The Systems View of Life – A Unifying Vision

May 4, 2015

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In this episode I have the great honor of connecting with scientist, educator, activist, and author Fritjof Capra P.hd. He was born in Vienna, and studied physics and systems theory, and became well known for his first book, The Tao of Physics (1975). In this book, and in his subsequent work, he has explored the ways in which modern physics has changed our worldview from a mechanistic to a holistic and ecological one. Synthesizing various schools of thought and practice has been on of his prime interests. Together with his friend and colleague Professor Pier Luigi Luisi, who has also been a guest on this show, he has published a groundbreaking book titled the Systems View of Life – A Unifying Vision (2014). We base our dialogue on the perspectives put forth in this book, and with a special emphasis on how his work ties into that of Arne Næss and deep ecology. Also, I’m glad to announce that Capra will be in Norway May 19, at the University of Nordland, Bodø. He will also conduct a 6-week teaching tour through Europe in relation to the publication of his book, so check his schedule for more information on this. Feel free to contribute with your own reflections below the interview, and please share this resource with people who might be interested.

(4:00) Ove Jakobsen and ecological economy
Connecting to the Norwegian context, Capra mentions his friendship with Professor Ove Jakobsen at the University of Nordland, Bodø. Jakobsen has been an important advocate for ecological economics, or circular economics, and it’s this dialogue and exploration they intend to investigate further when they meet in May. Capra points out that the ideas embedded in the systems view of life correspond in many ways to what Jakobsen has found out in his own field of study.

