Review: Fritjof Capra's Latest Presents A Distilled View Of A Lifetime Of Work

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Dec 2, 2021 06:45 AM
Review: Fritjof Capra's Latest Presents A Distilled View Of A Lifetime Of Work Patterns Of Connection cover
  • Capra's latest is in fact a summary of the intellectual journey of this important thinker across the last four to five decades.

Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays from Five Decades. Fritjof Capra. University of New Mexico. Pages 344. Kindle edition: Rs 2453.00

Tao of Physics was published in 1975 and became an instant cult classic. Written by a physicist, it explored the parallels between the world-views unveiled by ‘New Physics’ and ‘Eastern’ mystic traditions. Author Fritjof Capra could have well become a New Age Guru. But he chose to go further into exploring what it all actually meant. The result has been a rich body of truly enlightening literature.

Tao of Physics opened the door but the rest of his works lead us through the path less-travelled - the science and philosophy of systems, view of life and cosmos.

Here one can read the reviewer's overview of Capra's works across his life.

The latest addition to this important body of works is Patterns of Connections: Essential Essays from Five Decades (Highroad Books, 2021); it is a distilled essence of a life dedicated to profound values that are eternal and common to not just humanity but entire planet.

There are thirty essays divided into eleven chapters.

The essays in the first chapter tell us about Heisenberg and his interaction with Tagore. It was ‘Heisenberg’s acknowledgment of the parallels between quantum theory and Indian philosophy’ that gave Capra ‘tremendous moral support’ when he wrote The Tao of Physics. Besides, the historical encounter of the Indian poet and the physicist further confirmed his own discovering of the parallels. Here, Capra points out that Heisenberg’s wife had actually recorded that the thoughts of Tagore did not make much of an impression with Heisenberg; nonetheless, Capra comments:

In my view, Heisenberg may not have been very impressed by Tagore’s remarks right away. But I believe that over the years, he absorbed Tagore’s expositions much more fully and that late in his life, when I met him, he had realized their influence on his thinking.
(p. 28) Kindle Edition.

In fact, Heisenberg in his remarks about Capra’s paper on the dance of Shiva wrote: ‘The kinship between the ancient Eastern teachings and the philosophical consequences of the modern quantum theory have [sic] fascinated me again and again.’ (p.29).

The chapter ends with an essay that traces the evolution of the 1960s rebel counter-culture movement in the West. Capra considers ‘the creation and subsequent flourishing of a global alternative culture that shares a set of core values’ as the most enduring and important legacy of the ‘60s counterculture movement.

This third essay in the first chapter makes for an essential reading for students and observers in Indian polity to understand the dynamics of the processes that went into the evolution of ‘new left’ and ‘green politics.’ Capra considers this ‘new form of alternative global community, sharing core values and making extensive use of electronic networks in addition to frequent human contacts’, as ‘one of the most important legacies of the sixties.’ (p.42)

One should remember that in all these, Indian spiritual tradition was one of the important components. As such, the decentralised left in the West is more receptive to Dharmic values than the rightwing. But what happens often is that the corporate rightwing appropriates the more fashionable and attractive left jargon and uses it to essentialise and demonise other cultures and traditions.

Then comes in the next chapter the parallels between 'Eastern' mysticism and modern Physics in four essays. The famous photomontage of Siva superimposed by particle tracks is reproduced here. This was actually part of a paper Capra wrote for the journal 'Main Currents in Modern Thought' in 1972, three years before the publication of The Tao of Physics.

The other two essays here, including a lecture given at CERN, belong to pre-Tao of Physics period. They show clearly the way Capra conceptualised his book. Bootstrap and Buddhism was published in 1972 in the American Journal of Physics. Thus, one can say that before he came out with the book for the public, Capra submitted his own work for almost a peer-review.

The last essay in this chapter was written in 2019 in remembrance of the physicist Geoffrey Chew, the originator of ‘Bootstrap’ theory. Chew's approach to reality influenced Capra as much as that of Heisenberg. Capra was associated with Chew and his group of physicists for close to 15 years. He considers these years as his ‘training in systemic thinking.’

Capra explains:

The bootstrap theory is a theory of networks of subatomic particles in which the properties of each particle derive from its relationships to the others. This is systemic thinking par excellence. Thus, from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, systems thinking became second nature to me, long before I studied its history and achievements and discussed them in my books.

The third chapter has two essays on the implications of modern physics. The first essay looks into the way the fundamental change in our understanding of matter, gleaned from New Physics, impacts social sciences, medicine and psychology.

In a way these essays form the preamble for the book The Turning Point, which explores each of these aspects in detail.

