Wide blue sky panorama with fluffy clouds and a bright sunburst behind a semi-transparent blue Yin Yang Symbol. Photo: iStock
Wide blue sky panorama with fluffy clouds and a bright sunburst behind a semi-transparent blue Yin Yang Symbol. Photo: iStock

The Chinese worldview evolved from Tao, that mysterious source of creation that is present in everything from inanimate matter to human beings in the form of energy. Yin-yang, generic types denoting mutually dependent opposites, are governed by magnetic tension, some observable and some perceptible only by the most astute observer. The Chinese have a special word for the magnetic tension between yin and yang: qi (or ch’i).

The word qi has been translated as vital force, universal spirit, and ether, among many others. Joseph Needham, the great chronicler of Chinese science and technology, translated qi as matter-energy. Qi is at work between the sun and the Earth, day and night, growth and decay, but also in the sexual tension between male and female. Like gravity, qi is invisible, but its manifestation can be observed. Take a small piece of metal and float it between the plus-and-minus poles of a magnet. It will briefly vibrate and then settle at the point where the magnetic tension is most acute. This point is qi.

The ancient Chinese don’t seem to have theorized about gravity, perhaps because the gravity of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein has no opposite and cannot be captured in the matrix of yin and yang. The ancients may have disagreed with the assumption of modern physics that gravity is weaker than the four “quantum” forces, the others being referred to as the weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and strong nuclear force. The Chinese pictogram for gravity consists of a compound character made up of two different pictograms, one meaning heavy, the other force.

Given their belief that all things, events and phenomena are a qi-mediated interplay of yin and yang, the ancients must have reasoned that gravity is also governed by qi. The field of tension that keeps the Earth and the moon in their orbits is the interaction of pull (yin) and push (yang). The planets have settled in an orbital pattern where the qi is most acute. Moreover, planetary orbits are dynamic and need both “force” (yang) and “equilibrium” (yin). We cannot have force without equilibrium, lest the system collapses into chaos. And equilibrium without force would lead to petrification.

Analog and digital

Qi does not scientifically explain mechanical, electromagnetic and gravitational phenomena, but it conceptually accommodates them all. This partly explains the appeal of Chinese thought to Niels Bohr. Confronted with the wave-particle dichotomy, Bohr embraced the yin-yang notion of Contraria sunt complementa. A cynic may consider this yin-yang embrace a cop-out; we can’t explain something so let’s call it yin and yang. Schooled in Newtonian mechanics, Bohr and the other pioneers of quantum physics found it difficult to conceptually come to terms with the amorphous wave-particle duality. Neither Newtonian physics nor James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory accommodated this seemingly contradictory phenomenon.

In his landmark book The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra pointed out that “the concept of a distinct physical entity, like a particle, is an idealization which has no fundamental significance. It can only be defined in terms of its connections to the whole, and these connections are of a statistical nature – probabilities rather than certainties. When we describe the properties of such an entity in terms of classical concepts – like position, energy, momentum, etc – we find that there are pairs of concepts which are interrelated and cannot be defined simultaneously in a precise way.”

The wave-particle duality has its roots in studies of the so-called photoelectric effect. In the 19th century, German scientists found that a beam of light can force an atom in certain metals to release an electron. Einstein gave the phenomenon a mathematical foundation and argued that electrons are emitted instantaneously, which could only happen if the electron emissions were caused by individual particles of light rather than waves.

No one has ever seen a particle without the mediation of an electric or electronic instrument. A proton is said to have a diameter of 0.000000000001 millimeter, and an electron buzzing around the atom nucleus is less than 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. Rather than a “thing” with exact boundaries, like a grain of sand on the beach, a particle is a “state” – a minute electrical charge that is isolated and measured with another charge from a beam of light or radiation. A particle is “induced” by the observation instrument and has only a virtual existence.

