The Tao can’t be perceived,
smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
When you have name 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.
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
The use of the modern word “electron” is obviously a liberty taken by the translator, but it also reflects one of the most influential modern appropriations of Daoism: the identification of quantum physics with Eastern mysticism more broadly. Popular New Age or New Age-adjacent books like the Tao of Physics and the The Dancing Wu Li Masters posited a parallel between the new physics and Eastern conceptions of impermanence and interdependence. Beyond this, they helped to spread the idea that science and spirituality are not incompatible, and that physics somehow “proves” the Tao.
In Quantum Questions, Ken Wilber convincingly argued that this line of thinking is misguided. But his intention was not to dismiss spirituality as “woo woo,” as the Defenders of Science commonly do. His approach was similar to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s view of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”—a clunky phrase for a simple idea: do not, so to speak, try to join what God has separated.
But a problem with the way this idea is spun is that science gets seen as “objective” and “rational” and “empirical,” while religion is “subjective” and “emotional” and based on “faith.” Science is the realm of the known and knowable, religion that of mystery.
Without for a minute dismissing the legitimacy and sophistication of contemporary physics, perusing the work of popular writers like Brian Greene or Neal DeGrasse Tyson, it’s hard to come away without thinking that the universe if fundamentally weird. It is as though physics and philosophy have switched places: the hard science is now in the business of positing abstract entities—superstrings and god particles and dark matter. Physics is the new metaphysics. At some point, you feel compelled to ask whether we are just bumping up against the limitations of our knowing.
And here, the medievals’ approach may be of use, without adopting their theology. Their idea was that faith and reason were not incompatible, but mutually entailing. We have to know the limits of our reason (“knowing when to stop”) in order to make room for what transcends it. What transcends it may be mysterious, but that is no excuse for pretending it doesn’t exist, or asserting that someday science will “explain it.” When science does that, it stops being science and turns into scientism.
Likewise, when religions claim to have the Total Explanation for Everything, they stop being religions and become cults.
Only be stopping can we start to see the mystery.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”
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