of Life

Chapter 8 of The Turning Point - Fritjof Capra (1982)

Part 4 of 4 Parts

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - the Southern Winter of 1996

The Systems View of Life

Chapter 8 of the Turning Point - Fritjof Capra

Part 4 of 4

The mental activities of living organisms from bacteria to primates can be discussed fairly consistently in terms of patterns of self-organisation, without the need to modify one's language very much as one moves up the evolutionary ladder in the direction of increasing complexity. But with the human organisms things become quite different. The human mind is able to create an inner world that mirrors the outer reality but has an existence of its own and can move an individual or a society to act upon the outer world. In human beings this inner world - the psychological realm - unfolds as an entirely new level and involves anumber of phenomena that are characteristic of human nature. They incluse self-awareness, conscious experience, conceptual thought, symbolic language, dreams, art, the creation of culture, a sense of values, interest in the remote past, and concern for the distant future. Most of these characteristics exist in rudimentary form in various animal species. In fact, there seems to be no single criterion that would allow us to distinguish humans from other animals. What is unique about human nature is a combination of characterictics foreshadowed in lower forms of evolution but integrated and developed to a high level of sophistication only in the human species.

In our interactions with our environment there is a continual interplay and mutual influence between the outer world and our inner world. The patterns we perceive around us are based in a very fundamental way on the patterns within. Patterns of matter mirrored patterns of mind, coloured by subjective feelings and values. In the traditional Cartesian view it was assumed that every individual had basically the same biological apparatus and that each os us , therefore, had access to the same "screen" of sensory perception. The differences were assumed to arise from the subjective interpretation of the sensory data; they were due, in the well-known Cartesian metaphor, to the "little man looking at the screen". Recent neurophysiological studies have shown that this is not so. The modification of sensory perception by past experiences, expectations, and purposes occurs not only in the interpretation but begins at the very outset, at the "gates of perception". Numerous experiments have indicated that the registration of data by the sense organs will be different for different individuals before perception is experienced. These studies show that the psychological aspects of perception cannot be separated from the psychological aspects of interpretation. Moreoverm the new view of perception also blurs the conventional distinction between sensory and extrasensory perception - another vestige of Cartesian thinking - by showing that all perception is, to some extent, extrasensory.

Our responses to the environment, then, are determined not so much by the direct effect of external stimuli on our biological system but rather by our past experience, our expectations, our purposes, and the individual symbolic interpretation of our perceptual experience. The faint smell of a perfume may evoke joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain, through its association with past experience, and our response will vary accordingly. Thus the inner and ouer worlds are always interlinked in the functioning of a human organism; they act upon each other and evolve together.

As human beings, we shape our environment very effectively because we are able to represent the outer world symbolically, to think conceptually, and to communicate our symbols, concepts, and ideas. We do so with the help of abstract language, but also nonverbally through paining, music and other forms of art. In our thinking and communication we not only deal with the present but can also refer to the past and anticipate the future, which gives us a degree of autonomy far beyond anything found in any other species. The development of abstract thinking, symbolic language, and the various other human capabilities all depend crucially on a phenomenon that is characteristic of the human mind. Human beings possess consciousness; we are aware not only of our sensations but also of ourselves as thinking and experiencing individuals.

The nature consciousness is a fundamental existential question that has fascinated men and women throughout the ages and has re-emerged as a topic of intensive discussions among experts from various disciplines, including psychologists, physicists, neuroscientists, artists and representatives of mystical traditions. These discussions have often been very stimulating but have also created considerable confusion, because the term "consciousness" is being used in different senses by different people. It can mean subjective awareness, for example when conscious and unconscious activities are compared, but also sel-awareness, which is the awareness of being aware. The term is also used by many in the sense of the totality of mind, with its many conscious and unconscious levels. And the discussion is further complicated by the recent strong interest in Eastern "psychologies" that have developed elaborate maps of the inner realm and use a dozen or more terms to describe its various aspects, all of them usually translated as "mind" or "consciousness".

