A Brief Analysis of Mysticism

January 2001
by Hamed Vahidi

Eastern Mysticism is an interesting concept. For many, it is synonymous with the supremacy of wisdom over knowledge, elevation to higher states of consciousness, feelings of oneness with the universe, and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality. Scientifically speaking, the concept of mysticism has no definite theoretical framework, and most of its claims cannot be scientifically verified. Its vocabulary consists of words that can mean different things to different people, indeed, the same word can signify different meanings depending on whether its first letter is lowercase or uppercase (e.g., self, Self, mind, Mind).

However, this philosophy has a number of fundamental tenets that are agreed upon and respected by all mystics. One of these is the oneness and unity of seemingly different and opposite phenomena and how ultimate reality unites beyond these dualities. Interestingly, a number of mystical and scientific writers have claimed that this tenet of their philosophy either parallels or directly supports the conclusions of the most advanced theories of modern science, especially quantum mechanics. The purpose of this article is to objectively evaluate this claim. To do this, I’ll first need to present a brief overview of some fundamentals of quantum mechanics.

The Wonderland of Quantum

Erwin Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, the originator of wave mechanics and the inventor of Schrödinger’s equation. In Schrödinger’s equation, the displacement and the development of a quantum entity are subject to different potential energies. Potential energy is simply an energy that a body acquires because of the physical state or position it is in.

For example, an electron will have different potential energies depending on where it is in the atomic orbit: the lowest possible energy state (ground state), the first excited state, the second excited state, and so on. Once our particular set of devices and specific experimental conditions are set up, we feed into Schrödinger’s equation the potential energies that our quantum entity is subject to as it displaces, and finally solves the equation. The result is a number of wave functions.

Wave function represents the most basic or primary state of a quantum entity before it is detected by physical instruments. There might be some wave functions that we do not need. We want just those wave functions that are relevant to our particular experiment – the areas the quantum entity is likely to be found when a measurement is done.

Another physicist, Max Born, originated the probability interpretation of the wave function. He squared the amplitude of the wave function and came up with the probability wave. Finally, when we make a measurement at a certain location, the quantum entity will be actualized. This is called the collapse of the wave function.
wave function — > probability wave —> act of measurement (wave function collapses)

Suppose we send out one electron at a time through a partition with two rectangular slits, one open and one closed. A sensitive screen is behind the partition. We would eventually see a wide, fuzzy, indistinct rectangular band of light on the screen – an indication of the particle-like behavior. The wide band of light would be about as high as the slits and somewhat wider than the slits. The farther the sensitive screen the wider and the dimmer the pattern.

Now, we open the second slit. We may expect the same results because we are still sending one electron at a time. But contrary to our expectation, we will see many alternating lines of light and dark within the overall pattern of the wide, rectangular band of light – an interference pattern that indicates wavelike behavior. Why? “The interference that occurs in the two-slit system cannot be between many different electrons, or the pattern would disappear when only one electron at a time is used. It is an interference of probability. A single electron’s location probability can probe both slits and interfere with itself. It is the propensity for an electron to visit a certain region of space that is being interfered with.”1

But how can we find out which area of the screen has a lesser or greater chance of receiving the particle? The intensity of the probability wave will give us this information. As Sir James Jeans wrote, “The intensity of the waves at each point within this region gives a measure of the probability that a photon will occur at that point if matter is placed there.”2 For example, if the intensity of the probability wave in a certain area is high, there will be a greater chance of finding the particle on that area if a measurement is made.

The language of quantum mechanics does not necessarily conform to our common-sense view of reality. Some think it is strange; others find it unappealing and difficult to digest. However, there are a group of people who find the language tailor-made to support the specific ideologies they promote. The following sections present numerous examples of bad analogies, conceptual or philosophical errors, and distortions of scientific theories – especially quantum mechanics – all directed toward proving or justifying the Eastern Mystical framework of thought.

Leaps of Faith

Fritjof Capra’s bestseller The Tao of Physics is an informative, well-written book that explains the concepts underlying the new physics in a nontechnical manner. But when he tries to link or find parallels between the new physics and Eastern Mysticism, his explanation of the scientific theories becomes problematic. He writes:

We can never say that an atomic particle exists at a certain place, nor can we say that it does not exist. Being a probability pattern, the particle has tendencies to exist in various places and thus manifests a strange kind of physical reality between existence and non-existence. We cannot, therefore, describe the state of the particle in terms of fixed opposite concepts. The particle is not present at a definite place, nor is it absent. It does not change its position, nor does it remain at rest. What changes is the probability pattern, and thus the tendencies of the particle to exist in certain places.3

Capra’s explanation is basically correct; the problem is that it is written in such a way that it can fit or look very similar to a preconceived ideology – in this case mystical. Our lack of knowledge about the definite existence or nonexistence of a particle before it has been actualized does not imply that it manifests some kind of strange reality between existence and nonexistence. As Paul Davies writes, “one is reminded of a crime wave which, when it spreads though a district, enhances the likelihood of a felony.”4 Surely no one would claim that the felony, before it happens, manifests some kind of strange reality between existence and nonexistence.

