Tuesday, 21 November 2017
The world according to Fritjof Capra : Science and Sprituality: Physicist
A 78-year-old physicist who is now Director of the Centre for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, Fritjof Capra is best known for his first book, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1975), which has sold over a million copies worldwide. He had his epiphany while he was sitting by the ocean one afternoon and felt the cascading waves and sand forming a cosmic dance, which he intuitively likened to the dance of Shiva, that he had been reading about. This started a long inquiry into Eastern religions and more particularly Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. In 1972, he drew the parallel between Shiva’s dance and the dance of subatomic particles in an article titled ‘The Dance of Shiva: The Hindu View of Matter in the Light of Modern Physics’. I spoke to him on the sidelines of a recent meeting of the Greenaccord international environmental journalists in Florence, Italy.
How did you, as a practising physicist, get interested in Hindu philosophy?
It started actually in my childhood. My mother was a poet and my father a lawyer, but also an amateur philosopher. He had a German translation of the Upanishads . I had also heard about Buddhism from my father. I really got interested in Indian philosophy in the 1960s; it came through the beat poets in San Francisco.
In the 1960s, I became part of the counter-culture. I began to practise yoga and Zen meditation, before finally settling on Taoist tai-chi, which I still practise today. I also experimented with psychedelics, which exposed me to alternative visions of reality through books, through classical texts. The Bhagvad Gita was an eye-opener for me, a profound experience. This was the first original source that I read and it was and is the best. Then I read a lot of books about Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki.
In 1969, I met Jiddu Krishnamurti who became a big influence on my thinking. I was never a devotee, but he was a very interesting independent thinker. He gave a lecture at the University of California, where I was teaching and doing physics research. I had read his books before and one of his collections of writings is called Freedom from the Known . I was very puzzled by it: I was a young post-doc physicist, just beginning a career: here was this Indian sage telling me that I must forget about knowledge, about language, I must free myself from all that. I managed to have an audience with him through various machinations. He was very impressive at that time; he had that impeccably coiffed hair, immaculate clothes; his whole demeanour was sage-like. I had read Carlos Castaneda on Don Juan: here was a Don Juan right before my eyes!
I asked him: ‘How do I free myself from the known as a budding physicist embarking on a career?’ He immediately responded: ‘First you are a human being. Only then are you a physicist. You have to liberate yourself as a human being and that you cannot do through thinking; you can only do through meditation. Once you have achieved that liberation, then go back and do physics. I love science.’ He showed me that you can combine different states of consciousness and use them when they are appropriate.
You must know that in India we have moved from Hinduism to Hindutva, with ultra right-wing ideologies taking root. There are throwbacks to claims of Indians possessing scientific knowledge like, for instance, the god Ganesha being a case of Indians knowing about plastic surgery. Does it disappoint you to learn that we in India have turned our backs on our own spiritual traditions?
It does disappoint me as an example of religion taking over from spirituality. In my 2014 book The Systems View of Life , which is a synthesis of my work, my co-author Pier Luigi Luisi and I have a chapter on science and spirituality. We make a strong point of the distinction. Spirituality is a perception of reality in a special state of consciousness and the characteristics of this experience of belonging to a larger whole, connected with everything, are independent of historical and cultural context. The organised expression of spirituality is religion, which always depends on cultural and historical context. Unfortunately, religion often ossifies and the teachings are expressed as dogma; experience is replaced by faith.
I first went to India in 1980, after The Tao of Physics had been published five years earlier; I was a fringe author in the U.S. and Europe. Quantum physics and Zen Buddhism weren’t things that people would easily accept. The book was very successful but it wasn’t taken seriously by the establishment. I was asked to give a series of lectures at the University of Bombay; I was received by the University Vice-Chancellor, and met leading politicians, including Indira Gandhi in Delhi. My work was totally embraced by the Indian establishment. I was very puzzled but then I realised that the mystical core of Hinduism was part of the establishment, not the fringe.
Are you disappointed that the idealism of the 60s and 70s on economic and ecological issues has been negated today?
I see this as a cycle, which is very consistent with Indian thinking. Let me take you through my personal experience from the 60s to the 90s. In the 60s, as part of the counter-culture, we were protesting against the conventional way of life with ideas of community, spirituality, sensuality, of a different ethic and so on. And we didn’t have an alternative. In the 70s, two movements emerged which were the pillars of an alternative: ecology and feminism. In the 80s, these movements coalesced into a political manifestation: the Green parties.
The Green movement became international and by the end of the 80s, there were many parties, in parliaments. By this time, 10 years after I published my second book, The Turning Point , I really believed that we were at this turning point.
What happened then was something that no one foresaw: the information technology revolution. The rise of computing power and telecommunications, e-mail and the Internet operated against the alternative view of the world and brought in a new materialism.
In theory, it would suggest just the opposite: the surge in communications should have made us more interdependent?
The IT revolution was critical for establishing global capitalism. These networks of financial flows didn’t happen from one day to another: there were many stops and starts, with people trying to impose economic restrictions.
There was Reaganomics in the U.S. and Thatcherism in the U.K. Finally, what emerged was this global network of financial flows which dominated society, destroyed communities. It is very powerful and was designed explicitly without any ethics. So when you invest your money, you have machines which do it for you; you have a computerised network of investment consultants and so on and they only apply one rule: what makes the most money.
Despite the global community you mention, hasn’t the rise of financial capitalism smothered it?
Yes it has. But we are also very strong because of our numbers. With the Internet, you see demonstrations. See the current struggle in Spain with Catalonia: they can get a hundred thousand people on the street in two days because communication is so fast. We’ve had demonstrations against Monsanto, for instance; there have been various causes that bring people to the streets. We have scholars, institutes of research and it is global. What we’ve been writing about for decades is happening: climate change, for instance. I wrote about global warming in 1989. For decades, no one listened and made fun, but we are now in a climate catastrophe. I think the situation is changing because businesses that don’t have ideologies — they want to invest money to flourish — are turning away from fossil fuels. If they had listened then, we would have had a different world today. It’s almost too late, but hopefully not. We have to build alternative communities and do things that don’t depend on global capitalism.
So you have hope for the future?
There are two major problems, among many others: climate change and economic inequality. Violence and war also exist but are derived from inequality. What has happened from my personal experience is that I now teach online in what I call ‘Capra Course’ (capracourse.net). People are very enthusiastic, but are confused about certain aspects: I give a scientific basis to bolster values like ecological sustainability and human dignity. I address people who are already convinced but confused about certain details. This is a very positive and hopeful development.
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