Consilience is defined as the agreement between the approaches to a topic of different academic subjects, especially science and the humanities.1, 2 In this paper, I investigate how Tao philosophy and modern Physics compare and integrate their understanding of the essence of the universe. As quantum mechanics enters the picture, our new perceptions of the world appear to gradually align with the Eastern mysticism worldview.3 This article explores the basic principles and deep-rooted beliefs of Tao philosophy, analyzing them in contrast to the concepts, theories, and models of modern Physics. I view the Tao as a multifaceted dimensional diagram of energy, rhythm, and networks, thus examining the fundamental structure of both in discussing the nature of the universe. The cross-contextual combination and the interdisciplinary intellectual collaboration reveal the correlation between the two and how they complement and reinforce each other. They are also an attempt to provide audacious hypotheses for future research, depicting the collective wisdom of interpretations of reality from multiple perspectives.
What then is the Tao? The theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra suggests that the Tao embodies the very quintessence of our cosmos. This enigmatic force melds the particles and waves, weaving a cosmic tapestry that encompasses both the tangible material plane and the unseen energy. If we consider the Tao to be a living entity, what cryptic form does it assume in our limited understanding? How does it conjure the intricate web of creation that permeates the universe? And how does it sustain the delicate balance that upholds the world? Let us first look at the original text of the Tao Te Ching for clues to the answers.
The initial state of heaven and earth is nothing, without form or name, and once they have form and name, they become the mother of all things, embracing all things.
Although nothing and something seem to be contradictory, they are in fact interrelated and interdependent, coming from the same root, and are therefore called Xuan.
The Xuan itself cannot be understood or spoken and is so profound and subtle that it is called the Xuan of the Xuan. This is the doorway to all mysteries and subtleties (Gate of Many Wonders).
At the beginning of the Tao Te Ching, the book that introduced the concept of Tao, Lao Tzu emphasized that Tao contains both nothing and something, which is the initial code for the universe. They are opposites, representing the birth and return of each. They share the same root and origin but operate in different ways. They are collectively referred to as Xuan(玄). They are both the forces that drive objects to flourish and perish. The Xuan of the Xuan(玄之又玄) is the superposition of Xuan. With simple words, Lao Tzu has given a sense of multidimensional space-time interplay to the Tao formed by the Xuan of the Xuan, creating an extremely vast and enigmatic picture of the universe.
[nothing][something]:the initial code of the universe
The form of Xuan’s state
Remarkably, this ancient description of the Tao bears a striking resemblance to the principles of quantum mechanics, particularly the concept of quantum states. In quantum mechanics, a quantum bit can exist in a superposition of two states, 0 and 1, represented as:
The general form of quantum state
Here, α and β are complex numbers, and |0⟩ and |1⟩ are the ground states of the quantum bits. Then, to ensure the sum of the probabilities of all possible outcomes equals 1, a normalization condition is applied4:
The normalization condition for a two-state quantum system
The normalization condition ensures that when we measure a quantum state, the sum of the probabilities of all possible outcomes is equal to 1. If this condition is violated, then the probabilistic interpretation of the quantum state will no longer hold. Consequently, when Xuan can equal any number, it may not align with our current understanding of the world, but they could potentially exist in parallel spacetimes with distinct physical laws and life forms. This concept is close to Lao Tzu’s Gate of Many Wonders in the aforementioned quotation, which is a universe of infinite wisdom and mystique.
Everything in the universe is interconnected, and the existence and operation of one dimension can be mapped onto another, according to Tao philosophy. Objects and events on Earth can be linked to the larger cosmic order and principles. The Gate of Many Wonders by Lao Tzu symbolizes the superposition of multiple gates leading to infinite realms. Also, the quantum gates in quantum computing can alter the state of quantum systems and enable complex entanglement operations when they are superimposed. They both use the term Gate to refer to the medium allowing access to the indefinite and ever-changing Tao and quantum states.
Following the inquiry into what Tao is, Wu Wei emerges as one of the core concepts of Taoism. Not only does it serve as a guide for practice, but it is also essential in understanding the evolution of our world. Lao Tzu said:
Heaven and earth have endured because they are not made for themselves; therefore, they can live extended lives.
