Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Web of Life 1

Images Reign Supreme

Imprint of a foot on Donabate Strand, July, 2006
It would seem that we really learn through images and patterns.  Researchers believe that what we learn is laid down in patterns on the brain.  A former Professor of Pharmacy, whom I met recently at a scambio linguistico or language exchange between English and Italian speakers here in the Dublin central library, maintained that all languages are learned through the establishment various linguistic patterns on the brain.  A recent documentary I watched on BBC4 maintained that life recreates itself over and over by an inherent replication process - again what may seem at first sight to be chaotic is really at base a thrust towards pattern and order. For the writer of these lines it matters little whether one ascribes this inherent thrust to pattern to a deity or simply to an in-built quality of the very stuff the universe is made from.  I tend to the latter belief, but that in itself is totally irrelevant.  Whether one believes in God or not is beside the point. What really matters is our passion for life and our honesty with ourselves and others. In short, what matters both in science and in life is authenticity (an existential term) and congruence (a term central to psychotherapy), both of which mean that one is essentially true to one's own self or inner life.

The Image of the Web

Cobweb on Gravestone Cross, Rosrea, Sept. 2007
I have long been fascinated by spiders and how they weave their webs.  I have often observed for many minutes these wonderful creatures spinning their webs, catching their prey and eventually eating it.  All is done slowly and surely, bit by bit, the same thing repeated over and over, or replicated if you will.  Such inherent replication in matter and also in living creatures, the above alluded-to TV programme argued, is, in fact, the key to life  In other words, the very building blocks, or more correctly the very cross threads that are woven into a web are actually the key to life itself.

Some years back I read Fritjof Capra's wonderful book, The Tao of Physics (Flamingo, 1992) which was an exploration of the parallels between Western (modern) physics and Eastern mysticism.  In the book I am here commenting on, Capra attempts a new synthesis of Mind and Matter.  Here we have a highly trained physicist to Ph. D. level, with an interest in Eastern and Ecological thinking arguing strongly and convincingly for the inherent power in life without taking refuge in either religious or metaphysical metaphor.  He is not setting out to convert anyone.  He merely sets out his stall for us to make of it what we will.  Because he is such an authentic and congruent writer we are instinctively wont to accept what he says.

Fritjof Capra (1939 -) is an Austrian-born American physicist.  He is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy (see here  in Berkeley, California, and is on the faculty of Schumacher CollegeHe is author of many books on the connection between science and spirituality as well as on pure physics.  His original scholarly work was done in the area of theoretical physics.  The book from his pen that I am reading at present is called succinctly enough The Web of Life and subtitled A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (Flamingo, 1997)  It does not surprise me in the least that the great "green" scientist James Lovelock called this rich little book "[t]he first comprehensible account of life since genesis."  I have written about James Lovelock's Gaia principle in these post before. [see here and following posts]

Interconnections and Intersections

What I love about great writers, great artists or great creative geniuses like Fritjof Capra (one could add in so many more like Ken Wilber and James Hillman from psychological and therapeutic backgrounds and scientists like James Lovelock) is their ability to synthesize insights from different disciplines.  There are of course other scientists and psychologists who think in narrower and more "within-the-box" way, and these scientists and thinkers singly and collectively are important too as they push the frontiers of knowledge ever further into the unknown.  However, the great synthesizers are like conductors who manage to bring the disparate instruments together to play in unison, whether in harmony or out of harmony.

In his introductory chapter, Dr Capra manages to interconnect, intersect, overlap and allow to play in unison theories from a diverse body of knowledge, viz., theory of dissipative structures of  Ilya Prigogine - a theory which soon led to pioneering research in self-organizing systems in biological organisms, as well as to philosophical inquiries into the formation of complexity and its mathematics; then chaos theory, which suggests order behind seeming disorder (see this link for an interesting article on order out of chaos and a link with Aristotelian notions of science which apparently are not that crazy after all: here); cybernetics  (the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals); deep ecology (linked obviously with the Gaia theory of James Lovelock) and Ecoliteracy; autopoiesis ( literally means "self-creation," which, in short, is a system description that is said to define and explain the nature of living systems); Systems Theory; concept of Sustainability; the paradigm system, spearheaded by Thomas Kuhn, with respect to scientific revolution which involves "paradigm shifts"in it forward movement; moments of existential crisis and angst (philosophy); economic growth and crisislinearity versus cyclicality; sum of parts versus whole; deep ecological awareness as ultimately religious or spiritual awareness; the importance of persistent questioning of reality; ecofeminism - nature and fertility; masculinity, paternalism, patriarchy, control and domination; self-assertiveness versus integration; independence versus inter-dependence and finally ethics and power.  He mentions all these great concepts within the space of some fourteen pages.  In doing so he has sets forth his canvas and merely paints the background on which he will begin drawing the greater picture of the subject of his book, which is nothing less than the great web of life in a very bold synthesis of mind and matter.  

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