THE EMERGING NEW CULTURE
with FRITJOF CAPRA, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to talk about quantum physics and related philosophical notions, and their impact on our culture. My guest, Dr. Fritjof Capra, is the author of The Tao of Physics, and also The Turning Point, and is a member of the staff of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Welcome to the program, Fritjof.
FRITJOF CAPRA, Ph.D.: Hello.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, it seems as if around the turn of the century many developments happened all at once that really changed our culture -- Freudian psychology, modern art, quantum physics. Do you see these things as being related somehow?
CAPRA: Absolutely. I think, and I've come to believe, that consciousness, the collective consciousness, changes in certain phases, and this was such a phase of dramatic change of consciousness, a shift of the collective consciousness -- in art, in science, and in various other fields.
MISHLOVE: In your book The Turning Point you describe what you talk of as a new culture, a new holistic or integral culture, that's on the rise now, whereas the old Western culture, with its mechanistic linear models, is in a decline.
CAPRA: Right. I follow people like Sorokin, for instance, and I follow Hegel and the I Ching and various traditions and philosophical schools that have seen development of consciousness and of society as a cyclical process -- a process of fluctuations, of cyclical changes. And so cultures and civilizations rise, and then they reach a culmination point, and then they decline, and as they decline a new culture will arise and tackle new problems with new ingenuity and new creativity. This is what happened at the turn of the century -- that the old culture, which was basically the scientific culture of the seventeenth century, of the Enlightenment and Newtonian physics and the Copernican revolution -- that this way of seeing the world, in mechanistic terms, in reductionist terms, has come to a close and is now declining. And what is rising is a more holistic or more ecological way of seeing things.
MISHLOVE: You mentioned Sorokin, Pitirim Sorokin, who founded the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, one of the first and great sociologists of this century. He made the point that cultures are predicated upon ideas or concepts, that a culture revolves around basically a metaphysical principle. The old culture revolved around the metaphysics of materialism. Today it seems as if the bedrock of our materialistic science is quantum physics. Yet it seems as if quantum physics itself is no longer materialistic in the nineteenth-century sense of things.
CAPRA: That's right. What quantum physics has brought was a dissolution of the notion of hard and solid objects, and also a dissolution of the notion that there are fundamental building blocks of matter. When you study the smallest pieces of matter that we know, the subatomic particles, you can do that only when you have large instruments -- particle accelerators and bubble chambers and detectors and all these large apparatus. And when you then study the processes at the level of the very small, you find that you can only talk about probabilities. That's very well known. Since quantum mechanics we know that all these laws and regularities can only be formulated in terms of probabilities. But then you ask, what are these probabilities of? And you find they are probabilities of making a certain measurement, of these large-scale instruments interacting in a certain way. So whatever you say about the smallest pieces comes back to the large pieces -- can be expressed only in probabilities, in terms of the large pieces. It's sort of a circular situation.
MISHLOVE: In other words, everything is interconnected.
CAPRA: Yes, and it's interconnected in such a way that the properties of the smallest pieces depend on the properties of the whole. So in other words, whereas before we believed that the dynamics of the whole can be explained in principle --
MISHLOVE: By breaking it down.
CAPRA: -- by breaking it down, and from the properties of the parts, now we see that the properties of the parts can only be defined in terms of the dynamics of the whole. So it's a complete reversal.
MISHLOVE: And that's become one of the most fundamental scientific insights of our century.
CAPRA: That's right. In fact, if you go even further and ask, "Well what are these parts?" then you will find that there are no parts -- you know, the ultimate -- that whatever we call a part is a pattern in an ongoing process. So it's something that is relatively stable. Like in a Rorschach test, or clouds maybe is a better example, you will look at clouds and you will see, well, there's a chicken up there, or there's an airplane. It's because a cloud formation is relatively stable. But five minutes later it's gone, it changes. Now, with particles the patterns change much faster, but whatever you call an object or a particle or an atom or a molecule, anything like this, are patterns in an ongoing process.
MISHLOVE: So if someone were to ask you, "What is the fundamental building block of the universe?" like we used to have atoms, now we don't have any thing.
CAPRA: Yes, no such thing. There are no things. And you know, people in other traditions, like in the Buddhist traditions, have been saying that for a long time. There's emptiness, emptiness out of which comes all form. But the forms are not things, not isolated objects. The forms are forms of the whole.
