By Fritjof Capra, Ph.D.
A new conception of life
I was trained as a physicist and spent twenty years, from 1965-85, doing research in theoretical high energy physics at several European and American universities. From my early student years, I was fascinated by the dramatic changes of concepts and ideas that occurred in physics during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In my first book, The Tao of Physics (Capra, 1975), I discussed the profound change in our worldview that was brought about by the conceptual revolution in physics – a change from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view.
In my subsequent research and writing, I engaged in a systematic exploration of a central theme: the fundamental change of world view, or change of paradigms, that is now also occurring in the other sciences and in society; the unfolding of a new vision of reality, and the social implications of this cultural transformation. To connect the conceptual changes in science with the broader change of worldview and values in society, I had to go beyond physics and look for a broader conceptual framework. In doing so, I realized that our major social issues – health, education, human rights, social justice, political power, protection of the environment, the management of business enterprises, the economy, and so on – all have to do with living systems; with individual human beings, social systems, and ecosystems.
With this realization, my research interests shifted from physics to the life-sciences. Using insights from the theory of living systems, complexity theory, and ecology, I began to put together a conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension. I presented summaries of this framework, as it evolved over the years, in several books, beginning with The Turning Point(Capra, 1982), and followed by The Web of Life (Capra, 1996) and The Hidden Connections (Capra, 2002).
In my new book, The Systems View of Life, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, professor of biochemistry at the University of Rome, I offer a grand synthesis of this unifying vision (Capra and Luisi, 2014). At the very heart of it, we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network.
We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships. We have also discovered that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily organs, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. And with the new emphasis on complexity, nonlinearity, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.
We call this new science ‘the systems view of life’ because it involves a new kind of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as ‘systems thinking’, or ‘systemic thinking’.
The systems view of evolution
The systems view of life, not surprisingly, includes a new systemic understanding of evolution. Rather than seeing evolution as the result of only random mutations and natural selection, we are beginning to recognize the creative unfolding of life in forms of ever-increasing diversity and complexity as an inherent characteristic of all living systems. Although mutation and natural selection are still acknowledged as important aspects of biological evolution, the central focus is on creativity, on life’s constant reaching out into novelty.
The systems view recognizes that evolution did not begin with the first living cell but millions of years earlier with a process known as molecular, or ‘prebiotic’ evolution (see Capra and Luisi, pp. 216ff.). Our detailed ideas about this prebiotic evolution are still very speculative, but most biologists and biochemists do not doubt that the origin of life on Earth was the result of a sequence of chemical events, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry and to the nonlinear dynamics of complex systems.
In the systems view, the basic scenario of the origin and evolution of life on Earth begins in the primeval oceans with the formation of oily, membrane-bounded bubbles, known to chemists as ‘vesicles’. These tiny droplets formed spontaneously according to the basic laws of physics, as naturally as the soap bubbles that form when we put soap and water together and shake the mixture.
Once the vesicles had formed, a complex network chemistry gradually unfolded in the spaces they enclosed, which provided the bubbles with the potential to grow and ‘evolve’ into complex, self-replicating structures. Eventually life emerged from these protocells with the evolution of the DNA, proteins, and the genetic code.
This marked the emergence of a universal ancestor – the first bacterial cell – from which all subsequent life on Earth descended. The descendants of the first living cells took over the Earth by weaving a planetary bacterial web and gradually occupying all the ecological niches.
Driven by the creativity inherent in all living systems,
the planetary web of life expanded through mutations,
gene trading, and symbioses, producing forms of life
of ever-increasing complexity and diversity.
In this majestic unfolding of life, all living organisms continually responded to environmental influences with structural changes, and they did so autonomously, according to their own natures (ibid., pp. 134ff.). From the beginning of life, their interactions with one another and with the nonliving environment were cognitive interactions (ibid., pp. 141ff.). As their structures increased in complexity, so did their cognitive processes, eventually bringing forth conscious awareness, language, and conceptual thought.
Spirit and spirituality
When we look at this scenario – from the formation of oily droplets to the emergence of consciousness – the question naturally arises: what about the spiritual dimension of life? Is there any room for the human spirit in this new vision of prebiotic and biotic evolution?
To answer this question, it is useful to review the original meaning of the word ‘spirit’. The Latin spiritus means ‘breath’, which is also true for the related Latin word anima, the Greek psyche, and the Sanskrit atman. The common meaning of these key terms indicates that the original meaning of spirit in many ancient philosophical and religious traditions, in the West as well as in the East, is that of the breath of life.
