The World is a Network

October 2018

In this discussion, Fritjof Capra discusses systems thinking, the cognitive dimension of life, nonlinear causality, emergence of novelty in living systems, ethics, world problems and solutions, transformative learning, and the importance of community. He covers the systems view of life from his book and emphasizes relationships, interconnectedness, and sustainability.

Presented at the 2018 Science and Nonduality convention.




This is, I believe, an unstructured conversation, so I don’t know where it will go. It can go anywhere. And I think maybe, if we just have a few questions and comments of what you would like to discuss or ask about or talk about, and I will make some notes, and then we’ll go and start talking. So who wants to start? Yes?



So the cognition that occurs at different levels—mind and matter; through matter at the different levels—I’m wondering how you might speculate that understanding could inform the practice of architecture? As intentional creation of space for certain qualities to emerge.



Okay. Let’s hear a few more. In the back, there; the gentleman. Yes?



Hi. The comment you made in the morning after Mauricio’s introduction reminds me kind of—not necessarily to pick on you, but I ran out of time to ask anybody else. I’ve been, you know, three days we’ll talk about minds, usually the question: is it the brain? Whatever. But I’m referring to the situation which then interpret it as a cognitive process. Remember, Mauricio said: “my gut.” It’s funny. In three days, nobody has talked about it. Yet, in the meantime, there are a number of studies which show one third of our—and that’s the question—being, feeling, sensation, intelligence is in our gut.



Okay. We can talk about that more.



If you could. I mean, maybe you’re not—



They should have invited me earlier and given me more time, you know. That’s the short answer. Anyway, yeah. Anybody else? Yes?



I’ll apologize in advance for this question, but I feel I have to ask it. Systems theory, when you try to change a system, sometimes there are unintended consequences such as prohibition and the way that turned out. Today we find ourselves in the middle of a system which is having—I don’t know how to say it. Let’s just call it problems. It’s not that social media itself is bad, but the way the system is targeting individuals with specific information, and perhaps even manipulating their behavior, do you have any thoughts of what we might be able to do about that problem?



Yes, definitely. Yeah. Plenty of thoughts on that. Okay. Over there. Gentleman over there.



From your talk this morning I got the impression that you feel a consciousness is emergent from the network of the physical system. And so I’m pretty curious how to get causality out of the network where consciousness has some meaning, and what is kind of a physicalist interpretation possibly? How do you see the interface between consciousness in that physical network actually connecting through? So through the causal pathway?



Okay. Let’s have this the last one, and then I’ll talk a little bit. Maybe one more. Those two, okay? Yes?



Simple question. I’m interested in shifting systems from competition to collaboration, and if you could speak on competition. Because run into these arguments where it’s: oh, it’s inherent in the universe; competition. So if you could address that, it would be great. Thank you.






It seems to me that the transition that we’re in is the transition from polarized and reified dualities into a more process and systems understanding that’s a lot less reified, a lot less polarized, and more holons, integration of holons at various levels. And I’d like you to speak to that if you would.



Okay. And then we have one last. The gentleman in the back. And then we’ll….



In talking about the relationship between mind and matter, could you say something about how we might understand the effect of—in the realm of mind—of values, higher emotions. In other words, the highest aspirational levels of the human being, and what correspondence there may be between those states and matter?



Okay. Thank you. So let me try and sort of integrate this a little bit. I had only twenty minutes, and so I could only concentrate on a few things. But as I mentioned, my synthesis of this new systemic understanding of life integrates four dimensions of life: the biological, the cognitive, the social, and the ecological. And therefore I feel that I do have answers to all of these questions, and the answers are actually all discussed in our textbook, The Systems View of Life. This is what it looks like. It was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press. And for me, I’m very proud of this book and very happy about it, because it’s really a synthesis of my work over the last thirty or forty years. Not only does it integrate these dimensions of life, but also I have a historical section going back to the emergence of the mechanistic worldview in the scientific revolution, revisiting Galileo, Descartes, Newton, that whole period of the seventeenth century. And then going on to the emergence of systems thinking, including in physics. It has a little bit of the Tao of Physics in it. So everything that I have written over the last fifty years is really essentially represented in this book.