MISHLOVE: In your book The Tao of Physics you basically make this point -- that theoretical physics resembles very much the kinds of things that the Eastern mystics have been writing about.
CAPRA: That's right, and which is now coming out in Western science. Physics is a very nice model case, and we know it pretty well because that happened at the beginning of the century, but it's now happening in biology and psychology and economics and various other fields.
MISHLOVE: In fact in your book The Turning Point you suggest that many of the social movements -- the ecology movement, even the women's liberation movement, these things that are changing our culture so much -- are also related to these developments in physics.
CAPRA: That's right, and they're related not causally. I think that's a very important point to make. It's not that physics influenced the feminist movement or the peace movement, but it's again a change of consciousness over maybe fifty years in various fields that is now emerging. So we have this definite movement toward wholeness, toward a dynamic view, toward a participatory universe where you don't separate the observer from the observed, and these various characteristics that happen in science and in society.
MISHLOVE: How do you think that view of things, this change in consciousness, affects people today, our viewers who may be professionals or managers or technocrats, scientists of various types, in their daily lives?
CAPRA: Well, it affects them very strongly. You see, my starting point in writing The Turning Point was the observation that the major problems of today are all interconnected. They are systemic problems; they're all interlinked, and they are in fact reflections of the limitations of an outdated world view. Now, most of our social institutions -- the large corporations, the large academic institutions, the large political institutions -- all subscribe to this outdated world view, and therefore are not able to solve the major problems that we have -- the problems of threat of nuclear war, the devastation of the natural environment, the economic crisis, and so on and so forth. So people who work in these institutions have a very strong sense that things are not going the way they should go, or the way they used to, and we need dramatic change. What I can point out is that this is a global phenomenon, and I can even show the direction in which this change has to occur. And so I find great resonance now in business circles, among managers -- interestingly, and I don't know why, interestingly more in Europe than here. I give seminars at European colleges for managers, in Switzerland for instance, and I talk to managers in Germany and Scandinavia and various countries, and not so much here.
MISHLOVE: And what are these managers saying, the ones who are interested?
CAPRA: Well, in the schools they say that you can't teach management the way they used to teach it, because the problems that arise today cannot be neatly pigeonholed as problems of finance, marketing strategy, research and development. Those are not separate entities -- again, very much the same language. We have to see things holistically. They talk about a holistic approach to management, and they also talk about the fact that a corporation or a company is not a machine but is a living organism. So you have to understand living organisms; you know, you don't take it into pieces. You don't develop a plan for the organization and impose it from above, as they used to -- design it, and then impose it. You develop it, you let it evolve, with all the coworkers, with the whole teamwork, and so on.
MISHLOVE: One would sense in the United States, with the Reagan administration particularly, there's been more of an effort to kind of rejuvenate the old values and squeeze whatever juice might be left out of them.
CAPRA: That's right. I think there's great materialism and opportunism in the United States. Also in the business world, you see in this country we have the legal requirement that you have to have quarterly returns. In Europe they don't have that. So although the corporations are responsible to their stockholders just as here, they are responsible to the stockholders on a yearly basis and not on a quarterly basis. Now part of why we find it so hard here to change things in corporations is they have this short-sighted view -- the bottom line in the next quarter. And so it's very difficult to make changes.
MISHLOVE: In other words, they can't plan the same way.
CAPRA: They don't even have time to think.
MISHLOVE: That's really quite a profound statement.
CAPRA: But nevertheless, changes are occurring in this country, just as everywhere else.
MISHLOVE: Well, one would think so, because what we've been talking about, these global changes of consciousness, quantum physics being a prime example, are so implicit in our system. You can't get away from them.
CAPRA: That's right, and the old system shows us such a spectacular failure that the experts in various fields don't understand their fields of expertise any longer. Researchers, for instance investigating cancer, don't have a clue, in spite of spending millions of dollars, of the origins of cancer. The police are powerless in face of a rising wave of crime. The politicians or economists don't know how to manage the economic problems. The doctors and hospitals don't know how to manage the health problems and health costs. So everywhere it's the very people who are supposed to be the experts in their fields who don't have answers any longer, and they don't have answers because they have a narrow view. They don't see the whole problem.
MISHLOVE: So one would hope, because of the urgency of all of these problems, that this holistic view, this systems view, will emerge, and people will see the patterns.
