Physics and Tao, the Eternal Dance

One of the great unanswered questions in the history and philosophy of science is why science arose in the West and not in the East. Scholars point to the early technological developments from China such as gunpowder and rockets and wonder how China failed to capitalize on these and other developments to establish a theoretical basis for science, as did western culture. But in these speculations, and they are no more than idle and prejudicial speculations, there is at least an inaccurate presumption if not a dangerous assumption that Chinese and other Eastern philosophies are somehow unscientific, a view which mistakenly places eastern ideas in an inferior position relative to western science. Neither the statement that Eastern cultures did not formulate sciences nor the implications of this statement can be regarded as accurate.

Science after a fashion did develop in the East as concepts such as Chi, Qi or Ki demonstrate. Medical technologies such as acupuncture and holistic medicine demonstrate the practical applications of the eastern styles of science, although the primary emphasis is decidedly different from that of western science. An eastern science does therefore exist; only it is different from western science because it was built upon a different philosophical foundation. Eastern science evolved along an intuitive and holistic path rather than along the western path of logic and reduction. The theoretical models of reality that were derived from this basis are more organic than the mechanical models of western science. Perhaps the greatest philosophical expression of eastern science can be found in expressions of the Tao rather than the development of physics such as in the west.

On the other hand, critics of western science (whether their views are influenced by eastern philosophies or not) damn science as reductionist. For example, they question how science can explain and examine life by killing the subject of the investigation and dissecting it, thus reducing it to its working parts. In their arguments, critics of science have made a dangerous and inaccurate assumption that science is only bad, but they make no attempt to replace it with anything worthwhile. Of the sciences that they condemn, they place physics at the center. Indeed, physics is considered the most basic of all the western sciences and therefore the most reductionist. All other western sciences can be reduced, in the final analysis, to a physics that attempts to explain the most fundamental level of reality.

Critics of science and like-minded scholars do not understand physics, so they criticize physics. In essence, they do not understand the necessity of reduction for discovering the internal workings and mechanisms of our environment and world. Sometimes they claim holistic philosophies as the basis of their own beliefs, sometimes not, but they never realize that reduction in science leads to the same ends as the most advanced thought in wholism. Those who criticize physics as reductionist have no idea what physics is or what physics attempts to do. ‘Physics’ is an ancient Greek word for ‘nature.’ It was first used in the context of a science during the very era of time when Greek thought split between the intuitive perception of physical reality and the logical dissection and categorization of nature. The word ‘physics’ has a dual meaning representing two different interpretations of how the science is to proceed. It is the science that strives to understand the inherent ‘nature’ of physical objects or the true essence of a ‘thing,’ to understand a ‘thing’ in its totality. But ‘physics’ also attempts to understand how that ‘thing’ or object interacts with all other ‘things’ within nature, our physical world.

Physics is holistic in its reduction of physical reality. A simple example from physics should be enough to illustrate this point. Take for example a simple instance of the conservation of energy. A ball of mass five hundred grams is lifted to a height of two meters and then dropped. At first a strictly limited and idealized situation is analyzed in which there is no air resistance. It would take ninety-eight joules of work to lift the ball to the specified height, so the system has an initial energy of ninety-eight joules. This means that the ball has a gravitational potential energy of ninety-eight joules before it is dropped while its initial kinetic energy is zero. As the ball falls to the floor, the potential energy is converted directly into kinetic energy according to the conservation of mechanical energy, but the system energy of ninety-eight joules remains constant.

Initial Potential energy = Potential energy + the kinetic energy at that height.


mghi = mghx + ½ mvx 2

The quantity hx is the height at any point of the trip while the quantity vx is the speed at that height. Using this formulation, the speed at any point in the trip can be predicted through calculation. Using still other standard formulas, the time that the ball passes a particular point representing a specific height above the floor can also be determined, so the complete trip can be described moment by moment. In this manner, physics has reduced the whole system to a complete description of a simple piece of matter in motion. As simple as this exercise seems, it is a generalization of millions upon millions of different phenomena from hitting a home run in a baseball game to the moon orbiting the earth.

