Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Web of Life 3

Perceptions and Paradigms

Sunset, Howth Harbour, September, 2003
Last week as a staff we had an interesting talk from a life coach.  He started off with a visual puzzle which asked the audience to view a picture puzzle - made up of black shapes on a whit background.  We were asked to turn our page face down as soon as we saw the solution to the puzzle.  Some few of the staff got it almost immediately, while I was one of the slower ones to see the answer.  The whole thing was about perception.  I kept trying to see a pattern in the black shapes against a white background, whereas the puzzle was a perceptual one which presented a series of three letters, one word in white letters against a black background. Our reality is as we perceive it.  Linked in with this is the popular piece of wisdom that we see the world not as it is but as we are.  This quotation, I have noticed has been variously attributed to the Talmud, Anais Nin, Charles Lamb and even Steven R. Covey.  While its provenance may remain somewhat unclear its meaning is patently obvious: we have no choice but to see the world through our own eyes, which indeed can be blinkered in many various ways by upbringing, bias and prejudice, and certainly by perception.  So, we literally fail to see other possibilities in life.  Our life coach told us to wake up, to wake up and become aware that there are other ways of seeing the world other than our own. 

Perception is our biggest block to potential, so argued our coach.  If I can learn to see the world and indeed myself from a different angle, I will be able to take the risk to come out of my comfort zone, and begin to do things that will expand that zone rather than leaving it as it is or shrinking it through growing fears..

Dr Fritjof Capra is arguing essentially that as a collectivity we humans must also change our perception of the world.  The old perceptions, while in some certain senses still valuable and true, are simply no longer adequate to deal with the complex nature of the interconnectedness of the Web of Life.  The new perception which we need is nothing short of a change in paradigm - in our collective ways of thinking.  It is to this notion of paradigm that I wish now to turn my thoughts and considerations.


The historian of science Professor Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm thus: "a constellation of achievements - concepts, values, techniques, etc., - shared by a scientific community, and used by that community to define legitimate problems and solutions." (Quoted The Web of Life, p. 5)  The ancient astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, (AD 90 – c. AD 168) , who was a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt and who wrote his books in Greek, had argued that our solar system was geocentric, that is, that our world was the centre of it.  His Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of his book, the Almagest,  to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to compute the dimensions of the universe. He estimated the Sun was at an average distance of 1210 Earth radii while the radius of the sphere of the fixed stars was 20,000 times the radius of the Earth  (See here: WIKI)   In other words, the Ptolemaic system was a Paradigm which remained valid until the era of Copernicus some 13 centuries later.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –  1543) was a Renaissance astronomer and the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology which displaced the Earth from the center of the solar system and placed the sun firmly there.  In other words it took 13 hundred years for this "Paradigm shift" or change in perspective to take place.  Changes in Paradigms, according to Thomas Kuhn, occur in discontinuous, revolutionary breaks called "paradigm shifts."  A very clear pictorial presentation of this astronomical paradigm shift from geocentric to heliocentric can be seen here.

Another paradigm shift would be that from a Newtonian and Cartesian conception of science and scientific method to a holistic and ecological view of these phenomena in Quantum Physics.  Not alone was this a paradigm shift for science, but it also parallelled an existential crisis at the heart of humankind itself, argues Capra. (see op.cit., p. 5)

He goes on to translate this Kuhnian idea of scientific paradigm over into what he calls a "social paradigm" which he defines as follows: "a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality that is a basis of the way a community organizes itself." (ibid., p. 6)

From the Enlightenment forward we have worked from the following social paradigm: very entrenched ideas and values where we saw (even some of us still see) the universe as a mechanical system in accord with Newtonian physics; a view of the human body as a machine, the brain as a computer; the view of life as society based on competition for survival; a capitalist and almost materialist take on economy.  I argue that it was such a paradigm which led to our present global financial crisis, namely that this competition for survival, accelerated by naked greed and ambition, became nothing short of a sophisticated gambling game for bankers and speculators at the expense of every little working minion in the world.  It is the workers worldwide who have to pay for the sins of these capitalist gamblers.  Capra also adds the various levels of the oppression of women to this social paradigm.  However, all these assumptions have been and are being challenged.

The New Social Paradigm

Stephen's Green, July, 2004
Capra calls his new social paradigm Deep EcologyThat means that there is a new and radical way of seeing things abroad today.  Another weltanschauung is there for us to embrace if we have the courage to so do.  This world view invites us to see the world as an integrated whole (holism) rather than an association of disparate parts  This is an ecological view but one that is even deeper still than ecology as it is defined. Hence, Capra uses the adjective "deep" with the substantive.  Such deep ecology  recognises the fundamental interdependence or interconnectedness of all phenomena.  Indeed, we are all embedded in the cyclical processes of nature.  The biblical weltanschauung or worldview which we have inherited from the Judaeo-Christian tradition is very much an anthropocentric one with man firmly at the centre, or more correctly at the top of creation, literally lording it over the lesser beings.  Within this newer paradigm we are merely part of the whole, enmeshed in this deeper ecology. Deep ecology as a way of thinking was originally suggested by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess.

Shallow ecology, Capra argues is anthropocentric or human-centered.  In light of this, one could argue that a fundamentalist take on theology, which has an anthropocentric understanding of the Godhead, is equally shallow.  "Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans  as just one particular stand in the web of life." (ibid., p.7)

Definitions of Spirituality:

I have giving many different definitions of this phenomenon in these posts over the years, but my deepest belief is that spirituality is essentially a thrust within the human soul to connect with others and with whatever is the principle of life.  Capra gives the following descriptive definition which is quite similar but far more complete:

When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.  It is, therefore, not surprising that the emerging new vision of reality based on deep ecological awareness is consistent with the so-called "perennial philosophy" of spiritual traditions, whether we talk about the spirituality of Christian mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy or cosmology underlying the Native American traditions. (Ibid., p. 7)

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