In view of this situation, we need to specify carefully the sense in which the term "consciousness" is being used. The human mind is a multileveled and integrated pattern of processes that represent the dynamics of human self-organisation. Mind is a pattern of organisation, and awareness is a property of mentation at any level, from single cells to human beings, although of course, differing very widely in scope. Self-awareness, on the other hand, seems to manifest itself only in higher animals, unfolding fully in the human mind, and it is this property of mind that I mean by consciousness. The totality of the human mind, with its conscious and unconscious realms, I shall call, with Jung, the psyche.

Because the systems view of mind is not limited to individual organisms but can extend to social and ecological systems, we may say that groups of people, societies, and cultures have a collective mind, and therefore possess a collective consciousness. We may also follow Jung in the assumption that the collective mind, or collective psyche, also includes a collective unconscious. As individuals we participate in these collective mental patterns, are influenced by them, and shape them in turn. In addition the concepts of a planetary mind and a cosmic mind may be associated with the planetary and cosmic levels of consciousness.

Most theories about the nature of consciousness seem to be variations on either of two opposing views that may nevertheless be complementary and reconcilable in the systems approach. One of these viws may be called the Western scientific view. It considers matter as primary and consciousness as a property of complex material patterns that emerges at a certain stage of biological evolution. Most neuroscientists today (88) subscribe to this view. The other view of consciousness may be called the mystical view, since it is generally held in mystical traditions. It regards consciousness as the primary reality and the ground of all being. In its purest form, consciousness, according to this view, is non-material, formless, and void of all content; it is often described as "pure consciousness", "ultimate reality", "suchness" and the like. This manifestation of pure consciousness is associated with the Divine in many spritual tradions. It is said to be the essence of the universe and to manifest itself in all things; all forms of matter and all living beings are seen as forms of divine consciousness.

The mystical view of consciousness is based upon the experience of reality in non-ordinary modes of awareness, which are tradionally achieved through meditation but may also occur spontaneously in the process of artistic creation and in various other contexts. Modern psychologists have come to call non-ordinary experiences of this kind "transpersonal" because they seem to allow the individual mind to make contact with collective and even cosmic mental patterns. According to numerous testimonies, transpersonal experiences involve a strong, personal, and conscious relation to reality which goes far beyond the present scientific framework. We should therefore not expect science, at its present stage, to confirm or contradict the mystical view of consciousness. Nevertheless, the systems view of mind seems perfectly consistent with both the scientific and mystical views of consciousness, and thus to provide the ideal framework for unifying the two.

The systems view agrees with the conventional scientific view that consciousness is a manifestation of complex material patterns. To be more precise, it is a manifestation of living systems of a certain complexity. On the other hand, the biological structures of these systems are expressions of underlying processes that represent the system's self-organisation, and hence its mind. In this sense material structures are no longer considered as primary reality. Extending this way of thinking to the universe as a whole, it is not too far-fetched to assume that all its structures - from the subatomic particles to galaxies and from bacteria to human beings - are manifestations of the universe's self-organising dynamics, which we have identified with the cosmic mind. But tbis is almost the mystical view, the only difference being that mystics emphasise the direct experience of cosmic consciousness that goes beyond the scientific approach. Still, the tow approaches seems to be quite compatible. The systems view of nature at last seems to provide a meaningful scientific framework for approaching the age-old questions of the nature of life, mind, consciousness and matter.

To understand human nature we study not only its physical and psychological dimensions but also its social and cultural manifestations. Human beings evolved as social animals and cannot keep well, physically or mentally, unless they remain in contact with other human beings. More than any other social species we engage in collective thinking, and in doing so we create a world of culture and values that becomes an integral part of our natural environment. Thus biological and cultural characteristics of human nature cannot be separated. Humankind emerged through the very process of creating culture and needs this culture for survival and further evolution.

