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Nel 2016 Ottavio Rosati invita alla scuola di formazione in psicodramma il prof Pier Luigi Luisi che, dopo aver lavorato con P. Pino a Pisa, Volkenstein a Leningrado e S. Bernhard negli Stati Uniti, nel 1970 si è unito all'Istituto per i polimeri all'ETH (Istituto Federale di Tecnologia) di Zurigo. Luisi presenta alla scuola Ipod il suo nuovo libro scritto con Fritjof Capra "the System View of Live" e Rosati gli dedica due socioplay. Il primo elabora il concetto di Sistema Vivente dal punto di vista della scienza e da quello della psicoterapia di gruppo. Il secondo descrive e analizza dal punto di vista sistemico il lavoro di Luisi per le Settimane Internazionali di Cortona "Science and the Wholeness of Life" (fondate nel 1985) sull'integrazione di Discipline Scientifiche e Umanistiche. 

Reading again The Tao of Physics


By Pier Luigi Luisi, prof. Emeritus ETH Zurich

A book which is a classic is like an old friend: is always there at your disposal, and each time you open a page, even at random, you find a useful indication for life- also for your life of today. Which also means, that a classic book never gets old. The eternal freshness.

And so is for The Tao of Physics (An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism) of Fritjof Capra, and in these few lines I would convey to you this sense of freshness that I had, after taking again the book in my hands after –well, say twenty years…

The book was fist published in UK by Wildwood House in 1975, I have in my hands the third edition by Flamingo, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers- which states, on the cover, that over one million copies, it has been published in 43 editions in 23 languages. The fourth edition in English was published in 2000. There was, of course, also some criticism (see Google or Wikipedia for that).

This is impressive, but I believe that the most impressive thing of the book was (is) the impact on the reader. I knew of some people who stated, that their life has been changed after reading this book, and this holds for scientists as well as for lay people. It is so, when a book has the power of opening a new horizon: you see the world with new eyes, you ask yourself questions you never imagined to ask, giving answers –or not, that is not so important- just ascending, with your questioning, to a higher state of consciousness.

You should read the preface by the author to the first and second edition in order to have an idea of the climate surrounding the birth of the book- the main point being that at that time, namely in the seventies of last century, the idea of contaminating the holy grail of physics with the remote, odd and still unfamiliar traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, Vedanta, was something completely revolutionary, at the border of blasphemy. This also to explain two things about the first publication of this book: that it did not help the scientific career of Fritjof, at that time a researcher of high energy physics in an important university in the States (he himself, an Austrian, had received a PhD in theoretical physics from the university of Vienna); and it did not help to publish the book right away. But, rather quickly, the book was received enthusiastically in UK and USA, and then had an immense success all over the world.

The main message of the book, as stated above, is about the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. Why and how these two things should have something in common? The first simple answer is, that both science and religious traditions are looking for the same thing: the truth. Or, to be a little more specific, they both want to find what is reality. Another important point is that the Eastern religious traditions generally are not based on the idea of a creator God, as Christianity or Islam;  as such, they stay away from those forms of fundamentalism typical of monotheistic religions, like the “holy” Christian crusades, or, jumping to today’ problems,  the ill-digested Islamism of the IS murderers

Let us now look at the book together. It consists of three main parts, (I: the way of physics; II: the way of the eastern mysticism; III: the parallels)- with a preface and an epilogue. Each of the three main parts is in its turn, divided into various chapters.

The first part

In chapter 1, (Modern physics -a path with a heart) you find some basic concepts about the progress of science, and physics in particular, with quite important quotations from the founder fathers like Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg, which, although written in the 50. ties or 60. ties, already mention the Buddha, Lao Tsu.

This shows that the basic intuition of the parallelism between physics and the Eastern religious traditions was already in the field before Capra. And Capra, talking about Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, writes that the physics today leads to a world view which is essentially mystical.

The world “mystical” may here may need some clarification: you should not think of ascetics, or to holy sages having transcendent visions of sainthood. As Capra says P. 23): “when I refer to mysticism, I mean the religious philosophies of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism…”, adding that although these three eastern avenues differ and differentiate themselves in a large number of subways, “the basic features of the world view are the same”.

All this brings to the question, how can we see and know the world. This is dealt in chapter 2., (Knowing and Seeing)- and here one of the main emphasis is on intuitive knowledge, the direct experience of reality which, in the Eastern mysticism, “transcends not only the intellectual thinking but also the sensory perception” (p. 36).

Of course, physicists instead are mainly concerned with rational knowledge, but Capra shows that both types of knowledge may take place in both fields- science and eastern traditions.

