This is the latest in a series which explores the links between the quantum physics revolution and the worldview of spirituality. For a guide to what has preceded, see under Religion and Spirituality on the Blog Index Page (click here).
This theme of a connection between quantum physics and spirituality/mysticism was obviously very tempting because, according to Ken Wilber, writing in 1984, “literally dozens of books” had appeared in the previous decade claiming to describe this relationship. It would be pointless to go through them all — I’m not even aware of all of them — so here I’m going to focus on just two authors, Gary Zukav and his cult classic The Dancing Wu Li Masters¹, and the less well known Michael Talbot. I won’t go into great detail, since they are saying broadly the same things as the previous two authors.
At the beginning of his book, Zukav describes a chance meeting with the T’ai Chi Master Al Chung-liang Huang at Esalen Institute in California, while he was there attending a physics conference. Huang said: “When I studied physics in Taiwan, we called it Wu Li. It means ‘Patterns of Organic Energy’ ”. Zukav says that “everyone at the table was taken at once by this image. Mental lights flashed on, one by one, as the idea penetrated. ‘Wu Li’ was more than poetic. It was the best definition of physics that the conference could produce” (p31). This is interesting, given that it wasn’t a physicist who pointed it out.
Zukav goes on to explain that Chinese is a very difficult language, since the same ideogram can have several different meanings. “ ‘Wu’ can mean either ‘matter’ or ‘energy’ ”. How could the Chinese have intuited this before Einstein? ‘Li’ can mean ‘universal order’ or ‘universal law’ or ‘organic patterns’, hence the interpretation of ‘Wu Li’ (physics) as ‘patterns of organic energy’. Here is a profound intuition of the relationship between the laws of physics and the true nature of ‘matter’, and again we are confronted with the mystery of how ancient peoples had such a profound understanding of nature before the advent of modern science. As Zukav says, “this is remarkable since it reflects a world view which the founders of western science (Galileo and Newton) simply did not comprehend, but toward which virtually every physical theory of import in the twentieth century is pointing” (p32).
Zukav, as well as providing a clear history and interpretation of the quantum physics revolution, reiterates some familiar themes:
- that the basic building blocks of matter are non-material.
- that there is an “invisible universe underlying, embedded in, and forming the fabric of everything around us” (p45). This is reminiscent of Fred Alan Wolf’s statement, quoted in the earlier article: “We only know that there is something other than space-time but we don’t know what it is, because beyond space-time is nonphysical, unmeasurable. But what is beyond space-time is within everything”².
- that there may be no such thing as inorganic matter: “When we talk of physics as patterns of organic energy, the word that catches our attention is ‘organic’. Organic means living. Most people think that physics is about things that are not living, such as pendulums and billiard balls. This is a common point of view, even among physicists” (p70). However, “the distinction between organic and inorganic is a conceptual prejudice. It becomes even harder to maintain as we advance into quantum mechanics. Something is organic, according to our definition, if it can respond to processed information. The astounding discovery awaiting newcomers to physics is that… subatomic ‘particles’ constantly appear to be making decisions!” (p72). Having discussed the matter further, he concludes: “The philosophical implication of quantum mechanics is that all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all-encompassing organic pattern, and that no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other”. Such a conclusion comes as no surprise to students of Eastern religions.
- that “for the first time, scientists attempting to formulate a consistent physics were forced by their own findings to acknowledge that a complete understanding of reality lies beyond the capabilities of rational thought” (p63). As Zukav points out, this was something that Einstein could not accept. It had, however, been insisted on by Capra in The Tao of Physics.
- that, while classical physics assumes that there is an external world which exists apart from us, quantum physicists believe that, to some extent, we create external reality. They seriously ponder questions like, ‘Did we create the particles that we are experimenting with?’
The last point explains why physicists have become so interested in the role of consciousness in physics. As Zukav points out, “when we study nature there is no way around the fact that nature is studying itself“. Physics has become a branch of psychology, or perhaps the other way round”. Having quoted Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, he says that, if they are correct, then “physics is the study of the structure of consciousness” (p56). We spiritually oriented people would say that, given that nothing exists except consciousness, what else is there that physics could study?
Turning now to Michael Talbot, I don’t intend to summarise his books in the same way, as he is going over material familiar from those I’ve already looked at. I mention him, rather than anyone else, because of his personal appeal to me, and in case Medium readers are unaware of him, and would like to investigate this fascinating topic further.
He was not a professional physicist, rather a student of physics. He does seem to have a very good understanding of the issues, however. His main book is Mysticism and the New Physics³, but he has a special interest in the idea of the holographic universe, which is one of the main features of the connection between quantum physics and the spiritual worldview. He has written another book with that title⁴. This connects him strongly with the physicist David Bohm, who will be the subject of a later article in the series.
According to the back cover of the first book mentioned, he grew up in a haunted house, which led to a lifelong involvement with the paranormal, a subject I find especially interesting. He is therefore very open-minded about the weirdness of the universe. Fred Alan Wolf describes him as “one of the cleverest writers around today… his eclectic mind ranges far into the deepest and often most controversial mysteries of modern science”⁵.
Instead of summarising his book, I’ll quote the publisher’s blurb from the back cover, since this contains all the main points that I’m trying to address in this series:
“The new physics, the physics of quantum theory, tells us what the mystics have been proclaiming for centuries — reality is an illusion. According to the new physics, consciousness plays a role in the so-called physical universe. Since the time of Newton, physics has always tried to maintain a strictly empirical approach. This has demanded a dispassionate observer and a concentration on objective reality as a single observable ‘something’, a priori to the consciousness. But the findings of the new physics show us that we cannot observe the physical world for it is an illusion, and we are participating within a spectrum of all possible realities. It is at this point that mysticism and the new physics meet, a meeting place examined in this book which explores the idea that the implications of this confluence are that all of our notions about the absoluteness of the physical universe are wrong. According to the author, we are experiencing the first pangs of a radical change in our view of reality. Slowly and painfully we are realizing the obvious – our concepts are based upon a most intriguing maya. Our constructs need amending. The very epistemological foundations of our environment and ourselves must shift as our prejudices are attacked. How the omnijective nature of reality will change Western civilization remains to be seen. The only certainty is that the changes will be stupendous”.
Whether or not there will be stupendous changes will of course depend on how quickly the population of the world takes on board these implications. According to climate change theorists, time may be running out.
Having made the case with these four authors that there is a strong connection between the quantum physics revolution and the Eastern religions, in the next article this story will take a strange turn.
1. Fontana, 1979
2. Space-Time and Beyond, 1975, my copy Bantam 1983, p56
3. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981
4. The Holographic Universe, 1991, my copy HarperCollins, 1996
5. as 4, back cover.