CAPRA: And I think it will. I think there is a very strong desire in the population at large for something new to happen. I remember when Gary Hart in the last presidential campaign came with this slogan, "New ideas." It was not more than a slogan but it really caught on, because people were really listening and being very enthusiastic and expectant. Now, he was in a dilemma, because if he had really said what new ideas are needed, he wouldn't have been elected, even to run. And if he didn't say, which he chose, the whole thing remained empty. So I don't know what he'll do next time around, but certainly he has a feeling of the fact that new ideas are needed.
MISHLOVE: It would seem as if in order to see things holistically, in order to see all of the interrelated pieces of the puzzle and come up with new ideas, it almost would require a shift in consciousness, just to incorporate all of these various perspectives.
CAPRA: That's right. Not
only a shift in consciousness, but also a shift toward consciousness, or
toward mind -- a mindful universe, a universe of consciousness, of spirit,
a spiritual, conscious universe. What happened was that even in the new
physics -- the new physics being physics, and dealing with material phenomena
MISHLOVE: In other words, the very viewpoint that physics is the bedrock of science, which I mentioned earlier, that will shift.
CAPRA: Right, right. It's outdated. That's actually a Cartesian viewpoint. Descartes said that knowledge is like a tree. The roots is metaphysics; the trunk is physics; and then the branches are the various sciences. Now we would say, if we want to use that, the trunk is life, and the whole tree is alive. You don't split things apart.
MISHLOVE: But for people, for example, working in management positions, people in their daily life, to make this shift as individuals, they must feel a little bit overwhelmed, having to now integrate all of this knowledge from all of these interrelated problems and interrelated disciplines.
CAPRA: That's true, and it's funny that it's easier for people who are not intellectuals, who are not scientists, who are not specialists. For simple people it's much easier, because they experience life as a wholeness, and they're much more intuitive rather than analytic and rational, and the intuitive mind is a nonlinear mode of functioning, and is a way of experiencing everything at once, and not splitting it up into linear chains of cause and effect. The more intuitive people are, the easier they will find it. So one way of making the shift would be to cultivate one's intuition and to awaken one's intuition. I think that's a very important point.
MISHLOVE: In other words, a portion of our mind that grasps things holistically.
CAPRA: That's right, yes.
MISHLOVE: Let me ask you this. I know you've dealt with this question on and off over the years. Do you feel that the new physics provides support for the kind of research that parapsychologists are doing, ESP? Is this at all related to your world view these days?
CAPRA: I think it is. I must tell you I know that you have done a lot of studies in that, and I'm not so interested in it professionally, just simply because you can't do everything, so this is the part that I've not devoted much energy and interest to. But I think one of the things that emerges now stronger and stronger, from physics and from other fields, is that the world is much more interconnected than we even thought in our holistic picture -- meaning that there are connections that cut across space and time, that are instantaneous connections between distant parts of the universe. That reminds you of things like synchronicity or precognition and things like that, so psychic phenomena would fit in there. So I think the new framework is much more appropriate and is much broader, so you could fit in these things much better. But I myself have not studied that.
MISHLOVE: Well, of course you do maintain that everything is related to everything else, so this might be just as important as anything else.
CAPRA: Well, you see, this is an interesting point. This is where you can say being scientific means you see that everything is related to everything else, but all things are not related in the same way. Some things are more related than others. By that I mean I can in a first approximation say, "These are the most important things." Then comes a second level, and then a third, and then a fourth, and I will go level by level. Of course I may be wrong in the way I choose my levels. But the art of being a scientist and of applying the scientific method is precisely to find the right kind of approximation, because you cannot deal with everything at once, you have to make your choices, and the art of the game is to make the right choices in selecting the right phenomena and right concepts.
MISHLOVE: And that I'm sure applies not just to science but to any profession.
CAPRA: Yes, especially when you deal with a multidimensional, multifaceted reality, you have to make your choices.
MISHLOVE: You've made a bit of a transition in your own career, from spending a lot of time doing research and writing to getting more involved in social action and other developments.
CAPRA: Yes. The Turning Point started out as a book about conceptual change and ended up being as much about social change as about conceptual change. Recently I've gone further in this direction, and I've founded an institute called the Elmwood Institute, which is sort of like an ecological think tank. We call it actually "a greenhouse for new ecological visions." We place ourselves between innovative ideas and social action. We are neither lobbyists or social activists as an institute, nor are we a research institute, but we want to build bridges between the two, and I have been very active in that.
MISHLOVE: What are the kind of areas that you are working in?
