The Nancho Consultations

Fritjof Capra

Nancho Lite
Sri Fritjof

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: You are perhaps still best known for bringing world attention to the confluence of quantum physics and Eastern mysticism with your book, The Tao of Physics. Would you give us an overview of its insights?

Capra: The world view which was changed by the discoveries of modern physics had been based on Newton's mechanical model of the universe. The model constituted the solid framework of classical physics for almost three centuries. It was a most formidable foundation supporting all of science and providing a firm basis for natural philosophy. In the Newtonian universe, all physical phenomena took place on a stage of three-dimensional space, space of classical Euclidean geometry. It was absolute space, always at rest and unchangeable. All changes in the physical world were described in terms of a separate dimension , called time, which again was absolute, having no connection with the material world and flowing from the past through the present to the future.

At the beginning of this century stands the extraordinary intellectual feat of one man: Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics. In two articles, both published in l905, Einstein initiated two revolutionary trends of thought. One was his special theory of relativity, the other was a new way of looking at electronmagnetic radiation which was to become characteristic of quantum theory; the theory of atomic phenomena.

His framework, known as the special theory of relativity, unified and completed the structure of classical physics, while at the same time it involved drastic changes in the traditional concepts of space and time and undermined one of the foundations of the Newtonian world view.

Quantum theory has revealed a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated "basic building blocks", but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.

The high energy scattering experiments of the past decades have shown us the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the particle world in the most striking way. Matter has appeared in these experiments as completely mutuable. All particles can be transmuted into other particles, they can be created from energy and can vanish into energy. In this world, classical concepts like "elementary particle," "material substance" or "isolated object" have lost their meaning. The whole universe appears as a dynamic web of inseparable energy patterns.

Our language and thought patterns have evolved in this three-dimensional world and therefore we find it extremely difficult to deal with the four-dimensional reality of relative physics. Eastern philosophy, however, has always maintained that space and time are constructs of the mind. The Eastern mystics treated them like all other intellectual concepts; as relative and illusory. Being able to go beyond the ordinary state through meditation they have realized that the conventional notions of space and time are not the ultimate truth.

Eastern mystics, too, tell us that all things and events we perceive are creations of the mind, arising from a particular state of consciousness and dissolving again if this state is transcended. Mystics seem to be able to experience a higher dimensional reality directly and concretely. In the state of deep meditation, they can transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life, and experience a totally different reality where all opposites are unified into an organic whole. The unity and interrelation of all things and events, a conception which is not only the very essence of the basic elements of the Eastern world view, is also one of the basic elements of the world view emerging from modern physics. It becomes apparent at the atomic level and manifests itself more and more as one penetrates deeper into matter, down into the realm of subatomic particles.

You are recognized today as the primary spokesman for "New Paradigm" thinking. Could you briefly describe the new paradigm and what it implies for our collective future?

Capra: The 'new paradigm' has to be understood from a western perspective. The word 'new' refers to a change of thinking vis a vis the old thinking that emerged in the l7th century. So, what we now call the "old paradigm" is a world view and a value system that dominated the European and American intellectual tradition from the l7th century into the 20th century and is still dominant today. This however is relevant to the entire world because western science and technology which incorporate this old paradigm have been adopted around the world, especially in Japan, but in other countries around the world, too. And so this change in paradigms is relevant to the entire world.

Briefly to characterize the old paradigm, you could say it is a mechanistic world view: seeing the world as a machine; separating mind and body; treating the human body as a machine as western medicine does; furthermore, it includes the belief in life being a continuous struggle, a competitive struggle for existence - the belief in unlimited progress through material growth, through economic and technological growth; finally, the belief that the feminine and the female is always subsumed under the male or should be, that a society where women are dominated by men and where all feminine qualities are valued less than masculine qualities is one that somehow is natural.

In contrast to this old world view and value system, the "new paradigm" can be described as being holistic which means it sees the world as an integrated whole, not as an assemblage of separate parts. It can also be described as being ecological in the sense of an awareness of the fundamental interdependence and interconnectedness of all phenomena; an awareness that all of us as individuals and as societies are imbedded in nature, are imbedded in cyclical processes. And this new way of thinking and these new values, I would describe as a shift from domination to partnership - domination of people, ethnic groups, nations, and domination of nature by humans - a shift from that obsession with domination to partnership among people, among nations and between humans and nature.

Another aspect of new paradigm thinking would be global awareness. An awareness that the world as a whole is fundamentally interconnected in terms of the natural environment, but also in terms of human society, in terms of the world economy, the world communication systems and so on. So, we need global cooperation to solve our problems. And in fact, our problems, our major problems today are global problems.

