Fritjof Capra is one of the few to have individually budged the dominant paradigm: he did it with his seminal book The Tao of Physics (Bantam, 1976). As Capra explains in the following conversation, the focus of his attention has shifted from physics to the life sciences and systems theory, which are the subjects of his latest book, The Web of Life (Anchor Books, 1996). In his writing and activist work, Capra is committed to using the new discoveries of science as a foundation for both spiritual transformation and ecological awareness. He is the founder and director of the Center For Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, where he lives with his wife and daughter. We talked with Capra at his home.
Inquiring Mind: In the past several decades, the scientific revolution seems to have shifted its focus from physics to biology and the natural sciences. That appears to have been your path as well, from The Tao of Physics to your latest book, The Web of Life, which is about living systems and ecology. What pulled you away from physics and toward biology?
Fritjof Capra: I would have to go back to my childhood to explain my interest in ecology and living systems. I spent the first twelve years of my life on a farm in Austria, and ran around barefoot all summer. This was during and right after the Second World War. We had a self-sustaining farm, with a whole community, an extended family. We did everything: gathered the milk and eggs, churned the butter, baked bread, brewed the cider and the schnapps, pressed oil from sunflower seeds. Everything. So I grew up with a kind of visceral notion of sustainability and ecology.
In my adolescence, I got very interested in philosophy, and then mathematics and physics. Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy was the book that accompanied me through my studies. I became interested in the sixties in Eastern spirituality, and that led me to explore the parallels between new understandings in physics and the ideas of Eastern mystical traditions, which I presented in The Tao of Physics.
I closed that book by stating that our way of life was inconsistent with both mystical wisdom and with the ideas emerging from science. We had too great an imbalance—too much yang and not enough yin. I used the word “ecological” for the emerging new paradigm, to imply a fundamental connectedness and the sense that we are all embedded in larger systems upon which we depend for our existence.
Then I wrote The Turning Point, in which I explored how we might develop this new worldview in society. In preparing that book, I realized that physics could not be the model for, say, a new medicine, a new psychology or a new economics. In the late seventies I had given a lot of talks with titles such as “The New Physics as a Model for a New Medicine?” with a question mark at the end. That question mark became stronger and stronger as I did research for The Turning Point. I began to realize that I needed to look for another conceptual framework, because physics does not deal directly with the way we live. So I turned to the natural sciences and to the study of living systems.
IM: Extrapolating ideas about personal and social behavior from the principles of physics is a big leap.
FC: Exactly. But many of my colleagues still make that leap and feel it is justified. I think their main point is that quantum physics is confronting us for the first time with the limits of what we can know. We have had to question our ability to understand the world, and that is certainly connected with our lives.
IM: But your desire was to make the new paradigm more relevant to our lives in society and to our political decisions, especially in regard to the environment.
FC: That’s right. And to that end, in the early eighties, I founded the Elmwood Institute in Berkeley and then spent ten years organizing environmental conferences, think tanks, workshops and publications. I switched from being a scholar and writer to being an environmental activist. But even though I spent a lot of time working as an activist, I eventually began again to devote more energy to my research and writing, which ended up as the book The Web of Life.
IM: A book that is itself an example of ecological activism, in that it offers a theoretical framework for a sustainable environment.
FC: I hope so. The very definition of a sustainable society is one whose economy, technologies and everyday behaviors do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. We need to understand this ability if we want to get serious about building a sustainable society, which then leads us directly to ecology and ecosystems. Finally, it leads us to the most basic questions: What is life? How does it sustain itself?
IM: Tell us, please. In twenty-five words or less. [Laughter]
FC: To understand living beings, I think it is important first to understand the conceptual revolution that has taken place in scientific thinking. It has been a shift from studying things to studying interconnections. These two approaches have existed throughout the ages in our science and natural philosophy. The Greeks called one approach the study of matter, and the other the study of form. The study of matter focuses on the idea of basic building blocks—of structures, material components, elements, quantities. The study of form deals with patterns, organization, quality, and, nowadays, with complexity. These are two very different ways of understanding the world. The study of matter asks, What is it made of? The study of form asks, What is the pattern?
