Fritjof Capra contemplates the parallels of physics and metaphysics
for Common Ground Winter 2004
by Virginia Lee
An accomplished physicist, Fritjof Capra was a pioneer in seeing the parallels between modern science and ancient mystical traditions in his ground-breaking bestseller, “The Tao of Physics” (1975), now available in 43 editions in 23 languages all over the world. Since his initial success, Capra himself has evolved as both a scientist and a writer, having written subsequent books like “The Turning Point” (1982), which eventually became the basis of the screenplay for the visionary movie “Mindwalk,” released in 1991.
After breakthroughs in his own thinking and the advent of the computer age, Capra began to see that Physics was limited in its ability to address the phenomena and interconnectedness of the earth’s living systems. As a result, Capra left the realm of academic physics and embraced the Life Sciences, a shift reflected in a later book, “The Web of Life” (1996). Capra now describes himself as a “systems theorist,” and works as the founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California. His latest book, “The Hidden Connections” (2002) reveals the depth of a current world view based on sustainability, and will also become the basis for another movie documentary, “Mindwalk 2.”
We are fortunate to have a dynamic and brilliant man like Fritjof Capra alive on the planet today, and grateful that he took the time to share his amazing intellectual, scientific and spiritual view of our world with us.
CG: How has your perspective changed since you first wrote The Tao of Physics in 1975?
FJ: That’s a long story. Although The Tao of Physics wasn’t published until 1975, I started writing it in 1972 or 1973, about 30 years ago. The book, as you know, has two parts: The first part explains radically new concepts in physics, concepts that imply a new world view, a new vision of reality, which emerged in physics in the early part of the 20th century. The second part discusses the parallels that I discovered between the world view implied by quantum physics and relativity theory and eastern philosophies, which are really spiritual traditions. The book is really an exploration of these parallels. In the epilogue, I say that this change in world view (now called a change in paradigm) really has very profound implications for society as a whole. When I reread the epilogue recently, I had forgotten that I originally called this new world view an ecological view. Even back in the early ’70s, I used the term “ecological” in a much broader sense than just a scientific or environmental one.
As it turned out, the book was very successful, far exceeding my expectations, and I was invited by many institutions and organizations to give lectures and seminars in many fields: Medicine, Architecture, Art, Anthropology, Psychology, Psychotherapy. These were the years of the New Age movement. As I discussed this change of world view with the professionals in those fields, I gradually became aware that Physics wasn’t really the appropriate model to talk about society. Society deals with life—things like health, politics and the economy—which are essentially all living systems.
So in the beginning of the ’80s, there was a shift in my thinking from Physics to the Life Sciences. In my second book, The Turning Point (published in 1982), I discussed the change of paradigms in four fields: Biology, Medicine, Psychology and Economics. Underlying that, I described the mechanistic view of life, as formulated by Newton and Descartes, and juxtaposed it with what I call the systems view of life. This systems view of life was not well developed at the time, so I had to assemble ideas and concepts from various fields. But from that time on, the main goal in my research and writing was to explore this view that has been emerging in science and society. These ideas were documented in the movie, Mindwalk (1991) which was based on The Turning Point, and directed by my brother, Bernt Capra.
My last two books, The Web of Life and The Hidden Connections, both reflect an intellectual advance that deals explicitly with the Life Sciences. There are no chapters on Physics in those two books. In them I have reached a plateau where I have summarized and synthesized this systems view of life in a way that I believe will remain stable for awhile.
CG: How has the Cartesian way of thinking contributed to the world’s modern-day problems?
FJ: It’s difficult to over-emphasize how much. It’s a view that encourages fragmentation and isolation on so many levels. My second book, The Turning Point, is an extensive answer to the question of how Cartesian thinking has influenced our way of life.
For instance, let’s take 9/11 and terrorism. The official policy of the Bush administration is that here is an evil force existing in a vacuum that threatened us and we have to fight it, without ever asking what created it and what the historical, religious and economic context is. I wrote an article about this on my website. Terrorism comes from a complex set of problems that must be understood before it can be diminished.
CG: The movie “Mindwalk” was based on your 1982 book “The Turning Point.” Is it still relevant today?
FJ: Unfortunately, yes, because not much has changed. Every four years when there is a presidential election, my brother and I marvel that it’s just like it was in “Mindwalk.” But the world is different now that there is the Internet, globalization, etc. But I am happy to tell you that my brother is making a sequel, “Mindwalk 2,” based on my latest book, The Hidden Connections.
“Mindwalk” was an amazing collaboration. My brother and I are very close and worked on it for seven years. At first, we wanted to make it as a documentary, but we couldn’t get it funded. It was turned down again and again. In 1985, we almost had a deal with the BBC, but it fell through because my brother’s ideas were too radical. Every time we were turned down, we rethought the whole thing, and it got better every time.
