerging from modern physics. They are intended to suggest that Eastern thought and, more generally, mystical thought provide a consistent and relevant philosophical background to the theories of contemporary science; a conception of the world in which scientific discoveries can be in perfect harmony with spiritual aims and religious beliefs. [p. 25]

In short, he is drawing parallels between physics and religious mysticism for the purpose of supporting religious mysticism. He thus has an admittedly religious purpose, not a scientific purpose.

Mystical and Religious Experiences

Are there such things as mystical and religious experiences? The answer to this question depends on what you mean. If you mean, "Are there really experiences that people in this society generally call mystical or religous?", then the answer is "yes". But if you mean, "Are there experiences which establish the validity of the mystical and/or religious views?", then the answer is (in my opinion) "no". And, in any case, even if you discount my opinion, a positive answer to this second question requires substantial evidence and argument. It will not do to simply assume it.

I readily admit that there are experiences which people have tended to characterize as mystical or religious, because for one thing, I have had such experiences myself. I don't claim that I have reached nirvana! No doubt there are deeper, more intense, more prolonged versions of experiences than the ones I have had. But because I have had experiences which are at least of the sort that mystics and religious people call mystical and religious, and which I myself at one time considered to be mystical and religious, I believe that I am in a position to make some comments about such experiences.

(The experiences which I had, which I considered to be mystical or religious at the time, occurred when I was in grade school, when I believed in God, when I considered myself a Christian, when I was under the usual adolescent stresses, when my ideas were shaped exclusively by my conventional bourgeois, small town environment. In such a situation having such "experiences" is not at all unusual or remarkable.)

The point, however, is not whether such experiences occur, but how one should characterize or interpret them. To characterize them as mystical or religious is already to beg some questions! When these days I (or other people) have experiences similar to the ones I used to call mystical or religious, I now characterize them in totally different ways. Such experiences as:

There are many variations on the theme, and I am not saying that all these kinds of things are the same, or that all of them would be considered to be religious or mystical experiences by religious and mystically inclined people. (But some of them are, sometimes at least.)

The general kinds of things that induce such experiences are well known: physiological stress or exertion, drugs, exceptional works of art (or aesthetic phenomena), strong emotions (love, grief, etc.). The efficacy of drugs here is especially significant; the human body is after all very much electro-chemical in composition and functioning. Even the experiences which are not induced directly by external drugs, probably have natural internal human drugs (chemicals) involved, such as endorphins. Physiological and emotional stress can and do cause considerable internal chemical changes to the human body.

Meditation, as such, is just one path to certain kinds of these experiences. (Capra mentions other paths, including skiing, etc.)

"Knowledge" From Mystical Experiences

It may well be that there are deeply satisfying emotions (such as contentment or feelings of well-being) which go along with meditation and other activities and conditions that many people view as "mystical" or "religious" experiences. Maybe such feelings or emotions make these activities and conditions entirely worth while and worth practicing or inducing. Personally I am of two minds about this.

At the very least I think it is fair to say that some people go way overboard in their pursuit of these experiences. (Not only drug addicts, but also yogis, monks, etc.) People can become like laboratory animals pushing the button stimulating their "pleasure centers" until they drop from exhaustion.

But whether or not these experiences are worth while (at least some times and to some degree), there is another question I want to consider: Whether or not these experiences lead to knowledge.

There is one trivial sense in which having an experience—any experience—leads to knowledge: Of course it leads to knowledge of what it is like to have that experience! (If you have never been livid, you might not know exactly what the experience of being livid is like. On the other hand, you may still understand the word perfectly well.)

But other than in this trivial sense, do these so-called mystical and religious experiences result in any knowledge? In my opinion they do not. If they do, then what is this knowledge of? It certainly is not knowledge of the world (i.e., of the sorts of things we ordinarily call knowledge).

Knowledge Through Meditation

"Well, then, you deny that you can obtain any knowledge through meditation." No, I don't deny that at all! What I am claiming is that the knowledge that one might gain via the technique of meditation does not come from any "mystical" or "religious" experiences that one might have while meditating.

What after all is meditation? It can mean a lot of things. Some people identify it with the "mystical" experiences one might have while meditating. To me this is an invalid move; if you want to say that meditation is the same as having mystical experiences, then I want to say all the same things about meditation as I did about the so-called mystical experiences. In particular, in this case I would say that no knowledge of the world can be derived from meditation.