Now, I have presented this shift from one kind of thinking and values to another in a sort of abstract way as an intellectual shift which may be exciting to a lot of people, but you might ask, if you're not interested in that why bother and there now I want to link it with the problems of today.

And this actually has been my starting point in this work: to realize that the major problems of our time are all interconnected and interdependent. Problems like the threat of nuclear war, the devastation of the natural environment with its many consequences whether we talk about the extinction of species in the rain forest or the depletion of the ozone layer or the greenhouse warming. All of these aspects can not be understood in an isolated way or whether we talk about the persistence of hunger and poverty around the world - all of these problems are interlinked and we need this new way of thinking to be understood and solved. This is why the shift to an ecological vision, to an ecological paradigm is so important for all of us.

Do you see this shift as being something that is evolutionarily inevitable or something that we really have to strive at accomplishing?

Capra: I think that the shift is inevitable and we can see that it is happening. But it may not happen fast enough to solve our problems. For the first time in the history of humanity we are now faced with extinction and if we don't work very and if we don't bring all our passion to this work it may be too late. It's a very serious problem.

Paradigm shifts are not something that are beginning now. There have been several in the past - not too many but maybe five or six or seven in the past in human history. And sometimes they took a few hundred years and sometimes they took a few decades. And we could say if the situation were not so critical just wait and see what happens. But we cannot afford this luxury because the situation is critical.

The extinction of species is proceeding at the pace of one a day and the rain forest is being cut down at the pace of the size of a football field every second. And in one year the rain forest lost is a tremendous area of biological potential. And the ozone depletion is continuing and the global warming is continuing and we don't even know the consequences of these very severe global problems. It may already be too late. So, all we can do is work in a very focused and hard way to solve these problems and to shift to the new view.

What do you consider to be a realistic time frame for this to occur?

Capra: I think it will have to occur over the next decade. If it does not occur by around the turn of the millennium it will be too late. And this is not my personal view, but this is the view I have gathered as a sort of consensus from various people who really study these problems.

Offering truthful information and consciousness raising are considered powerful ways of bringing about social change. But despite increased awareness, the problems, too, seem to be increasing. So, it would appear that informing the public is an insufficient means to raise consciousness. Are theories and understanding really able to stop the momentum of destruction and if informing is not enough, what is?

Capra: No, I agree. First of all I agree that the problems have increased and this is because when a certain type of activity has been set in motion, has been going on for a long time, the problem will continue to get worse even if you change your views and your values and partly your activities. It will take a long time and the problems will get worse for several more years before the situation will hopefully turn around. I also agree that education and thinking are not enough. We have to move to action.

In addition to action it seems we are in need of some sort of spiritual awakening to accompany this transition into the new age; to set in motion the new paradigm. You say that the magical era of the '60s had the most dramatic impact in forming your world view. Will the '60s people or at least their values rise again?

Capra: Well, I think they are. These values have never disappeared. They have been eclispsed temporarily with a rather surprising rise of materialism over the past five or ten years. The whole "yuppie" phenomenon was that kind of materialism. And I think this has now peaked and is on its decline and with the dramatic rise of environmental awareness over the last few years, I think the values of the '60s generation will come into the foreground much stronger. But also with a big difference because in the 60s, we had not really worked out an alternative vision. We were critical of society and we sort of embodied our process and embodied the values in our lifestyles. But the lifestyles were very largely utopian lifestyles and now we can be much more realistic because we have decades of experience, both practical and theoretical, and so we can really turn this vision into a practical reality now.

Basically, looking back at the '60s I would say that two or three kinds of framework have been developed during the last few decades for expressing the alternative vision; frameworks that were not available in the '60s. One is the feminist framework.

Feminist awareness did exist in the '60s but there was no real framework of a really comprehensive feminist critique and alternatives. And the other one is the ecological framework. Again, there was already an environmental movement beginning in the '60s but ecological awareness has really been grounded during the whole decade of the '70s. The two also have merged to some degree and we in America now often speak about eco-feminism as the combined awareness of the ecological vision and the feminist vision. And the third one I would say is global awareness, which is younger and did not exist very much in the '70s but developed throughout the '80s.

Another big difference to the '60s is that we now have political manifestations of realizing this vision and applying the values of the '60s and '70s to the politics of the '80s and '90s. That's the "Green Movement". The Green Movement began around l980 and has spread around the world. So, we now not only have the theoretical framework but we also have political structures which allow us to carry out these actions.

What do you consider to be the most important ways to break down the barriers between people?

Capra: I want to emphasize that spiritual awareness is at the very center of the new paradigm. And the way I see it is that deep ecological awareness, in its deepest essence, is spiritual because the very essence of spiritual experience is the experience of being connected to the cosmos as a whole and so this sense of connectedness, this sense of embeddedness which is also the very essence of ecological awareness constitutes the spiritual grounding of the new paradigm.