Capra then claims that “in atomic physics we have to go even beyond the concepts of existence and non-existence”5 and that “the transcending of the concepts of existence and non-existence is also one of the most puzzling aspects of Eastern Mysticism.”6 We have now gone from a probability explanation of a quantum event to a state of reality that transcends the concepts of existence and nonexistence (whatever that means) and finally to the realization that the verbal expression of how an Eastern Mystic feels or thinks conveys the same notion of reality that quantum mechanics does.

The same line of reasoning exists in Capra’s discussion of the space-time continuum. He believes that the Eastern Mystics “seem to be able to attain non-ordinary states of consciousness in which they transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life to experience a higher, multidimensional reality.”7 Neuroscientists still have a hard time figuring out what consciousness is. Now we are told that Eastern Mystics not only go beyond the “ordinary state of consciousness,” but they somehow connect to a higher form of reality. Exactly what consciousness is, let alone its nonordinary state, where these higher dimensions are, and what intermediary steps lead mystics from meditation to this multidimensional reality are not discussed.

One and the Same

Ken Wilber is less sophisticated in his approach. His book The Spectrum of Consciousness is a tour-de-force of the scientific/philosophical support of mystical ideas leading to the enlightening conclusion that “all objects are their own subjects, subject and object being nothing but two different ways of approaching this reality we call Mind.”8

Wilber’s explanation of the subatomic world follows the same path: “It was abundantly clear to these physicists that objective measurement and verification could no longer be the mark of absolute reality, because the measured object could never be completely separated from the measuring subject – the measured and the measurer, the verified and the verifier, at this level, are one and the same.”9

Quantum mechanics has several interpretations. For example, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics states that it is simply meaningless to talk about attributes such as velocity or mass before a measurement is done. So, in a sense, the creation of attributes and the act of measurement are interrelated; however, there is not a single interpretation of quantum mechanics that claims that the measured and the measurer are ultimately one or that the interdependency of the measured and the act of measurement implies the lack of objective knowledge about the atomic and subatomic worlds. Otherwise, there would not be consensus about anything

Wilber extends his conclusion to the realm of large objects. He writes: “The Seer, the THAT IN YOU WHICH KNOWS, in actuality is not separate from what it sees – it is what it sees, for the knower sees a thing by being that thing… This page, for instance, is identical to that in you which is reading it… This is not to say that the page, the supposed object of our perception, does not exist in some sense (so that if I close my eyes the page actually vanishes off the face of the earth), only that it does not exist as an object out there.”10

It never occurs to Wilber and others that the very act of seeing implies differentiation; it implies that the object seen would exist as something out there, whether physically or conceptually. We don’t see things by being them, we see them by being separate from them. The same line of reasoning applies to the process of knowing or gaining knowledge about a phenomenon. The Seer, the THAT IN YOU WHICH KNOWS (again, whatever that means) cannot be what it sees or knows for the simple reason that it is logically and physically contradictory.

Final Notes: Unity and Reality

A drop of water on the tip of my finger is of the same substance as the ocean, but at the same time it is separate from it. It is this separation that gives the drop of water its own uniqueness and identity. If it becomes one with the ocean, it is not a drop anymore. In the same manner, objects and subjects are separate from one another and there is no ultimate, or as mystics put it, no-level, level in which they are one and united.

We are all part of the same universe or Reality or Mind or whatever we choose to call it. That might satisfy the “opposites are united” notion for some mystics, but we still have to remember that the opposites are no more united than the members of a nation are united. Others might resort to Bell’s theorem for consolation. Bell’s theorem does indeed indicate that some kind of nonlocal interaction exists between particles no matter how far apart they are, but this notion could easily be misunderstood, and it hardly has anything to do with the kind of oneness and unity that Eastern Mysticism talks about.”11

Unfortunately, not too many mystics know that quantum mechanics can also be the cause of disunity, but it is a very useful disunity because it shows how the whole breaks down. The process is called quantum decoherence, and it is the central issue in the modern discussion of quantum computing.

And what about reality? Do we humans create reality? If humans create their own realities, then why do we all agree that the Eiffel tower is taller than the Washington Monument or that it is protons, not electrons, that are made up of quarks? Maybe all humans create the same reality, but does this mean that an alien from another galaxy could create a different kind of reality if placed here on earth? Correctly speaking, our minds, senses and ideas mediate how we perceive reality, but we do not make reality, nor are we one with it.

The problem with Eastern Mysticism goes even beyond the notion of misrepresentation and distortion of scientific and philosophical ideas. The very essence of Mysticism implies something that is intrinsically contradictory and incomprehensible, at least in this universe. Strangely enough, this same notion seems to be the central backbone of mystical thought.

1.) Davies, P. 1980. Other Worlds: Space, Superspace and the Quantum Universe. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc. 67.
2.) Jeans. J. 1981. Physics and Philosophy. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 135.
3.) Capra, F. 1975. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 153-154.
4.) Davies, P., 64.
5.) Capra, F., 154.
6.) Ibid.
7.) Ibid., 17 1.
8.) Wilber, F. 1989. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House. 306.
9.) Ibid., 36.
10.) Ibid., 303-304
11.) For a brief discussion of Bell’s theorem, see “For Whom Bell’s Theorem Tolls,” Skeptic’s Forum, Skeptic, vol. 8, no. 1, p. 21.