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Introduction: Of Shadows and Symbols
Beyond the Cave
Physics and mysticism,
physics and mysticism, physics and mysticism . . . In the past decade there have appeared literally dozens of books, by physicists, philosophers, psychologists,
and theologians, purporting to describe or explain the extraordinary relationship between modern physics, the hardest of sciences, and mysticism,
the tenderest of religions. Physics and mysticism are fast approaching a remarkably common worldview, some say. They are complementary approaches to the same reality, others report. No, they have nothing in common, the skeptics announce; their methods, goals, and results are diametrically opposed. Modern physics, in fact, has been used to both support and refute determinism,
free-will, God, Spirit, immortality, causality, predestination, Buddhism,
Hinduism, Christianity, and Taoism.
The fact is, every generation has tried to use physics to both prove and disprove
Spirit—which ought to tell us something right there. Plato announced that the whole of physics was, to use his terms, nothing more than a "likely story," since it depended ultimately on nothing but the evidence of the fleeting and shadowy senses, whereas truth resided in the transcendental Forms beyond physics (hence "metaphysics"). Democritus, on the other hand,
put his faith in "atoms and the void," since nothing else, he felt,
had any existence—a notion so obnoxious to Plato that he expressed the strongest desire that all the works of Democritus be burned on the spot.
Newtonian physics ruled the day, the materialists seized upon physics to prove that, since the universe was obviously a deterministic machine, there could be no room for free will, God, grace, divine intervention, or anything else that even vaguely resembled Spirit. This seemingly impenetrable argument, however,
had no impact whatsoever on the spiritually-minded or idealistic philosophers.
In fact, they pointed out, the second law of thermodynamics—which unequivocably announces that the universe is winding down—can mean only one thing:
If the universe is winding down, something or somebody had to have previously wound it up. Newtonian physics doesn't disprove God; on the contrary, they maintained, it proves the absolute necessity of a Divine Creator!
When relativity theory entered the scene, the whole drama repeated itself. Cardinal
O'Connell of Boston warned all good Catholics that relativity was "a befogged speculation producing universal doubt about God and his creation"; the theory was "a ghastly apparition of Atheism."
Rabbi Goldstein, on the other hand, solemnly announced that Einstein had done nothing less than produce "a scientific formula for monotheism."
Similarly, the works of James Jeans and Arthur Eddington were greeted by cheers from the pulpits all over England—modern physics supports Christianity in all essential respects! The problem was, Jeans and Eddington by no means agreed with this reception, nor in fact with each other, which prompted Bertrand
Russell's famous witticism that "Sir Arthur Eddington deduces religion from the fact that atoms do not obey the laws of mathematics. Sir James Jeans deduces it from the fact that they do."
Today we hear of the supposed relation between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.
Bootstrap theory, Bell's theorem, the implicate order, the holographic paradigm—all of this is supposed to prove (or is it disprove?) Eastern mysticism. In all essential respects it is simply the same story with different characters. The pros and cons strut their wares, but what remains true and unchanged is simply that the issue itself is extremely complex.
In the midst of this melange, then, it
seemed a good idea to consult the founders of modern physics on what
thought about the nature of science and religion. What is the relation, if any, between modern physics and transcendental mysticism? Does physics bear at all on the issues of free-will, creation, Spirit, the soul? What
the respective roles of science and religion? Does physics even deal with Reality
(capital R), or is it necessarily confined to studying the shadows in the cave?
This volume is a condensed collection of virtually every major statement made on those topics by the founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington,
Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Planck. While it would be asking too much to have all these theorists precisely agree with each other on the nature and relation of science and religion, nevertheless, I was quite surprised to find a very general commonality emerge in the worldviews of these philosopher-scientists.
While there are exceptions (as we will see), certain strong and common conclusions were reached by virtually every one of these theorists. I will return to these general conclusions in a moment and state them more carefully and precisely, but by way of first approximation, we can say this: these theorists are virtually unanimous in declaring that modern physics offers no positive support whatsoever for mysticism or transcendentalism of any variety.
(And yet they were
mystics of one sort or another! The reason for
will be one of the central questions of this section.)
According to their general consensus, modern physics neither proves nor disproves,
neither supports nor refutes, a mystical-spiritual worldview. There
certain similarities between the worldview of the new physics and that of mysticism,
they believe, but these similarities, where they are not purely accidental, are trivial when compared with the vast and profound differences between them. To attempt to bolster a spiritual worldview with data from physics—old or new—is simply to misunderstand entirely the nature and function of each. As Einstein himself put it, "The present fashion of applying the axioms of physical science to human life is not only entirely a mistake but has also something reprehensible in it."
Archbishop Davidson asked Einstein what effect the theory of relativity had on religion, Einstein replied, "None. Relativity is a purely scientific theory, and has nothing to do with religion"—about which Eddington wittily commented, "In those days one had to become expert in dodging persons who were persuaded that the fourth dimension was the door to spiritualism."
of course, had (like Einstein) a deeply mystical outlook, but he was absolutely decisive on this point: "I do not suggest that the new physics 'proves religion' or indeed gives any positive grounds for religious faith. . . .
own part I am wholly opposed to any such attempt."