This instance of not made for themselves(不自生) embodies the Taoist concept of Wu Wei. However, the distinction that must be made is that Wu Wei is not doing nothing. In the majority of later commentaries, Wu Wei is a method of allowing things to develop in the desired direction without setting standards. Wu Wei is also a behavior code that adheres to the interior dynamics and inner laws of the world if it is understood in terms of a quantum state that represents an infinite-dimensional complex vector.
Considering everlasting life(长生) and continuous development as continuous variables, we can draw parallels between Taoist concepts and quantum mechanics. In a quantum system of continuous variables, the quantum state can be represented as5:
Wave function in quantum mechanics
Here, |x⟩ is a basis vector in position space, indicating that a particle is located at position x, and x is a continuous variable that can assume any real value. The function f(x) defines the weights of the basis vectors at different positions. In this case, the normalization condition becomes
The normalization condition for a probability density function
Tao philosophy and Physics both strive to understand the fundamental nature of the universe. They share a common pursuit in trying to grasp the ever-changing and interconnected reality of existence. Let us explore this connection by examining the process of locating a particle in continuous space.
In this context, finding a particle at an exact position x is virtually impossible, as there are infinitely many potential positions. Instead, we can focus on a tiny range of length dx and calculate the probability of finding the particle within that range. By multiplying the probability density |f(x)|^2 by an infinitesimal length element, we can derive the infinitesimal probability of the particle being near position x. To find the total probability of locating the particle within a given range, we can sum up these infinitesimal probabilities. In this sense, the process of locating particles is analogous to the process of comprehending the Tao.
To better understand what the Tao is, how it is formed, and where it exists in terms of its correspondence with modern Physics, I propose a thought experiment that likens the Tao to a multifaceted, dimensional diagram. Picture energy as the coordinate point, the primordial spark from which all else emanates. Rhythm, the harmonious oscillation that permeates existence, functions as the axis upon which the cosmos pivots. Besides, the intricate network emerges as the vast expanse shaped by the interplay of these axes, interwoven in a kaleidoscope of unique configurations.
The conservation of energy is one of the most fundamental principles of the universe, a law that governs everything from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galactic systems. At its core, this law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed from one form to another or transferred from one entity to another. In the human realm of perception, energy often takes the form of matter, which can be transformed back into energy when it is destroyed.
Einstein’s groundbreaking work in 1905 led to our understanding of energy conservation.6 His renowned equations, E=mc^2, demonstrated that energy and matter are interchangeable, with the speed of light c being the constant that connects the two. This means that matter can be converted into energy, and vice versa, as long as the total amount of energy remains constant.
Tao is something elusive and vague, yet within it lies the image.
Though elusive and vague, in it lies substance. Obscure and dim, in it lies spirit, a truly genuine spirit that embodies credibility.
With the foundation in Physics, we can turn back to appreciate the insights offered by Lao Tzu and Buddhism. The Tao embodies the energy of creation and return. The creation process of the Tao is the interplay of light and darkness, as well as fluttering and gleaming reflecting the conservation of energy in its continuous cycle of the tangible and the intangible. Similarly, Buddhism’s concept of the succession of birth and death illustrates the constant transformation of energy, as things appear, perceive, and eventually extinguish. In the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, the interplay between the Kether and Malkhut Sephirot on the Tree of Life also mirrors this dynamic inter-transformation of energy and matter.7
I have demonstrated that certain aspects of energy’s nature align with the definition of the Tao, allowing us to comprehend the Tao through the lens of energy. However, the Tao is also characterized by its unpredictability and indeterminacy, which diverges from energy. Instead, these features bear a resemblance to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Although energy embodies some characteristics of the Tao, it does not completely represent the Tao’s unpredictable and incomprehensible nature. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, proposed in 1927 by Werner Heisenberg, states that when we precisely measure one property of a particle, such as its position, we unavoidably lose accuracy when measuring another property, such as its velocity, and vice versa.8 As scientists continue to improve their instruments, they can measure the positions and velocities of elementary particles with ever-increasing precision as they pursue a comprehensive understanding of the behavior of a particle. Nonetheless, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle imposes a fundamental restriction on precisely measuring specific pairs of properties simultaneously. This limitation results not only from technological constraints but also from the particles’ inherent nature. Observing the behavior of a particle can alter its behavior, as the act of measurement requires interaction between observer and particle. For instance, if an elementary particle is observed by rebounding a photon off of it, the particle will absorb the photon’s momentum, causing an instantaneous change in its motion.