Since respiration is indeed a central aspect of the metabolism of all but the simplest forms of life, the breath of life seems to be a perfect metaphor for the network of metabolic processes that is the defining characteristic of all living systems (Ibid., pp. 134ff.). Spirit – the breath of life – is what we have in common with all living beings. It nourishes us and keeps us alive.
Spirituality is usually understood as a way of being that flows from a certain profound experience of reality, which is known as ‘mystical’, ‘religious’, or ‘spiritual’ experience. There are numerous descriptions of this experience in the literature of the world’s religions, which tend to agree that it is a direct, non-intellectual experience of reality with some fundamental characteristics that are independent of cultural and historical contexts. One of the most beautiful contemporary descriptions can be found in a short essay titled Spirituality as Common Sense, by the Benedictine monk, psychologist, and author David Steindl-Rast (1990).
In accordance with the original meaning of spirit as the breath of life, Brother David characterizes spiritual experience as a non-ordinary experience of reality during moments of heightened aliveness. Our spiritual moments are moments when we feel intensely alive. The aliveness felt during such a ‘peak experience’, as psychologist Abraham Maslow (1964) called it, involves not only the body but also the mind. Buddhists refer to this heightened mental alertness as ‘mindfulness’, and they emphasize, interestingly, that mindfulness is deeply rooted in the body. Spirituality, then, is always embodied. We experience our spirit, in the words of Brother David, as “the fullness of mind and body.”
It is evident that this notion of spirituality is very consistent with the notion of the embodied mind that is now being developed in cognitive science (see Varela et al., 1991). Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body, but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.
This sense of oneness with the natural world is fully borne out by the new systemic conception of life. As we understand how the roots of life reach deep into basic physics and chemistry, how the unfolding of complexity began long before the formation of the first living cells, and how life has evolved for billions of years by using again and again the same basic patterns and processes, we realize how tightly we are connected with the entire fabric of life.
A sense of awe and wonder
Spiritual experience – the direct, non-intellectual experience of reality in moments of heightened aliveness – is known as a mystical experience because it is an encounter with mystery. Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have insisted that the experience of a profound sense of connectedness, of belonging to the cosmos as a whole, which is the central characteristic of mystical experience, is ineffable – incapable of being adequately expressed in words or concepts. Thus we read in the Kena Upanishad (see Hume, 1934):
There the eye goes not,
Speech goes not, nor the mind.
We know not, we understand not
How one would teach it.
This encounter with mystery, so the mystics tell us, is often accompanied by a deep sense of awe and wonder together with a feeling of great humility. Scientists, in their systematic observations of natural phenomena, do not consider their experience of reality as ineffable. On the contrary, we attempt to express it in technical language, including mathematics, as precisely as possible. However, the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena is a dominant theme also in modern science, and many of our great scientists have expressed their sense of awe and wonder when faced with the mystery that lies beyond the limits of their theories. Albert Einstein, for one, repeatedly expressed these feelings, as in the following celebrated passage (Einstein, 1949).
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science…the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
Spirituality and religion
When we discuss the relationship between science and spirituality, it is important to distinguish between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is a way of being grounded in a certain experience of reality that is independent of cultural and historical contexts. Religion is the organized attempt to understand spiritual experience, to interpret it with words and concepts, and to use this interpretation as the source of moral guidelines for the religious community.
There are three basic aspects to religion: theology, morals, and ritual (see Capra and Steindl-Rast, 1991). In theistic religions, theology is the intellectual interpretation of the spiritual experience, of the sense of belonging, with God as the ultimate reference point. Morals, or ethics, are the rules of conduct derived from that sense of belonging; and ritual is the celebration of belonging by the religious community. All three of these aspects – theology, morals, and ritual – depend on the religious community’s historical and cultural contexts.
Theology was originally understood as the intellectual interpretation of the theologians’ own mystical experience. Indeed, according to the Benedictine scholar Thomas Matus (quoted in Capra and Steindl-Rast, 1991), during the first thousand years of Christianity virtually all of the leading theologians – the so-called ‘Church Fathers’ – were also mystics. Over the subsequent centuries, however, during the scholastic period, theology became progressively fragmented and divorced from the spiritual experience that was originally at its core.
With the new emphasis on purely intellectual theological knowledge came a hardening of the language. Whereas the Church Fathers repeatedly asserted the ineffable nature of religious experience and expressed their interpretations in terms of symbols and metaphors, the scholastic theologians formulated the Christian teachings in dogmatic language and required from the faithful to accept these formulations as the literal truth. In other words, Christian theology (as far as the religious establishment was concerned) became more and more rigid and fundamentalist, devoid of authentic spirituality.