Next is an essay written in 2014. Here, Capra looks back at the eclipse of bootstrap theory, particularly with the standard model – which postulates fundamental particles. Capra finishes thus:

And today, bootstrap physics has virtually disappeared from the scene. However, if a theory of quantum gravity continues to remain elusive, and if the a priori assumption of the structure of space-time is broadly recognized as the essential flaw of string theory, the bootstrap idea may well will be revived someday, in some mathematical formulation or other.
(p. 108)

Sure enough, in 2017, Quanta magazine published an article which presented some of the latest developments at the cutting edge of theoretical physics besides observations made in the realm of particles. The writer observed:

Over the past year, bootstrappers like Hartman and Jared Kaplan of Johns Hopkins University have made quick progress in understanding how black holes work in these fish-eye universes, and in particular, how information gets preserved during black hole evaporation. This could significantly impact the understanding of the quantum nature of gravity and space-time in our own universe.
Natalie Wolchover, Physicists Uncover Geometric ‘Theory Space’, Quanta Magazine, Feb-2017

The fourth chapter deals with the synthesizing of the new vision of reality. The first essay pays homage to Gregory Bateson, a great ecological thinker and polymath in socio-biological sciences. Capra points out that apart from the fact that Bateson emphasized on relations rather than on entities, his teachings were more in the form of stories. So, the writing could not bring out the complete impact. The next two essays point to the worldview and values underlying the book Turning Point, as to how the nature of reality unveiled by ‘New Physics’ is initiating a paradigm change.

In the fifth chapter we have two essays. The essay written in 1989 speaks of the arising awareness of ecosystems and the increased concern about the looming climatic crisis. Capra wrote:

What you can learn from such a study is that the major problems of our time are systemic, as we say in science—problems that are interrelated and interdependent. In fact, the more you study the situation, the more you realize that these problems are just different facets of one single crisis, essentially a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.
(p. 140)

With 1990s starting, Capra gave a veritable vision statement for the decade which is the next essay, advocating ‘eco-auditing and of ecologically conscious management’ as essential tools for business for a sustainable future.

By 1990s Dr. Capra had been writing exhaustively on systems view of planet.

The next chapter is titled ‘Ecological Literacy’. Herein are three articles, two written in 1994 and one in 1997. Incidentally this is also the time when the Gaia hypothesis had come out prominently in the public consciousness. In one of the essays Capra enumerates the eight principles of ecology which are: interdependence; sustainability, ecological cycles, energy flow, partnership, fluctuating flexibility, diversity and coevolution. The essay briefly explains each of these.

A significant aspect of systems of view of life is the major contribution Russian scientists made to it. Of particular importance was Vernadsky, whose work in many ways pre-envisioned the Gaia hypothesis that came decades after his death.

In the next essay of the book, which is the first in the chapter seven, Capra deals with Russian pioneers of systems science. These are scientists not much known outside Russia. Capra brings this Russian legacy of systems science to light.

Included in this chapter is Capra’s 1997 Schrödinger lecture given at Trinity College, Dublin. This is an annual event commemorating the famous lecture that the physicist gave, which triggered the molecular biology revolution. Actually in 1996, Capra had come out with another seminal work – The Web of Life. It brought together some of the most exhilarating explorations into the phenomenon of life and harmonized this with the systems view. The lecture provides the essence of the book. In this chapter, the essay ‘Arcadia and the Science of Complexity’ (2013) is an important read. It is a lucid introduction to nonlinear mathematics and the mathematics of complexity and chaos and fractals. Capra writes:

The new mathematics of complexity is making more and more people realize that mathematics is much more than dry formulas, that the understanding of pattern is crucial to understand the living world around us, and that all questions of pattern, order, and complexity are essentially mathematical.
(p. 240)

The chapter titled 'The Full Synthesis' has three articles. The first deals with the integration of the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life - later this has been elaborated into a full textbook. The second article emphasizes the centrality of water in sustaining life. The last essay in this chapter is on the art of the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy - who also has designed the cover of the book The Systems View of Life. The article shows how the view of life that systems science is revealing gets steadily internalized in the realms of art and transforms into symbols and art forms.

The next chapter is on problems and solutions. This contains three essays including one written with respect to the pandemic crisis. In this 2020 essay Capra makes a systemic study of Covid-19. He writes:

If we can catalyze global leadership to continue such social policies, and if we can add to them policies that respect and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life, we may not only overcome the COVID-19 pandemic but also succeed in stabilizing world population and the climate, nurturing local communities, and restoring the Earth’s ecosystems.
(p. 293)

However, what we saw soon was vaccine politics. From corporate arm-twisting of countries to vaccine apartheid attempts at countries like India which produced their own vaccines, we witnessed some deepening existing fault lines.

