Physicist Fritjof Capra retraces 50 years of science and philosophy in “Patterns of Connection”
“Science doesn’t need mysticism, and mysticism doesn’t need science,” wrote Fritjof Capra in “The Tao of Physics,” his 1975 bestseller. “But man needs science. of them.”
Capra recognized it early on. The Austrian-American physicist remembers reading “Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science” by Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, when he was a young student in Vienna in the 1950s.
“A handful of physicists have seen themselves confronted with the reality of the atomic world, which has forced them to change their basic concepts, language and worldview,” Capra told The Chronicle by phone from her home in Berkeley. “This book was technical, but also quite lively and emotional.” In retrospect, says the author, “It determined the whole trajectory of my career.”
“Patterns of Connection: Essential Essays From Five Decades,” released October 1, traces this trajectory in a chronological series of essays by a man who continues to be a seeker of ideas. At 82, he has published more than half a dozen books since “Tao”. A longtime educator and activist, Capra is also the founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, and he continues to spread his ideas globally through a series of online courses called Capra Course.
Ahead of his virtual event at the Commonwealth Club on Thursday, October 21, Capra spoke about the evolution of his work and his worldview.
Q: How did “The Tao of Physics”, a book on physics and spirituality, become a dazzling bestseller?
A: I haven’t written a dry book on physics. I gave him an interesting philosophical and historical perspective. When people read “The Tao of Physics”, they realized that a change in world view had not only occurred in physics but in other areas. People said to me: “You said in your book what I always felt but couldn’t express. It happened at the right time; he is connected with the times.
This new book appeared as I was collecting all my papers and books for donation to the Bancroft Library. I spent several months going through my archives and rediscovered all these essays, (which) reflect not only my career but the history of social change.
Q: Writing in the 1980s, you describe “a crisis of perception, an outdated worldview, an inadequate perception of reality to deal with our overcrowded and globally interconnected world”. Can you talk about the paradigm you hoped to replace it with?
A: The formative years of my life were really the 1960s. It was a time of contestation and questioning of authority, and the so-called counterculture had no real alternative, no vision. consistent.
In the 1970s, second wave ecology and feminism began to provide a conceptual framework for an alternative. At the very beginning of the 1980s, this was expressed by green policy in various countries. And then, at the end of the 80s, the Gorbachev phenomenon. There in the Soviet Union, in the most opaque political bloc, there was a young politician who spoke of a new way of thinking, of perestroika. I was fascinated by Gorbachev. There was great excitement then. At the end of the 80s, we really thought it was a turning point.
But what happened next took everyone by surprise… the information technology revolution and a new, predominantly business-oriented global economy. This introduced a new materialism, a great lack of ethics in the business world. This took place in the 90s, and it took a decade for the alternative movements to absorb these new developments.
I would quote the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle. This marked the emergence of a new global civil society, which continued where we left off in the late 1980s. As I say in my epilogue, the shift from mechanistic to holistic is not a process. smooth. He comes and goes. There are backlashes and pendulum swings.
Question: You have long argued for the abandonment of linear thinking and the mechanistic views of Descartes. Can you highlight the successful efforts in this change?
A: Linear and mechanistic science has had great success since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (Bacon, Newton). This provided a fruitful basis for scientific research. But at the same time, the world has become more populated and more interconnected. As this has happened, it has become more evident that we all live in networks within networks. We discovered 100 years ago the network structure of ecosystems, and subsequently the importance of networks in all living systems.
Today, everyone knows that social networks are very important. … A network is a certain pattern of links and relationships, and it is non-linear. In order to understand networks, we must learn to think in terms of patterns and relationships. But this nonlinear way of thinking and acting is something that we are not used to, because most of us were educated in this nonlinear way. It is difficult to overcome.
Question: You wrote in the 90s that the decade would be “critical… because the survival of humanity and the survival of the planet are at stake”, and that “the 90s will be the decade of the environment”. Sadly, things have only gotten worse for the climate, and our collective response seems even more woefully inadequate. What will it take for us to pay attention?
A: We need an increase in the climate movement that we have now. All these youth movements – Sunrise Movement, Greta Thunberg, all these very passionate youth movements – are developing, and they are already in contact with a new generation of politicians like AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y .) and Jacinda (Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand). I hope that together they can make changes.
I realized some time ago that discussing climate change and what we need to do is not going to get us there. It is necessary to have a scientific point of view and to have good arguments. (But) the conceptual level is not the whole story. There is the question of values and ethics. When people have a certain value system, you can’t change it with arguments. The anti-vaccine rhetoric of “you can’t tell me what to do” is a prime example. If we continue like this, your children and grandchildren will not have a liveable world. We have to bring them to an ethical level.
Question: With Gorbachev and Perestroika, your writing begins to focus more on the crisis of political leadership. How would you rate current leadership – or the lack of it?
A: What sharpened my thinking was when I realized that one, the major issues of our time are all interconnected. These are systemic issues that cannot be solved in isolation. And second, we need systemic solutions.
For years, I have studied systemic solutions proposed by researchers and members of global civil society. “The Systems View of Life” (published in 2014 with co-author Pier Luigi Luisi) sums up this new paradigm. We could move towards a sustainable future. We have all the ingredients today. Why don’t we do it? It made me realize that we need political will and leadership.
A few years ago, a group of scientists in Switzerland studied how many trees could be planted on Earth without encroaching on living space or farmland. They took photographs of the space, analyzed where trees could be planted and what type, and how much carbon they would absorb. They determined that we have space for 1.3 trillion trees, and if we did, that would remove two-thirds of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Planting trees is not that difficult.
Corruption is rampant. Fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals (leaders of these industries) know very well what is at stake, but they have different values and prefer short term profits.
Question: What do you think of the recent surge in interest in psychedelics?
A: I stayed away from it. I did it 40, 50 years ago. I quit in the 1980s and haven’t been back. I am personally not interested in the subject, although it has been important in my life. I recognized the importance of psychedelic therapies. My basic view is that humanity has used consciousness altering drugs all the time, in all times and in all cultures. It’s part of who we are. The question is which drugs and how to use them wisely.
Q: In your essay on COVID, written at the start of the pandemic, you pointed out positive consequences such as reduced traffic jams, cleaner air, and thriving wildlife. But most of them were fleeting. Are we destined not to learn from our mistakes, or are you hopeful that we can?
In this essay, I asked “Are we going to learn the lessons that Gaia, our living planet, has presented to us?” Are we going to move from quantitative growth to qualitative growth?
Quoting Bob Dylan: “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. “
Connection Models: Essential Five Decade Trials
By Fritjof Capra
(University of New Mexico Press; 344 pages; $ 34.95)
Commonwealth Club presents Fritjof Capra in conversation with George Hammond: Virtual event. 10 a.m. Thursday, October 21. $ 5 general admission; $ 35 for the book and admission; free for Commonwealth Club members. Pre-registration compulsory. www.commonwealthclub.org