Monday, November 28, 2005

Physics and Mysticism

A number of popular works, including Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics,” have argued that modern physicists have come to understand things about the universe that corroborate what great mystics the world over have been telling us for millennia about Reality. But Ken Wilber doesn’t buy it. He argues that when physicists tell us that subatomic particles depend on one another for their existence and behavior to such a degree that they comprise a unified whole, this is not the same as the mystic telling us that all the parts of all the various levels and sublevels of Reality are so interdependent that they comprise a unified whole. In other words, the physicist is addressing only one level of Reality—the physical level--and then only at the submicroscopic sublevel, whereas the mystic is addressing every sublevel and part of the physical, biological, psychological, socio-cultural, and spiritual levels of Reality. Thus, argues Wilber, it is only coincidence that physicists now see interdependence or “interpenetration” between some subatomic phenomena, particles, or quanta while, at the same time, mystics see the unity of all phenomena, and it is a coincidence that the physics of the future could conceivably abolish with a different understanding that no longer sees the subatomic phenomena in question as interdependent and interpenetrating. But if we don’t hitch the insights of mysticism to the current understanding of physicists, it doesn’t matter how future physicists understand the sublevel of subatomic reality.

I guess I understand Wilber’s point, but I don’t know if I agree with it. For it seems to me that if Reality is a unified whole of interdependent parts, why shouldn’t this be true for the parts on one level or sublevel as it is between levels and sublevels and between the parts of the various levels and sublevels? That is, for example, if the thoughts in my mind are interdependent with, among innumerable other things, the electrical impulses in my nervous system, the sights and sounds of my socio-cultural environment, and with the promptings of my spirit, why shouldn’t it also be the case that the spin of one subatomic particle should be interdependent with the spin of a “twin” subatomic particle far away from it? Why shouldn’t the interdependence or interpenetration that physicists see on the quantum level mirror what mystics see on and between all levels? And if physicists someday don’t see this interdependence on the quantum level, is this because it doesn’t exist, or because they have temporarily lost sight of it through flawed theory? I’m inclined to believe that it would be a case of the latter and that there is not necessarily anything wrong with using quantum physics to support mysticism right now.

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