The penultimate chapter is about Ecology and Ethics. There are two essays. In the essay on deep ecology written in 1993 Capra writes:

Deep ecological awareness is ultimately spiritual, or religious, awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.
(p. 299)

Subsequently when he points out about perennial philosophical traditions we find Buddhist, Christian mystic and native American traditions listed. The leaving out of Hindu tradition is not intentional. Otherwise, he does not have to speak repeatedly about the dance of Shiva. This is not a problem specific to Capra but it is a general trend. In fact, historian of religion Knut A Jacobsen has specifically pointed out this aspect even with respect to the discussions of religious dimensions of deep ecology in general discourse itself:

The fact that there is a significant influence from the Hindu traditions of religion and philosophy on the ecosophy of Arne Naess often goes unnoticed. The religious aspect of the ultimate premises of deep ecology (i.e., religious ecosophy) has been identified as belonging to Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American religion, with no mention of Hinduism. It has, however, been shown that there is a close connection between the ecosophy of Arne Naess and the idea of self-realization as conceived by Mohandas K. Gandhi, about whom Naess has published several books.
Knut A Jacobsen, 'Ecosophy and the Hindu Religious Traditions', 2000

Capra does write about Arnie Naess and his conceptualization of deep ecology in the book.

Also, the fact remains that there has been no systematic institutional engagement from Hindu side on environmental issues in the global arena, particularly during this period. Also, the West is more comfortable with Buddhism which has a historical anchor in Buddha – a messiah-like figure, than in Hinduism which avoids such historical anchorage. Perhaps the shift in deep ecology also has to happen from historic centricity to Puranic epistemology.

The last chapter with one essay in it , is on science, spirituality and religion. Capra makes a distinction between spirituality and religion:

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. ... 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. ... 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.
(pp. 317-8)

While such a definition is accurate for Western religions, in the case of Eastern religions particularly Hinduism and Taoism such definitions are not exactly precise. When proselytizing religions come and there is a reaction the above characteristics can be seen in natural religions but they are not inherent or fundamental to them. British evolutionist polymath JBS Haldane was at a more accurate approximation, when he pointed out Hinduism as ‘not a religion as this term is understood by the adherents of proselytizing religious beliefs’ and as ‘an attitude to the universe.’ Hinduism also emphasizes on the universal nature of the spiritual experience in which all names and forms get dissolved.

Here one should remember that the book has emerged out of the life-experience that has predominantly happened in the West and hence addresses religion in mostly the Western sense of the term.

The last essay shows how the exploration of the parallels between eastern traditions and modern physics led to a life-transforming journey for Capra and how he never stopped but naturally evolved with the flow of the expanding worldview. The essays provide an illuminating insight into this extraordinary pilgrimage of a life in systems science.

The importance of this book is vitally two-fold and hence this long review.

One is that it shows in a detailed way the evolution of the worldview of a person who is a pioneer in systems science in our own time and who is also a person who engages with the world at large – not confined to academia alone. In fact, he has brought us the best of what is happening in the frontiers of various disciplines and has woven them in a cohesive manner and has provided us with a standard to test our own values. Hence these select essays spanning half a century of a remarkable planetary-conscious seer is of great importance to us as children of the planet.

Secondly, as Indians we are in a peculiar situation. We are in a place worse than the Cold War. China is threatening us in all fronts. The left movement in India has ceased to be genuine and has become a puppet in the hands of various vested interests from China to proselytizers. The knee-jerk reaction would be to embrace what is 'rightwing'. This actually subverts Dharma.

The need of the hour is to bring to the surface of political consciousness the presence of Dharmic alternative in India. It has already been there. Whether it is Mahatma Gandhi, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Dattopant Thengadi – they all have been original systems thinkers in their own way and activists who defied the right-left binary.

The highly institutionalized colonial left in India has become an entrenched vested interest destroying the traditional institutions which are actually networks that have evolved through millennia. Not that they are in need of updating and adaptation to the changing situations. At the same time, we too have mostly failed in our discourse to follow the example leading to being easily and wrongly branded as ‘rightwing’. This autobiographical conceptual odyssey by Capra provides the needed framework and concepts to the Dharmic or indigenous Indian side to evaluate and reposition ourselves.

This book should be made a must read for every student who wants to serve society in whatever capacity – as a politician, scientist, artist and as a common citizen. Indian Government will do well to make available to Indian audience copies of the book at subsidized prices. The essays in the book should be made part of the syllabus in both art and science. Verily this book can be transforming for the individual and the society.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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