So let me begin. You talked about holons and the systems understanding. And I think you’re right, it’s a much more subtle understanding. Because we are dealing with a non-linear system—and this relates also to the question about causality that somebody asked early on—we’re dealing with non-linear systems which are characterized by feedback loops, which means that there is a circular causality. And it can happen that a small disturbance in some part of the system travels around these feedback loops and gets amplified. And this was actually known to the cyberneticists who were the first to discuss feedback—Norbert Wiener and these people—in the cybernetics group. And they distinguished between balancing feedback, self-balancing (which they called negative feedback) or self-amplifying feedback (which they called positive feedback). And the self-amplifying feedback is well known as a vicious circle, where thins get worse and worse and feed on themselves. And actually, if you look politics today in this country, you could say that’s exactly the dynamics that we are in.


What is new—well, let me say: I distinguish between two eras of systems thinking. It emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, then you had cybernetics in the 1940s. And then, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a watershed between these earlier classical systems theories and the new theories. And the watershed is that, for the first time—as I mentioned in the lecture—scientists and mathematicians and engineers had a new non-linear mathematics at their disposal, which led to all kinds of dramatically new discoveries.


One of the discoveries was that self-amplifying feedback is not necessarily destructive. It can lead to a point of instability—or crisis, if you wish; technically it’s known as a bifurcation point—and then an entirely new state of order can emerge from that instability or from that crisis. Ilya Prigogine was the first one to really apply this to his theory of complex chemical systems, which he called dissipative structures. And he and a colleague wrote a book called Order Out of Chaos, which I can very much recommend. And it points to that fact that out of a chaotic situation, a nonlinear situation, a crisis situation, a new kind of order can emerge.


And this emergence of novelty—very often just referred to as emergence—is to me the most important discovery of complexity theory and the whole new systems thinking, because it shows that creativity is inherent in all life. If you understand creativity as the creation of something new, then you see that all living organisms and all living systems—social systems, groups, families, teams, and so on—have this ability of being creative. Because when interactions happen between various parts of the network (either interactions in terms of communications in a human social network, or other types of interactions in biological networks), when that happens, then it is possible that a disturbance gets cycled around in these feedback loops, leads to a point of instability, and then something new emerges.


Let me give you an example that most of you will be familiar with. When you work in a team or work in a group, and suppose you have a problem to solve, and you work in some organization, and you pull a group of people together to discuss this problem, or you are a community organizer, or you are an environmental activist, or you are part of a spiritual group—whatever the group is. You have a problem to solve, and you pull a few people together. And when you do this—in fact, that happened to me very often in the part—you would say: well, whom am I going to invite to this? Well, I’m going to invite Susan, I’m going to invite Blake, I’m going to invite Elizabeth. You figure out the people. And then you might think: how are they going to help? And you say: well, Susan, I pretty much know what she’s going to say, because she always says the same thing and she’s going to say that. And Blake, I’m pretty sure also of what he’s going to say. So everybody you invite, you sort of know what they are going to say. And so the meeting happens, the problem is discussed. And Susan (as you had imagined) says what Susan always says, but—and here comes the difference—somebody in the group responds to that in a way that you wouldn’t have responded, and then a third person responds to that response. And so the thing gets tossed around, and before you know it the whole group says: wait a moment, if this is really true what we have been discussing so far, we can’t go on like we have been. We have to make some really deep changes. And so that’s the point of instability. And then it may well happen that out of this whole network of discussions suddenly a new idea emerges. And it feels like a miracle. It feels like magic. And over the years I have come to realize that the scientific translation of magic is nonlinearity. Because our linear way of thinking cannot follow all these connections—so when something emerges, it looks like magic.


So this is why collaboration is so important. And it is true. There is also competition—not only in human nature, but also in nature at large. But competition always happens within a broader context of collaboration. For example, when we think of competitive sports, then you know—think of football, basketball, tennis, chess, whatever—all these competitions take place within a set of rules. If we were to play chess, and if I made a move that is not permitted, then the whole game would stop making sense. So we can compete only within rules. Same in tennis. We have certain rules, and there’s fierce competition, but there is a general acceptance of the rules. And that’s the collaboration. The same in nature: when, say, animals or plants compete for food or compete for space, very often this competition is ritualized—as far as animals are concerned. And even in plants it has been shown recently that one plant would give way to another.