One major problem is language (Chapter 3, Beyond language).  It is a problem, because language does not really correspond to reality. Here, the metaphor by Korzybski often cited by Capra “The map is not the territory”- is particularly to the point. Words are only a qualitative and coarse description of things. Light is light, but when we wish to describe it with words, it becomes either waves, or corpuscles. The problem is not the light, but our wordings. (The Tao that can be told is not the real Tao). Because of this limitation, Capra emphasises the importance in science and Eastern tradition of logical paradoxes. “Whenever the essential nature of things is analysed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical” (p. 58).

All this is found in more detail in chapt.4, (The new physics) with many examples of these paradoxes in the principles of relativity, the notion of time-space, the nature of light.

The second part

“The way of eastern mysticism” , the second part, consists of five chapters, starting with Hinduism Chapt.5). The term Hinduism, according to some Indian philosophers, is a term which should not be used, as it has been invented by the British colonialist to summarize the complexity of Indian religious culture. But Capra succeeds quite well to illustrate the main and common features of this “Hinduism”, going from the old Veda traditions to the Bhagavad Gita, then the relation between Brahman and Atman, the notion of Karma, maya and yoga, the many gods and goddesses. The notion that all is mutually interconnected is also the basis of Buddhism (Chapter 6. Here we find the world of Nagarjuna, the notion of emptiness, and the corresponding concepts of non-self, impermanence, compassion. We proceed then to the Chinese thought (chapt.7) with the description of the two main schools, Taoism and Confucianism, with the notion of yin/yang, the I Ching and its hexagrams (famously commented by C.G. Jung); and the Taoist Tao Te Ching (attributed to Lao Tsu in the fourth century b.c.). To Taoism Capra devotes the entire chap. 8, as this is centred on intuitive knowledge and intuitive wisdom- a notion particularly present in Zen Buddhism (chapter 9), which, is also characterized by learning with paradoxes, the so-called koan (What is the clapping of only one hand?).

The third part

The common denominator of all these traditions, according to Capra, “is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena …as manifestation of a basic oneness”. This general concept is very important for Capra-among other, is the basis of his last book, The Systems view of Life, written with P.L.Luisi.

A closer look at the parallels is done in the eight chapters of the third part, which is of course the most challenging both for the writer and for the readers.

Thus, chapter 10 (The unity of all things) treats the well known problem of the duality between subject and object based mostly on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, which actually shows that this separation cannot hold. This touches on the notion of objectivity in the traditional science tradition, and on the notion of experience –as the subjective dimension- in the religious eastern traditions. This is re-taken and expanded in chapter 11, (Beyond the world of the opposites) where we find again the dual character of light, the dichotomy yin/yang, the concept of complementarity, and the uncertainty principle. The rather robust Chapter 12 deals with space/time, and here we see that what in the Newton physics were considered two clear, distinct things, become with relativity one unit (the famous curved space-time. And all of this is never static, but is instead the expression of a dynamic universe (Chapter 13)-where together with the transformation of particles one in the other or of mass into energy, (you remember the famous equation E= mc2) we also find again the Taoist I Ching, and the Buddhist notion of impermanence. There are no things, but only events and processes.

All these points are re-iterated in the chapter 14 “Emptiness and Form” , where the notion of field, and in particular the quantum field is emphasised. Here Capra dwells with the Eastern notion of form/emptiness, seen as two aspects of the same reality (p.238). The movements, the changes, the transformations, are emphasized in chapter. 15(The cosmic Dance) where the dance of Shiva is taken as a metaphor for the dance of continuous transformations of particles and mass/energy.

One cannot talk about modern physics without mentioning the quarks, and here comes chapter 16 (Quark Symmetries-a new koan?) with an non easy part with baryons and mesons-and a very interesting part about symmetry. Another non easy chapter for the common reader is the following one (Chapter 17: patterns of change) with a richness of Feynmann diagrams, with a link to the I Ching hexagrams.

Chapter 18 (The Interprenetation) is in a way a conceptual summary of all the  previous concepts, with emphasis on the interconnection of matter, mass, energy, so that reality cannot be reduced to solid building blocks with certain fundamental properties, as in the Newtonian concept, but “has to be understood entirely through its self-consistency, as expressed in the “bootstrap theory”- so that Capra concludes “the view of nature came ever closer to the Eastern world view and is now in harmony with Eastern thought, both in its general philosophy and its specific view of matter”.

At this point, at the end of this article, the reader may say that it is not proper to condense a book like The Tao of Physics in a simple article of only 1500 words. I couldn’t agree more, and I would say: this is why you should get a copy of the book and read it fully.


F. Capra, The Tao of Physics, third edition, 1982

F. Capra and P.L.Luisi, The Systems view, an unifying vision, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014 (Italian edition: Vita e Natura, Aboca, 2014)


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