“Systems thinking has a certain simplicity and elegance to it — basically, a shift from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network…
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“Systems thinking has a certain simplicity and elegance to it — basically, a shift from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network… To deal with nonlinear systems requires a change of perspective from objects to relationships, from measuring to mapping, and this is why visual thinking becomes important.” ~Fritjof Capra
I recently had the opportunity to interview Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point & most recently The Systems View of Life (with Pier Luigi Luisi). Last December, Dr. Capra published a new essay on the relationship between Science & Spirituality, where he describes the central focus and theme of his work being “the fundamental change of world view, or change of paradigms, that is now [occurring in the] sciences and in society; the unfolding of a new vision of reality, and the social implications of this cultural transformation.”
In the following interview we discussed a wide range of topics, including the current U.S. election, systems thinking, spirituality, health care, ecology, mysticism, 1960’s culture, and a new course he’ll be teaching online, beginning this April. ~Christopher Chase, March 3, 2016
Thank you for giving your time for this interview. I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are on the current election in the United States. Have you been following the U.S. election and do you have an opinion about the candidates?
My feeling has been for a long time that nothing in American politics will change until the pervasive corruption that is built into the system is addressed. I had very high hopes in President Obama, and he has done many good things, but he fell short of our expectations because he was unable to free himself from the ubiquitous, institutionalized corruption. For example, his health, economic, and climate policies were significantly restricted by the bribes (“campaign contributions”) he received from the health insurance, Wall-street, and fossil-fuel corporations, respectively.
Now, Bernie Sanders is the only politician who addresses this issue publicly and persistently, and I believe that this is the reason why he has such a strong resonance, especially among young people. I don’t care which label people use to characterize him. What matters is that he alone is the candidate for “the 99%.” Robert Reich put it well: “Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate for the political system we have, but Bernie Sanders is most qualified for the system we need.”
I guess the big question is whether Americans are ready for more transformational change? You live in California now, but were born in Austria and lived for many years in other European nations. Are there some specific social, economic or environmental policies you have observed outside the States that you feel Americans would benefit from implementing or revisiting?
Healthcare would be the obvious example. It is well known that universal healthcare is offered today as a basic right by most European countries, and that those countries save money and keep people healthier. When I grew up in Austria, I never had to pay for a doctor or a hospital.
Now, this does not mean that private insurance does not exist in those countries. Most people who are well off have supplementary private health insurance. As so-called “private patients” they get preferential treatment (special appointments instead of having to wait at the doctor’s office, more luxurious hospital rooms, etc.), but the medical care is the same, and it is free, i.e. paid collectively by the tax payers. This is an ethical issue, and it is a scandal that the United States, with all its wealth, doers not offer universal health care to its citizens as a basic human right.
Yes, I very much agree, and hope that changes soon. By the way, as a scientist you began with an interest in physics but then moved towards systems theories, which span and connect all the sciences. How did your focus change?
My work in physics was more than an “interest,” as I spent 20 years doing research in theoretical high-energy physics (roughly 1965-85). My move toward the life sciences had to do with my parallel work as a science writer. When I realized the broader implications of the “new physics” for society at large, I soon saw that the problems I had become interested in — health, management, economics, social justice, ecology, and so on — all had to do with life, with individual living organisms, social systems, and ecosystems.
I then spent the next thirty years developing a conceptual framework that integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological dimension. This framework is a grand synthesis of a new systemic conception of life that is now emerging in science.
I published my synthesis, as it evolved over the years, in several books, the last one being “The Systems View of Life,” coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi (professor of biochemistry at the University of Rome) and published by Cambridge University Press. I also taught my synthesis in various courses and seminars, and I am going to teach the full-fledged version for the first time in an online course (“Capra Course”) consisting of 12 lectures and an ongoing discussion forum.
That sounds exciting. When will your course be taught?
The first Capra Course will be launched in April this year and will go on for 12 weeks. Up to now about 120 people have enrolled and we expect the course to be full by the end of March. I am imposing a limit of 200 participants in order to guarantee high-quality discussions. For more information and to see a five-minute trailer, please visit the course website (here).
Many systems theories seem rather complicated, and yet systems thinking has a cohesion and simplicity to it. I believe that its basically a form of visual thinking, using our imagination to accurately represent systems and relationships in the world around us. Do you think so also?
You are right, systems thinking has a certain simplicity and elegance to it, even though it requires a radical shift of perspective — basically, a shift from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. Now, a network is inherently nonlinear, and this nonlinearity is THE key characteristic of complex systems. To deal with nonlinear systems requires a change of perspective from objects to relationships, from measuring to mapping, and this is why visual thinking becomes important.
Taoist philosophy seems to be a form of systems thinking, and many indigenous tribal worldviews seem to be as well. Wisdom and compassion seem to flow naturally with such views. Do you agree?
I agree, and this is what attracted me to Taoism in the 1970s when I wrote “The Tao of Physics.” Now, you would think that seeing the world in terms of relationships would imply compassionate behavior toward other living beings. Indeed, this is true in the philosophical school of deep ecology, which is related to spirituality. But those values — in other words, ethics — do not necessarily follow from the systems view of life.
Many people are able to think in terms of relationships at a more superficial level. This is why I always emphasize values and ethics explicitly. In fact, in our textbook, Luisi and I wrote a whole chapter on science and spirituality, and I also dedicate a special lecture to this theme in the Capra Course.