CAPRA: Well, the areas are all those that will facilitate the shift to a new paradigm, a new world view, a new consciousness. We're not an issue-oriented organization, so we're not an environmental group, we're not a peace group, we're not a social justice group, but we are all of that, because we see the various problems coming from an underlying outdated world view, and we want to facilitate change of that world view.
MISHLOVE: Let's suppose hypothetically that I were Gary Hart, and I was saying, "Look, we need some new ideas." Would you be prepared to present new ideas in the political arena?
CAPRA: Absolutely, absolutely.
That would be a very good case. In particular we want to bring people together
MISHLOVE: In other words, the leaders of the future, as well as the leaders of the present.
CAPRA: That's right.
MISHLOVE: To inculcate this kind of holistic perspective, one which can kind of unify the various sciences and the world of values.
CAPRA: That's right.
MISHLOVE: Do you see quantum physics playing a role -- well, I guess you've really said there's going to be a shift of emphasis into the life sciences.
CAPRA: That's right. Physics will no longer be the model and the metaphor for reality, but of course it's a very important case. It's now a textbook case of a paradigm shift that still can give us a lot of information about how these changes occur in science.
MISHLOVE: Are we learning something unique about the nature of life itself through quantum physics, or is it through the holistic view that we learn?
CAPRA: No, it is through a systems approach to living organisms that we'll learn something about life. So physics cannot tell us anything about that.
MISHLOVE: You know, there
are many people, Fritjof, and myself included, who get so involved in this
notion of the new age, the new culture. And yet when you look at our society
today, it seems as if the big institutions -- the corporations, the government,
the establishment structures
CAPRA: I see it as an evolution, and I see it as these large institutions getting even larger and more centralized, but at the same time becoming hollow, and in the end they will somehow distintegrate, and either change or decentralize or just disappear. Because I meet so many people inside these organizations who really have a feeling that things have to change, that they're not going to go on.
MISHLOVE: People are unhappy in the world of work. People like to feel more meaning and control of their own lives than they have.
CAPRA: That's right. And many of them would drop out of these organizations, and accept a radical cut in salary, in income, in exchange for a more meaningful life -- for working at home, and for doing things in a more meaningful way. I think you and I are both examples of those people, and almost all of our friends are like that.
MISHLOVE: But if you take the biological model and apply it to a corporation, as if a corporation were an organism, do you think it would structure itself differently? I mean, an organism has a central nervous system. Are decisions made within an organism any differently than they would be made within a corporation?
CAPRA: No, I think it's different, because a social system is not the same as an individual organism. So it is a living system, but it's not an organism. It's maybe more comparable to an ecosystem -- that would be a closer comparison. There are certainly patterns in all living systems, in the individual organism and the social system, that are very similar and can be studied. Also the corporation has three levels. Any kind of living system where humans are involved has three levels. There's the material level, so you have to talk about resources and money and all these things.
MISHLOVE: Which is normally where the discussion ends.
CAPRA: Right. Then there is the biological level, or the level of life and mind, and there you talk about the way people organize themselves -- the way small groups organize themselves. You talk about group dynamics, things like that. But then there's the level of consciousness, where you talk about values and ethics. And to really understand a corporation and develop it successfully, you have to understand the three levels.
MISHLOVE: I suppose organizations for social change would apply the same way.
CAPRA: Right, in any kind of organization, and especially in organizations that work for social change, the level of consciousness, where we talk about meaning and values and ethics, is the one that is really the driving force. If you don't understand that, then you will not understand anything of the organization. For instance, if you don't understand the level of meaning and ethics, you won't understand the peace movement or the ecology movement. And of course people who are conservative and in the old paradigm don't understand these movements, or the women's movement.
MISHLOVE: Yet I gather from your work with the Elmwood Institute, you expect that these grassroots movements will really be the vanguard of this new culture.
CAPRA: Yes, they and -- I've called this in The Turning Point "the rising culture," because they, in these models of Sorokin and Toynbee and others, will rise and eventually take over.
MISHLOVE: And I would assume that they have to base themselves on a solid value system, a value system that incorporates internal psychological reality and integrates that with the material world.
CAPRA: That's right, and you can almost pinpoint it with a single word, and the single word is life. It's the respect for life, the awe of life, the honoring of life, that has to inform our politics, our science, our technology, and our society.
MISHLOVE: Fritjof Capra, it has been a pleasure having you with me. That's a fine note to end on. Thank you very much.
CAPRA: Thank you.
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