The wave-particle dichotomy has a curious parallel in the analog-digital dichotomy that confronted the pioneers of computer sciences. The distinction between analog and digital became a topical issue in the 1940s, when computer scientists moved from analog to digital (more properly binary) computers. Binary systems were easier to program and more stable. They operate on discrete, binary currents (on and off), while analog computers operate on the less stable continuous variation in voltage.

The technique of “digitizing” analog information was crucial to the so-called digital (more properly binary) revolution. Digitization is the conversion of continuous, analog information (images, sound, etc) into discrete, “quantized” values. To digitize music, we “sample” the sound wave 44.400 times a second. Each sample is assigned a binary number and written to a digital storage medium.

For playback, we must decode the binary strings to recreate a wave signal. After all, the ear is an analog organ. The process of discrete sampling of waves necessarily loses information of the continuous sound wave (the tiny space between each sample), but the high sampling rate makes the missing information virtually unnoticeable. But is is real nonetheless. A digital string is a virtual entity and has no independent existence, just like a particle is a virtual entity.

Reality and consciousness

The wave-particle dichotomy, like the analog-digital dichotomy, is a human construct, a valuable one that advanced science and technology, but it has no equivalent in nature. Ever since the pioneering days of quantum physics, scientists have tried to develop a “quantum” theory of gravity known as Quantum Field Theory. QFT is the mathematical equivalent of digitizing an analog wave. The aim is to reconcile Einstein’s continuous (gravitational) field with Bohr’s discrete atomic model and create a so-called Theory of Everything. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Quantum Field Theory is the mathematical and conceptual framework for contemporary elementary particle physics. In a rather informal sense QFT is the extension of quantum mechanics (QM), dealing with particles, over to fields, ie systems with an infinite number of degrees of freedom. In the last few years QFT has become a more widely discussed topic in philosophy of science, with questions ranging from methodology and semantics to ontology. QFT taken seriously in its metaphysical implications seems to give a picture of the world which is at variance with central classical conceptions of particles and fields, and even with some features of QM.”

Time will tell if quantum physicists will persist in their attempt to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics in a single Theory of Everything – or whether they will realize they are struggling with a fundamental dichotomy that mathematically can’t be reconciled. (For the mathematically inclined, the distinction between wave and particle, like the distinction between analog and digital, hinges on another human construct: discrete and continuous mathematics.)

Another school of thought in quantum physics is closer to the pioneers of quantum physics who believed Eastern thought anticipated the implications of quantum physics. They entertain the possible relationship between quantum physics and consciousness.

American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku addressed the issue of consciousness in his book Physics of the Impossible. He wrote: “One minority point of view is that there must be a ‘cosmic consciousness’ pervading the universe. Objects spring into being when measurements are made, and measurements are made by conscious beings.” Kaku cited Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner, who had written: “It is not possible to formulate the laws [of the quantum theory] in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”

Wigner, like the quantum pioneers before him, was interested in Vedanta philosophy, which says in so many words that “consciousness is reality.” Erwin Schrodinger echoed this thought: “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived.” In 1958 Schrodinger wrote, “Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.”

The question why Asian thinkers anticipated many of the findings of quantum physics has grown in recent years among physicists and neurologists, and those researching consciousness. It has popularized the notion of the “conscious universe” and “cosmic consciousness,” which inadvertently suggests the universe itself is conscious. Consciousness as we commonly use the words is evolved instinct and developed only in biological entities. In Yogic thought, those who develop a cosmic consciousness are attuned to the source of creation.

Quantum physics can serve as a metaphor for human history. Aristotle and Greek thought led to the mother of all human constructs: the separation of spirit and matter, the subsequent dissection of nature and the development of science and technology. Tao and Chinese thought focused on harmonizing spirit and matter and all other dualities humans created or identified in nature. Brahma and Hindu thought concerned itself with transcending all dualities and being one with the source of creation: tat tvam asi (you are the universe). The sum total of these three mutually reinforcing world views is the reality we live in today.

This is the second article of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Leibniz, Einstein, and China (2021).

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