The Dalai Lama has made similar observations. It always amazes me when people profess to be practicing their religion but support warfare, the killing of fellow human beings. For thousands of years this has happened over and over. Why do you think this paradox exists, that spiritual teachings of love are so often bypassed or ignored?
To understand this conundrum, it is really important to clearly 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. In this endeavor religious leaders and their institutions, unfortunately, have often become excessively interested in power, even to the extent of losing the religion’s spiritual core.
Yes, that’s a very important distinction to make. You’ve written a lot about how the new vision of science provides us with an understanding of the Universe that is much more congruent with spiritual teachings and mystical experiences, as compared with earlier mechanistic views. The story of how our Universe came into being and evolved is amazing. Knowing that the entire Cosmos emerged in a flash, for a moment smaller than a tea cup, how can that be described as anything short of miraculous?
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 — that is, incapable of being adequately expressed in words or concepts — and they often describe it as being accompanied by a deep sense of awe and wonder together with a feeling of great humility.
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, which I quote in the course:
“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 marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny.”
Einstein talked of the fabric of space/time, and yet many mystics have said there is no time, there is only an endlessly shape-shifting NOW. Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts often talked about this, Watts explaining that what we call time is simply our measurement of the cyclic movements of an ever changing Universe. Which view do you more agree with?
I was greatly influenced by Alan Watts. Especially while writing “The Tao of Physics,” his writings were a great inspiration. Regarding time, the most beautiful statement I know is one by the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, the creator of the space-time structure on which Einstein built his special theory of relativity. Here is how Minkowsi presented it to his colleagues in Germany in 1908:
“The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”
Physicist David Bohm said, “the difficulty is this fragmentation. All thought is broken up into bits. Like this nation, this country, this industry, this profession and so on… And they can’t meet. That comes about because thought has developed traditionally in a way such that it claims not to be effecting anything but just telling you the way things are. Therefore, people cannot see that they are creating a problem and then apparently trying to solve it… Wholeness is a kind of attitude or approach to the whole of life. If we can have a coherent approach to reality then reality will respond coherently to us.” I would expect you agree?
I do agree with David Bohm, whom I knew quite well. In my earlier books I wrote a lot about the origins of this fragmentation in the Cartesian split between mind and matter. In my textbook and in the course I show how systems science has now overcome this separation and is leading us to a unified view of mind, matter, and life.
Recently, I was listening to a really nice cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” The lyrics describe how “we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon.” It seems like a unified vision of humans as a part of the Universe rose into Western awareness back in the 1960’s. Why do you think it is taking so long for this holistic and ecological view to stabilize and for human cultures to become more aligned with the wisdom of Nature?
I love Joni Mitchell, one of the icons of the Sixties. But the line about carbon was added later. The original lyrics go: “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” I have often wondered why, after the hippies of the Sixties, the feminist and ecology movements of the Seventies, and the Green parties of the Eighties, we did not continue on that trajectory.
I have come to believe that the information technology revolution, in addition to connecting people worldwide like never before, brought with it a new materialism and a new capitalism that took 10-20 years to unfold before the counter movements set in.
In my view, our values today are about where they were around 1989, but today we have a powerful global civil society, a global network of NGOs that promote systemic thinking and the values of human dignity and ecological sustainability.
What are your thoughts about the role of the Internet at this moment in history? Do you get your news from mainstream sources or alternative online media outlets?
I use the Internet daily in my work and for informing myself about politics, cultural issues, sport, entertainment, and so on. I do read newspapers (e.g. The Guardian, UK; Le Monde Diplomatique, The New York Review of Books), but I get most of my information from the Internet via Common Dreams, Democracy Now, The Daily Optimist, and several other news websites. However, I am not active in social media.
Could you share your thoughts on spiritual practices and why they are important? I’ve been meditating for about 30 years and feel that it helps to quiet the linguistic conceptual mind. Our awareness is then more open to sensory information, less attached to beliefs. There is a deeper feeling of connectedness. I have friends who are athletes or practice arts that say something similar can happen when they move their bodies or are playing music. Einstein was a violinist and said that he often thought in music. Have you maintained a spiritual practice or practiced an art, and what role do you feel these play in transforming your consciousness?
The main thesis of my first book, “The Tao of Physics,” 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.
A further important similarity 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.
Now, it is possible to have spiritual, or mystical, experiences spontaneously — in a powerful experience of art, in sports, in sexual experiences, and in other highly charged emotional states. My experience of the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, which I described in the opening pages of “The Tao of Physics,” was such a spontaneous experience. For most of us, however, these spontaneous experiences are few and far between. To increase their frequency generally requires rigorous training in a spiritual discipline.
Like you, I have had many such experiences in meditation. For over forty years, on and off, I have practiced Tai Ji, the Taoist “meditation in motion.“ For the first ten years, in the 1970s, this was a rigorous discipline for me. I would begin each day with a set of stretching exercises, followed by a couple of Tai Ji sets (in the style known as Guang Ping Yang) and an hour of Chinese calligraphy practice.
These forms of meditation all embody the same Taoist principles. Moreover, during those years my Tai Ji master was also my doctor, keeping me healthy and in balance with Chinese herbs and acupuncture. So, the ancient Chinese wisdom was really a central guiding principle for me during that decade.
Wonderful. It sounds like your spiritual practice has had a powerful influence on the unified view of life you’ve developed and have been sharing with the world through your writing and teaching. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
The first edition of Capra Course, Fritjof Capra’s new on-line course based on The Systems View of Life will launch in April 2016. For more information please go to http://www.capracourse.net