Schroedinger—who, in my judgment, was probably the greatest mystic in this group—was just as blunt: "Physics has nothing to do with it. Physics takes its start from everyday experience, which it continues by more subtle means. It remains akin to it, does not transcend it generically, it cannot enter into another realm."
The attempt to do so, he says, is simply "sinister": "The territory from which previous scientific attainment is invited to retire is with admirable dexterity claimed as a playground of some religious ideology that cannot really use it profitably, because its [religion's] true domain is far beyond anything in reach of scientific explanation."
Planck's view, if I may summarize it, was that science and religion deal with two very different dimensions of existence, between which, he believed, there can properly be neither conflict nor accord, any more than we can say, for instance, that botany and music are in conflict or accord. The attempts to set them at odds, on the one hand, or "unify them," on the other, are
"founded on a misunderstanding, or, more precisely, on a confusion of the images of religion with scientific statements. Needless to say, the result makes no sense at all." As for Sir James Jeans, he was simply flabbergasted: "What of the things which are not seen which religion assures us are eternal? There has been much discussion of late of the claims of
["scientific support" for "transcendental events"].
Speaking as a scientist, I find the alleged proofs totally unconvincing;
speaking as a human being, I find most of them ridiculous as well."
Now it cannot be claimed that these men were simply unaware of the mystical writings of the East and West; that if they simply read
Dancing Wu-Li Masters
they would all change their minds and pronounce physics and mysticism to be fraternal twins; that if they knew more about the details of the mystical literature they would indeed find numerous similarities between quantum mechanics and mysticism. On the contrary, their writings are positively loaded with references to the Vedas, the Upanishads, Taoism (Bohr made the yin-yang symbol part of his family crest), Buddhism, Pythagoras, Plato, Berkeley,
Plotinus, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kant, virtually the entire pantheon of perennial philosophers, and they still reached the above-mentioned conclusions.
They were perfectly aware, for instance, that a key tenet of the perennial philosophy is that in mystical consciousness subject and object become
in the act of knowing; they were also aware that certain philosophers claimed that
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bohr's Complementarity Principle supported this mystical idea, because, it was said, in order for the subject to know the object, it had to "interfere" with it, and that proved that the subject-object duality had been transcended by modern physics.
None of the physicists in this volume believed that assertion.
Bohr himself stated quite plainly that "the notion of complementarity does in no way involve a departure from our position as detached observers of nature. .
. . The essentially new feature in the analysis of quantum phenomena is the introduction of a
fundamental distinction between the measuring apparatus and the objects under investigation
[his ital.]. . . . In our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two."
Louis de Broglie was even more succinct: "[It has been said that] quantum physics reduces or blurs the dividing region between the subjective and the objective, but there is some misuse of language here. For in reality the means of observation clearly belong to the objective side; and the fact that their reactions on the parts of the external world which we desire to study cannot be disregarded in microphysics neither abolishes, nor even diminishes, the traditional distinction between subject and object." Schroedinger—and keep in mind that these men firmly acknowledged that in mystical union subject and object are one, they simply found no support for this idea whatsoever in modern physics—stated that "the 'pulling down of the frontier between observer and observed' which many consider [a] momentous revolution of thought,
to my mind seems a much overrated provisional aspect without profound significance."
for the reasons that these theorists rejected the
"physics-supports-mysticism" view, we will have to look elsewhere than the alleged fact that they were unacquainted with mystical literature or experience. And even if their knowledge of, say, Taoism, could be shown to be deficient, their critique would still, I believe, be absolutely valid. Further,
this critique (which I will present in a moment) is not affected one way or another by any particular advances in physics; it is a logical critique that cuts at right angles to any possible new discoveries. This critique is simple,
straightforward, and profound; at one stroke, it cuts across virtually everything written on the supposed parallels between physics and mysticism.
the critique is this. The central mystical experience may be fairly (if somewhat poetically) described as follows: in the mystical consciousness,
Reality is apprehended directly and immediately, meaning without any mediation,
any symbolic elaboration, any conceptualization, or any abstractions; subject and object become one in a timeless and spaceless act that is beyond any and all forms of mediation. Mystics universally speak of contacting reality in its
"suchness," its "isness," its "thatness," without any intermediaries; beyond words, symbols, names, thoughts, images.
when the physicist "looks at" quantum reality or at relativistic reality, he is
looking at the "things in themselves," at noumenon, at direct and nonmediated reality. Rather, the physicist is looking at
nothing but a set of highly abstract differential equations—not
"reality" itself, but at mathematical symbols of reality. As Bohr put it, "It must be recognized that we are here dealing with a
purely symbolic procedure.
Hence our whole space-time view of physical phenomena depends ultimately upon these abstractions."
James Jeans was specific: in the study of modern physics, he says, "we can never understand what events are, but must limit ourselves to describing the patterns of events in mathematical terms; no other aim is possible. Physicists who are trying to understand nature may work in many different fields and by many different methods; one may dig, one may sow, one may reap. But the final harvest will always be a sheaf of mathematical formulae. These will
describe nature itself. . . . [Thus] our studies can never put us into contact with reality."