Let me here recommend a recent book, which is very exciting. It’s by an Italian botanist, and the name is Stefano Mancuso, and the title of the book is The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. And Mancuso discusses plant intelligence in very exciting new ways, and he has a video which you can find on YouTube where he shows a vine in a space—and this is timelapse photography, so time is sped up—and you see the vine looking around for a place to attach itself to. And it goes this way, and then goes that way, and goes the other way. And they put a pole in the middle of this space, and then once the vine finds the pole, it goes around the pole and it’s happy. Then they have another one where there are two vines. One pole, two vines. So one vine finds the pole first, and the other one is still looking around. And then the other one gets to the pole but sees (or, not sees, but somehow senses) that another vine is already there, moves away, leaves the space to the other vine. So there is abundant collaboration in nature. And this is sort of coming out now.


Let’s see. Well, the question about causality—I would say that the cognitive dimension, the process dimension, of life is intimately connected at all levels with the physical dimension, or the structural dimension, of life. So mind and matter are in a relationship of process and structure. And so of course you have causality. You have interconnections that are causally related. And that, then, is reflected in the cognitive dimension.


And that brings me to a question about unintended consequences of actions. Half of our book is about theory—this integration, this new conceptual framework—but the other half is about practical implications. So imagine that you have this new understanding of life, which applies to all living organisms, which includes the cognitive domain in all living systems, which applies to social systems, and which applies to ecosystems. So you will soon realize that this new framework is relevant for almost anything we do in life, because whatever we do—whether we have a family or whether we deal with health questions, or whether we manage an organization, or whether we are in economics or politics, whether we are in education, we’re always dealing with life. We’re always dealing with living systems: individual organisms, communities, social systems, ecosystems. And therefore, the systems view of life is relevant to all of these areas. And in particular it is very relevant and very important to solve the major problems of our time. Because when you look at the global problems we have today—energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war, and so on—the outstanding characteristic of these problems is that they’re all interconnected. None of them can be solved in isolation. We say that these are systemic problems that need systemic solutions. Systemic solutions are solutions where the problem is dealt with within the context of other problems, not in isolation. And as a consequence, systemic solutions very often solve several problems at the same time.


Let me just give you one example from agriculture. If we shifted from our current industrial agriculture—which is highly centralized, highly mechanized, uses a lot of energy, input, chemicals, and so on—if we shifted to a system of sustainable agriculture (or agro-ecology, as it is called, which is organic farming, community-oriented, decentralized, and so on), this would contribute to the solution of at least three important problems we have today. One: the energy problem, because agro-ecology or sustainable agriculture uses much less energy. Industrial agriculture uses about twenty percent of all use of fossil fuel energy. So much less energy use. Secondly: much healthier food, because it’s not contaminated by toxic chemicals. And also because we know today that our health very much on our diet. Diseases like diabetes or heart problems or many other strokes and so on are very dependent on diet. And thirdly, and this is not so well known: sustainable agriculture contributes a significant amount to drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and to alleviating climate change. Why? Because an organic soil is a living soil full of soil bacteria and other living organisms, and carbon is the chemical backbone of life. So the more life you have in the soil, the more carbon there is—where does the soil get the carbon? Well, from the atmosphere. Soil bacteria are able to absorb it from the atmosphere. So carbon is drawn down. And agriculture and the management of forests and meadows and fields is the only known technology today that can draw down carbon from the atmosphere. And so it’s very important from the point of view of climate change also. So here you have a typical systemic solution solving several problems at the same time.


Well, to end this part here, let me briefly mention architecture. Who mentioned…? That was the first question, yes. Well, I would say that when I said that all these areas have to do with life, that’s also true of architecture. Because architecture—the buildings are built for people to use them, to live in them, to work in them. The buildings are shelters for communities. And so an architecture corresponding to the systems view of life would be a community-oriented architecture. I have a friend in Louisiana, in New Orleans, Steven Bingler, who has a company called Concordia. And the special thing about this architecture company—it’s a fairly large architectural studio—the special thing is that they involve the community in the design of the building. Whereas traditionally, a building is built for the glory of the architect, and it’s sort of the signature of the architect, these people at Concordia say: no, we build for the community and we involve the community in the design of the building. And they involve them in a systemic way with interchanges and meetings where they have lots of discussions where everybody’s involved. So I would say that’s the link to the systems view.