In science you need both approaches to really understand what’s going on, but the study of matter has generally dominated science in the West. The study of form became prominent every now and then in past centuries—with Pythagorus, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe and others. In our century, the study of form and pattern has again come to the fore in systems theory. There is no actual “systems theory” per se, as there is a Quantum Theory or Theory of Evolution. It is rather a language or an approach to understanding. Even so, I believe that there is an emerging systems theory, a theory of living systems. That’s what I am working on and trying to understand.
IM: The idea in systems thinking is somewhat akin to Buddhist thought. Nothing can ever be pinned down, everything is dynamic and in process.
FC: Absolutely. This is a key insight and is typical of the shift from physics to the life sciences. In physics you can pin things down. There are particles and forces. (Although when it comes to the subatomic level, you face the same dilemma.) But in biology, you have to deal with dynamic processes on all levels.
We have discovered that it is in the very nature of life to constantly re-create itself; a living thing is never static. A living being is called an “open system” because it is constantly open to the flows of energy and matter that go through it. This is what happens when we breathe, eat and drink. Flows of energy and matter pass through every living organism, triggering continual structural changes. Yet in spite of these changes, an overall pattern remains. There’s stability and change at the same time. That is part of the very essence of life.
IM: One of the current definitions of life refers to “autopoesis,” the idea that life is self-creating and self-organizing. Life mysteriously emerges from what we think of as dead or nonliving matter. Suddenly a piece of the universe puts a boundary around itself and begins to feel itself as separate— a “self” inside and a “world” outside.
FC: That is true. A living system creates its own boundary, but there is also a constant interchange between what’s inside the boundary and what’s outside. The boundary acts as a semipermeable frontier, letting in some things but not others. So the boundaries are not of separation but of identity and communication. Every boundary defines the system’s identity, but this identity does not mean that the system is separate from the world.
IM: So the boundary becomes a medium of communication and of connection, because the organism, whether it be a single cell or a human being, cannot exist without the flow of energy and matter from outside itself.
FC: Right. The whole process of life is really part of a larger process. In fact, it is not really correct to say that the process of self-creation begins suddenly from nonliving structures in the universe. It is more accurate to say that the process of evolution is always going on, and that its patterns simply become more and more complex. Scientists now recognize that long before the first living cell emerges, molecular structures evolve. At a certain level of complexity they form boundaries, DNA and cells, and then life begins.
IM: And then life evolves into this amazing complexity that we call the human being, which has the ability to recognize both itself and its interconnectedness.
FC: We have only recently arrived at a good understanding of how interconnected we are to the rest of life. After examining closely the process of evolution, we have learned that all living organisms are created by a combination of other organisms. Since the evolution of the first bacterial cell, new forms of life have always combined existing structures and patterns from those that came before. The famous microbiologist Lynn Margulis noted that bacteria invented virtually all life processes crucial to our own existence, including oxygen breathing, photosynthesis, rapid motion and fermentation. From bacteria onward, life has evolved by combining features and joining forces to create plants, animals and human beings.
IM: Margulis also noted that billions of microbes live inside us, stating, “The concept of the individual is truly arbitrary. We are all walking communities.”
FC: Now that’s a Buddhist statement coming from a scientist! From science we know that our body is a sort of ecosystem of other living beings—mostly microbes—and that we couldn’t live without them. I wonder if through meditation we could experience those other beings inside of us.
IM: We don’t necessarily recognize that there are other living organisms inside us. But we can come to a deep realization of how completely interdependent our existence is with many other processes—through focusing on the breath, for instance, or through awareness of the self-governing nature of our bodily functions, or by experiencing the innate, organic existence of perception and consciousness.
FC: So this flow of energy and matter that is characteristic of life is something that one can experience.
IM: When we step back from the mind-body processes, we see that they continue to take place without a conscious “self” willing or creating them. The breath goes on, the heartbeat goes on, the mind continues to plan and fantasize and do its dance, all without a “me” doing anything. What arises is the sense that life is living through us rather than that we live life.
FC: It is quite wondrous that we can experience life living through us, even at the level of cognition.
IM: Yes. But a question that remains, and seems to puzzle both meditators and scientists alike, revolves around the origin and nature of that which knows and the mystery of consciousness.