CG: Yoga has always been referred to as a science rather than a religion. How does your work confirm this idea?
FJ: In comparing concepts of science to concepts of spiritual tradition, I naturally have to deal with the question: “What is science?” I often have discussions with people who question if my work is scientific, and have answered critiques about comparing science with ancient traditions.
First of all, what characterizes science is a certain way of gaining knowledge. It’s not what you study that makes you a scientist; it’s how you study it. The Scientific Method is empirical and based on systematic observation. And you could say that yoga and meditation—many of these eastern traditions—satisfy that criterion. Scientists observe nature after years and years of training and discipline, the same as with Zen meditation or yoga. The intuitive dimension also plays a vital role in science, although it is not emphasized in the textbooks. Every new discovery is usually a leap of intuition at first, and then you work out the details.
The second characteristic is that scientific knowledge is expressed in terms of approximate models and theories, either mathematically or through words. Inherently, science does not describe truth, rather it is an approximate description of an experience of observation. Every scientist will admit that their theory is not the ultimate truth, and that it will be improved on in the future. Spiritual traditions don’t necessarily improve on the truth, but would agree that the truth cannot be expressed through words. It must be experienced.
The third characteristic is that the scientific enterprise is a collective one. You cannot do science alone. You need to have your research, experiments and observations confirmed by others. You need to be accepted by your peers. Although Einstein wrote his relativity theory in the Swiss patent office by himself, he still based it on the research of others and presented it to his colleagues. What the Buddhists call sangha is also an important part of science.
CG: When did the initial split between science and spirit take place?
FJ: This is a difficult question, and I don’t think it began with Descartes. Descartes was a deeply religious man and when he said that the there were two realms—the realm of mind and the realm of matter—that were separate and distinct, he didn’t mean to say that they were disconnected. He actually saw it as a triangle with God as creator of both mind and matter as the link. Actually, he was the first to come up with the concept of psychosomatic illness.
In many ways, Descartes was misunderstood. It was when the top of that triangle was cut off that we got the separation of mind and matter.
Newton was also deeply religious and included God in the picture. Now I’m not saying that we should reintroduce the Christian fundamentalist god into the equation, but I am saying that there is room for the spiritual dimension in science. Of course, there are many scientists who are very spiritual people.
CG: What is the difference between Eastern and Western mysticism?
FJ: I should preface my answers by telling you that these are things I have not thought about for many, many years, because I am really doing something else now. But I really did think deeply about these things in the past. I wrote a book of transcribed conversations called Belonging to the Universe with Brother David Steindl-Rast about science and Christianity.
The main difference between Eastern and Western mysticism is political. In the east, mysticism is mainstream, whereas in the west it is marginalized. Western mystics were often sidelined by the Church, persecuted and not taken seriously. In the East, mystics are revered, and their techniques of meditation and contemplation respected. But when it comes down to the mystical experience itself, there is very little difference.
When I went to India after The Tao of Physics was published, I was treated as a celebrity by high society and received by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the west, although I was well known in the counter-culture and alternative circles, I was not embraced by the mainstream.
CG: Is there a difference between Eastern and Western science? Or is it more global in nature?
FJ: I think science is more global in nature, although there are many contributions by Indian, Chinese and Japanese scientists from an Eastern perspective. Science will always have a cultural influence and individual style. It would make for an interesting dissertation to explore this further.
CG: How is your work regarded by other scientists in your field?
FJ: Since the publication of The Tao of Physics, the culture of science has changed significantly. Although my work is not focused on the issue of physics and metaphysics any longer, there have been more than a dozen books written along those lines. When I first wrote the book, I was often ridiculed by my fellow scientists, but now many of those ideas have become much more accepted and attitudes have changed.
However, through my later work, I think I may have actually been able to contribute to science. Not that I haven’t contributed before in my technical research, but this whole systems view of life is a complex view with many dimensions that are being pursued by various researchers. Although I do not belong to a science department of any university, I am still in contact with many scientists from around the world.
CG: How has the work of Stephen Hawking influenced science?
FJ: He has done outstanding work in cosmology and astrophysics, which has influenced science tremendously. He is one of the great figures of physics. However, his philosophical work and popular books are very difficult to understand and have not had as great an influence. Many people have A Brief History of Time on their bookshelves, but I wonder how many understand it.
CG: Please explain how the mind works as a cognitive process rather than just a mechanical brain.
FJ: This is one of the big breakthroughs of the new conception of life, and it goes back to the work of Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of Mind) who was one of two great pioneers who promoted this view. As you know, Descartes postulated two realities: mind (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa). And every since, scientists have pondered this idea that mind is a thing.
