I had studied physics only briefly, and had then followed my interests into heroic literature and mystic poets. In those areas I encountered, occasionally, visions of the world that perfectly described both the specific, momentary, personal, real-life experience and the universal, god-view of myth. The macro and the micro. They weren't my myths; they were larger, more encompassing than that. But they also put me inside the skin of a person who was not-me and gave me the words to make connection across those distances. These masterless, wandering bards and god-crazed poets saw beyond any king or church, and they were trying to explain to us what the world is really like.
During that time I was also interested in aspects of science that combined the macro and micro views. I knew something of the history of physics after the General Theory of Relativity and the development of Quantum Physics. I also knew that there was still no Unified Theory to account for the four types of forces or interactions (strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational). For me, the easiest way to talk about that world was in terms of Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty. Briefly and loosely it is:
In the realm of quantum (sub-atomic) interactions it is impossible, on one hand, to determine both the location and the speed of a particle. On another hand, it is impossible to observe a particle without also affecting it. And on another hand, it's not even there to be observed until (and unless) you observe it.The inescapable conclusion is that matter is not a thing, it is a probability. What we think of as reality is ... something else ... when seen in the quantum or relativistic realm. A conundrum, at the very least, but I'm OK with puzzles and vague answers: Borges, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Barth, Castaneda -- writers who were slippery, disruptive, playful.
"The Tao of Physics" struck me because Capra was able to talk about physics and eastern spirituality with the same playful but serious attitude, questioning traditional thinking and language while connecting to a consistent organizing vision about the world as it really is. Along with the wealth of facts and insights, I took away one concept that stands at the very center of this world view:
It's all connected.It's an example of a meme: a unique concept that also contains a number of other concepts (each one also a meme). This one concept, for example, comfortably contains (in Capra's view) Shiva's dance and a Feynman diagram -- they are each a metaphor and a concrete manifestation of connection. Knowing that it's all connected doesn't make me a physicist, but it does add to the pleasure when I contemplate the world they describe for us.
Everything I've experienced in my life has only reinforced that understanding, but it has taken me a while to fully appreciate it. At the same time, I can't say that it wasn't somehow inborn -- it seems a part of me from my earliest memories. I think that is why I was always an eager reader, content to be lost in a book when there wasn't a game to play with others. And it has been key to my love of travel: there is little I'm threatened by; every-thing and -one I meet has a lesson for me.
The other thing I've learned is that not everyone I've met shares this view, especially when applied to political issues. So the question gets to be whether we can even talk about it. Does this appreciation of interconnectedness need to be inborn? Or is it learned -- as a result of specific experiences or insights? Some get it earlier, some later, some not at all -- but anyone could get it, so can we keep talking?
I'm really not convinced that it is a learnable trait, especially after a certain age. We are learning enough about brain function to appreciate that different brains are structured differently and deal with the world differently. Different types of synapses process signals differently; the brain learns to connect some synapses, not others. But we also know that the brain is much more resilient than thought -- able to recover from serious trauma and "rewire" itself, rebuilding functions using other synapses. We are even seeing evidence that disciplines like meditation restructure the brain.
In the end, the only reality that I experience first-hand tells me that I can learn, so learning is always a possibility, and I'm willing to continue the conversation with anyone who's interested, and to STFU with people who aren't. (Granted, in some cases that might mean it's up to you to stop reading in order to stop the "conversation".) But then, even if you're not listening, the conversation continues because no matter what, my words and actions are still connected to you, even if remotely, just as they're connected to everything.
What I take from that logic is that what I say and do matters. It's my choice, and my responsibility, to make the world as good a place for me to live as possible. In the most real sense, I don't make it better for myself by making it worse for someone else. And not paying attention doesn't mean the connections, or the responsibilities, aren't there. It is also not about guilt -- it is simply about the way things are, the world as it really is.
One of the themes in my blog posts has been the challenge to see the world as it really is. Implicit in that is the idea that we aren't equipped to see it as it REALLY is, especially once we've had to grapple with how it "looks" on the quantum level. We have to accept that our senses are too limited, our physical bodies are not equipped to see it all, macro and micro, not like we observe that part of the electromagnetic spectrum we call the world.
So, "seeing the world as it really is" is a practice, an attitude, a refusal to get lost in what the world appears to be, and the will to keep pushing to get further inside, further outside, deeper into the mystery.
The uncomfortable conclusion is that some humans, even ones close to us, may reject any conversation that questions their perception of the world. One of my first lessons from travel (in books and in person) was that every individual lives in an individual reality. Cultures try to reduce turmoil by creating a reality of conventional wisdoms. In some cultures, any attempt to question those wisdoms, to recognize one's individual reality, results in harsh penalties. Inquisition, anyone? (Or Tea Parties?)
Whether I can help it or not, I choose to stand on the side of more conversations, more allowance for individual realities as part of a dynamic whole, responsibility (but not guilt) for our actions and our words. I have no idea if the arc of history bends in any direction, but I see no real alternative but to act with compassion and joy and hope that it bends to transcendence. And meanwhile, to keep looking.
From Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching:
("Tao means "way" --"Tao" is, in my reading, another word for the world as it really is)
32The Tao can't be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.