Human elvolution, then, progresses through an interplay of inner and outer worlds, individuals and societies, nature and culture. All these realms are living systems in mutual interaction that display similar patterns of self-organisation. Social institutions evolve toward increasing complexity and differentiation, not unlide organic structures, and mental patterns exhibit the creativity and urge for self-transcendence that is characteristic of all life. Īt is the nature of the mind to be creative", observes the painter Gordon Onslow-Ford. "The more the depths of the mind are plumbed, the more abundantly they produce."

According to generally accepted anthropological findings, the anatomical evolution of human nature was virtually completed some fifty thousand years ago. Since then the human body and brain have remained essentially the same in structure and size. On the other hand, the conditions of life has changed profoundly during this period and continue to change at a rapid pace. To adapt to these changes the human species used its faculties of consciousness, conceptual thought, and symbolic language to shift from genetic evolution to social evolution, which takes place much faster and provides far more variety. However, this new kind of adaption was by no means perfect. We still carry around biological equipment from the very early stages of our evolution that often makes it difficult for us to meet the challenges of today's environment. The human brain, according to Paul Maclean's theory, consists of three structurally different parts, each endowed with its own intelligence and subjectivity, which stem from different periods of our evolutionary past. Although the three parts are intimately linked, their activities are often contradictory and difficult to integrate, as Maclean shows in a picturesque metaphor: "Speaking allegorically of these three brains within a brain, we might imagine that when the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie of the couch, he is asking him to stretch out beside a horse and a crocodile."

The innermost parts of the brain, known as the brain stem, is concerned with the instinctive behaviour patterns already exhibited by reptiles. It is responsible for biological drives and many kinds of compulsive behaviour. Surrounding this part is the limbic system (from the Latin limbus ... border) which is well developed in all mammals and, in the human brain, is evolved with emotional experience and expression. The two inner parts of the brain, also known as the subcortex, are strongly interconnected and express themselves nonverbally through a rich spectrum of body language. The outermost part, finally, is the neocortex which facilitates higher-order abstract functions, such as thought and language. The neocortex originated in the earliest evolutionary phase of mammals and expanded in the human species at an explosive rate, unprecedented in the history of evolution, until it became stabilised about fifty thousand years ago.

By developing our capacity for abstract thinkingat such a rapid pace, we seem to have lost the important ability to ritualise social conflicts. Throughout the animal world aggression rarely develops to the point where one of the two adversaries is killed. Instead, the fight is ritualised and usually ends with the loser conceding defeat but remaining relatively unharmed. This wisdom disappeared, or at least was deeply submerged, in the emergent human species. In the process of creating an abstract inner world we seem to have lost touch with the realities of life and have become the only creatures who often fail to co-operate with and even kill their own kind. The volution of consciousness has given us not only the Cheops Pyramid, the Brandenburg Concertos and the Theory of Relativity, but also the burning of witches, the Holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima. But that same evolution of consciousness gives us the potential to live peacefully and in harmony with the natural world in the future. Our evolution continues to offer us freedom of choice. We can consciously alter our behaviour by changing our values and attributes to regain the spirituality and ecological awareness we have lost.

In the future elaboration of the new holistic world view, the notion of rhythm is likely to play a very fundamental role. The systems approach has shown that living organisms are intrinsically dynamic, their visible forms being stable manifestations of underlying processes. Process and stability, however, are compatible only if the processes form rhythmic patterns - fluctuations, oscillations, vibrations, waves. The new systems biology shows that fluctuations are crucial in the dynamics of self-organisation. They are the basis of order in the living world: ordered structures arise from rhythmic patterns.

The conceptual shift from structure to rhythm may be extremely useful in our attempts to find a unifying description of nature. Rhythmic patterns seem to be manifest at all levels. Atoms are patterns of probability waves, molecules are vibrating structures, and organisms are multidimensional, interdependent patterns of fluctuations. Plants, animals, and human beings undergo cycles of activity and rest, and all their physiological functions oscillate in rhythms of various periodicities. The components of ecosystems are interlinked through the cyclicalexchanges of matter and energy; civilisations rise and fall in evolutionary cycles, and the planet as a whole has its rhythms and recurrences as it spins on its axis and moves around the sun.