As you have observed many elements of the new paradigm seem to correspond to ancient eastern values and the best of man's earlier traditions. Why didn't these values have staying power the first time around? What's going on? How are we moving in our evolutionary direction - backwards?

Capra: No, I think that evolution, human evolution, human cultural evolution is not a linear process. It's a process that goes in cycles and there are many historians who have studied those cycles - Arnold Toynbee, for instance, is one of them or Patiram Saroken is another one, Spengler is another one, Hegel, of course in philosophy - there are many people who have studied this and who agree that cultural evolution occurs in these cycles.

It's sort of like the swing of a pendulum, it goes back and forth. And now we have gone too far in one direction. I think what we now call the old paradigm was very necessary in the l7th century: the achievements of Descartes and Newton were very necessary and were as revolutionary in their time as ecological thinking is today. They, too, were fighting an establishment that was holding on to outdated views. In those days it was the church and the outdated views were the views of Aristotle and scholasticism and so on. And so, these values tend to fluctuate and to shift. You cannot speak of a linear evolution.

But I also want to add that these considerations are very difficult and subtle questions that are not easy to answer. How does humanity evolve? Why are certain values in the background at certain times and in the foreground at others? Why are they in the background in certain cultures and in the foreground in others? Those are not easy questions to answer.

But basically aren't you hoping to move toward the kinds of philosphies that have been preponderant in the East for centuries?

Capra: Yes, absolutely. That's how I started my work. In "The Tao of Physics" I connected contemporary physics and Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism, to show the concepts of the new paradigm in physics are in remarkable agreement with the basic concepts of these ancient, spiritual traditions.

More generally, you could say they are in agreement with the perennial philosophy that existed around the world in various cultures. When I wrote "The Tao of Physics" I did not understand the background, the context of this agreement, I understand it now much better. And the context as I have indicated before that the new world view that is now emerging from science and is promoted in society by various grassroots movements is a fundamentally ecological world view. And that is also true of the world view of the perennial philosophy.

A lot of these philosophies were richly represented in pre-industrial Japan. What role do you see for modern, industrial technologically developed Japan in this transformation?

Capra: I see a key role for Japan because the more holistic, ecological traditions were not just presented in pre-industrial Japan but are still existent in Japan to some degree, to a stronger degree than they are in the West. I would say in America, the equivalent or similar traditions would be the Native American traditions - the traditions of American Indians. But they are much more cut off from the mainstream and are also much weaker today unfortunately. And so, it is more difficult for Americans to gain access to their own native traditions, indigenous traditions than it is for Japanese.

On the other hand, Japan is one of the most powerful nations in the world - economically, certainly - and therefore has a tremendous responsibility because by applying western science and technology, old paradigm science and old paradigm technology, Japan, like other countries around the world contributes to the global problems in a very strong way. And at the same time, Japan has the power to change its ways and has shown that dramatic changes can occur in Japan within a relatively short time. For instance, the fight against pollution in Japan has been very striking and exemplary. So, I think there is a great potential in this country. So, I see quite a unique role.

You've also been a proponent of living systems theory, especially the global systems theory now commonly known as Gaia. How does the Gaia concept help to promote new paradigm thinking?

Capra: First of all there are two aspects. There is a scientific aspect to it and then there is a broader, emotional and spiritual aspect. The scientific aspect is a theory, a hypothesis that says we can understand the planet as a whole only if we can understand it as a living system.

So, this entire planet is a living system, a living organism, if you want to put it in a more popular way but that's not exactly correct because there is a difference between an organism and other kinds of living systems. It's more like a eco-system, a planetary living eco-system. And so, you can show this scientifically. To understand the various processes, planetary global processes, you need this kind of approach.

Then from a broader point of view, I think there's a very strong emotional charge implied by the term Gaia and I think this was consciously chosen by James Lovelock to associate the planet with the ancient Greek earth goddess and therefore to give this hypothesis a spiritual dimension. The reverence for nature that is characteristic of traditional cultures, of tribal, indigenous cultures needs to be extended to the entire planet and I think this will give us a very powerful motivation to all of us around the world to help save the planet and maintain its beauty.

In your book, "Uncommon Wisdom", you describe your meetings with some of the greatest minds in a multitude of disciplines. How have you been able to synthesize all of those different views into a single holistic way of thinking and acting and doing?

