Parallels Between Western Science And Eastern Mysticism

Parallels Between Western Science And Eastern Mysticism

The mechanistic view of the universe that separates matter into individual objects is fundamental to the modern scientific method. This view splits the world around us into separate chunks. It gives rise to the notion of separate objects that we observe in nature: like a rock, a tree, a waterfall and the multitude of things we see around us. The modern scientific method involves making observations of various phenomena around us and formulating a scientific model based on the observations. Based on the scientific model, further experiments are conducted to see if predictable results are produced. If the experimentation produces results as expected, then the scientific model is accepted to be true.

If at a later date, new observations are made, or an existing observation is found to be wrong as better methods for making observations come into existence, then the scientific model is changed and the process is repeated to arrive at a more accurate model. This procedure was first developed by Galileo and hence he is called the father of modern scientific method. 

Let us consider eastern mysticism. Here there is no room for viewing the universe as separate chunks. The main argument here is that though what we observe around us may appear to be separate bits and pieces, essentially they are all one continuous whole. The argument goes that the rock we see, the waterfall, the trees, the mountains, the atmosphere and everything else around us is one continuous entity. Only at an external macroscopic level they appear to be separate. At a fundamental level they are all the same. This is emphasized by eastern philosophical systems like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. 

Accordingly, eastern mysticism does not depend on observation and experimentation to understand nature. The methodology used for finding the truth is entirely different. In the Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, the reason we observe matter as split into separate chunks is because of the disquiet in our minds. In eastern philosophical thought it is believed that going into a deep state of contemplation will remove the disquiet and dissolve the separate chunks we see around us and we will be able to realize the one continuous whole. Thus the truth will be revealed to us.

This process of looking into oneself is known as meditation and it is believed, at least by the easterners, that the great rishis of Hinduism, the Buddhist and Chinese philosophers used meditation and contemplation to arrive at a correct picture of the universe. Even among the ancient Greek philosophers, Heraclitus believed that the universe is one continuous whole and parallels can be observed between eastern mysticism and ancient Greek thought. So which view is correct? Is the universe split into separate chunks or is it one continuous whole? Should we depend on the modern scientific method or meditation and contemplation to arrive at the true picture of things? 

As far as the theory that matter is divided into separate chunks is concerned we do not require much proof. It is apparent to all of us. All we have to do is to take one look around us and see with our eyes. We observe a multitude of variations in form, shape and size in which matter is distributed around us. The saying goes “Seeing is believing”. If that were true there is no continuous whole. Matter is distinct and divided. This is the mechanistic view of life and till the beginning of the twentieth century it was the predominant and accepted theory.

It was only in the beginning of the twentieth century when quantum theory was formulated by Neils Bohr and some other scientists that there were some parallels drawn and some scientists began to lay the ground for at least partial consonance between the two theories. Some quotes from from scientists who support the point of view that there are parallels between eastern thought and western science are given below.

The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.

– Julius Robert Oppenheimer

For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory . . . we must turn to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence. 

-Neils Bohr

The great scientific contribution in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory. 

– Werner Heisenberg

To understand the continuous whole theory we have to look at a sub-atomic level. The ancient Greeks were the first to propose the theory that all matter was constructed of indivisible particles called atoms. In Hindu philosophy these particles were given the name parmanu. Modern science has discovered that even atoms are made of still smaller particles and they possess charge and have fields associated with them. The electrons revolve around the nucleus and have a negative charge associated with them. The nucleus is composed of protons which have positive charge and neutrons which have no charge associated with them.

These sub-atomic particles are again composed of quarks which also have fields associated with them. The support for the continuous whole theory at a sub-atomic level comes from the idea that at such a sub-atomic level there is no division between particles and the fields around them and everything is continuous. At least some scientists believe that the particles do not exist separately from the fields associated with them. There is no discontinuity. 

In addition there is continuous interaction between these systems of particles and fields resulting in constant change. I will have to go deep into particle physics to explain this in detail which is not feasible in a short article of this kind: so I will simply state that it is believed, that at a sub-atomic level there is no separation and matter exists as a continuous whole. This is the conclusion of eastern mysticism too.

Next, let us take up the question of whether the modern scientific method is more effective or is it meditation and inner contemplation that leads us to the correct picture. There is something to be said for both methods but it is my firm belief that the modern scientific method is more effective. Inner contemplation is for individuals. It may be a very effective method but it reveals knowledge only to the person who is indulging in it. It is intuitive. It does not lend itself to scientific or mathematical proof. It may lead a person to the whole truth but it can be realized only by personal effort. Knowledge cannot be disseminated. 

On the other hand the modern scientific method lends itself to proof. It allows proper explanation of the phenomena under observation and knowledge can be disseminated. Proofs can be provided in mathematical jargon. Complex ideas can be explained to the layman. And it lends itself to change. A scientific model can be changed. A scientist is always free to go back to the drawing board and change everything. So by a continuous process of change, the scientist arrives at the ultimate truth. That is the reason the scientific method is more suitable, at least in modern times.

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