Rhythmic patterns, then, are a universal phenomenon, but at the same time they allow individuals to express their distinctive personalities. The manifestation of a unique personal identity is an important characteristic of human beings, and it appears that this identity may be, essentially, an identity of rhythm. Human individuals can be recognised by their characteristic speech patterms, body movements, gestures, breathing, all of which represent different kinds of rhythmic patterns. In addition, there are many "frozen" rhythms, like one's fingerprints or handwriting, that are uniquely associated with individuals. These observations indicate that the rhythmic patters that characterise an individual human being are different manifestations of the same personal rhythm, an "inner pulse" which is the essence of personal identity.

The crucial role of rhythm is not limited to self-organisation and self-expression but extends to sensory perception and communication. When we see, our brain transforms the vibrations of light into rhythmic pulsations of its neurons. Similar transformations of rhythmic patters occur in the process of hearing, and even the perception of odor seems to be based on "osmic frequencies". The Cartesian notion of separate objects and our experience with cameras have lead us to assume that our senses create some kind of internal picture that is a faithful reproduction of reality. But this is not how sensory perception works. Pictures of separate objects exist only in our world of symbols, concepts, and ideas. The reality around us is an ongoing rhythmic dance, and our senses translate some of its vibrations into frequency patterns that can be processes by the brain.

The importance of frequencies in perceptions has been emphasised especially by the neuropsychologist Karl Pibram, who has developed a holographic model of the brain in which visual perception is carried out through an analysis of frequency patterns and visual memory os organised like a hologram. Pibram believes this explains why visual memory cannot be precisely localised within the brain. As in a hologram, the whole is encoded in each part. At present the validity of the hologram for a model of visual perception is not firmly established, but it useful at least as a metaphor. Its main importance may be its emphasis on the fact that the brain does not store its information locally but distributes it very widely, and, from abroader perspective, on the conceptual shift from structures to frequencies.

Another intriguing aspect of the holographics metaphor is a possible relation to two ideas in modern physics. One of them is Geoffrey Chew's idea of subatomic particles being dynamically composed of one another in such a way that each of them involves all the others; the other idea is David Bohm's notion of implicate order, according to which all of reality is enfolded in each of its parts. What all these approaches have in common is the idea that holonomy - the whole being somehow contained in each of its parts - may be a universal property of nature. This idea has also been expressed in many mystical traditions and seems to play an important role in mystical visions of reality. The metaphor of the hologram has recently inspired a number of researchers and has been applied to various physical and psychological phenomena. Unfortunately, this is not always done with the necessary caution, and the differences between a metaphor, a model, and the real world are sometimes overlooked in the general enthusiasm. The universe is definitely not a hologram, but it displays a multitude of vibrations of different frequencies, and thus the hologram may often be useful as an anology to describe the phenomena associated with these vibratory patterns.

As in the process of perception, rhtyhm also plays an important role in the many ways living organisms interact and communicate with one other. Human comminication, for example, takes place to a significant extent through the synchronisation and interlocking of individual rhythms. Recent film analyses have shown that every conversation involves a subtle and largely unseen dance in which the detailed sequence of speech patterns is precisely synchronised not only with minute movements of the speaker's body but also with corresponding movements of the listener. Both partners are locked into an intricate and precisely synchronised sequence of rhythmic movements that lasts as long as they remain attentive and involved in their conversation. A similar interlocking of rhythms seems to be responsible for the strong bounding between infants and their mothers and, most likely, between lovers. On the one hand, opposition, antipathy, and disharmony will arise when the rhythms os two individuals are out of synchrony.

At rare moment in our lives we may feel that we are in synchony with the whole universe. These moments may occur under many circumstances - hitting a perfect shot at tennis or finding the pefect run down a ski slope, in the midst of a fulfilling sexual experience, in contemplation of a great work of art, or in deep meditation. These moments of perfect rhythm, when everything feels exactly right and things are done with great ease, are high spiritual experiences in which every form of separateness of fragmentation is transcended.