But if meditation is not identified with the "mystical" experiences which it is possible to have while meditating, then it is clear that it is also possible to have other more down-to-earth experiences while meditating. I mean such things as remembering, contemplating, imagining, and most of the usual litany of mentalistic phenomena.

To meditate, according to the dictionary, is "to focus one's thoughts on", or to "reflect or ponder over". Is it any wonder that this sort of thing might allow you to come up with some knowledge? If you were trying to think of somebody's name, meditation may be an effective way to help you remember it. But where did that name, that bit of knowledge, come from? Well obviously from your memory banks; but it was put into your memory from the world outside you (when you learned the name in the first place).

Or suppose you have been trying to solve a problem in mathematics or physics. Meditation might be one method (among many) that will help you think of the solution. This is hardly surprising; if you have understood the problem and have all the necessary data for solving it (stored in your brain from the outside world) then possibly all that remains is to think about the problem or, as we say, to "meditate" upon it.

"Intuitive Knowledge"

Capra (along with most mystics) relies heavily on the concept of "intuition":

Throughout history, it has been recognized that the human mind is capable of two kinds of knowledge, or two modes of consciousness, which have often been termed the rational and the intuitive, and have traditionally been associated with science and religion, respectively. [pp. 26-7]

There are several things wrong here. First of all, intuition is at best a path to knowledge, not a kind of knowledge, different from the rational kind. We can have intuitions about any kind of ordinary thing. I might have an intuition which leads me to suspect what the answer to a mathematical problem is for example. The correct answer, however, is a fact of mathematics no matter how I came up with it, whether it was through "intuition", from memory, by calculation, asking somebody else, or whatever. It is not a different kind of knowledge if I came up with the answer one way rather than another way.

Of course you can call knowledge that you came up with through intuition "intuitive knowledge", just as you can call knowledge that you came up with from memory "remembered knowledge", or knowledge you came up with via calculation "calculated knowledge". All of these phrases sound a little strange to me. In any case they are clearly derivative senses; all you are really doing is categorizing the bit of knowledge based upon how you happened to come up with it in this particular instance, rather than based on the intrinsic sort of knowledge it is.

Second of all, intuition is not really even a path to knowledge. It is more like the absence of an identifiable path. When we cannot say just how we happened to come up with an idea, then we fall back on expressions like "It just popped into my mind" or "It was just an intuitive hunch".

Sometimes there may be subtle hints in the situation or circumstances which lead us unconsciously to an idea or result. Other times it may be that there is nothing suggestive in the immediate circumstances, but there may have been all sorts of relevant information gathered and stored (remembered) on prior occasions.

The fact is, we are not (and cannot be) conscious of all the inner workings of our minds. To be conscious of something is (speaking a bit simplistically) to run a mental monitoring program; to be conscious of all the workings of the monitoring program is to run a meta-monitoring program... Somewhere you have to give up and admit that if the mind is ever to be allowed to do any work—other than monitoring itself!—the levels upon levels of monitoring cannot go on for ever.

Not only must the monitoring programs themselves ultimately go unmonitored, but it is also unreasonable to expect that most of the lower level subfunctions of the mind can have every little step monitored. That overly pervasive type of introspection would stop us cold! (In computer terms, this would be an extreme form of thrashing.)[1]

(An aside: This whole business about excessive monitoring, and how it leads to gross inefficiences, is something that managers of corporations cannot grasp at all. In their determination to monitor every little thing that anybody ever does they are dooming their companies to bureaucratic inefficiency on a colossal scale. Since they do not trust their workers they must constantly check up on them—rather than use a more productive technique such as a balance of trust and authority, on the one hand, and requiring responsibility and accountability on the other hand. This is one of many reasons why genuine socialism—when the workers run society—can be so much more efficient than capitalism, regardless of what capitalist apologists constantly say.)

But just because we cannot say where an idea came from or cannot trace the steps which led us to a particular bit of knowledge, it does not at all follow that there were no steps. The mind works by applying its various computer processes, based on various architectures (cf. Marvin Minsky), to the data it recieves from outside itself—i.e., from the world—via our various sense organs.