Okay, so we’ve got fifteen minutes left for a second round. Okay, we need the microphone please, if you could. Oh! We didn’t talk about the feeling of the gut. Well, yeah, I wanted to start with that, and then I got sidetracked. When you realize that cognition acts at all levels of life, then you realize that all living systems are engaged in cognitive activity. The way they interact with their environment is a cognitive process. And since there are always living systems within other living systems, there are these levels of cognition. So in our organism we have a cerebral level of cognition, but we also have a level of cognition of the various organs that are living systems, we have a level of cognition a the level of tissues. And this would be typically the feeling in the gut. And even at the level of individual cells there are cognitive activities. So all of this is integrated and plays a role.


So now we need to get the microphone. Could we have somebody who hasn’t asked a question yet?



I just wanted to say one thing. You mentioned the interlinked systems where there are many problems. The underlying system that has to be addressed in my opinion is the system of human consciousness. Our species of consciousness is, I think, at the threshold of a new order of organization, and I think this grouping here and groupings like this around the world are seeds of an emerging, shared oneness. And if you could address that.



Yeah, I agree. I agree, and I would add to that that what needs to be addressed is the ethical level; the level of ethics. Because when you look at our world today, economics dominates politics, business dominates politics, and business people tend to say ethics is not our business, you know? We want to make money. And the only principle in the global economy today is making money; making more and more money. Ethics doesn’t play a role. So we need to consciously—and I say consciously—introduce ethics.

Okay, can we have… yes, yes.



Yeah, I was just wondering what you have to say about morphic fields?



Morphic fields? Not much, because that’s a different model. I know Rupert Sheldrake, who originated that, and that’s not the systems view of life. The systems view of life does not posit any additional entities, like a special field or a special force or something. That’s a different view.



Do you know about Family Constellation’s work?



No, I don’t know….



Which is a kind of systemic therapy that—



Oh, yes, yes! I know about that, yeah. Actually, family therapy was one of the areas where systems thinking was developed first very early on, especially a school in Italy, in Milano, for family therapy.

The gentleman here in the first row, he was the first, actually, to….



So I wanted to ask how you see systems thinking being able to help us recognize, maybe, old systems, old societal systems—maybe like the matrix of control—and how we could maybe recognize that, be free of it, and align with more natural systems? And also, how this systemic thinking can help us look at how we can apply things like maybe metasystems or systems of self-reflection, astrology, numerology, and how all that can play in together?



Well, I would say to recognize differences between different systems and act accordingly. All this is being done today. And you see that there are so many people here in this conference every year; that gives you an idea of how much is happening in the world internationally. So in the book we have a chapter on systemic solutions, and it begins with the history of what is now called the global civil society, where there are NGOs of all kinds and coalitions, and we portray about forty of the most important NGOs, and give their websites, and so on. And today all you have to do is go on the Internet and look for a particular area of work or interest, and you will find an NGO, maybe even one in the area where you live. And you can just join. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you know? It’s already out there. So that’s the good news.



So it seems like we’re in a state of crisis across multiple industries. And democracy in America is shaken. Do you have any thoughts on the timing or the duration of this state of crisis, and how long this might go for before the new order comes?



No, unfortunately not. I thought that when Trump was elected that he wouldn’t last two years. Now we’re almost there. I may still be right, you know, but we’re almost there. And it surprises me how long he has lasted, because he goes in the exact opposite direction of what is needed: destroying all international agreements, having no empathy whatsoever, no compassion whatsoever, making enemies everywhere, let alone his relationship with women. It just goes on and on and on, you know. It’s absolutely horrible. And the only reason why he’s in power—well, there are two reasons why he’s in power. He cuts taxes for corporations and for wealthy power, and they keep him in power, they support him financially. And he chooses very conservative justices for the supreme court, and that keeps the ultra-conservatives happy. And as long as he does that, they keep him in power. But I still believe that the whole system will lead to a critical point of crisis, and something radically new will emerge. The crisis may not be very pleasant, you know? It could be very violent. And we’re already seeing violence come up almost every day, you know? So it’s a very critical period. And I don’t have any advice or anything, I’m sorry.