Lao Tzu used the bellows (风箱 / 橐龠 / 埴轮) as a signifier for an organic flowing cycle that is continuous but never exhaustive, similar to rhythm. There are numerous Chinese words for translating rhythm, including 节律 (a cycle), 节奏 (an auditory parameter), 韵律 (a pleasant linguistic sensation), and my personal preference is 格律. 格 is a set of rules whereas 律 describes the flow within these rules. The connotation of 格律 closely resembles Lao Tzu’s description of Tao, which is also the essence of the bellows. With this premise in mind, let us look into the insights of the bellows by Lao Tzu:
The space between heaven and earth is a vacuum like a bellows, emptied, but inexhaustible. The more it moves, the more it yields.
The bellows is a series of ranked bags; the stick is like a flute. A bellows holds emptiness, no passion, and inaction. Therefore, its emptiness is interminable. When moved, it is never exhausted. Between heaven and earth, everything abides by nature. So, like a bellows, it will never be exhausted.
According to Lao Tzu, our universe is comparable to the bellows. It appears to be vacant on the inside but can constantly generate new energy. The bellows has a rhythm of exhalation and return. If one does not disrupt this rhythm, everything will keep on generating. On a personal level, excessive intervention and control will result in a loss of vitality. Tzu did not concentrate on and limit things to a particular state, but rather the state of things in cyclical motion. The Tao perpetually allocates resources out and takes them back in. He would not wish to fix something in a single state, but rather be flexible in accelerating or slowing the cycle.
The ongoing process of continuous throughput gives rise to a diverse ecosystem. This dynamic mirrors human systems in several ways. Firstly, they exhibit a natural tendency to change and evolve. Technological and scientific advancements follow a cyclical pattern, alternating between innovation and stagnation, but always moving forward. Secondly, evolution occurs in a balanced manner over time. Nature demonstrates rhythmic patterns governed by fundamental principles and laws, such as the pulsating heart, tidal ebbs and flows, and bird migration patterns. These phenomena reveal the influence of the Tao. Similarly, the recurring water cycles, nutrient cycles, and ecological communities exemplify how these patterns maintain the delicate balance of the Tao, essential for life to thrive on Earth. Lastly, balance and stability are achieved amidst imbalance and instability. Lao Tzu advises rulers to embrace uncertainty and turbulence, whether it is the rise and fall of civilizations, the formation of cultural norms and traditions, or the alternation of peace and conflict that is the norm of rhythm.
The synchronization of internal and external rhythms is made possible by the entrainment effect.9 Similar to living organisms, rhythmic cycles are organic occurrences that are spontaneous and continuously changing. They can sustain oscillations without external stimuli, just as waves do when they emerge.10 In spite of being scale-dependent, waves exhibit emergent properties similar to those of living organisms, in which the whole is greater than the aggregate of its parts. The interrelationships between the distinct components of a wave constitute a complete system. This cohesive phenomenon resembles the interdependence of living organisms that coexist, develop, and reproduce in diverse ecosystems. In addition, rhythm is not merely a logical repetition of A = A; the second A differs from the first A because it is the second.12 Thus, the nonlinear nature of rhythm can also reflect the fact that organisms typically exhibit unpredictable or unstable growth patterns.