FC: The emerging theory of living systems, the Santiago Theory, says that cognition is characteristic of all life. It claims that all living systems are cognitive systems, from the smallest bacterial cell on throughout the wide range of living beings. As Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, the authors of the Santiago Theory, put it, “To live is to know.”
As life gets more complex, with multicellular organisms and eventually organisms such as ourselves that contain trillions of cells, then a much more complex cognitive system is also required. Beginning somewhere in the higher mammals, the ability evolves to create symbols from mental images. This is when language and conceptual thought emerge. So we can now have a mental image of something that is not here. I can think of my brother far away in Los Angeles and see him in my mind’s eye. Then we can create goals and values, project into the future, strategize, and choose among different scenarios. Self-awareness also comes with this ability to create symbols, because we can form an idea of an object and then apply the notion of that object to the self. It’s a whole package.
IM: The question remains, What is this consciousness? Would you agree with the cognitive scientists who say that consciousness and the sense of “self” are simply an emergent property of the brain, an epiphenomenon of the gray matter? That is a major divergence from the way we have thought about consciousness and self for centuries.
FC: As a scientist I would say that there is no cognition without matter; if you don’t have the material embodiment of life in a living organism, you can’t talk about either cognition or consciousness. Of course, you can then go a step further and ask, What is this matter? It is not solid, you know. When you look at matter on the quantum level, you see that there is only pattern and process. Mass is really a form of energy. So if you wish, you can still think of yourself as immaterial. [Laughter]
IM: It’s obvious that there are still some unanswered questions! But whether we’re material or not, in the Buddhist tradition, birth as a human being is considered special precisely because we have this complex ability to see that we are not separate, independent beings, but rather co-arising and interdependent with all things. This is a perspective that the deep ecologists would also like us to cultivate, but the environmental movement seems to be lacking in techniques to effect this shift of consciousness. You are addressing this in your eco-literacy project, turning to the education of children as a way to foster a new consciousness, a paradigm change.
FC: The Elmwood Institute I’d founded back in the eighties eventually turned into the Center for Ecoliteracy, which now fosters ecological education programs in the schools. Kids are a wonderful place to begin because they are open to understanding new ways of living and seeing things. My daughter, who grew up with recycling, simply assumes that it is the way to deal with glass and newspapers. She doesn’t know anything else.
Through the Center for Ecoliteracy, we work on the shift of consciousness through fostering an understanding of ecology and sustainability. We have built a network of thirty or forty elementary and middle schools in northern California in which we support two main projects. First, school and community gardens are a means to foster a knowledge of where food comes from, of sustainable agriculture, and even of how to cook meals. The second project focuses on water, involving the children in watershed studies and creek restoration. In addition to teaching children about the sources of our food and water, these projects foster systems thinking, an understanding of patterns and processes. Not only do the children learn about ecological sustainability, they also learn how the world and living systems function.
IM: You are also involved in teaching business people about systems thinking.
FC: Yes. I lead business seminars. People usually come because they have already read my books or heard of my work. I often lead the seminars with my colleagues Margaret Wheatley and Myron Keller Rogers. Margaret is the author of a book entitled Leadership and the New Science, and she coauthored with Myron a book called A Simpler Way. During the seminars, called “Self-Organizing Systems,” we explain theories of self-organization and complexity to business people.
One of the basic problems business people encounter today is keeping up with the speed and complexity of the business environment. They can’t easily handle all the changes. At the beginning of the seminars, I try to explain that most businesses today are not ecologically sustainable and that this is the main reason why organizations must change. But businesses find it very difficult to change. It’s not that people are resistant to change; they are resistant to imposed or engineered change. We explain to them that change is the nature of life and that living systems tend to self-organize. Once people begin to understand and relate to these ideas, a process of emancipation begins. The bosses, or controllers, begin to let go of the perceived need to impose change. As this happens, the workers become emancipated and empowered. The entire system becomes more open, flexible and creative. As people begin to grasp the systems approach, they also seem to find a new sense of self-worth and dignity.
Through all of my work, I have come to believe that, in general, a paradigm shift is always accompanied by a strong emotional component. I would describe that as the emotion of empowerment and liberation. And once we come to understand the process of life and how we are woven into it all, we can live more in harmony with its unfolding.