The big breakthrough is to see mind as a process, not a thing. And the process is called cognition, which has given birth to the interdisciplinary study of Cognitive Science The idea is that there is a process of cognition (Bateson called it “mental process”), which is essentially the same as the process of life and implies that all living organisms are cognitive systems, down to the simplest cell. Cognition is the process of life, and as organisms become more complex through evolution, the process of cognition becomes more and more complex. Eventually, there are vertebrates with brains. At some level, in mammals and maybe in some birds, you have consciousness emerging.
Consciousness is characterized by conscious awareness of self. And consciousness gives rise to language. The bacteria and plants are not aware of themselves. But a tree is aware of its environment and responds to its environment in a cognitive way.
CG: Does the tree have feelings?
FJ: That is something that has been explored very little. Feelings go way back in evolution to very early forms of emotion. First, you have to distinguish between feelings and emotions, which are a way of coordinating a response to a certain type of stress.
CG: Does a baby have consciousness when it is born, even though it does not have a distinct sense of self?
FJ: A baby, like a dog, has fleeting moments of self awareness. But the extended sense of self comes with language. As the baby picks up language, its sense of self expands.
CG: What is the connection between language and consciousness?
FJ: Cognitive scientists today distinguish between those two types of consciousness. The first one that I just described is often called “primary consciousness.” There’s a neurologist named Antonio Damasio who wrote a number of books on this topic. The best known is called Descartes’ Error, but his best one was written after that: The Feeling of What Happens. It’s a brilliant book about the nature of consciousness and how it is related to the brain. Damasio calls this first type of consciousness “core consciousness,” which is described as fleeting moments of self-awareness, a characteristic we share with all mammals. Damasio is the first to go into a detailed theory of how that arises, which parts of the brain contribute to consciousness, and so on.
The second type of consciousness is what I refer to in The Hidden Connections as “reflective consciousness,” that comes with language, self-reflection and thought. Damasio calls it “extended consciousness,” which arises with language. The connection between language and consciousness comes from the fact that all living beings communicate. As cognition becomes more and more complex, communication becomes more and more complex. And language involves communication about communication. It’s a meta level of communication that requires a kind of abstraction only possible with higher states of reflective consciousness. That’s how symbols and abstract thought are created.
CG: What about a cat’s meow and a bird’s chirping? Are they primitive forms of communication?
FJ: Cats are a difficult subject. I have endless discussions with my daughter about this. There is so much interaction between humans and cats that it is difficult to talk about them as animals.
But according to the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, birds and animals in the wild don’t really have language. They have something he calls “linguistic communication.” For example, two birds may communicate something, but they cannot. They cannot refer to their own communication in a reflective way. When birds see themselves in the mirror, they will attack, thinking it’s another bird. Chimpanzees would never do that.
CG: How is a mystical experience like a scientific experiment?
FJ: As I said earlier, both the mystical experience and the scientific experiment require a systematic observation that requires training and discipline. And it brings a coherent result. That’s the similarity. The difference of a mystical experience is that its purpose is not to provide a description of the world. Rather the purpose is to change the self, although a description of the world is a side effect. And this is why I can compare the two.
CG: How is understanding a joke like attaining enlightenment?
FJ: Getting a joke is like the experience of a sudden and intuitive insight, of seeing a pattern of reality that you didn’t see before.
CG: Do you practice a form of Eastern mysticism?
FJ: Not formally. What I realized when I traveled in Sri Lanka several years ago is that meditating isn’t what makes you a Buddhist. It’s the whole Buddhist way of life, the eightfold path. Right contemplation is one of the eight, in addition to right speaking, right seeing, right thinking, right livelihood, and all the others. In that sense I try to live that way, although I don’t do formal meditation.
CG: What do you mean by ecological literacy?
FJ: This has to do with sustainability. One of the great challenges of our time is to create communities and societies that are ecologically sustainable. This means that we need to be able to live in such a way, design our technologies and social institutions in such a way that they do not interfere with nature’s ability to sustain life. When you study ecology (and life in general), you see that the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is that it has sustained this web of life for billions of years.
Since the Industrial Revolution, especially in recent decades, we have interfered with his ability to sustain life in a very dramatic way. We are now destroying not only many species, but also what ecologists call “ecosystem services,” where the whole planet as a living system regulates the atmosphere—things like the Amazon rainforest, the ozone layer, the temperature of the oceans, etc. In order to redesign our communities and societies to be sustainable, we first have to know how nature sustains life. And that to me is ecological literacy.
There are a few basic principles: We need to understand that life has expanded on the planet not by combat, but through cooperation and networking; that ecosystems work in such a way that what is waste for one species is food for the next; that the energy driving these ecological cycles comes from the sun; that diversity assures resiliency. These need to be the guiding principles in redesigning our societies.
I’m a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and we are trying to bring ecological thinking into the public schools. We train teachers and support ecological projects like school gardens, creek restoration. etc.
