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)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Web of Life 2


Stalactites, Dunmore Caves, 2003
If there is one thing that describes the modern thrust in the sciences - both natural and social - it is the thrust towards interconnectedness.  Hence the title of Dr Fritjof Capra's book and that of this series of posts, viz., The Web of Life.  In the last post I outlined the topics he sought to bring together within his "web" of "Mind and Matter."  Here I will treat of some of these ideas as they strike this lone reader and writer.

What's New?

We are all well aware of the famous French epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr  : "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" which translates literally as  “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”  Life does tend to be like that, a veritable paradox: even though change continues irrevocably, there remains something there that is somehow perennial.  However, be that as it may, one of the striking and underlying concepts or ideas in this book is that nothing exists on its own per se, every single thing is defined and is given life within a context of other things, within a whole SYSTEM of things.  In this sensed, Dr Capra's opening sentence can be said to summarise the very core of his argument in this book, namely that there now exists "a new scientific understanding of life at all levels of living systems - organisms, social systems, and ecosystems." (Op. cit., p. 3)

Having read English literature many years ago, I was always taken with what was known as the modernist movement therein - a movement spearheaded by the complex and much misunderstood literary genius Ezra Pound who proclaimed that his goal as a literatus and poet was to "make it new," which indeed was the title of one of his critical works.  If Dr Capra and Dr James Lovelock do anything in the field of science, it is certainly to make it new.  As a reader of their books, I am always overwhelmed by the the veritable wind of freedom, of newness and of life in all its wonderful variety  that blows through them.

It's not just a new scientific understanding on the level of organisms as one would expect from biologists, or on the level of biochemical interactions as one would expect from biochemists or, indeed on the level of subatomic particles as one would expect from theoretical physicists.  No, the reach of this new scientific understanding extends to our complex social systems on all levels as it does to the very ecosystems within which we and our fellow creatures live.  This overarching sense of the myriads of interconnections that exist in all our perceived reality is the very theme of this book.

Solving Problems:

It is against this overarching backdrop that we are informed so rightly that no major problem in any of the above spheres can be solved in isolation.  After all, if the overarching thrust of reality as we perceive it, and as it is most likely to be in and of itself, then anything that goes wrong will have to have a multi-dimensional solution.  Take the international financial crisis as we are experiencing it now on a global scale.  Even our best brains and smartest experts cannot seem to get a handle on the multi-layered interconnectedness of the whole sorry mess.  As soon as one problem crops up in Greece it seems to have a domino effect on other economies both within and even outside the Euro zone.  Now, I am an economic neophyte and am singularly lost by the complexities of this situation.

Other Modern Crises

There are, of course, other crises besides the economic one.  We have the crisis of the Arab Spring or the Arabic Rebellions or the Arab Revolutions which, since 18 December 2010,  have occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, along with major protests in other Arabic countries.  The cause of these rebellions are multifarious and complex, but certainly these individual revolutions were fanned into a conflagration by modern communications via Internet, mobile phones and so on and so forth.  One might say that Capra is a prophet when, in the early pages of this book, he proclaims, with respect to all and every crisis we humans experience in our ever more complex world:

Ultimately, these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception.  It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concept of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with overpopulated, globally interconnected world. (Ibid., p. 2)
Towards Solutions

I have used the plural number in my subtitle above because I have long become impatient with and often inimical to persons and groups who peddle easy solutions or indeed, "an easy solution" to life's myriads of complex problems.  Likewise, I'm turned off quickly by preachers of any universal Truth with a capital letter.  In my world there are as many truths with lowercase letters as there are problems and as many problems as there are people who have them. 

In our journey towards solutions what's needed is a change in perception of these complexities.  This change in perception can be called yet another revolution of Copernican proportions.  That's essentially what Dr Thomas Kuhn meant by paradigm shifts.  Let me return once again to Dr Capra's words, and remember that these words were written as early as 1996:

Not only do our leaders fail to see how different problems are interrelated; they also refuse to recognise how their so-called solutions affect future generations.  From the systemic point of view, the only viable solutions are those that are "sustainable". The concept of sustainability has become a key concept in the ecology movement and is indeed crucial.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has given a simple, clear and beautiful definition: "A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations." This, in a nutshell, is the great challenge of our times: to create sustainable communities, i.e., social and cultural environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. (Ibid., p.4)

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.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Art of Happiness 25

Running out of Steam
Church at Lusk, County Dublin

There are so many metaphors to describe overdoing something.  This is definitely my last post on the subject of happiness.  I'm definitely running out of steam on this topic or even "flogging a dead horse" to use an uglier metaphor.  Philosophically, we can ask the question as to whether the seeking of happiness per se is a worthwhile goal to have in life at all.  I have already mentioned in these pages that a lot of scholars think not.  One such is Ivor Browne, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD here in Ireland. Another is Stephen Hawking, one time the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, is also somewhat suspect of the same pursuit.  For him, as a scientist, human existence is in itself an indifferent accident of the universe, or quite simply an occurrence of pure luck - in fact, happiness has nothing at all to do with it.  Likewise, he has informed his biographers that he never ever countenanced self-pity for his physical condition as it was quite simple a matter of pure chance/probability that he had acquired Motor Neurone Disease.  Life is simply something one gets on with and does one's best to make sense of.  The question of happiness is simply irrelevant.