What an absolute, radical, irredeemable difference from mysticism! And this critique applies to any type f physics—old, new, ancient, modern, relativistic, or quantum. The very nature, aim, and results of the approaches are profoundly different: the one dealing with abstract and mediate symbols and forms of reality, the other dealing with a direct and nonmediated approach to reality itself. To even claim that there are direct and central similarities between the findings of physics and mysticism is necessarily to claim the latter is fundamentally a merely symbolic abstraction, because it is absolutely true that the former is exactly that. At the very least, it represents a profound confusion of absolute and relative truth, of finite and infinite, of temporal and eternal—and that is what so repelled the physicists in this volume.
Eddington, as usual, put it most trenchantly: "We should suspect an intention to reduce God to a system of differential equations. That fiasco at any rate [must be] avoided. However much the ramifications of [physics] may be extended by further scientific discovery, they cannot from their very nature trench on the background in which they have their being. . . . We have learnt that the exploration of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a
shadow world of symbols,
beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating."
in short, deals with—and can only deal with—the world of shadow-symbols, not the light of reality beyond the shadowy cave. Such, as a brief first approximation, is the general conclusion of these theorists.
But why, then, did
of these great physicists embrace mysticism of one sort or another? Obviously,
type of profound connection here. We have seen that this connection does
according to these theorists, in a similarity of worldviews between physics and mysticism, nor a similarity in aim or results; between shadow and light there can be no fundamental similarity. So what forced so many physicists out of the cave? What, in particular, did the
(quantum and relativistic) tell these physicists that the old physics failed to mention? What, in brief, was the crucial difference between the old and new physics, such that the latter tended much more often to be conducive to mysticism?
There is, once again, a general and common conclusion reached by the majority of the theorists in this volume, and best elucidated by Schroedinger and Eddington.
Eddington begins with the acknowledged fact that physics is dealing with shadows, not reality. Now the great difference, he says, between the old and the new physics is not that the latter is relativistic, nondeterministic,
four-dimensional, or any of those sorts of things. The great difference between old and new physics is both much simpler and much more profound: both the old and the new physics were dealing with shadow-symbols,
but the new physics was forced to be aware of that fact
—forced to be aware that it was dealing with shadows and illusions, not reality. Thus,
in perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted passage of any of these theorists,
Eddington eloquently states: "In the world of physics we watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paper. . . . The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances." Schroedinger drives the point home: "Please note that the very recent advance [of quantum and relativistic physics] does not lie in the world of physics itself having acquired this shadowy character; it had ever since Democritus of Abdera and even before,
but we were not aware of
we thought we were dealing with the world
Sir James Jeans summarizes it perfectly, right down to the metaphor: "The essential fact is simply that
the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are
. . . They are nothing more than pictures—fictions if you like, if by fiction you mean that science is not yet in contact with ultimate reality. Many would hold that, from the broad philosophical standpoint, the outstanding achievement of twentieth-century physics is not the theory of relativity with its welding together of space and time, or the theory of quanta with its present apparent negation of the laws of causation, or the dissection of the atom with the resultant discovery that things are not what they seem; it is the general recognition that we are not yet in contact with ultimate reality. We are still imprisoned in our cave, with our backs to the light, and can only watch the shadows on the wall."
There is the great difference between the old and new physics—both are dealing with shadows, but the old physics didn't recognize that fact. If you are
the cave of shadows and don't even know it, then of course you have no reason or desire to try to escape to the light beyond. The shadows appear to be the whole world, and no other reality is acknowledged or even suspected—this tended to be the philosophic effect of the old physics. But with the new physics, the shadowy character of the whole enterprise became much more obvious, and sensitive physicists by the droves—including all of those in this volume—began to look beyond the cave (and beyond physics) altogether.
"The symbolic nature of physics," Eddington explains, "is generally recognized, and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of something wider." However, according to these physicists, about this "something wider" physics tells us—and can tell us—nothing whatsoever. It was exactly this radical failure of physics, and not its supposed similarities to mysticism, that paradoxically led so many physicists to a mystical view of the world. As Eddington carefully explains: "Briefly the position is this. We have learnt that the exploration of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating. Feeling that there must be more behind, we return to our starting point in
the one centre where more might become known. There [in immediate inward consciousness] we find other stirrings, other revelations than those conditioned by the world of symbols. . . . Physics most strongly insists that its methods do not penetrate behind the symbolism. Surely then that mental and spiritual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by an intimate contact transcending the methods of physics, supplies just that . . . which science is admittedly unable to give."
To put it in a nutshell: according to this view, physics deals with shadows; to go beyond shadows is to go beyond physics; to go beyond physics is to head toward the meta-physical or mystical—and
why so many of our pioneering physicists were mystics. The new physics contributed nothing positive to this mystical venture, except a spectacular failure, from whose smoking ruins the spirit of mysticism gently arose.