Rhythm is a temporal structural movement that occurs organically. If energy is the car of the Tao, then rhythm is the track of the Tao. In dynamical physical systems, attractors characterize the states that permit the system to evolve in a predictable cycle regardless of its initial conditions. Periodic attractors are one of these states that cause objects to operate in predictable cycles, like pendulums, lunar phases, and circadian rhythms. However, even within these predictable cycles, subtle changes can occur, such as earthquakes. With the accumulation of time huge changes can develop. Therefore, when using the periodic attractor to calculate the forecast results, an error value ∆t is introduced, and although we can calculate the past value from ∆t, we can only estimate the future. This error value is the spring that hides in the gap of the predictable framework, making the development rhythm of everything into a temporal structure movement that occurs organically. Rhythm also accumulates over time, eventually transducing energy and enabling relational interactions.
When discussing a particle as a wave, the focus is on the waveform expressing the whole particle, not its trajectory. The particle oscillates back and forth in the middle of the wave. It is as if there is a spiral wound in the path of the wave and the particle travels in the width tolerance of this spiral. As an example, when one scans an object or scene in 3D with a cell phone with LiDAR, an incidental perturbation is a change that alters the entity or space, such as wind, vibration or a bird that suddenly enters the camera. One needs to scan repeatedly at one location or several locations at multiple angles to get a more complete model. It is also like satellites that usually orbit the planets in order to take images from different angles and altitudes to get more information and panoramic views. In the words of Lama Govinda, the Eastern way of thinking corresponds to a rotation around the object of contemplation, a multifaceted, i.e. multidimensional impression, formed by the superposition of single impressions from different points of view.14 This spiral circular overlay is also the trajectory of the rhythm of the Tao.
The network is the final stage in the construction of the great system of the Tao, which describes the way in which the rhythmic trajectory of the world is assembled and runs smoothly. All things exist in a context of dynamic relationships; nothing is an isolated object. Everything exists within a framework of dynamic connections, with no isolated entities. Each harmonious flow contributes to a ‘collective field of consciousness’ through the continuous interplay of time and space.
The idea originated from the Morphic resonance theory first proposed by biologist Rupert Sheldrake in 1981. Sheldrake believes that the natural world works more by habit than by law. The more times things are repeated, the more they develop a pattern or form, thus creating a morphic field. Unlike laws, patterns can change and develop. Morphogenetic fields have no specific outcome, but rather shape things in a generalized form.15 The folding of a protein molecule can occur in many ways. However, the protein molecule always appears as a structure because the morphogenetic field will only retain the most common forms from the large number of forms on the mathematical model. Similarly, over millions of years, people have generated unique experiences in sacred space, thereby creating morphogenetic fields with special significance and purpose. Although morphic fields are not related to the way rhythms are generated, the patterns they repeat are plastic, evolvable, and testable.
Holistic evolution also plays a crucial role in shaping networks alongside the operation of rhythms. The Tao views the universe as an integrated whole. Everything is a component of the ultimate, undifferentiated Reality. We routinely categorize the universe into distinct objects and occurrences. This dismantling assists us in comprehending and recognizing our surroundings, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality. All matter in the complex network of interconnected components follows the same laws and evolves in the same order.
Kevin Kelly asserts that in addition to the evolution of the individual human, there is also the evolution of the community of human connections.16 This community is not alive, but it is capable of evolving. In addition, there is the union of man and machine, which means that you, I, and every other human being is connected to all types of electronic devices and computers around the globe via various means of communication and is part of a vast community. Interbreeding, reproduction, and evolution of non-identical species, including non-living objects and humans, have contributed to the formation of new ideologies and social structures. As the process of evolution unfolds, elements that were once differentiated coalesce, forming a synergistic network of varying scales that unifies the disparate constituents of our world.
Quantum mechanics posits that the universe is not simply an assortment of distinct physical entities but rather a complex network of interconnected elements that constitute a single, unified whole. This interconnectedness can be seen in the Tao, a concept that, despite its various expressions, stems from a common source and embodies an ever-changing, indivisible whole. As Michael Century has suggested, there is a need to initiate a movement towards a more expansive and deliberate synchronization of the separate disciplines into new synthetic combinations of knowledge. The integration of different fields can result in a fusion of unique perspectives and lead to fresh ideas in both creation of art and the generation of knowledge, expanding the boundaries of what is possible, thus attaining a mind-enhancing consilience.