Taoism and Physics

Taoism originates from China during the 4th Century, it is taught by a philosopher called Laozi with his famous book Tao Te Ching. The book is very compact, with roughly 5000 Chinese characters divided into 81 sections, it offers so much wisdomTaoism-Ying-Yang and teaches us how to find the Tao (the Way). The Tao, is the name that Laozi coins for the flow of the universe. There are 2 major components of the Tao, the order and the chaos. We can see from the Taoism symbol, the white represents the order and the black represents chaos. However, they are so closely intertwined and contains each other, it is impossible to keep them separated. And to understand the Tao, is to gain the ability to understand how the two forces of Tao interact with each other, therefore understand the essential flow of the universe.

I pursue physics for the same reason that I study Taoism, to understand the underlying laws that govern the world we live in. Doing physics experiments is one way where we observe how the chaos is embedded within the order. In classrooms we learn the physical laws by assuming a perfect universe. We often see the phrases in physics homework problems such as “neglect air friction”, “imagine two parallel plates extending to infinity and float in vacuum”. We’d like to make lots of assumptions so that the problems are solvable. However, there are so much that can go wrong in the real world. For example, making devices in the lab often have very low yield rate even though you follow the same procedure, because there are so much that are impossible to control, such as minor human error, and how the air molecules interact with the surface of the device. Therefore by doing physical experiments, we are incorporating chaos into order, to help us better understand how physical objects work in the real world.

Similarly, we can also observe how the order is embedded within the chaos. This is done by observing a huge number of events and extract some law or theorem that all the events have in common. This is how the law of gravity, the theory of electricity and magnetism, and all other laws are discovered. By looking for the order in a chaotic world, we can extract fundamental laws that describe how things work. And by understanding how order and chaos interact and interchange, we would understand the Tao.

However, understanding the Tao is not the goal of this post, as I believe only a few people in the world, if at all, can say that they are masters of Tao. I would like to use the rest of the post to point out some parallels between sections of Tao Te Ching and some laws of physics. I will only write about 3 today, but I am sure there are many more.

1. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion

The third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, in section 2 of Tao Te Ching: 天下皆知美之为美,斯恶矣;皆知善之为善,斯不善已。故有无相生,难易相成,长短相形,高下相倾,音声相和,前後相随。Which states the idea that we know beauty, because there exists ugliness, we know kindness because there exists evil. Therefore everything comes in pairs, difficult and easy, long and short, above and below, before and after.

2. Theory of Relativity

I brought up this quote from a previous post but I am talking about it again here. In section 16 of Tao Te Ching there is this quote: 致虚极守静笃。万物并作,吾以观复。It basically asks us to view how things evolve and change from an outsider point of view. From the theory of relativity we learned that if there are 2 parties observing each other and are in motion, their description of each other would be different from a 3rd party who observes the 2 from a static reference frame. Laozi teaches us that if we want to learn the truth about the universe, we need to also be static in the sense that we should make observations without getting attached.

3. empty space in an atom

We all know that in an atom, more than 99% of the space is just void, there is a tiny nucleus in the center, and some electrons orbiting around that don’t occupy much space at all. In section 11 of Tao Te Ching: 三十辐共一毂,当其无,有车之用。埏埴以为器,当其无,有器之用。凿户牖以为室,当其无,有室之用。故有之以为利,无之以为用。This translates to: the frame of a car makes the space for passengers, therefore makes the car useful. We make containers with China and ceramics, the containers are only useful because of the empty space they present. We build walls to make a house, but it is only useful because of the empty space between the walls. So how does this relate to the composition of an atom? Without the empty space inside the atom, the electrons would collapse to the nucleus and atom would cease to exist. Since all matter is composed of atoms, all matter would cease to exist.

Taoism is sometimes criticized to be too passive, it teaches us to take a step back when something comes up rather than actively making changes. But isn’t that what science is about? We passively observe nature under a microscope, while no one is foolish enough to try to change the speed of light. I do believe there are many parallels between Taoism and physics, and the three takeaways from this post are: 1. characteristics of things always come in pairs, 2. observing events from a static reference frame will allow us to better understand the events, and 3. we should appreciate and embrace empty spaces, because they are an essential part of the universe. Adjacently, this can also be applied to mental empty spaces. People nowadays are on their screens all the time, even during a few second waiting in line for waiting for a bus. Most of the time we are reading useless things that only clutter our minds. It could be a good idea to embrace the empty mental space every now and then when we are living in such a crazy busy world.

2 thoughts on “Taoism and Physics”

  1. Hi Emma,

    Just some comments to share.

    First I guess Tai Chi is also a good example of Taoism. The defending mechanism of Tai Chi is to use torque to twist the force from the attacker, which the expression is similar to the Taoism symbol. Tai Chi may also follow Laozi’s idea: 道法自然.

    Second I think it is useful for people to read on their smart phones. For “evil” scientists, it’s a great opportunity to observe human behavior in society. Now social scientists use social media to run the quantitative social experiment, which some of the results also fit the statistical random distribution. Also from the recent new book” Rewriting Education”, new generation applies the digital device as a part of their daily life, which helps them to explore the world and learn new thing. You can check the book out if you have time.

    Finally, Merry Christmas!


    1. Hi Hong,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am sure there are pros and cons when it comes to smart phone usage. Maybe I need to catch up with the ‘new generation’, haha.

      Merry Christmas!


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