(6:00) Arne Næss and deep ecology
Speaking of another Norwegian inspiration I point to the fact that Capra and Luisi reference Arne Næss in their introduction, a philosopher who back in the 70s spawned the deep ecology movement. Næss’ work has been a great inspiration to me, and I’m glad to announce that I will contribute at a festival this summer, in Norway, a yearly gathering in remembrance of Arne Næss’ life and work (more info can be found at Capra explains that they chose to bring in the perspectives of deep ecology because it connects to the core understanding of the systems view of life, especially the value base, or worldview, which is a prerequisite to fully understand and appreciate this emerging paradigm. The systems view is all about connections and relationships, and it’s about seeing the world as a living network, and not as a machine. This fundamental shift in perspective, seeing life as systems comprised of interconnected networks, is therefore a key concept. Moreover, the mayor problems of our time are all interconnected. We need systemic thinking to understand and solve these problems. A systemic solution is also a solution that necessarily will solve many problems at the same time! Now, the important point is that we might have excellent and compelling arguments for why we should reduce green house gases, as just one example, and we may be able to understand the issue at hand based on our systemic understanding, but still, nothing happens! Politicians, policy makers, and society at large, are still stuck in old patterns. It’s obvious that an intellectual understanding is not enough, it’s also about values, and this is what connects the systems view to Arne Næss and deep ecology! The core values we need for the 21st Century are ecological sustainability and human dignity, and if we dig into the core of these ideas we find the values of deep ecology.
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(15:10) Earth Charter – values that support life 
Speaking of the core values, Capra emphasizes that these are values that respect life in all it’s multiple dimensions, and this is also why the systems view of life seeks to integrate the biological, cognitive, social and ecological dimensions of life. Capra points to a document that was created about 15 years ago called the Earth Charter. The declaration consists of 16 values and principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful world. The values are divided into 4 groups, and in the first group, which is called Respect And Care For The Community Of Life, we find values that resonate with those of deep ecology, for instance, respecting life for life’s own sake, and realizing the intrinsic value of all living beings. So, its worth acknowledging that 4 decades after Arne Næss made the distinction between deep and shallow ecology, we find these ideas enshrined and embodied in the Earth Charter.
(19:50) The Way of Life
I mention to Capra that this podcastshow is all about life, and in English the word levevei, which is the title of the show, has the meaning of “Way of Life”. This evokes memories in Capra, memories going back to his first publication as an author, namely The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticismwhich was published in 1975. The word Tao (or Dao) means “the way”, in a grand sense, such as the way the cosmos works, or the spiritual dimension of a particular human activity. He therefore called his book the “way of physics”, with the aim to investigate the spiritual dimensions of the practice of physics. However, over the next 20 years, in conjunction with his second book The Turning Point, he shifted his focus to the life sciences, mainly because he felt that the challenges he was investigating couldn’t be answered by physics alone. In other words, he went from investigating the “way of physics” to exploring “the way of life”.
(22:20) Maturana and Varela – networks, patterns and autopoesis 
So what is life, I ask Capra? He narrows down the question and points to what science can say about life. First of all, from a biological perspective, the defining characteristic in not a specific component, but rather a certain pattern or organization, or a network of relationships. Wherever we see life, we see networks! We find this in cells and in species at large, for instance the relationship between different components inside a cell, and the relationship between organs in a human body. Furthermore, a key characteristic of these patterns is that they are self-generating. The cell molecules, proteins, enzymes, lipids, proteins, the DNA, and the cell membrane, are continually created and recreated by the cellular network. This self-generation is technically known as autopoesis, which is greek for self-making, and the concept of autopoesis relates to the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. So, from a biological perspective, a living system is a self-generating network within a boundary of it’s own making. A second aspect of living systems can be described as the continual flow of energy and matter between the system and it’s surroundings. Human beings need to breathe, drink and eat, as only one example. Integrating and seeing in conjunction these two biological aspects of living processes, namely the flow-aspect and the network-aspect, has been an important part of Capra’s work for the last 20 years.
(28:10) Prigogin and Bertalanffy 
I want to understand the link between the flow-aspect and network-aspect, to the cognitive aspect of living systems. This has always been the most intriguing part for me, namely the interplay between the material and immaterial dimensions of life. The answer to this question comes later, but first Capra goes further into the flow-aspect and refers to the work of Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogin, who discovered something which was already anticipated in the 1940s, by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the creator of General Systems Theory, namely that living systems are also open systems! They are open in the sense that if they are to have some kind of exchange of matter and energy with the environment, the system itself cannot be completely closed. However, von Bertalanffy didn’t have the computational power to develop his theory, but 30 years later Prigogin could follow up this line of investigation. He was also aided by the advent of non-linear mathematics, which was better suited to compute the highly complex nature of living systems. A living system exists far from equilibrium, there is always a process of death and renewal, and a constant flow of energy, matter and information going through the network in a myriad of directions. Therefore, if one is to simulate and compute such a system, one cannot rely on simple linear equations. In the 70s and 80s, together with the development of Complexity Theory and more powerful computers, one was finally able to simulate and model the nature of living systems. Prigogine was one of the first to develop a theory in this field, and his work on dissipative structures is important in regards to understanding how living systems can be adaptive and stable at the same time. A simple dissipative structure is a whirl pool, like the one you might see in your kitchen sink. The whirl pool is stable, but still water flows through it all the time! A cell functions in a similar fashion, although the forces working in the cell are not primarily gravitational, rather chemical. Energy and matter is constantly moving through the cell, but the cell’s structure is stable over time, it’s self-generating (autopoesis).
(33:20) Three perspectives on life
Coming back to the two aspects of life, networks and flows, we have the theory of autopoesis by Maturana and Varela, dealing with networks, and we have the theory of flows by Prigogine, dealing with dissipative structures. Capra realized at some point that there seemed to be a gap, or a missing link, in relation to these two fields of investigation. In the early 80s he set out to integrate and unify these two approaches and in the process he identified three perspectives on life. First, the perspective of matter, pointing to flows of energy, and referring then to the work of Prigogine. Secondly, the perspective of form, which is all about patterns, structures and relationships, referring then to the work of Maturana and Varela. Lastly, the process perspective, which refers to the cognitive dimension of living systems. Capra explains that the physical structure can be understood as the embodiment of it’s patterns of organization. Moreover, this embodiment doesn’t just happen once, but is a continual process of embodiment, and this process of self-organization and self-generation, which can be found in all living systems, is a cognitive process.
(35:40) Clarifying the terminology 