I was invited to talk about mind and consciousness, not politics. Anyway, but they’re all connected. In the back, there, the lady. Oh, you have the microphone. Okay.



It seems like at the most fundamental level the problems of the world, or the fact that we have a psychology of in-group or out-group, and in-group focuses on self-interest, which therefore is not systemic, it’s selfish. So any thoughts on what would be the transformation from an in-group/out-group worldview to a systemic worldview; how that might happen or would be supported?



Yeah, I think I would agree with you that you can distinguish between two value systems, and there is a study that has been done (a very extensive psychological study), and the organization that did it is called Common Ground, and maybe you can find it there. And what they found, they called them extrinsic and intrinsic values. And they found that people who have extrinsic values seek happiness by being recognized by others and by having status, having a lot of money, presenting themselves as powerful and so on. That’s the extrinsic. Intrinsic values, people with those values find happiness in relationships, in community, in self-realization, self-actualization, and so on. And so the study showed a very surprising coherence—that with these two values go all kinds of attitudes and all kinds of behaviors that really fit together: competition, collaboration, and compassion and negligence, and so on. So I recommend that.

In the back, yes?



Hi. Thank you for coming. I just want to bring you back to the previous conversation; not necessarily about politics, but about a level of consciousness in regards to the global situation. You talk about reaching a critical point of tension in any system, and that’s when the emergent properties will come forth. And so the problem is that it seems that, in terms of this global social system, in terms of whether you want to look at that socially or just on the level of human consciousness, the level of tension that we are currently thinking is—or, to me, the level of optimal tension has already occurred. For me (and this is the clearest way for me to describe it), I’m already past that. I’m feeling less and less a part of the global system of consciousness, almost like there’s an emergent quality of consciousness that’s coming out of this tension, and then there’s this splitting that’s happening. And so that’s something I can feel on a personal level what I feel on a societal level. And there’s a movement happening. I guess what I want to know is: in your understanding, what factors would come into play in terms of raising the level of people’s tolerance, of that tension in terms of that system of consciousness, so that the political system then will get that feedback and then reach that point?



Yeah. Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and my answer is that between the individual level and the level of society, there is a level in between which is the level of community. These can be small communities or larger communities. And in the last few years I have become increasingly aware of the importance of community. Let me give you a few reasons why community is so important today. One is because of ecological sustainability. One of the key challenges of our time is creating a sustainable future for our children and future generations, and the unit of sustainability is the community. We know that in ecosystems: ecosystems are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms—ecological communities. And also, in the human realm, what is sustainable is not an individual (or an individual organization or business or whatever), but is a community. And so the way nature sustains life is to build and nurture communities. That’s a very profound lesson we need to learn. So that’s one reason why community is so important.


Then we can look at the obstacles that stand in the way of sustainability, and we see that one of the main obstacles is this obsession with unlimited economic growth on a finite planet, which is sustained by promoting excessive consumption. So that, every day, we are barraged by advertising from all directions that tells us you will be happy when you buy this product, this material acquisition will make you happy. Well, the countermeasure is to find happiness in human relationships rather than in material possessions. And again, that means happiness in community.


And then I would say a third one—and I could go on longer—but a third important aspect is that what we need to learn (and this really applies to all the questions), the change of consciousness that we need to go through is transformative learning. It’s not learning a few facts or new information, but it’s learning really in a way that transforms ourselves. And in my experience of many years of teaching courses, seminars, all kinds of things, I have experienced again and again that the most effective transformative learning takes place in community, and especially when the learning concerns the systems view of life, which is a view of conceptual relationships. Because if you learn about relationships while experiencing relationships at the human level in a community, that’s very powerful. And this is why these learning communities are very powerful environments for transformative learning.


Well, I’m afraid—people are holding up signs; five minutes, one minute—and we have to stop. But I do hope to be back next year and continue the conversation. Let me also mention again my online course if you’re interested in that. It consists of twelve lectures plus a discussion forum like this here, but online, where I participate every day during the course. So it’s, and the next one starts in February next year. Thank you very much!

Fritjof Capra

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