If you ask me what the defining aspect of this book is, I would say it is originality. I cannot think of another book which presented so many new ideas. I cannot think of another book which did such a systematic comparison of modern physics and eastern philosophy.
If you are in Indian, it is very likely you would have heard about the scientific advances of ancient India- some real some imagined. There are claims that we knew it all – from gravity to atom bombs. Many people are of the notion that this book is another one in that genre; it claims that eastern scientists possessed knowledge of quantum theory. I want to begin by setting that record straight. Capra makes no claim of scientific advancement. His claim is that modern physics easily lends itself to be accommodated within the philosophical framework of the east. He says that the knowledge we have gained through years of scientific research seems to agree with the mystic revelations of the eastern philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism and Tao. He says that many modern physicist like Bohr, Oppenheimer and Heisenberg have noticed the parallels and spoken about them. However, he claims they have gained it through mystical experiences and not through scientific thought. In his own words, “This book aims at [demonstrating] that there is essential harmony between the spirit of eastern wisdom and western science. It attempts to suggest that modern physics goes far beyond technology…. It can be a path with a heart. A way to spiritual knowledge and self-realization”
Capra begins his analysis by making a comparison between rational knowledge and intuitive insights. Rational knowledge is derived from the experiences we have with objects and events in our environment. It operates in the realm of science. But this knowledge is only an approximation of the real world. For most of us it is very difficult to be constantly aware of the limitations and of the relativity of conceptual knowledge. The eastern mystics are concerned with the direct experience of reality which transcends not only intellectual knowledge but also sensory perceptions. They call this the absolute knowledge because it is beyond the limitation of our language and our reasoning faculties.
Physics would not accept this as knowledge because its framework is completely different. It relies on abstraction and analysis. The firm basis for knowledge in eastern mysticism is experience, whereas in science it is experiment. This comparison may seem absurd at first. Physics experiments are preformed with elaborate team work and sophisticated technology whereas mystics gain their knowledge in the privacy of their meditation, through introspection without the use of any technology. Scientific experiments are repeatable whereas mystic experience is reserved only for a few individuals at special occasions. Capra says, these are only differences in approach and not in their reliability.
Anybody who wants to repeat a physics experiment has to undergo many years of training, similarly mystical experience requires many years of training under an experienced master. The dedicated time alone does not guarantee success. But once he is successful, he will be able to repeat it. Neither is it less sophisticated. The complexity and efficiency of a physicist’s technical apparatus is matched by that of the mystics consciousness in deep meditation. Capra’s premise is that both of these are valid methods of gaining knowledge. “A page from the journal of modern experimental physics will be as mysterious to the uninitiated as a Tibetian mandala. Both are records of enquiries into the nature of the universe”
Capra then proceeds into a detailed analysis and comparisons of quantum physics and various eastern philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese schools of thought like Tao and Zen. I was fascinated by the Hinduism and Buddhism comparisons mainly because I could understand and relate to them. I had difficulty following the other schools of thought because I do not have any background knowledge of these philosophies.
It is an intellectually stimulating book. You can agree or disagree with its premise, but it will be quite impossible not to be awed by it.