Thirdly, knowledge—all knowledge—is "justified true belief"; that is (approximately) what 'knowledge' means. Anybody can believe anything. But there are public, rational standards for what is justified. And the question of what is true—in any sphere of belief—is a scientific question. Thus, contrary to Capra and religious people in general, there are not two kinds of knowledge, the rational and the "non-rational" (or "intuitive"); there is only rational knowledge. If it is not rational, it is not knowledge; merely unsupported belief or faith.

Empiricism and Rationalism

There are two opposing points of view in philosophy which are called "empiricism" and "rationalism". Briefly, empiricism is the view that sense experience is the sole source of knowledge, while rationalism is the view that reason is the source of real knowledge. There are various interpretations of both of these positions—some more idealistic, some more materialistic. But the correct view is a dialectical materialist combination of the two poles. As Mao explained in On Practice (1937), "the perceptual stage of knowledge needs to be developed to the rational stage". He continues:

To think that knowledge can stop at the lower, perceptual stage and that perceptual knowledge alone is reliable while rational knowledge is not, would be to repeat the historical error of 'empiricism'. This theory errs in failing to understand that, although the data of perception reflect certain realities in the objective world (I am not speaking here of idealist empiricism which confines experience to so-called introspection), they are merely one-sided and superficial, reflecting things incompletely and not reflecting their essence. Fully to reflect a thing in its totality, to reflect its essence, to reflect its inherent laws, it is necessary through the exercise of thought to reconstruct the rich data of sense perception, discarding the dross and selecting the essential, eliminating the false and retaining the true, proceeding from the one to the other and from the outside to the inside, in order to form a system of concepts and theories—it is necessary to make a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge.

Capra uses the term 'empiricism' in two different senses, switching back and forth as his argument suits him. When he speaks of the world of science, the empiricism (and the experience) he speaks of is the familiar data of sense perception. But when he speaks of "mystical experiences" he jumps to a completely different thing, the idealist type of empiricism which Mao referred to in passing, so-called "introspection" or "intuition".

He even sort of admits he is pulling a fast one:

A word of caution should perhaps be added here. The emphasis on seeing in mystical traditions should not be taken too literally, but has to be understood in a metaphorical sense, since the mystical experience of reality is an essentially non-sensory experience. When the Eastern mystics talk about 'seeing', they refer to a mode of perception which may include visual perception, but which always and essentially transcends it to become a nonsensory experience of reality. What they do emphasize, however, when they talk about seeing, looking or observing, is the empirical character of their knowledge. This empirical approach of Eastern philosophy is strongly reminiscent of the emphasis on observation in science and thus suggests a framework for our comparison. The experimental stage in scientific research seems to correspond to the direct insight of the Eastern mystic, and the scientific models and theories correspond to the various ways in which this insight is interpreted. [p. 35]

This passage concentrates so many illicit moves that it is worth analyzing carefully. First of all, Capra starts by admitting that science and mysticism are concerned with two totally different things: in the case of science it is sense perception—observation of the external world (i.e., the world external to our minds); in the case of mysticism it is some kind of "metaphorical observation"—that is to say, not really observation at all, and certainly nothing having any connection whatsoever to the world investigated by science (that is to say, to the world period).

But then, having admitted that!, he turns right around and tries to say that the scientist and the mystic are really doing the same thing, in some sense! That they are both somehow "observing"; that "introspection" is somehow the same as experimenting; that mystical beliefs are somehow on a par with scientific theories!

None of the essential characteristics of science—its observation of the world, its experimental manipulation of the world, its rationalizing of the sense data from the world into scientific theory, its objective character which allows others to repeat its experiments and check its conclusions—none of these essential characteristics of science are to be found in mystical introspection, and yet they are somehow supposed to be "the same"!

The fact is, idealistic empiricism has nothing to do with materialistic empiricism, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with science. Sure there are "parallels" here, but these parallels prove nothing; they prove even less than does the fact that both cows and kitchen chairs have 4 legs.

The argument that mysticism is "like" science since both of them have an "empirical character" is typical of the phony analogies that Capra draws throughout his book. All I can say is that this kind of "logic" is just plain goofy. I am delighted that Capra admits that his whole "framework" for his comparison between science and mysticism rests on such a flimsy and far-fetched analogy.

