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Is It True That the Buddha Would Just Be a Physicist?

From an Interview with Physicist Fritjof Capra
by Renée Weber, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University


Fritjof Capra

RENÉE WEBER: I want to propose considering a hypothetical example, let's call it science fiction or philosophy fiction. Let's postulate that there is a physicist who is so good at his work that he is Nobel caliber; he's a Nobel prize winning particle physicist who later in his life also explores consciousness to such a depth that he becomes the equivalent of a Buddha figure. In my mind, this person has to be both a Nobel quality physicist and a "Nobel quality" spiritual person. He's absolutely adept at both. What, if anything, can he tell us that an ordinary physicist, an ordinary mystic, could not tell us? In particular, I guess, I'm asking, would he know more? Is his advantage only that he would be better able to relate one paradigm to the other? Or could he propose, for example, by virtue of his also being an enlightened consciousness, more perceptive, crucial experiments in physics that would somehow bear on inner states of consciousness? I'm curious as to whether you have any views on this.

FRITJOF CAPRA: Well, it's of course very difficult to imagine such a person because of the complementary nature of the two approaches. You would have a hard time becoming a Buddha figure after being a Nobel caliber physicist. But anyway, let us talk about a first rate Einstein, or any of the great physicists. Now such a person has already a high degree of intuition. And this intuition will be sharpened through the mystical training. And then once he went through this mystical training and became enlightened, he would be sublime in his intuition; he would also, by some miracle, not have forgotten his mathematics. He will be able to get back and resume where he left off and do the physics.

WEBER: Would he have an advantage over other physicists in doing pure physics?

CAPRA: He would have the advantage of being able to work much better. Because somebody who goes very far into meditation can marshall his or her energies in a much better way. I know this from experience because I know physicists who are involved in mystical traditions, who are Zen Buddhists or Vedantists; they do the same work in six hours that other people would do in ten hours. That would be one advantage.

WEBER: My next question is: could he forge a bridge between the language of physics and the language of mysticism, or the models thereof? Could he better interpret the one world for those in the other world?

CAPRA: Well, one would think so, but it depends on what kind of physicist we are talking about. If we are talking about a Niels Bohr figure, then he would have difficulty with language, as Bohr had. If we talk about a Feynman—but that's almost a contradiction in terms because Feynman is so against this whole mysticism.

WEBER: I know that, but remember this is my science fiction example, and we're allowed to speculate wildly.

CAPRA: Okay, we'll do some genetic engineering combining Feynman and the Buddha into one person. So then he would have an advantage, and he would be able to interpret mystical experience in terms which make contact with the scientific terms. As far as coming up with mathematical models is concerned, I think he would do it just on the basis of being a good physicist.

WEBER: I suppose that is a more conservative interpretation of what I have in mind. I mean something much wilder. Could he as a scientist formulate experiments that no one now has the imagination to propose?

CAPRA: No, I don't think so.

WEBER: Why is that?

CAPRA: Because this requires a totally different mind frame. You see, not even the theorists are often very good at proposing experiments. It's the experimental physicists who are good at this, because they know the machines. They have this direct contact with the apparatus, and they are good at proposing experiments. In the good physics institutions and research centers, there's always a close collaboration and a close contact between the theorists and the experimenters. But I don't think that any mystical insights would help with those details.

WEBER: But you feel the theoretical component would be affected.

CAPRA: Yes, because theories are always based on a certain philosophy, or predilection.

WEBER: And an intuition. This person would be more deeply in touch with alternative modes of space and time and consciousness and interconnectedness, not just intellectually but literally. He would have lived in and experienced those modes.

CAPRA: Yes, but you know, as I said before, physicists also have that without being mystics.

WEBER: But to a lesser degree, you were saying. Now this is a full blown version of it, isn't it?

CAPRA: Well, I don't know whether he could be any more full blown than Bohr was. I really don't know.

WEBER: Do you think Bohr felt himself indissolubly one with the universe?

CAPRA: Definitely, definitely.

WEBER: There is evidence?

CAPRA: Oh yes, definitely.

WEBER: But that is the description you've attached to the mystic?


So you're saying Bohr was a mystic.

CAPRA: Yes, oh yes.

WEBER: Earlier in the interview you said he was a highly intuitive person, but now you are going further.

CAPRA: Well, I now take mystic in a broader sense. Bohr did not have any mystical training, and I don't think he meditated on a regular basis. But his work was his meditation.

WEBER: I understand. He got a personal conviction of the unity of things in a way that didn't necessarily involve sitting down cross-legged in a room.

CAPRA: Right. Bohr's science was his mysticism. And you know, I would almost suspect that this hypothetical person, if he really wanted to do physics and were a mystic, would just do physics. You see, in the Eastern traditions, the most enlightened becomes the most ordinary. And so these great sages just went around cutting firewood and drawing water.

WEBER: After you're enlightened, the mountain is once again a mountain.

CAPRA: Yes, and the proton would become a proton, the electron an electron, and our Buddha would just be a physicist.

Reprinted from the journal ReVision by permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation.


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