The generalized system of the falling ball can be rendered more accurate by enlarging the system to include wind resistance and then the dissipation of energy as the ball strikes the ground and after. The kinetic energy of the ball is converted to kinetic energy of air molecules and thus heat in the surrounding atmosphere as well as sound upon striking the ground. Sound is still another form of energy that is dissipated throughout the immediate environment of the original limited system. That energy spreads out to the building in which the experiment was conducted, then to the immediate environment and finally to the distant environment. Eventually, the energy that started with lifting the ball to a height of two meters spreads throughout the universe. At each point in time when the system is enlarged to take into account an ever-expanding environment, energy is conserved. So, by the time that this simple system is expanded to include the whole universe, the conservation of mechanical energy has evolved into a statement that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. In 1905, even this statement was further expanded when Albert Einstein discovered that energy and matter are interrelated by the expression

E = mc2 .

So, as we understand it now, the total amount of energy and mass are constant within the universe as a whole although one may be converted to the other. Starting with a simple and limited statement of the conservation of mechanical energy that represented the reduction of a physical phenomenon to its simplest components, a much more complex and holistic statement of the conservation of mass and energy has evolved. Such a statement is actually typical of physics. Physics reduces nature to its most fundamental components so that it may make broad and holistic statements about the inner workings of nature and our world as well as discover the holistic laws and principles by which nature acts.

This idea is not unknown in Taoism. The notion of opposites, yin and yang, are symbolized in Taoism by a circular mandala as portrayed below. Yin and yang are both represented equally within the whole. If you start at the minimum of one of the opposites and move toward its maximum, you will find the seed of its opposite at its center. The same is true of the opposites of reduction and holism.

The further a physical system is logically reduced to its most fundamental components, the closer it approaches its opposite, the holistic knowledge of the system and the universe. So increasing reduction leads to wholism and vice versa.

The methods of reduction and wholism are also opposites. Western science is based upon logic while eastern science is based upon intuition. Neither can exist without the other. Science can only go so far with logic before it reaches an impasse and needs to make an intuitive leap to progress further while eastern mysticism can only go so far using intuition to understand reality before logic becomes necessary for a more complete application of that knowledge to the world. While physics and western science followed the road of logic and reduction, Taoism, as perhaps the greatest and simplest of all the eastern 4 mystical traditions followed a path of intuition and wholism. The science that evolved from the eastern intuitive philosophies is more organic and has thus gone unrecognized as science by the West until recently. In fact, it is only within the past few decades that scientific practices such as acupuncture have received any serious recognition within western culture. Both eastern and western science can learn from each other if western science will allow itself to expand and widen its perspective of the world.

Ultimately, any true advance in science must take into account the whole, both halves of human philosophy and our perception of reality. Science must make use of both logic and intuition equally to explore the whole, the universe. Physics and Taoism must be unified. Physics is presently seeking a ‘theory of everything,’ a TOE. The concept of a TOE can be likened to the Tao. Through their reduction of nature, physicists hope to develop a theory of the whole that explains ‘everything’ in the universe, if that is even possible. The very notion that a TOE could be possible is controversial because of the “elusive and intangible” nature of the concept. These same words are often used to describe the Tao.

The greatest virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone.
The Tao is elusive and intangible.
Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image.
Oh, it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form.
Oh, it is dim and dark, and yet within is essence.
This essence is very real, and therein lies faith.
From the very beginning until now its name has never been forgotten.
Thus I perceive the creation.
How do I know the ways of creation?
Because of this. (Verse Twenty-one)

Because of its elusive and subtle nature, a true TOE may forever remain an “undefined” dream of science. Verse thirty-two of the Tao Te Ching could be used to describe a TOE just as easily and ably as it describes the Tao.

The Tao is forever undefined.
Small though it is in the unformed state, it cannot be grasped.
If kings and lords could harness it,
The ten thousand things would naturally obey.
Heaven and earth would come together
And gentle rain fall.
Men would need no more instruction And all things would take their course.
Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.

The so-called TOE is the holy grail of science as well as all holistic theories. Any TOE would represent a unification of the four known fundamental interactions or natural forces as well as a unification of the quantum and relativity theories. If the TOE became a reality, “Heaven and Earth would come together” and “Men would need no more instruction” in physics since all of the physical universe would be laid bare within the theory itself.