Does Rationalism Give Mysticism an Opening?

When my friend and co-worker Rich Swanson and I were discussing Capra's book one day we came up with a far more plausible theory than any that Capra provides for making some sense out of "intuition" or introspection as a road to knowledge. The basic idea is that whatever "knowledge" you bring to consciousness in this way must have been already stored in your brain; and some small amount of it may even have been there from birth.

The view that we have in our brains some implicit beliefs about the world which we have not directly acquired from the world (or even indirectly, from other people), is of course a type of rationalism. There is actually a very strong argument that to some extent, this must be true. I refer to Noam Chomsky's theory of language development in children.

Chomsky's basic argument is that unless the human brain were very much already predisposed to learn a language, and that in fact the brain as it physically develops already contains many of the structural features which incorporate some of the fundamental parts of language (such as its "deep" or common underlying syntax that all human languages are postulated to share), there is no way that we could ever learn such a complicated thing as language, or at least no way that it could be learned so quickly and seemingly effortlessly.

Some parts of Chomsky's theory are certainly open to dispute (such as to what extent there is a common underlying syntax in all languages); but while the entire theory has certainly not been proven yet, the basic idea seems to me to be almost undeniable. At least I believe it, and am willing to grant it as given for the purposes of argument in this essay.

The question then is, does the assumption that the brain encodes implicit "knowledge" of the world that was never learned through contact with the world open the door for mystical views? Can we even say that here is a scientific basis for mysticism? No, not at all.

Ultimately, all knowledge of the world must come from the world. It is true however that the brain contains a good deal of "firmware". This firmware may incorporate certain very abstract kinds of ideas or "knowledge" about the world in some implicit manner (via its structure). The very fact that the mind is made up of the computer architectures that it is is a reflection of what has been successful in an evolutionary sense, in the growth of our abilities to understand, interact with, and change the world.

Whatever comes to us through pure introspection (if anything) still needs to be checked against the world, rationalized into scientific theory, etc. In no way would such implicit or "intuitive ideas" by themselves constitute genuine knowledge, let alone constitute a different "kind" of knowledge than the usual kind. They would be merely "innate original beliefs" of some sort which would be subject to the same kind of checking, modification and scientific rationalization as are all beliefs.

Even if such "innate beliefs" exist (and there is as yet little proof that they do), they would only be yet another indirect way in which we humans learn about the physical world. There is nothing so very remarkable about that; we already have lots of indirect ways, such as by asking other people, looking things up in books, etc. In this case the indirect path would be through our human (and pre-human!) evolutionary heritage from millions of years of interacting with the (rest of the) world.

And even if some "innate ideas" do exist, there is absolutely no reason to think that the firmware of our brains contains the sort of specific ideas about the world that constitute quantum mechanics and modern physics! There is no evolutionary reason why these sorts of beliefs should ever have been hardcoded into us. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to believe that we can discover the true nature of the universe through pure instrospection (or "intuition").

Moreover, even in the bizarre cirumstance that the firmware of our brains did in some way encode various "theories of physics", we would be totally unjustified in accepting these theories as necessarily correct. It would be anti-scientific to do so. At the very most, these "innate theories" could only be accepted as hypotheses, to be tested and rationalized scientifically.

As for the hypotheses that do "pop into our minds", there are far, far more plausible explanations for their origins than to assume they are encoded in our genes! The very fact that in science one finds at every step a complete welter of contrary and conflicting hyptheses is alone enough to virtually rule out notions that any such definite hypotheses are hiding within us from birth just waiting to be uncovered!

Are there really any such things as innate ideas? Not in the ordinary sense of ideas, such as the idea that the sky is blue. It has been claimed that human infants (along with baby chimpanzees) have an innate fear of snakes, and though I am not really convinced of that yet, I concede that a few things like that are conceivable on evolutionary grounds. And you could say that this means that the idea "snakes are often dangerous" is at least implictly coded in us and is therefore innate. (Even if that is true, it can obviously be overcome; there are many people who learn not to fear snakes.) In a similar way you could argue that since babies know how to suckle, they have implicit ideas about suckling. But implicit ideas are not actual ideas; it is adults looking at these situations that form the real ideas, not the babies themselves.

