The theories of quantum physics, first formulated in outline by Albert Einstein in 1905 as a consequence of his theories of Relativity, have revolutionised the sciences. But they are not popular with most folks because they involve the use of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. When measuring the behaviour of a subatomic ‘particle’, physicists can not measure both its position and momentum. One of these will always be imprecise, suggesting a world of relationships rather than things, an holistic approach rather than the traditional mechanistic one of Descartes.
In a world where much seems threatening and ambiguous, with unresolved issues such as environmental crises, disposal of nuclear waste and the integrity of many politicians, and people are becoming less and less self determining, most feel that what they need is more certainty. Hence the growth observable over the world of fundamentalism, religious and otherwise, and examples of intolerance. But the Uncertainty Principle has counterparts in other spheres of investigation, and the results are often positive.
Yin and Yang
In a book written in 1982 by Fritjof Capra called The Turning Point, a sequel to his The Tao of Physics, Capra was much more optimistic, forecasting a revolution in society as ideas used in quantum physics were applied more generally. Capra is an outstanding writer and reasoner and his book a masterpiece, and I’m enjoying the reading of it, yet it raises a few questions in my mind.
Capra’s starting point is the convergence of new ideas in physics with ancient Chinese philosophy, of which he uses the I Ching as an example. In particular Capra draws attention to the idea of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are based on a perceived difference of nature and activity, seen in ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, terms also used in some schools of psychology, particularly the Jungian schools.
In both disciplines, psychology and philosophy, these terms are confusing because we also use the same words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ to describe conventional attributes of men and women. The terms are conventional, and we should drop them, but we like the idea of masculine men and feminine women. Used as psychologists use them, both sexes have both qualities, and the degree they are acknowledged influence each person’s sexual and social role.
Yin in the I Ching is seen as affiliated with: [feminine], earth, moon, night, moisture and interior.
Capra’s additions include: contractive, responsive, co-operative, intuitive and synthesising. And he later adds mystical and holistic.
Yang is: [masculine], heaven, day, dryness, warmth and surface.
And: demanding, agressive, competitive, rational and analytical.
These qualities are part of a dynamic, illustrated by a famous symbol which depicts the ceaseless flow and interchange of Yin and Yang. Neither group affects a person’s sexuality, though we are surprised at an intuitive man or an aggressive woman, which seem counter to the conventional use of the words.
According to Capra, socially we have become fixed in the Yang mode in Western European civilisations, since the 17th century when the Scientific Revolution began, and this is the source of problems we have today, social, economic and ecological. We tend to see things as either all black or all white. It is not the first time this has happened. An inscription above the temple of Apollo at Delphi warned: “Nothing in excess”. And people in a bad relationship know that they often experience a fixity in the way they relate that denotes little interchange of supplementary qualities. Yang does offer certainty, but also, eventually, disruption, unless it is combined with Yin.
The fixity of this Yang mode is now being overcome, Capra says, because of quantum physics, which has forced scientists to look at a new model of ‘reality’, one where there is no certainty, quantifiable definition nor fixed centres of being. Instead, the nature of what is observed is through an understanding of patterns of behaviour and a realisation of the wholeness of data in a universal system. Physicists are aware, not of separate objects to be examined, but of an inter related web of relationships that embrace the entire universe, including the physicist observer. Perhaps this could be expected if one gives credit to the so called ‘Big Bang’ origin of the universe.
Holism, or a holistic viewpoint, sees all aspects of a system, not just the sum of parts. I’ve used the word ‘oneness’ to avoid any negative meaning of ‘whole’ that might be associated with ‘hole’. Before ‘oneness’ can be accepted in science or society it must be accepted in the self. Here we have a problem, because we prefer things simple, and resist change. Could that be our Yang mode talking?
Usually we like definition, order, hierarchy, stability; not ambiguity, flux, role changing or shape shifting, qualities that seem akin to anarchy. The less we use our intelligence the more this is so. To the point where an illusion of order is better than a reality we cannot understand. Life usually makes most of us fearful, or at least wary, and we dodge uncertainty wherever we find it. However, we do have the intelligence to understand complexity. Just think how baffled we sometimes get with our relationships. Yet we learn from them that complex systems are more rewarding to participate in than simple ones. That doesn’t stop us from at times denying that wisdom, because we too are complex systems.
The ‘reality’ we examine, both as ordinary human beings and as scientists observing the quantum world of physics, is determined by our nature. We have inbuilt observational tools and reasoning tools, but these are circumscribed. They have characteristics, and they have limits. One limit is that sometimes we don’t know if our limitations are changing our perceptions of what we observe and experience. This could be seen as part of the Uncertainty Principle. Perhaps observing and experiencing are meant to extend our limited senses/brain. But it seems we cannot know what we know unless we accept conventions about how we know. The more complex our system or world view is the more likely it is to be accurate, but the harder to understand.
What I find fascinating is the way behaviour of sub atomic components, as they are observed, mimic ideas of astronomers about the behaviour of the universe, and even more extraordinarily, mimic the ideas of philosophers and religious innovators. This of course is part of Capra’s thesis. Technology has accustomed us to the idea of the World Wide Web. What if the world was exactly that: a web? What if Gautama was right, and all the ‘things’ that obsess us and which are the source of our hopes and fears, are really just illusions, shapes we see because we expect to see them, not the product of ‘laws’ we now find to be inexact? What if the dynamic that shapes the universe and extends to all its parts, macroscopic and microscopic and sub atomic, is a dance, a dance that Siva dances to create us all?