I point to that Capra and his co-author Luisi seem to have slightly different understandings in regards to the notion of cognition, but Capra thinks it’s more about terminology. Luisi prefers to apply the concept of mind only to the human level, while Capra is comfortable using such a notion regardless of the level of complexity. In this regard he is inspired by the work of Gregory Bateson, who spoke of a “mental process” characteristic of all living systems. When it comes to humans there is also the emergence of consciousness, which is something different, but when speaking of cognition or mental processes, this capacity, although unconscious, is present in all living systems. So Luisi speaks of cognition at lower levels of complexity, reserving the word “mind” for the human level, while Capra is comfortable using “mind or mental processes” at all levels.
(38:00) The process of cognition
So given that cognition or mental processes is an important aspect of all living systems, what does the process of cognition actually imply? Capra goes deeper into the theory of autopoesis, basically that the structures in a living network continuously change, while the pattern is kept stable. The living system is also constantly disturbed by the external environment since the system needs the flow of energy and matter to stay alive. In humans this is for instance the intake of food and the following digestion of nutrients. Maturana og Varela chose the word “disturbance” when describing how any impact from the environment creates a change in the structure of the living system. The critical insight is that it’s the system itself that determines how the structure will change, not the environment. The living system is autonomous, and it is this process of self-organization which is understood as a cognitive or mental process. So, the essence of the Santiago School of Cognition is that any structural change in a living system is a cognitive process.
(41:00) The polarity between autonomy and connection
I highlight the interesting polarity between autonomy and connection, namely that all living systems seem to have an autonomous and self-organizing existence, somewhat separated from their environment, while at the same time needing to be connected to the outside world. Capra refers to the old debate between the understanding found in cybernetics, and the perspectives proposed by von Bertalanffy. The former claimed that living systems and cybercenetic systems were closed, while the latter of course claimed they were open. This problem was only resolved several decades later, when one realized that systems are open energetically, but closed organizationally. The network pattern exists within a closed boundary of it’s own making.
Aikido and Tai Chi – experiencing the theory 
Capra points out the intriguing understanding of boundaries, namely that boundaries between different living entities are not primarily a boundary of separation, but rather a boundary of identity. This triggers an association in me and I refer to my experience from practicing the martial art aikido. Quite often, especially when I practice with my teachers, I can quite literally feel my boundary and my identity change. When grabbing hold of a partner I can sometimes get the sensation of growing into, connecting with, or even becoming part of a larger “system”. Capra relates to this description and reports a similar experience from his tai-chi practice. When practicing in a group one can sometimes get the sensation of being moved by the group, in the sense that one’s identity, or locus of control, has shifted from one’s own body to the group-body.
(46:00) His collaboration with co-author Luisi
Speaking of groups I ask Capra how one brings the systems view of life into the social domain. One of the things I appreciate in their book is the parallel inquiry into the details of small living entities, such as a cell, and the thorough discussion and exploration in regards to self-organization and transformation of social systems. Capra points to the fruitful collaboration with his colleague Luisi, where Luisi is the biologist and Capra the synthesist. They wrote several of the chapters together, such as the chapter on mind and consciousness, and the chapter discussion the relationship between science and spirituality. This was a specific questions I wanted to address, so we divert our attention to this topic, instead of going further into the nature of social systems.
(48:00) Science and spirituality 
When discussing the relationship between science and spirituality, Capra explains that in the book they make a clear distinction between spirituality and religion. So what is spirituality, and what is the human spirit? The latin root spiritus means breath, and the related word anima, for soul, also has the meaning of breath. The same goes for the Sanskrit word atman, and the Greek word psyche. So these ancient words, referring to soul or spirit, all have the connotation of breath. So in Capra’s view the soul and human spirit is the breath of life. Moreover, spiritual moments are the moments we feel the most alive, so spirituality in this sense is the experience of intense aliveness. Spiritual experiences, or mystical experiences, are also experienced as a unity between mind and body. Moreover, spiritual experiences also transcend the boundary of self and world, giving rise to the feeling of connectedness and belonging to a larger whole.
(50:00) A Universal spiritual experience 
Capra also makes it clear that the different mystical traditions of the world, who have reported such experiences for hundreds of years, all describe mystical experiences in similar ways. It implies the already mentioned unity of mind and body and the profound feeling of connectedness to a larger whole. This means that there is an essence of spirituality which is independent of historical and cultural context – a universal spiritual experience – that has actually been observed for millennia. Now, when people have such experiences it’s natural that one wishes to communicate and explain the experience to others, and this is where religion comes in. Religion is the organized attempt to interpret spiritual experience, and also to derive from it, certain ethics for the religious community. Religion, therefore, in contrary to true spirituality, is always rooted in a particular culture and historical context. For instance, the earliest teachers in Christianity, the so called Desert Fathers, were all mystics, and they made it clear that the spiritual experience was always ineffable. Therefore they had to communicate using metaphors and symbolism, descriptions that would later become hardened through literal interpretation, which again gave rise to fundamentalism and dogmatic religion. So, if you try to compare science with religion, it’s natural that this will cause conflict and confusion. However, the spiritual experience is in total harmony with the systems view of life, because when you realize that life reaches deep into non-living matter, and that we also share with all living beings the basics patterns of organization, then you realize that we in fact are deeply embedded, and interwoven, with the whole fabric of life.
(54:40) Deep ecology – a possible bridge
We come full circle and again point to deep ecology and the perspectives of Arne Næss. Capra claims that deep ecology serves as an important bridge between science and spirituality, given that connectedness, relationships and contexts are essential aspects of ecology, and connectedness, relationships and belonging, are essential aspects of the spiritual experience. This is how science and spirituality meet!
We agree to follow up our exploration at a later date, given that we didn’t get to fully explore the nature of social systems, and how the systems view of life can be applied to systems transformation and societal change work (which by the way is discussed in the last 200 pages of their book!). So, stay tuned for more…

James Alexander Arnfinsen

James Alexander Arnfinsen has a teaching qualification from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), while also being trained in dialogue facilitation, conflict resolution and mindfulness. He is currently working as a teacher in Trondheim, Norway and as a mediator through the Norwegian Mediation and Reconciliation Service. He also runs his own company Agent for Endring (“agent for change”). An other important affiliation is his engagement with the network Sustainable Co-Creation, a three year leadership program led by Steen Hildebrandt and Michael Stubberup from Denmark, together with Arawana Hayashi and Otto Scharmer from Presencing Institute. In his free time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art that in it´s essence is about creating a healing relationship towards oneself and others. You can contact James at

Tags: complexity, deep ecology, systems thinking