Our brains must also have structures (computer architectures) that implicitly encode various kinds of very abstract ideas about the world. Our brains probably have one or more innate "analogy engines" for example that facilitate our making analogies, and it is a fact about the world that one thing is often like another. But again, this sort of "implicit knowledge" is not really the same as knowledge properly speaking.

Let us admit that probably there is some degree of truth to (Chomskyian-style) rationalism. Let us suppose that babies do innately fear snakes, and that we have innate analogy-engines built into our brains. And let's say that does mean we have various kinds of innate "knowledge", even if it is only implicit and unconscious. Even granting all that, it by no means follows that there is the slightest support here for mysticism! Mysticism is not about the world at all; it is a type of emotional experience. The type of theories we are discussing here really explains away and leads to the death of mysticism insofar as it claims to be a path to knowledge.

The Component Parts of Eastern Religions/Philosophies

Capra notes, quite correctly, that "For an understanding of any of the [Eastern] philosophies to be described, it is important to realize that they are religious in essence." [p. 85] What he does not say, but what is also correct, is that the same is true of idealistic philosophies in the West (for example Plato, Berkeley and Hegel, to mention three very clear examples of Western idealism).

Of course we are speaking of religious philosophies when we talk about Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.! But the point I wish to make is that embedded in these religions are philosophies, and embedded in these philosophies are not only anti-scientific elements, but also some scientific elements (to varying degrees), and in particular a primitive dialectics.

Contrary to what many people think, if you look into the ideologies of the "East" as compared to those of the "West" you will not find a clear-cut overall distinction between the two regions on the issue of mysticism vs. science, or on the question of idealism vs. materialism. On the contrary, throughout most of history, you will find idealism, religion and mysticism dominant in both the East and the West, but you will also find materialist and scientific elements in both the East and the West. Only with the development of capitalism in the West, and its early naive materialism, and with the subsequent formation of proletarian ideology with its scientific materialism (in the form of Marxist dialectical materialism) did the West lean somewhat more towards science and materialism than did the East. Even this geographic "imbalance" has been corrected this century because of the greater initial success of Marxism in the East.

In India there was an early materialist currrent, for example, which predates Buddha in the 6th century B.C. Later there was the Charvaka and Lokayatika schools. (Lokayata means "materialism" in Sanskrit.) Some materialist views even found their way into religious documents, such as the suggestion in the Vedic Hymns that there is no supernatural power behind the visible world. In China there were also many materialist currents and some remarkable individual materialists, including Wang Fu-chih (Wang Ch'an-shan) (1619-1692).

But the main form that materialism and dialectics—the two scientific components of philosophy—have appeared in both East and West (up until the advent of Marxism) has been as an admixture, blended in with various amounts of idealism and anti-dialectics (or, as we Marxists say, "metaphysics").

This has especially been the case with dialectics, the view that there are dialectical contradictions (opposite poles) within things, that development is a result of the conflict between these poles, and related views such as that there is an overall unity to the world, and that things are interconnected.

In the West the great dialecticians include Heraclitus and Hegel, both of whom were extreme idealists. In the East the greatest classical dialectician is Lao Zi (Lao Tsu or Lao-Tse), who was of course the founder of Taoism, and therefore also a philosophic idealist. But there are also primitive dialectical elements in Buddhism and many other Eastern religions/philosophies. (In the West, too, occasional small dialectical elements sometimes creep into religion, such as the concept of opposing forces of good and evil, which was actually more enthusiastically adopted in the gnostic heresy than it has been in standard Christianity.)

So now we come to the crux of one of my major charges against Capra: When he claims to show that modern physics supports mysticism because there are analogies between the two, most of the time these analogies are really between physics and dialectics; that is, really between science and ... science! Just look at the chapter titles in Part III ("The Parallels") of his book: "The Unity of All Things", "Beyond the World of Opposites", "Emptiness and Form", "Patterns of Change", "Interpenetration", etc. These are all classical dialectical themes. And the content of his whole book shows conclusively that the valid and significant analogies that Capra is able to draw between physics and Eastern philosophies are all related to dialectical principles.

Actually many of these analogies do suggest that dialectical principles are useful in analyzing (and guiding the development of) physics. I have no objection to this view; in fact it delights me! But it does nothing whatsoever to support mysticism or religion!