Capra: Well, this has been a long process and in the book I also describe this process - I describe the difficulties, the challenges, the work over many years that it took me to synthesize their views and I have the kind of mind that is interested in doing just that - synthesizing views, making connections between various ideas and various traditions and I have worked on this now for over fifteen years. It's a very long concentrated work that is continuing. I am fortunate to continue to be able to meet very outstanding people and to be able to again synthesize their views. But I want to emphasize also to the readers of my book, "Uncommon Wisdom" that most of the work that I do is, you know, hard work at home. I don't always sit around in beautiful restaurants with interesting people and have exciting conversations. I'm fortunate to do this some of the time but the overwhelming part of my time is spent in hard work at home.

Using Gregory Bateson's terminology you wrote about the pattern that connects. Have you found that pattern amongst all these various people?

Capra: Yes, absolutely. That really is my work to show connecting patterns and to show the communality of the views and values they present. Now, of course, I expect you to ask, what is this pattern and I would say it is the ecological vision of the world and you can summarize it by saying that as far as...maybe I should interrupt myself here and say what I mean by a paradigm. We have been talking about a paradigm and a change of paradigm and I use it in a similar way to using world view but it's more than a world view. It's a world view, a value system and also a set of practices. So, it's a constellation of perceptions, concepts, values and practices.

As far as the concepts are concerned and the perceptions are concerned I would say the ecological vision of the world is really what it's all about -- to see the world as an interconnected and interdependent whole; to see ourselves embedded in the cyclical processes in nature and all that that it implies.

As far as values are concerned again, as I said before it is a shift from domination to partnership in all these various areas.

And as far as action or practice is concerned I would say that the key goal that we have is to build a sustainable future and that is an extremely important concept -- the concept of sustainablity. It has been defined by Lester Brown, the founder of the World Watch Institute. He defined a sustainable society as a society that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations. And this is what we need.

Our society, our business world, our economy, our politics and our various other social institutions are driven by the concept of efficiency. Efficiency is to maximize production with a minimal imput of time, of labor and of money. And in this we have been very successful. But this is precisely what is destroying the world - our success in being efficient in that sense. So, we need to shift from efficiency to sustainabilty.

And when it comes to sustainabilty we have to ask when we use energy, for instance, not just how much energy we use but where does it come from and what does it destroy or not destroy in its production? Does it come from a renewable or non-renewable source? When we produce other things, furniture, we ask where does the wood come from and does it destroy part of an ecosystem or doesn't it destroy? So, in all these questions we have to look into the future and say what does this mean for future generations? If we go on with a certain project for generations - where will we end up? Is the environment in which we are working sustainable or is it not sustainable? So, I think sustainability is a key concept and again, I come back to this again and again, I would add global to it. So, global sustainability is something we have to aim for.

It is fairly easy, especially for a country like Japan, to create a sustainable Japan at the expense of the oceans and the forests around the world and other peoples. Of course, in the long run it will destroy Japan also. But for the next two decades Japan or the United States could create a sustainable society at the expense of others. And this is what these superpowers are doing and so we have to change from national sustainability to global sustainability. So, I would say that global sustainability would be the key as far as practice and action is concerned.

Can global sustainability be achieved without a sense of global empathy?

Capra: No. That is very important. And I think we have sort of gone around the whole area and all of these aspects that we touched on in this conversation are of equal importance. You cannot have sustainability without ecological awareness. You cannot have that ultimately without a spiritual grounding which has empathy as its emotional component. In Buddhism, it is called compassion. That is the emotional, the empathical component of ecological awareness. So, all of these various aspects imply one another and are interdependent.

Do you think that having had a child changed your perception of the urgent need for this transformation?

Capra: Yes, it has. I wouldn't say it has changed the perception. I had this perception already before but it has changed my engagement and my emotional involvement. And also it has changed my style of presentation because I often say in my lectures now that when I talk about sustainability that what we're trying to do is to build a world for our children and their children. Or when I talk about the critical nature of the problems I often say that I would like my daughter to be able to breathe when she is twenty. And that really captures the crucial urgency of the problems of today. So, having a child has changed my engagement very much.

At the same time, of course, this is a paradox, because having a child I have less time to do this work. I want to do it more and I have less time because I want to spend time with my daughter and my family. But it certainly has influenced my motivation and the emotional charge that I bring to my work.

You often have asked yourself in your writing, how is it possible to transcend thinking without losing your commitment to science. Have you arrived at an answer that is satisfactory for your life work?

Capra: Yes, I have been able over the last 20 years to function in modes of consciousness that transcend, clearly transcend thinking. I wouldn't say that I have gone very far in this direction but certainly I am able to function in modes that do not involve analytical reasoning. I always go back to analytical reasoning and so I can shift back and forth between these states of consciousnes. And when I speak or write or when I do my work of public education, I very much do it with the mind of a scientist. But I also do it as I just said with an emotional charge and with more than just the rational mind.

- End -

Nancho Rep: Kathy Arlyn Sokol

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