FMBR Editorial: Jan, 1991
Symmetry and the Golden Rule
Robert L. Shacklett
In his landmark work, The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra explores a number of parallels between modern particle physics and eastern mysticism. In due course he deals with symmetry, one of the most basic and important aspects of particle theory. He says:
Whenever a process in the particle world displays a certain symmetry, there is a measurable quantity which is 'conserved'; a quantity, that is, which remains constant during the process. These quantities provide elements of constancy in the complex dance of subatomic matter and are thus ideal to describe the particle interactions. Some quantities are conserved in all interactions, others only in some of them, so that each process is associated with a set of conserved quantities. Thus the symmetries in the particles' properties appear as conservation laws in their interactions. (pg. 251)
Symmetry and conservation, important aspects of the micro-world, have another interesting parallel manifestation in the macro-world of human affairs. The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is a succinct description of some kind of basic symmetry in how we ought to relate to each other.
Suppose we drop the "ought to" and pretend that the Rule operates with mathematical precision. What would be the consequences in the light of the above quote from Capra? First of all, exact symmetry in an interactive process implies something like, "all men (humans) are created equal." Imagine that!
Before looking for the conserved quantity in the interaction, we have to ask what is it that we DO when we DO unto others? May I suggest that "intention" is the word that best answers this question. Intention is like a vector quantity, having both magnitude and direction. "Attention" determines the direction, and the magnitude is determined by the intensity of feeling behind the action. "ATtention" is how we aim the arrow; "INtention" is how we draw the bow.
So what quantity is conserved in this generic interaction between hypothetically "equal" participants? A little reflection shows that equality requires the interaction to be a "zero sum" process and that there be a storage mechanism or memory involved. Energy provides an interesting analogy, but the concept of "karma" seems to fulfill the requirements better as long as we attribute both positive and negative aspects to it.
In the "real" world of the West, it seems that equality is a fiction and that the Golden Rule is merely an "ought to" moral. But this cavalier disregard for the mathematics of the Universe has a price. We think the "dance of life" is deadly serious because we get to do it only once. What would the "dance" be like if we took symmetry and conservation seriously, if we really understood the equality of being and the consequences of our actions?
Robert L. Shacklett