Capra is trying to pull off a neat trick, but it won't wash. To show that physics supports mysticism, it would be necessary to show some valid (and non-trivial!) analogies between physics and the mystical elements in Eastern (or Western!) philosophies—not the analogies between physics and the few scientific elements these philosophies also contain.

Primitive Dialectics and Materialist Dialectics

I said above that the dialectical elements in Eastern philosophies are primitve (even in Taoism, the most sophisticated), and I also claimed that the principles of dialectics are scientific principles. It is necessary to say a bit more on these two points.

One of the ways in which the dialectics in Eastern philosophies is primitive is that it does not fully recognize the "particularity of contradiction". This shows itself in Chinese philosophy for example in the attempt to force all contradictions into the yin/yang mold.

The phrase "the particularity of contradiction" means that one dialectical contradiction is not the same as another; its poles will be different, the nature of the conflict between the poles will be different, the mode of resolution of the contradiction will be different, etc.

For example, consider the contradiction between the geologic forces which are trying to build up Mount St. Helens (volcanic), and the forces which are trying to tear it down (wind and rain). Compare this with the contradiction in the San Andreas fault between the forces trying to move the Pacific tectonic plate north (currents in the earth's mantle) and the forces trying to keep it in place (friction). Here we have two different (dialectical) contradictions, both in the science of geophysics, but very different in many respects. Their contradictory poles are different in the two cases; the nature of the struggle between these poles is different; and in short the contradictions are different. And this is for two contradictions in the same area of science. Think how much different contradictions in physics and human society would be!

To say that in every dialectical contradiction there must be one pole which is the "yin" pole, and one pole which is the "yang" pole, is to move to yet another level of abstraction—when we are already talking at a very abstract level to begin with. In the Mount St. Helens case which is the "yin" pole and which is the "yang"? Why say one rather than the other? Even if there were some sort of analogies between the two cases which allow you to select one pole in each of the two contradictions as the "yang" pole, and the other as the "yin" pole, what is the point of doing this? It will only tend to confuse the issue when it comes to understanding the particular contradictions themselves.

This becomes even clearer when you add in the nonsense about the "yang" pole being "masculine", "rational", etc., while the "yin" pole is "feminine", "intuitive", etc. What have such concepts to do with volcanos or geologic faults? Precisely nothing, that's what!

The identification of "masculine" with "rational", and "feminine" with "intuitive", is wrong not only on the grounds of dialectic logic, but it also shows the sexism in the whole concept of yin/yang. There is no justification for claiming that men are more rational than women, and any theory that builds such ideas into its basic method of analysis cannot be completely correct.

But even worse than the yin/yang stuff and the general failure to recognize the particularity of contradiction, is another "metaphysical" (in the Marxist sense) characteristic of the dialectics in "Eastern philosophies"—its static nature that fails to see contradictions as determining development.

Primitive dialectics recognizes opposites in things, and cyclic changes which lead to first one pole and then the other being dominant. Thus there is the procession of day and night, summer and winter, etc. But materialist dialectics carries this further and recognizes that in the struggle of opposites we have the explanation for the internal motive forces which lead to the development of a thing. In place of cycles, the key concept is that of spirals.

Thus in class society: there was the struggle between slave and slave-owner in slave society, which led to the development of feudal society. While it is true that in feudal society there were serfs and lords, which obviously correspond in a way with slaves and owners, there was also development here; society did change and advance. Similarly the contradictions in feudal society led to the development of capitalism, where the class contradictions were again reproduced in the form of workers and capitalists. But not only is there this type of spiral development that is pushed along by internal dialectical contradictions, there is also (in many cases) the final resolution of a contradiction, where one pole triumphs completely, and the contradiction itself disappears (or is completely transformed). Thus the whole class struggle in society, though it has existed for about ten thousand years, did not always exist, and will someday cease to exist. The resolution of the contradiction between the workers and the capitalists lies in the elimination of the capitalists as a class, and the transformation of capitalism into communism (via the process-stage of socialism in which the proletariat itself is also transformed).

