Gary Zukav

Dancing Wu Li Masters

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Dancing Wu Li Masters Summary

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Dancing Wu Li Masters is a 1979 book by philosopher and popular science author Gary Zukav. It explores themes of modern physics, especially quantum phenomena, and poses new relationships between these new concepts and past metaphors from ancient eastern spiritual movements. It utilizes ancient spiritual texts to help explain emergent knowledge about the physical world, focusing mainly on the discoveries of pioneers throughout the evolution of Western physics. For its accessible and clarifying treatment of a subject matter often considered erudite, Dancing Wu Li Masters was awarded a National Book Award in Science in 1980.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters begins with the author’s explanation for the impetus behind his writing: a visit to the Esalen Institute in Northern California for a conference on physics. At the conference, one of his acquaintances, a Tai ‘chi master named Al Huang, told Zukav that in Taiwan, physics was called “Wu Li,” translated into English as “patterns of organic energy.” He argues that this meaning reflects the fact that matter and energy exist and correlate at the same time in subatomic domain. This relationship fascinated Zukav, bringing about an inquiry into whether quantum mechanics indeed had a metaphysical nature.

Zukav argues that quantum mechanics and philosophy are inextricable from each other due to their shared pursuit of discerning what the essence of reality is composed of. One example he provides is the mathematical field of probability. Mathematicians in this field use terms such as “probability waves” when trying to figure out the likelihood of a specific event to occur in the physical world. Primarily connecting math and philosophy using specific metaphors in which he tries to pinpoint analogies, Zukav’s argument is that by retroactively seeing these similarities, we can trace the redundancy of thoughts in the history of human thinking to the unconscious self-reflexivity of human thought, which he believes can render the intuition of the past just as valid from the perspective of metaphor as the symbolic formalization of modern physics and math.

Zukav contrasts this conception of physics and philosophy with the predominant classical model, tracing it to the ancient philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle stated that philosophy discusses the phenomenon of “potentia,” or a state of being, between the moment of hypothesis and the moment a phenomenon occurs. In quantum mechanics, in contrast, the nuclear physicist Heisenberg argued in his “Uncertainty Principle” that one cannot know both the position and velocity of any particle in the universe at the same time. Zukav interprets this principle as the statement that physicists are bound tightly to their perceptions and will never be able to observe the subatomic domain objectively. Similarly, the realist school of philosophical thought argues, in Zukav’s perspective, that humans are inextricably bound to their subjective perception. He concludes this argument by stating that the goals of the physicist and philosopher are essentially the same, the only superficial difference being that the former attempts to model the world formally using the language of math, and the latter utilizes intuition and less formalized symbolic expression.

Zukav concludes his novel by lamenting that the worlds of philosophy and science are too divided. He believes that the vocabularies of each field have never been able to merge, as they should, to work on the same essential problems; instead, they are distracted over the belief that they are too different to reconcile. He portrays the skeptical scientist as one who has betrayed the metaphysical backbone to his pursuit of truth. Finally, Zukav argues that the new forays into the field of quantum physics might help to realign the two fields, because it essentially constitutes a rediscovery of what the ancient Eastern masters knew about human knowledge.

Zukav’s book was a big source of controversy both when it was written and today. Most prominent scientists familiar with the work reject his conclusions about the necessary union of science and philosophy, dismissing his work as pseudoscience missing any actual scientific rigor. They view the empirical evidence and linguistic formalization of mathematics and physics as what makes it distinct, and the essentially valid field, rather than philosophy. Despite the widespread rebuttals of Zukav’s line of thinking, the novel worked to popularize interest in general physics to its audience in the United States and the world, expressing it in accessible language and drawing a compelling picture of a synthesized human pursuit for knowledge and self-understanding. The Dancing Wu Li Masters is also romantic in content, seeking to connect disparate points in time and modes of thought into one shared, positive narrative about the quest for learning. Zukav’s novel, taking its name from one of the earliest proponents of the use of intuition in sensing truth in the world, is therefore not meant to be a rigorous or formal study of the history of human thought, but rather a vindication of different learning styles and modes of expression.