In 1975, a young Austrian physicist by the name of Fritjof Capra published a bestselling book called The Tao of Physics that still can be found on the science shelves of most bookstores. Capra claimed to see strong parallels between Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and modern physics--especially quantum mechanics. The word tao derives from "way" or "path" and in Chinese philosophy it refers to the underlying organization and unfolding of events in the universe.
Capra elaborated on the connection between quantum mechanics and human consciousness that some physicists were claiming to see, notably the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. In Capra's view, this connection was in "perfect harmony with those of the Eastern mystical traditions which have always regarded consciousness as an integral part of the universe." (Tao, p. 300)
The Tao of Physics set the stage for a movement that became known as the "New Age," in which the human mind is tuned into a universal cosmic consciousness. In her 1980 book The Aquarian Conspiracy, Marilyn Ferguson predicted an irrevocable turnabout in human consciousness that would produce a radical change in our culture. She wrote:
A leaderless but powerful network is working to bring about radical changes in the United States. Its members have broken with certain key elements of Western thought, and they may even have broken continuity with history... this benign conspiracy for new human agenda has triggered the most rapid cultural realignment in history. (Aquarian p. 23)
Ferguson claimed to perceive a "new paradigm" that breaks with the Newtonian mechanistic universe:
The paradigm of the Aquarian Conspiracy sees humankind embedded in nature. It promotes the autonomous individual in a decentralized society... The new perspective respects the ecology of everything: birth, death, learning, health, family, work, science, spirituality, the arts, the community, relationships, politics. (Aquarian p. 29)
One of the major gurus of the New Age was Gary Zukav. In 1979, he authored a bestseller titled The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which followed up on Capra in describing the imagined connection between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, emphasizing the holistic interpretation of quantum mechanics developed by the brilliant physicist David Bohm--who later became a mystic.
A decade later, Zukav authored another bestseller called The Seat of the Soul in which he built on the idea of a cosmic consciousness to claim that humans possess more than five senses. We are what he called "multisensory."
Zukav was a frequent guest on Oprah, who called The Seat of the Soul her favorite book of all time--except the Bible. According to Zukav, the soul is a product
formed from the vibrational aspect of your name, the vibrational aspect of your relation to the planets at the time of your incarnation, and vibrational aspects of your energy environment, as well as the from the splintered aspects of your soul that need to interact with physical matter in order to be brought to wholeness (Seat, p. 37).
You can see why The Seat of the Soul is Oprah's favorite book (next to the Bible).
In her 1990 book, The Quantum Self, self-proclaimed "Oxford physicist" (that is, a physicist who lives in Oxford) Danah Zohar asserted that "Cartesian philosophy wrenched human beings from their familiar social and religious context and thrust us headlong into ... our I-centered culture, a culture dominated by egocentricity." (Self, p. 18) The new holistic physics was going to teach people to be less selfish, to recognize that they are part of a greater whole and to work cooperatively for the benefit of everyone.
Now, forty years after Tao, in the third millennium of the Common Era, we can see unequivocally that this revolution in human consciousness never happened. Nevertheless, its vibrations still find resonance with many of those who have rejected traditional religion and say they are "not religious but spiritual."
Instead of humans joining together into one cooperative whole, the 1980s became characterized, in America, anyway, as the "Me Decade." Far from recognizing that we are each an inseparable part of the whole, and everyone pitching in to make the world a better place for its inhabitants, life in the 1980s was characterized by an unprecedented level of individual self-absorption.
And the 2010s so far show no sign of any abatement in this focus on self, as almost every element of our society is geared to provide maximal short-term self-gratification for its members, while many of those who fail to be gratified view themselves as victims.
Now some will argue that the ever-increasing fixation with self only reinforces the need for a holistic philosophy like that of Capra, Ferguson, Zukav, and Zohar. They will say that the problem is simply that holistic philosophy simply has not yet taken hold.
I disagree. In fact, no small portion of the blame for the excessive self-absorption that has characterized America for all this time lies at the feet of the proponents of the new mysticism. Anyone listening to New Age gurus, such as Zukav and Deepak Chopra, and modern megachurch Christian preachers, cannot miss the emphasis on the individual finding easy gratification, rather than sacrificing and selflessly laboring for a better world.
Holistic philosophy is the perfect delusion for the spoiled brat of any age who, all decked out in the latest fashion, loves to talk about solving the problems of the world but has no intention of sweating a drop in achieving this noble goal.
Reductionist classical physics did not make people egoists. People were egoists long before reductionist classical physics. In fact, classical physics has nothing to say about humans except that they are material objects like rocks and trees, made of nothing more than the same atoms--just more cleverly arranged by the impersonal forces of self-organization and evolution. This is hardly a philosophical basis for narcissism.
The new quantum holism, on the other hand, encourages our delusions of personal importance. It tells us that we are part of an immortal cosmic mind with the power to perform miracles and, as Chopra has said, to make our own reality. Who needs God when we, ourselves, are God? Thoughts of our participation in cosmic consciousness inflate our egos to the point where we can ignore our shortcomings and even forget our mortality.
The modern versions of traditional religions feed on this desire. Where once Christian preachers shouted hell-fire and brimstone from the pulpit, their successors in the very same sects now present the soothing message that we are all perfect, worthy, and destined for infinite happiness. The only sacrifice required is a regular check. Then Jesus will provide all.
The rising number who identify themselves as "not religious but spiritual" have not found the new Christianity either sensible or congenial. Unfortunately the new spirituality they find in quantum mysticism is just as much of a con game.
Mystical physics is a grossly misapplied version of ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, which were based on the notion that only by the complete rejection of self can one find inner peace in this world of suffering and hopelessness. However, you won't find selflessness in these religions as they are practiced in America today. I once attended a Buddhist meditation class in Boulder, which is a center for that sort of thing (Capra's book was published in Boulder). The first thing we did was sit around in a circle and talk about ourselves. Needless to say, the meditation did not help me get rid of my own self-centeredness--and this wasn't the only time I tried it.
Capra and his colleagues say they are putting a modern face on ancient Eastern philosophy. I say they are covering a noble edifice with graffiti. Where they see similarities between the new and the old mysticisms, I see only contrasts. Where they promote the new mythology as an antidote for self-absorption, I assert that they are manufacturing a drug that induces it. And while they blame rational science for the ills of the world, I hold rational science as a source of genuine hope for reducing the severity of this latest addiction, if only we and our successors have the wisdom to use it properly.
Postscript: Modern physics is even more reductionist than classical physics. Ironically, the same year, 1975, that The Tao of Physics appeared, the highly successful standard model of elementary particles was developed and the holistic ideas such as Bootstrap Theory that Capra and others were working on (and he emphasizes in Tao) were tossed in the trash heap. The standard model is based on the notion that the universe is composed of material particles and nothing more. Classical physics still had ethereal fields. Since its inception, the standard model has agreed with all physics data and was crowned in 2012 with the observation of the long-predicted Higgs boson. As for the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics--this is not supported by a scintilla of empirical evidence.
A detailed discussion of the claimed connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness can be found in my 1995 book The Unconscious Quantum.
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975).
Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980).
Danah Zohar, The Quantum Self. Human Nature and Consciousness Defined By the New Physics (New York: Morrow, 1990).
Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New York: Morrow, 1979).
Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).