Since some readers may tune out the above political example, let me refer again to the Mount St. Helens contradiction. Someday the volcanic forces will peter out for this mountain (due to larger contradictions involving plate tectonics). Then the pole of the present contradiction representing the weathering away of the mountain will get the upper hand permanently, and eventually the mountain will disappear. The contradiction will be resolved in the favor of that one pole (which itself gets transformed in the process, however). It is this kind of recognition of dialectical development, and the ultimate resolution of contradictions that is sorely missing in primitive dialectics, of either the "Eastern" or "Western" variety. It is the main reason why we Marxists call such dialectical theories primitive.

Scientific Dialectics

Now to address the issue briefly of why dialectics should be considered scientific and why any philosophy that incorporates dialectics into itself is (at least to that degree) scientific. The basic reason for this is simple: dialectical principles have been abstracted from the world; they are a very general reflection of the understanding of many scientific theories in many different areas of science.

What is the relationship between science and philosophy in general? If we are talking about a scientific philosophy, then the relationship is a simple one: scientific philosophy is just the philosophy that is abstracted from all the specific sciences. Or, in other words, philosophy properly speaking consists simply of the most general and abstract principles of science, and in particular the two such core principles, materialism and dialectics.

Einstein noted some of what I am getting at here when he wrote:

The results of scientific research very often force a change in the philosophical view of problems which extend far beyond the restricted domain of science itself.... Philosophical generalizations must be founded on scientific results. Once formed and widely accepted, however, they very often influence the further development of scientific thought by indicating one of the many possible lines of procedure. Successful revolt against the accepted view results in unexpected and completely different developments, becoming a source of new philosophical aspects.[2]

Thus it is because a dialectical view can be abstracted from geological theories, evolutionary theory and other theories big and small in biology, theories in physics, chemistry, cosmology, etc., and historical materialism (the Marxist scientific theory of society), that we can call dialectics scientific. Dialectical principles have been abstracted from the world of science, and are therefore useful in suggesting or guiding the development of future scientific theories in all areas of science.

Space and Time

I claimed above that the only valid and significant analogies that Capra draws between modern physics and Eastern philosophies are related to dialectical principles. I won't attempt to show here that each and every of the few remaining analogies he attempts is invalid or insignificant. I did mention one such example, however—the "empirical" character that both physics and Eastern philosophies are supposed to share. Let me now give another, his "parallel" on the issue of space and time.

Basically Capra's argument is that Eastern philosophies say that nothing is "absolute", not even space and time. Physics (relativity theory) now says that space and time are not absolute either, but depend upon the point of view (motion and position) of the observer. "Therefore", the two agree.

However! Modern physics does not say that there are "no absolutes" (in the sense being discussed here). On the contrary, the very physical theory that Capra is using to try to prove his point says that the speed of light is an absolute (a constant for all observers). This sort of absolutism in science is completely at odds with the principle that there are "no absolutes". Capra must be aware of this; and yet he only chooses to talk about the aspects of the theory that suit him.

You could actually give a better argument to the exact contrary: Eastern philosophies say there are no absolutes; science says there are some absolutes; therefore science is inconsistent with Eastern philosophies.

So I say again: Those analogies which Capra tries to draw between Eastern philosophies and modern physics are either related to dialectics, or else are invalid or insignificant.

The Absurdity of Attempting a "Rational Argument" Against the Use of Rational Arguments

Everything in the world needs to be interpreted and understood rationally, or in other words, investigated and understood scientifically. You could reply "But this is one of the basic questions at issue!" Yes, it is. Capra and all his mystic friends claim that many of the most important things about the "world" can only be discovered through "intuition" and mystical meditation, and yet he feels compelled to use language and what he supposes to be rational argument in an attempt to prove this point!

I have more respect for the Zen masters who "reason" with their students by punching them out. At least they are consistent in their view that reasoning is not the road to "enlightenment"!

Just why is it that mystics so often feel compelled to use language to explain what they maintain cannot be expressed with language? Or to use arguments to prove what they themselves maintain cannot be proven by argument? Or to try to enlighten others through rationality when their own theory says that this is not the way it can be accomplished? The answer can only be that at least one part of them does not believe their own theory. They are inconsistent, confused, all mixed up, irrational and at bottom incoherent.

