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Transcript: Fritjof Capra--Applying Systems Theory to Making the World A Better Place

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Rob: My guest tonight is Fritjof Capra, this is a continuation of an interview that was broadcast last week. This is just the second half of the interview. Fritjof Capra is one of the world's leading thinkers in systems theory. He's authored numerous books including: The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks and his newest book that ties together all of his previous writings is The Systems View of Life which he co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi. His website is t

And as I said at the beginning of the first half of the interview, this is a huge book for me. It has really changed my thinking and it's probably the book that has influenced me the most since I would say Naomi Klein's book that she wrote about five, six years ago. So, I want to continue - we've been talking about systems theory and -

FC: Yeah, thank you for having me back on the show, it's a great pleasure.

Rob: Okay, the - now you say in the book, you described how systems theory integrates four dimensions of life: biological, cognitive, social, and ecological. Can you touch a bit on each of those?

FC: Yes, this is the very essence of my synthesis and as I mentioned in the previous interview we did, I was trained as a physicist and became very interested in philosophical aspects of modern physics and the shift from a mechanistic to a holistic world view which happened in quantum physics, relativity theory and our newer theories. And I compared this to basic ideas in spiritual traditions, eastern mysticism and then also ideas in Christianity in another book that I wrote with a Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast, which is called Belonging to the Universe. And so, I got interested very much and have been for a long time, in philosophical aspects of modern science beginning with physics and then I realized that most of the problems we have today concerned with living systems, living organisms, individual organisms, ecosystems, or social systems. And so my research interest shifted from physics to the life sciences and I began to look for a conceptual framework where I could talk about these various aspects of life. About the social dimension of life, the ecological dimension, the psychological dimension or as we say today the cognitive dimension, and so for the last thirty years or so, I developed a framework that puts all these dimensions of life together and integrates them. And I published the results of my synthesis as it evolved in various books. So, my book The Web of Life published in 1996 was the first attempt of synthesizing various dimensions of life. It does not include the social dimension. An improved version I published in 2002 in the book The Hidden Connections, which includes the social dimension and then the you know, the final synthesis is now in the book that I call The Systems View of Life which is co-authored with Pier Luigi Luisi who is a biologist at the University of Rome. So there are these four dimensions of life. The biological dimension is pretty obvious. You know biology is the science of life. And the systemic view of living organisms in biology is the view in terms of networks. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of patterns, in terms of relationships, in terms of connectedness, also in terms of processes and the basic pattern that was discovered in the development of this systems view of life is the network. So all the parts of living systems interact with one another and organize themselves in terms of networks. So the simple living system is a biological cell a microbe or, you know, bacterium. And this cell consists of a network of molecules. Then an organism, a multicellular organism is a network of cells. Ecosystems, networks of organisms interrelated by feeding relationships and we talk about food webs today, food cycles and food webs. So again, we have networks of organisms and of course social systems, as everybody knows, social networks and networks of communication. So we have networks of feeding relationships in ecosystems, networks of communication in social systems, and networks of metabolic processes in biological systems. And when it comes to social systems, communication is of course something that involves the cognitive dimension of life; in other words, mind and consciousness. So this is how the cognitive dimension comes in and we need to understand the nature of mind and consciousness in order to integrate the cognitive dimension with the biological, the social, and the ecological dimensions. So that's sort of in very broad outlines the essence of my synthesis.

Rob: So I think where we need the most additional help is the understanding, the cognitive dimension.

FC: Yes because that goes beyond - and I have a background in psychology, so I used to think of cognitive psychology as self talk and the inner dialogue but cognitive, in terms of the systems model is far more than that.

Rob: Yeah, can you get into that?

FC: Yeah, there's a huge expansion of the term cognitive. Well, let's talk again with the mechanistic worldview that we discussed in quite some detail in your previous program. That was developed by Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Bacon and when we come to mind and consciousness, Descartes played a crucial role because Descartes postulated in the seventeenth century a fundamental division between two independent and separate grounds: that of mind and that of matter. And he called mind the thinking thing res cogitans in Latin. He wrote in Latin like scholars did in those days. The mind is the thinking thing and matter he called the extended thing or res extensa. And then following Descartes, scientists and philosophers continued to think of the mind as some kind of a thing; an intangible entity and were unable to imagine how this thinking thing is related to the body. Now the decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon this Cartesian view of mind as a thing and to realize that mind and consciousness are not things but processes. So that is the huge advance and this novel concept of mind was developed during the 1960s by Gregory Bateson who was an anthropologist and cyberneticist and one of the most important systems thinkers of the twentieth century. And also by two Chilean neuroscientists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. And they both worked at the University of Chile in Santiago and their theory is now known as the Santiago theory of cognition. They focused on the term cognition, which is the process of knowledge and seeing mind as a process, the process of cognition, then sparked a whole new scientific field which is now known as cognitive science and it is a multidisciplinary field including cognitive psychology, which you mentioned, but also biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, cognitive linguistics and a lot of other fields. So, again the key advance is to see mind not as a thing but as a process. And then Maturana and Varela linked this process, this cognitive process with the very process of life because when you see life in terms of networks, we haven't talked about this before, but the key characteristic of these networks, of these living networks is that they are self-organizing, they are self-generating, self-maintaining, self-perpetuating and all this can be summarized by saying that they're self-organizing and the cognitive process is the very -

Rob: Just one thing. The word that is used for that is autopoiesis?

FC: Yes, yes the word is autopoiesis which means self-making. Poiesis is the Greek word with the same root as the word of the root poetry. Poie in Greek means to make. And so autopoiesis means self-making. So the very process of self-organization or self-generating of these living networks is a cognitive process and this is how the biological aspects and the cognitive aspects unified and integrated. When you talk for example about the brain and this problem which has plagued scientists and philosophers for centuries. What's the difference between the brain and the mind and how are they related? And this has led to countless confusions and in the Santiago theory, this is very simple and clear. Mind is a process, the process of cognition and the brain is a structure through which this process is carried out. So the relationship between mind and brain is the relationship between process and structure. And moreover, the brain is not the only structure through which cognition is carried out; every biological structure of every living organism is engaged in this process of self-organization or process of cognition, whether or not the organism has a brain and a nervous system. So plants for instance, a tree is engaged in cognitive activity and the activity of its self-organizing networks and there's no nervous system and no brain, but there's intelligence there is cognition. So this is a huge revolution in science and I have to tell you that it took me years and years to really understand and absorb it so I don't expect our listeners to just accept this and understand it. Overcoming the Cartesian divison of mind and matter is a huge step in science.

Rob: That's - let me just repeat what you just said. Overcoming the Cartesian model in science is a huge step, did I get that right?

FC: Right. And in particular the Cartesian fundamental separation between mind and matter because we know that within the living world, within the world of living beings, mind and matter are always inseparably connected and are always in the relationship of process and structure.

Rob: So, we've already discussed, in the previous interview, how the mechanistic model has created the metaphor on which economics are based. We haven't really talked about religion and so many other aspects of culture but what I took away from your book is that the mechanistic model of science is basically the metaphor that all kinds of different major cultural elements operate upon.

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