Another word where I found a connection to ‘oneness’ is ‘symbiosis’, which can signify a mutually advantageous relationship. The word comes from Greek words for ‘living together’. It isn’t surprising that the prime example of symbiosis for humans is marriage. Another example is the inter relation of mother and fetus, another Yin and Yang. Symbiosis can result in oneness, or is a step in that direction.
I found ‘symbiosis’ at a time of life when I was ready to absorb new ideas, in a book called Star Maker, written by British philosopher Olaf Stapledon in 1937, when Hitler was beginning to stir, and JRR Tolkien was beginning his celebration of traditional English values through epic fantasy with The Hobbit. The narrator of Star Maker (sometimes classified as the greatest SF book ever written) finds himself on a quest to find a mysterious star maker, whom he gradually realises to be god, though a god seen in evolutionary, not religious, terms (Stapledon himself was an agnostic). The narrator becomes aware of, firstly, sub-lunary beings, then more and more distant and complex ones, and the only way he can understand them is through the process of symbiosis, becoming a more extensive whole with them, and then with the next being, until he first hears of the star maker. Only as a part of a group intelligence combining many kinds of awareness, solar and stellar, can the narrator make sense of the worlds he encounters.
The idea of symbiosis involves a kind of developing holism (a word which sounds close to ‘holy’). Wholeness is dynamic, and is present where we least expect it, in the human body, where 10 times the number of human cells coexist within each of us as bacteria. Microbiologists routinely refer to the human body as a cell community of life forms, human + bacteria. The body is not just a human system attacked by a few harmful bacteria. Bacteria perform many useful functions in the human body, and the symbiosis is usually beneficial to both life forms. We are, and have always been, more than human. The development of the electron and fluorescent microscope have revealed hidden worlds that approach the molecular one.
We are aware that animal species other than mankind are part of a symbiotic eco system, of plant life and water, of prey and predator, because we all too often destroy such systems to build yet more highways to hold yet more cars to pollute even more densely the atmosphere we breathe, so that some individuals can accumulate ever more capital so as to live an unhealthy life of over indulgence. This is the triumphant Yang system as Capra sees it refusing to co-operate with the more holistic Yin system.
Suddenly there seems to be new words to describe the world and the human. We are used to terms such as: law, solid, proof, order, components. Are we about to replace them with: reaction, interface, synthesis, probability, relationship and dance? The more we learn about symbiotic relationships in nature, the more we realise they extend from the astronomical to the sub atomic level. They are what the world is made of. The universe is a web, a vast network.
When I feel ill, ill at ease, I try and meditate, like a lot of people do. The hardest part for me is to start, because it involves being still. In a world where both the natural and the human world are moving at incredible speed, being still seems unnatural. As all who meditate know, it is a question of breath. The oxygen in our bloodstream not only nourishes our organs, it sets up a rhythm which enables them to function in balance. That balance spreads from one part of the body to another. Providing the body is healthy, it becomes whole, a balanced whole.
Although I can’t visualise the micro organisms within me, let alone the sub atomic components which form both me and the world around me, I try to work outwards from my sense of balance. To the finger and toe tips, to the space about me, to the world I know, the earth I experience, to the solar system I am a part of, to the galaxy of which that solar system forms part, to the group of galaxies that form a local cluster, to the width and depth of the universe itself. I rarely get all the way.
Now I think about it, this meditation is like the experience of the narrator of Stapledon’s Star Maker. If I am successful I feel a part of this universe, and feel stronger for being in touch with what drives it all, which I think of as life, pumping away like blood in an artery. Then I come back. A solar flare, a nova, a dwarf star, a group of dust and particles forming a planet, the convulsions of cooling metal at the planet’s core, sometimes the chance capture of an atmosphere, the creation of moisture, the formation of seas, the evolving of mobile not just static life, the creation of animal life then human, the evolution of culture, the separations of nations, the inventions and beliefs familiar from history, the experience of social life I know, and the awareness of my body, breathing.
If I am successful (and often I’m not) I will continue to feel part of all this. I am more than I am. It is surprising how many ghosts this frightens away, fears about illusionary disasters, possible failures that might happen. These all live in the small world, the little room of the self. I need to know I am more than that to be happy.
I discovered that being part of a universe makes me happy. That happiness is part of balance. And that balance is part of breath. That’s the start and end of it. The meaning of it is a very small part indeed.
Looking for the meaning of Shiva’s dance or Buddha’s wheel is like hearing a joke without having a sense of humour. Someone can explain it to you but you still don’t see why people laugh.
It’s not surprising that new science has to draw a new picture of the world we live in. At the present we know only a little about less than one percent of existing life forms, which hampers our ideas about life. We are beginning to realise there is more to the structure of sub atomic components than we thought, that the universe at its limits behaves in what seems unexpected ways. We are beginning to grasp that scientific theories are all more or less inadequate, though still quite functional. The universe itself has a dimension called space-time we find hard to grasp, in which past and present have a non linear relationship.
But already it is clear that life and environment form a continuous chain, if not quite in the sense imagined by Aristotle. If we can believe Capra, new modes of science will spread to other sciences, including the social sciences, and influence the way we approach our problems. If we can believe Stapledon, we need to appreciate other forms of intelligence and form a symbiosis with them in order to be a part of the universe we are learning about. It’s a giant step, involving the ability to see our own history relatively not absolutely. Like any major aim it needs to start with a small, personal strep, towards what I call oneness. There’s no future in apartness.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.