However, others would disagree with the two learned professors quoted in my introductory paragraph.  Scholars and Gurus (Teachers) like Dr Howard Cutler and His Holiness the Dalai Lama would disagree.  For them, happiness is a legitimate goal and can be acquired or achieved through a type of mental science as outlined in the meditation practices of Buddhism (as I have recounted in the previous 24 posts, practices described and explained by the Dalai Lama) and as corroborated by modern research in the human sciences, especially in psychology (as recounted by the psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Cutler).

Religion and Spirituality

Religion is a phenomenon common to all races.  Harvey G. Cox, who is amongst the most influential Christian theologians in the U.S.A, if not in the world, has written a wonderful book with a Buddhist philosopher and scholar, Daisaku Ikeda called The Persistence of Religion: Comparative Perspectives on Modern Spirituality (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., N.Y., 2009, see here), the title of which is at once patently true and which describes in detail the universal, primordial and persistent trust to religion within the human psyche, and certainly within the human social psyche.  There is much to be said, both positively and negatively for the role of religions in the world.  On the one hand, religions can and are a source of much good as exemplified in the lives of Rev Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa of Calcutta,  Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Dom Helder Camara to name but four wonderful humanitarian Christian believers in the more recent past.  On the other hand, religions are a source of much evil, too, as is witnessed in the great religious pogroms, and even genocides, over the centuries, in the Crusades of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy War (jihad) of Islam, the elaborate and disgusting tortures of the Inquisition right down to the terrorism motivated by a warped interpretation (?) of Islam as witnessed in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in NY, USA.

Socially, religions do give a cohesive meaning to life for any particular group of people.  I have many times expressed the thought that we are meaning-making and significance-seeking beings.  We must weave a mythology to make our lives meaningful, and collectively religion is one such great social myth which carries a collective meaning for us human beings.  Religions give a meaning to the whole human trajectory both historically and personally - that is, in respect to human origins and a personal meaning to an individual's life.  A great contemporary Irish journalist, Mr John Waters, maintains that the Catholic Church (as do all Churches indeed) gives meaning and significance to people's lives by the potency of its liturgical services of "hatching, matching and dispatching", i.e., their services and celebrations of birth (baptism), marriage and death (funerals). None of this can be denied.  However, humanists can and do organize wonderful funerals as I can personally witness to, having attended one, officiated by a friend who had lost his own son.

Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, April, 2011
However, I do feel that organised religions in the West, especially mainline Christian Churches, of which I have some experience, have lost their spiritual appeal for not alone the young people, but also for the older.  Our experience here in Ireland of the Roman Catholic Church has been mainly of the corrupt power of a hierarchy seeking to cover up the crimes of child sexual abuse by some of its priests.  Organised religion, like all organisations, tends to attract those who are hungry for power over others.  That is a major flaw in the religious thrust within humankind.  However, religions which manage to allow their spiritual centre to remain alive and vibrant normally manage to keep the power-brokers more at bay.  A Bishop-friend of mine, now retired and for the most part untarnished by corruption, always likes quoting self-deprecatingly and humbly the A.A. saying that "Religion is for those who fear Hell, whereas spirituality is for those who have been there!"  There is much wisdom in that quotation.

When the Dalai Lama speaks of religion in the book under discussion in these last twenty four posts, he speaks of it as a spiritual thrust within the human community, and never as a power-brokering hierarchy.  For him religion and spirituality are almost, if not totally, synonymous.  Indeed, here are his thoughts on prayer and the importance of religious practices.  I'll let the Dalai Lama speak for himself:

However, if you think seriously about the true meaning of spiritual practices, it has to do with the development and training of your mental state, attitudes, and psychological and emotional state and well-being.  You should not confine your understanding of spiritual practice to terms of some spiritual activities or verbal activities, like doing recitations of prayers and  chanting.  If your understanding of spiritual practice is limited to only these activities, then, of course, you will need a specific time, a separate allotted time to do your practice...However, if you understand spiritual practice in its true sense, then you can use all twenty-four hours of your day for your practice.  True spirituality is a mental attitude that you can practice (sic) at any time. (The Art of Happiness, pp., 251-2)
Through the teachings of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama and many Buddhists have found a meaningful framework which enables them to endure and even transcend the pain and suffering that life sometimes brings.  In other words, his argument is that such religious practices (if one is of a religious turn of mind) or mental practices (if you are of a more agnostic leaning) can allow the adherent  and practitioner of them to achieve a much happier life.  Scientific research on the benefits of religious beliefs confirm, indeed, that their adherents are for the most part happier than those without such beliefs.  It is with that scientific statement that I shall conclude this rather long sequence of posts.