The awareness of these subtle relationships between religion and spirituality is important when we compare both of them with science. While scientists try to explain natural phenomena, the purpose of a spiritual discipline is not to provide a description of the world. Its purpose, rather, is to facilitate experiences that will change a person’s self and way of life. However, in the interpretations of their experiences mystics and spiritual teachers are often led to also make statements about the nature of reality, causal relationships, the nature of human consciousness, and the like. This allows us to compare their descriptions of reality with corresponding descriptions by scientists.
In these spiritual traditions – for example, in the various schools of Buddhism – the mystical experience is always primary; its descriptions and interpretations are considered secondary and tentative, insufficient to fully describe the spiritual experience. In a way, these descriptions are not unlike the limited and approximate models in science, which are always subject to further modifications and improvements.
In the history of Christianity, by contrast, theological statements about the nature of the world, or about human nature, were often considered as literal truths, and any attempt to question or modify them was deemed heretical. This rigid position of the Church led to the well-known conflicts between science and fundamentalist Christianity, which have continued to the present day. In these conflicts, antagonistic positions are often taken on by fundamentalists on both sides who fail to keep in mind the limited and approximate nature of all scientific theories, on the one hand, and the metaphorical and symbolic nature of the language in religious scriptures, on the other. In recent years, such fundamentalist debates have become especially problematic around the concept of a creator God.
In theistic religions, the sense of mystery that is at the core of spiritual experience is associated with the divine. In the Christian tradition, the encounter with mystery is an encounter with God, and the Christian mystics repeatedly emphasized that the experience of God transcends all words and concepts. Thus Dionysius the Areopagite, a highly influential mystic of the early sixth century, writes: “At the end of all our knowing, we shall know God as the unknown”; and Saint John of Damascus in the early eighth century: “God is above all knowing and above all essence” (both quoted in Capra and Steindl-Rast, 1991).
However, most Christian theologians do want to speak about their experience of God, and to do so the Church Fathers used poetic language, symbols, and metaphors. The central error of fundamentalist theologians in subsequent centuries was, and is, to adopt a literal interpretation of these religious metaphors. Once this is done, any dialogue between religion and science becomes frustrating and unproductive.
Ethics, ritual, and the sacred
Religion involves not only the intellectual interpretation of spiritual experience, but is also closely associated with morals and rituals. Morals, or ethics, are the rules of conduct derived from the sense of belonging that lies at the core of the spiritual experience, and ritual is the celebration of that belonging.
Both ethics and ritual develop within the context of a spiritual, or religious, community. According to David Steindl-Rast, ethical behavior is always related to the particular community to which we belong. When we belong to a community, we behave accordingly.
In today’s world, we belong to many different communities,
but we share two communities to which we all belong.
We are all members of humanity,
and we all belong to the global biosphere.
We are members of oikos, the Earth Household, which is the Greek root of the word ‘ecology’, and as such we should behave as the other members of the household behave – the plants, animals, and microorganisms that form the vast network of relationships that we call the web of life.
The outstanding characteristic of the Earth Household is its inherent ability to sustain life. As members of the global community of living beings, it behooves us to behave in such a way that we do not interfere with this inherent ability. This is the essential meaning of ecological sustainability. As members of the human community, our behavior should reflect a respect of human dignity and basic human rights. Since human life encompasses biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions, human rights should be respected in all four of these dimensions.
To spell this out in detail is quite a challenge, but fortunately we have a magnificent document, the Earth Charter, which covers the broad range of human dignity and human rights. The Earth Charter was written over many years, beginning with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, in a unique collaborative effort involving NGOs, indigenous peoples, and many other groups around the world. It is a declaration of 16 values and principles for building a sustainable, just, and peaceful world – a perfect summary of the ethics we need for our time.
To conclude my brief discussion of religion, I would like to add a few words about rituals and the notion of the sacred. The original purpose of religious communities was to provide opportunities for their members to relive the mystical experiences of the religion’s founders. For this purpose, religious leaders designed special rituals within their historical and cultural contexts.
These rituals may involve special places, robes, music, psychedelic drugs, and various ritualistic objects. In many religions, these special means to facilitate mystical experience become closely associated with the religion itself and are considered sacred. Thus, we hear of ‘sacred ground’, ‘sacred geometry’, ‘sacred music’, ‘sacred dances’, ‘holy water’, ‘sacred mushrooms’, and so on.
Parallels between science and mysticism
As I have mentioned, scientists and spiritual teachers pursue very different goals. While the purpose of the former is to find explanations of natural phenomena, that of the latter is to change a person’s self and way of life. However, in their different pursuits, both are led to make statements about the nature of reality that can be compared.