A More Sophisticated Mystical Approach to Physics

A partial antidote to Capra's attempt to use physics to support mysticism is provided by Ken Wilber's book Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists. In the preface to his book he says:

The theme of this book, if I may briefly summarize the argument of the physicists presented herein, is that modern physics offers no positive support (let alone proof) for a mystical worldview. Nevertheless, every one of the physicists in this volume was a mystic. They simply believed, to a man, that if modern physics no longer objects to a religious worldview, it offers no positive support either; properly speaking, it is indifferent to all that...

It is not my aim in this volume to reach the new-age audience, who seem to be firmly convinced that modern physics automatically supports or proves mysticism. It does not. But this view is now so widespread, so deeply entrenched, so taken for granted by new-agers, that I don't see that any one book could possibly reverse the tide. It was, I believe, with every good intention that this 'physics-supports-mysticism' idea was proposed, and it was with every good intention that it was so rapidly and widely accepted. But I believe these good intentions were misplaced, and the results have been not just wrong but detrimental. If today's physics supports mysticism, what happens when tomorrow's physics replaces it? Does mysticism then fall also? We cannot have it both ways. As particle physicist Jeremy Bernstein put it, 'If I were an Eastern mystic the last thing in the world I would want would be a reconciliation with modern science, [because] to hitch a religious philosophy to a contemporary science is a sure route to obsolescence.'

Actually "today's physics" in no way supports mysticism (as Wilber agreed in the first paragraph); it is only many of "today's physicists" who support it—because they have been raised in a society which is still overwhelmingly religious. It is not even true to say that physics "no longer objects" to mysticism and religion. Actually, materialism is still the basic core assumption of physics (and all of science), and anything which conflicts with materialism is just as much opposed to physics as it ever was. (I'll elaborate on that on another occasion.) But it is good to see that at least one religious philosopher has sense enough to see that the type of argument which Capra puts out is a bunch of baloney.

Why do so many physicsts lean towards mysticism and other forms of idealism? Here is what the famous biophysicist and historian of science John D. Bernal had to say about that:

The physical theories of the twentieth century are no freer than those of earlier centuries from influences derived from idealist trends from outside science. For all their symbolic and mathematical formulations they still embody much of the flight from reality that derives ultimately from religion, now more and more clearly concerned to provide a smoke screen for the operation of capitalism. The influence of the positivism of Ernst Mach on the theoretical formulations of modern physical theories was a predominating one. Most physicists have so absorbed this positivism in their education that they think of it as an intrinsic part of science, instead of being an ingenious way of explaining away an objective world in terms of subjective ideas. This was brilliantly exposed almost at the beginning of the period by Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism; but the mystifications of theoretical physics have still continued, and it will take many more years of argument and experience, including political experience, before the logical basis of physics is cleared of the ideas that have nothing to do with the material world.[3]

Physicists (like most other scientists and most non-scientists in this society) believe in or lean towards mysticism and religion for the same reasons they believe in or lean towards national chauvinism, sexism, and bourgeois ideology in general: namely, because they are part of this society in which those views are all around us, inculcated from childhood. Just because someone's views are scientific in some respects it by no means follows that they are scientific in other respects. (In fact if this were necessary, science could have never have begun and could never have developed at all!)

Not every scientist displays the extremes of William Schockley's racism, or James Watson's careerist self-aggrandizement. But very few people—scientists or otherwise—can be expected to abandon the bulk of their bourgeois ideological baggage until there is a prominent scientific alternative presented strongly to their consciousness. And as Bernal indicates, this means not only more exposure to scientific philosophy (dialectical materialism)—with which they are now almost entirely ignorant—, but also exposure to and participation in social struggle. Even then, many people will be unable to change. Such is the hold of ideology upon humanity. The remnants of religion will be with us for a long while even after the social basis for it has been removed through the revolutionary reorganization of society; it will take at least a few generations to die out completely.

—Scott H.
   (With a bit of additional editing on 7/13/98)


[1]   'Thrashing' is a condition in which a computer can do little or no useful work because all available computing power is being devoted to "overhead" tasks, such as paging data in and out of memory without ever getting a chance to process the data.

[2]   Albert Einstein & Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics: From Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta (NY: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1966 (originally published in 1938)), p. 51.

[3]   John D. Bernal, Science in History (MIT Press, 1971), vol. 3, p. 746.

— End —

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