CG: Do the Native American traditions embrace these principles?
FJ: Very much so. We use many Native American concepts in our teaching.
CG: How does ecology relate to spirituality? Is this the intersection of science and mysticism?
FJ: I believe that the philosophical tradition of Deep Ecology could be seen as the western equivalent to the eastern mystical traditions. It’s the kind of earth-oriented spirituality which is consistent with the ecological world view now emerging from science. Being grounded in the experience of belonging to a larger whole reflects a deep ecology awareness.
CG: How do you see the role of the Green Party in American politics? In international politics?
FJ: In international politics, the Green Party has been a huge success. As you know, it began in Germany in the early ’80s and has since become a stable feature of the political landscape in Europe many parts of the world. But not so much in this country, and I often ask myself: why not?
Frankly, I don’t have an answer. There are successful local green parties, with green city councils and green mayors, but at the national and state levels, the greens are not successful, which is probably due to the electoral system. What I discuss in The Hidden Connections is the worldwide coalition of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which I call the global civil society. Americans are contributing significantly to that movement, with organizations like Global Exchange, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund etc. And this really is green politics.
It’s just the Green Party that isn’t successful yet.
CG: What is the role of the United Nations in all of this?
FJ: There are now two kinds of global government: One is the U.N., and the other is the World Trade Organization (including the IMF), which is very effective but very undemocratic, socially unjust and environmentally harmful. In contrast, the U.N. is relatively ineffective but democratic. So, the U.N. needs to be strengthened, and the global civil society has plans to do that.
CG: The decade of the ’60s seemed like it would transform culture and society. Has that vision come to pass and is it still alive in the 21st century?
FJ: Absolutely. Many people, especially younger people, are not aware of what the decade of the ’60s was all about, because now it was a long time ago. To make a long story short, I would say that the main achievement of the ’60s was to create an alternative worldwide culture. The Hippies and the San Francisco scene was only part of it. There was also a European counter-culture, which was just as significant.
In the ’70s, this counter culture continued through the peace movement and the anti-nuclear movement, which stopped the Cold War. The Cold War was not stopped by Ronald Reagan but by Gorbachev and the European peace movement, which in turn gave rise to the Green Party. Today’s global civil society of NGOs is a direct outgrowth of the ’60s. And all these movements are part of its collective history.
An interesting observation is that when people try to assess what the ’60s were all about and ask where it went, many conservatives think it was a political movement that has been suppressed. But it was not a political movement. Rather, it was a cultural movement, and many of the values and lifestyles now accepted and embraced by the Establishment are what we fought for in the ’60s.
CG: What is the underlying message of your latest book, The Hidden Connections?
FJ: There are two parts to it. The first three chapters of the book are about theory. For the first time, I present a view of life that integrates three dimensions: the biological, the cognitive and the social. This new conception of life, which is now emerging in science, is presented as a synthesis for the first time. The rest of the book is about the consequences, things like globalization, and ecology. The subtitle of the British edition is: A Science for Sustainable Living.
CG: In your opinion, is the Human Genome Project a curse or a blessing?
FJ: I think it will be a blessing in the long run. It was a tremendous achievement and I don’t see it as a curse at all. It showed us that genetic determinism, the idea that genes determine behavior can no longer be maintained.
What geneticists have learned is that genes are only a part of a whole cellular network. So there is a revolution now occurring in genetics and biology where the thinking goes from the structure of DNA to the network of metabolic processes.
CG: What would it take to establish a “science of consciousness”?
FJ: This is already proceeding. There is a whole chapter about this in The Hidden Connections. The study of consciousness in science was taboo for many years, although certain psychologists like William James would talk about it. But since the ’90s, consciousness study has had a renaissance. Now there are big conferences on the nature of consciousness and there is a journal called the Journal of Consciousness Studies.
CG: How do you define “spirit” in a scientific context?
FJ: I’m really glad you asked this. When you talk about spirituality, it’s very useful to go the original meaning of the word “spirit.” In Latin, spiritus means “breath.” Another Latin word, anima, also means “breath,” as does the Greek word psyche , the Hebrew word ruach and the Hindu word atman. It’s quite amazing that these key terms for mind, spirit and soul in the ancient languages, all refer to breath. Literally, the ancients thought of spirit as the breath of life. Its a beautiful and profound metaphor because it’s the process of breathing that unites all living things. And it’s through this breath of life that we renew ourselves. It’s the very essence of the spiritual experience.
CG: What is the greatest challenge of the 21st century?
FJ: Again, I would say to create sustainable communities. There’s no doubt about that. Our long-term survival depends on it.
CG: What is the most meaningful accomplishment of your life?
FJ: I don’t know. Ask me later.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been published in the alternative press ever since. She was been a regular interviewer for Common Ground from 1992-2004. She has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993.