At present, theoretical physics is split into two philosophically opposite camps, the relativists and the quantum theorists. The relativists, by far the smaller group, seek unification on the basis of extending the general theory of relativity in a more elaborate structure of space-time. They assume that a single continuous field can represent all of physical reality. In the meantime, the quantum theorists seek to reduce all field ‘interactions’ to the exchange of discrete particles. The quantum theorists have dominated physics for the past seven decades yet have failed at their attempts to unify all of physics under their banner of discrete physical reality. Nor have the field theorists been any more successful. Perhaps they all need to seek the Tao before they search for a TOE. The opposite concepts of the continuous and the discrete, upon which these two opposing scientific camps base their logical reduction of the world, certainly could benefit from the intuitive leap forward which the Tao could help provide. General relativity and quantum mechanics are each extremely successful within their own context, but there are portions of each that cannot be bridged by the other during any successful unification attempt using ordinary logic and reduction. The time for the intuitive leap to a complete theory of physical reality is nearly at hand and the Tao is closer to physics than it has ever been before. Just how close together they have come can easily be demonstrated.

There are significant correspondences between the writings of Lao Tsu and modern concepts in physics. If a relativist were to look at the forty-second verse in the Tao Te Ching, he or she would find a fairly accurate portrayal of the unified field. According to Lao Tsu,

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

“The Tao begot one,” one being the universe. “One begot two,” space and time as represented in the spacetime continuum. “Two begot three” describes how the space-time continuum curves to create matter, the third element of physical reality. “And three begot the ten thousand things” expresses the fact that everything in the physical universe is just curvature or variations in the curvature of the space-time continuum. Together, these primary elements form a system that we call our world or nature. We cannot sense the curvature, but we do sense its effects as matter and ‘matter in motion.’ Our western reductionist science is based upon the yin, ‘matter in motion,’ but embraces the yang, or the concept of curvature and variations in curvature. And our science achieves harmony by combining these ideas.

The field interpretation of this verse is quite straightforward while other verses can add still more to the portrayal of the unified field and thus increase our understanding of the nature of physical reality. In fact, other verses in the Tao Te Ching correspond nicely with other aspects of advanced physics. In verse number forty-three we learn that

The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words and work without doing.
Are understood by very few.

According to the science of physics, empty space is the softest of all things in the universe, at least when it is thought of in such terms. Although relative space between material objects is empty, without substance and devoid of all matter, it is not a ‘nothing’ but a ‘something’ that is determined by the presence of other material objects. In other words, even empty space is characterized by certain qualities; in particular, space is characterized by permittivity and permeability. These are the quantities that govern how electric and magnetic fields spread out through empty space and thus regulate the speed of both electromagnetic waves and material objects through empty space. Empty space is soft because it offers no resistance to the motion of material objects through it.

An intuitive knowledge of time can also be found in the Tao.

Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of not being. (Verse forty)

Whenever philosophers of science speak of time, they talk of ‘being’ and ‘becoming.’ ‘Being’ and ‘becoming’ represent the present moment and the forward passage of time into the future, respectively. However, within the framework of the space-time continuum time is considered a physical extension just as is length. So, all of time is simultaneously present and open for inspection within the space-time framework. ‘Becoming’ has disappeared and there is only ‘being’ in relativity theory.

Taoism even has something important to say about the beginning of the Universe from the perspective of western science. When both the observed expansion of the universe and general relativity are taken into account, the beginning of the universe is reduced to the Big Bang. The Big Bang is represented by a mathematical singularity, an undefined quantity or infinity where the laws and principles of normal physics break down and no longer apply. So logic and reason fail in the quest of science to understand the beginning of everything. Only intuition can break through the veil of ignorance that surrounds the birth of the universe, and Lao Tsu’s portrayal of a state of ‘being’ prior to the ‘Big Bang’ is just as valid as any that science has yet announced.

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name.
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

Being great, it flows.
It flows far away.
Having gone far, it returns.

Therefore, “Tao is great;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
The king is also great.”
These are the four great powers of the universe,
And the king is one of them.

Man follows earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows Tao.
Tao follows what is natural. (Verse twenty-five)

It would certainly seem that the intuitive notions expressed with regard to the Tao are just as valid as the most advanced logical concepts in physics. While mystics attempt to derive knowledge of the components of the whole of reality by intuitively exploring the whole, they lose something in specificity of the parts of the whole. Western science has taken the opposite line of attack on the same problem, realizing reality, and reduces the whole to its simplest and most fundamental constituents and thus seeks to understand the whole as the sum its parts. In either case, humans are attempting to perceive nature and their environment as best they can by using the tools that nature has provided for them. The very fact that these two different methods of knowing seem to be converging toward the same endpoint should indicate that a specific plateau of knowledge of the universe is being approached, but it should surprise no one that the view is the same at the end of either path because it is still human perception of physical reality that is being examined by either method.


Lao Tsu. Tao Te Ching Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. Translators. New York: Vintage, 1972