In this discussion of the nature of living organisms we have seen that the systems view of life is spiritual in its deepest essence and thus consistent with many ideas held in mystical traditions. The parallels between science and mysticism are not confined to modern physics but can now extend with equal justification to the new systems biology. Two basic themes emerge again and again from the study of living and non-living matter and are also repeatedly emphasised in the teachings of mystics - the universal interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena, and the intrinsically dynamic nature of reality. We also find a number of ideas in mystical traditions that are less relevant, or not yet significant to, modern physics but are crucial to the systems view of living things.

The concept of a stratifies order plays a prominent role in many traditions. As in modern science, it involves the notion of multiple levels of reality which differ in their complexities and are mutually interacting and interdependent. These levels include, in particular, levels of mind, which are seem as different manifestations of cosmic consciousness. Although mystical views of consciousness go far beyind the framework of contemporary science, they are by no means inconsistent with the modern systems concepts of mind and matter. Similar considerations apply to the concept of free will, which is quite compatible with mystical views when associated with the relative autonomy of sef-organising systems.

The concepts of process, change and fluctuation, which play such a crucial role in the systems view of living organisms, are emphasised in the Eastern mystical traditions, especially in Taoism. The idea of fluctuations as the basis of order, which Progogine introduced into modern science, is one of the major themes in all Taoists texts. Because the Taoist sages recognised the importance of fluctuations in their observations of the living world, they also emphasised the opposite but complementary tendancies that seem to be an essential part of life. Amoung the Eastern traditions Taoism is the one with the most explicit ecological perspective, but the mutual interdependence of all aspects of reality and the nonlinear nature of interconnections are emphasised throughout Eastern mysticism. For example, these are the ideas underlying the Indian concept of karma.

As in the systems view, birth and death are seen by many traditions as stages of endless cycles which represent the continual self-renewal that is characteristic of the dance of life. Other traditions emphasise vibratory patterns, often associated with "subtle energies", and many of them have descrobed the holonomic nature of reality - the existence of "all in each and each in all" - in parables, metaphors, and poetic imagery.

Among Western mystics the one whose thought comes closest to that of the new systems biology is probably Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was not only a Jesuit priest but an eminent scientist who made major contributuins to geology and paleontology. He tried to integrate his scientific insights, mystical experiences, and theological doctrines into a coherent world view, which was dominated by process thinking and centered on the phenomenon of evolution. Teilhard's theory of evolution is in sharp contrast to the neo-Darwinian theory but shows remarkable similarities with the new systems theory. Its key concept is what he called the "Law of Complexity-Consciousness" which states that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity, and that this increase in complexity is accompanied by a corresponding rise of consciousness, culminating in human spirituality. Teilhard uses the term "consciousness" in the sense of awareness and defines it as "the specific effect of organised complexity", which is perfectly compatible with the systems view of mind.

Teilhard also proposed the manifestation of mind in larger systems and wrote that in human evolution the planet is covered with a web of ideas, for which he coined the term "mind layer", or "noosphere" - (from the Greek noos - mind). Finally, he saw God as the source of all being, and in particular as the source of the evolutionary force. In view of the systems concept of God as the universal dynamics of self-organisation, we can say that amoung the many images mystics have used to describe the Divine, Teilhard's concept of God, if liberated from its patriarchal connotations, may well be the one that comes closest to the views of modern science.

Teilhard de Chardin has often been ignored, disdained, or attacked by scientists unable to look beyond the reductionist Cartesian framework of their disciplines. However, with the new systems approach to the study of living organisms, his ideas will appear in a new light and are likely to contribute significantly to general recognition of the harmony between the views of science and mystics.

Conclusion of Part 4 of 4
The Systems View of Life
Chapter 8 of the "Turning Point"
Fritjof Capra - 1982
Intro Part1 Part2 Part3 Part4 Index

The Systems View of Life

Chapter 8 of The Turning Point

by Fritjof Capra (1982)

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - the Southern Winter of 1996