Among the first modern scientists to make such comparisons were some of the leading physicists of the twentieth century who had struggled to understand the strange and unexpected reality revealed to them in their explorations of atomic and subatomic phenomena (see Capra, 1975, pp. 52ff.). In the 1950s, several of these scientists published popular books about the history and philosophy of quantum physics, in which they hinted at remarkable parallels between the worldview implied by modern physics and the views of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. The following three quotations are examples of such early comparisons.
The general notions about human understanding…which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1954)
For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory…[we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted.
Niels Bohr (1958)
The great scientific contribution in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory.
Werner Heisenberg (1958)
During the 1960s, there was a strong interest in Eastern spiritual traditions in Europe and North America, and many scholarly books on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism were published by Eastern and Western authors. At that time, the parallels between these Eastern traditions and modern physics were discussed more frequently (see, e.g., LeShan, 1969), and a few years later I explored systematically inThe Tao of Physics (Capra, 1975).
My main thesis in this book is that the approaches of physicists and mystics, even though they seem at first quite different, share some important characteristics. To begin with, their method is thoroughly empirical. Physicists derive their knowledge from experiments; mystics from meditative insights. Both are observations, and in both fields these observations are acknowledged as the only source of knowledge. The objects of observation are of course very different in the two cases. Mystics look within and explore their consciousness at various levels, including the physical phenomena associated with the mind’s embodiment. Physicists, by contrast, begin their inquiry into the essential nature of things by studying the material world. Exploring ever deeper realms of matter, they become aware of the essential unity of all natural phenomena. More than that, they also realize that they themselves and their consciousness are an integral part of this unity. Thus mystics and physicists arrive at the same conclusion; one discipline starting from the inner realm, the other from the outer world. The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical toatman, the reality within.
A further important similarity between the ways of the physicist and the mystic is the fact that their observations take place in realms that are inaccessible to the ordinary senses. In modern physics, these are the realms of the atomic and subatomic world; in mysticism, they are non-ordinary states of consciousness in which the everyday sensory world is transcended.
In both cases, access to these non-ordinary levels of experience is possible
only after long years of training within a rigorous discipline,
and in both fields the ‘experts’ assert
that their observations often defy expressions in ordinary language.
Twentieth-century physics was the first discipline in which scientists experienced dramatic changes of their basic concepts and ideas – a paradigm shift from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and systemic conception of reality. Subsequently, the same change of paradigms occurred in the life sciences with the gradual emergence of the systems view of life. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the similarities between the worldviews of physicists and Eastern mystics are relevant not only to physics but to science as a whole.
After the publication of The Tao of Physics in 1975, numerous books appeared in which physicists and other scientists presented similar explorations of the parallels between physics and mysticism (e.g., Zukav, 1979; Talbot, 1980; Davies, 1983). Other authors extended their inquiries beyond physics, finding similarities between Eastern thought and certain ideas about free will; death and birth; and the nature of life, mind, consciousness, and evolution (see Mansfield, 2008). Moreover, the same kinds of parallels have been drawn also to Western mystical traditions (see Capra and Steindl-Rast, 1991).
Deep ecology and spirituality
The extensive explorations of the relationships between science and spirituality over the past four decades have made it evident that the sense of oneness, which is the key characteristic of spiritual experience, is fully confirmed by the understanding of reality in contemporary science. Hence, there are numerous similarities between the worldviews of mystics and spiritual teachers – both Eastern and Western – and the systemic conception of nature that is now being developed in several scientific disciplines.
The awareness of being connected with all of nature is particularly strong in ecology. Connectedness, relationship, and interdependence are fundamental concepts of ecology; and connectedness, relationship, and belonging are also the essence of spiritual experience. Hence, ecology – and in particular the school of deep ecology, founded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the 1970s (see Devall and Sessions, 1985) – can be an ideal bridge between science and spirituality. The defining characteristic of deep ecology is a shift from anthropocentric to ecocentric values. It is a worldview that acknowledges the inherent value of non-human life, recognizing that all living beings are members of ecological communities, bound together in networks of interdependencies.
When we look at the world around us, we find that we are not thrown into chaos and randomness but are part of a great order, a grand symphony of life. Every molecule in our body was once a part of previous bodies – living or nonliving – and will be a part of future bodies. In this sense, our body will not die but will live on, again and again, because life lives on. Moreover, we share not only life’s molecules, but also its basic principles of organization with the rest of the living world. And since our mind, too, is embodied, our concepts and metaphors are embedded in the web of life together with our bodies and brains. Indeed, we belong to the universe, and this experience of belonging can make our lives profoundly meaningful.
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Orginally published by Sutra Journal. Fritjof Capra. Dr. Capra is a scientist, educator, activist, and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society.