Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Fritjof Capra

Austrian-born Scientist, Philosopher, Futurist, Physicist, Systems Theorist, and author of five international bestsellers

"As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated "basic building blocks," but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way."

"Deep ecology is supported by modern science... but it is rooted in a perception of reality that goes beyond the scientific framework to an intuitive awareness of the oneness of all life, the interdependence of its multiple manifestations and its cycles of change and transformation. When the concept of the human spirit is understood in this sense, as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is truly spiritual."

"Evolution needs synthesis, the ecological perspective, and the holistic outlook so that life continues to be possible. That change from the old viewpoint, dividing up the world into smaller parts, towards a holistic attitude is biologically conditioned."

"Quantum theory has abolished the notion of fundamentally separated objects... It has come to see the universe as an interconnected web of physical and mental relations whose parts are only defined through their connections to the whole."

"What we need... is a new “paradigm” - a new vision of reality; a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and values. The beginnings of this change, of the shift from the mechanistic to the holistic conception of reality, are already visible in all fields and are likely to dominate the present decade."

"During [these] periods of relation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight."

"All larger organisms, including ourselves, are living testimonies to the fact that destructive practices do not work in the long run. In the end, the aggressors always destroy themselves, making way for others who know how to cooperate and get along. Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity."

"The quantum field is seen as the fundamental physical entity; a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space. Particles are merely local condensations of the field; concentrations of energy which come and go, thereby losing their individual character and dissolving into the underlying field."

"Subatomic particles are dynamic patterns which have a space aspect and a time aspect. Their space aspect makes them appear as objects with a certain mass, their time aspect as processes involving the equivalent energy… When we observe them we never see any substance; what we observe are dynamic patterns continually changing into one another – a continuous dance of energy."

"The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view - one could almost say the essence of it- is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality."

"In ordinary life, we are not aware of the unity of all things, but divide the world into separate objects and events. This division is useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality. It is an abstraction devised by our discriminating and categorising intellect. To believe that our abstract concepts of separate ‘things’ and ‘events’ are realities of nature is an illusion."

"The central aim of Eastern mysticism is to experience all the phenomena in the world as manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This reality is seen as the essence of the universe, underlying and unifying the multitude of things and events we observe. The Hindus call it Brahman, The Buddhists Dharmakaya (The Body of Being) or Tathata (Suchness) and the Taoists Tao; each affirming that it transcends our intellectual concepts and defies further explanation. This ultimate essence, however, cannot be separated from its multiple manifestations. It is central to the very nature to manifest itself in myriad forms which come into being and disintegrate, transforming themselves into one another without end."

"A careful analysis of the process of observation in atomic physics has shown that the subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities, but can only be understood as interconnections between the preparation of an experiment and the subsequent measurement. Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks’, but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. "

"The Eastern mystics see the universe as an inseparable web, whose interconnections are dynamic and not static. The cosmic web is alive; it moves and grows and changes continually. Modern physics, too, has come to conceive of the universe as such a web of relations and, like Eastern mysticism, has recognised that this web is intrinsically dynamic. The dynamic aspect of matter arises in quantum theory as a consequence of the wave-nature of subatomic particles, and is even more essential in relativity theory, where the unification of space and time implies that the being of matter cannot be separated from its activity. The properties of subatomic particles can therefore only be understood in a dynamic context; in terms of movement, interaction and transformation. "

"The impermanence of all forms is the starting point of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that ‘all compounded things are impermanent’, and that all suffering in the world arises from our trying to cling to fixed forms - objects, people or ideas - instead of accepting the world as it moves and changes. "

"Modern physics then, pictures matter not at all as passive and inert, but being in a continuous dancing and vibrating motion whose rhythmic patterns are determined by the molecular, atomic and nuclear structures. This is also the way in which the Eastern mystics see the material world. They all emphasise that the universe has to be grasped dynamically, as it moves, vibrates and dances; that nature is not a static but dynamic equilibrium. "

"Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated "building blocks," but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitute the final link in the chain of observational processes, and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object's interaction with the observer."

"The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops"

"Subatomic particles do not exist but rather show 'tendencies to exist', and atomic events do not occur with certainty at definite times and in definite ways, but rather show 'tendencies to occur'."

"A careful analysis of the process of observation in atomic physics has shown that the subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities, but can only be understood as interconnections between the preparation of an experiment and the subsequent measurement. Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. The mathematical framework of quantum theory has passed countless successful tests and is now universally accepted as a consistent and accurate description of all atomic phenomena. The verbal interpretation, on the other hand, i.e. the metaphysics of quantum theory, is on far less solid ground. In fact, in more than forty years physicists have not been able to provide a clear metaphysical model."

"A page from a journal of modern experimental physics will be as mysterious to the uninitiated as a Tibetan mandala. Both are records of enquiries into the nature of the universe."

"As Eastern thought has begun to interest a significant number of people, and meditation is no longer viewed with ridicule or suspicion, mysticism is being taken seriously even within the scientific community An increasing number of scientists are aware that mystical thought provides a consistent and relevant philosophical back ground to the theories of Contemporary science, a conception of the world in which the scientific discoveries of men and women can be in perfect harmony with their Spiritual aims and religious beliefs."

"Before the 1940s the terms "system" and "systems thinking" had been used by several scientists, but it was Bertalanffy's concepts of an open system and a general systems theory that established systems thinking as a major scientific movement"

"At the subatomic level, matter does not exist with certainty at definite places, but rather shows “tendencies to exist,” and atomic events do not occur with certainty at definite times and in definite ways, but rather show “tendencies to occur."

"According to quantum theory, matter is thus never quiescent, but always in a state of motion."

"At the beginning of the last two decades of our century, we find ourselves in a state of profound, world-wide crisis. It is a complex, multi-dimensional crisis whose facets touch every aspect of our lives - our health and livelihood, the quality of our environment and our social relationships, our economy, technology, and politics. It is a crisis of intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions; a crisis of a scale and urgency unprecedented in recorded human history. For the first time we have to face the very real threat of extinction of the human race and of all life on this planet."

"Every time the physicists asked nature a question in an atomic experiment, nature answered with a paradox, and the more they tried to clarify the situation, the sharper the paradoxes became. It took them a long time to accept the fact that these paradoxes belong to the intrinsic structure of atomic physics, and to realise that they arise whenever one attempts to describe atomic events in the traditional terms of physics."

"However, the new conception of the universe that has emerged from modern physics does not mean that Newtonian physics is wrong, or that quantum theory, or relativity theory, is right. Modern science has come to realize that all scientific theories are approximations to the true nature of reality; and that each theory is valid for a certain range of phenomena."

"Both the physicist and the mystic want to communicate their knowledge, and when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical and full of logical contradictions."

"Concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues”; it is the CONTEXT of everything else- our lives, our business, our politics."

"By blending water and minerals from below with sunlight and CO2 from above, green plants link the earth to the sky. We tend to believe that plants grow out of the soil, but in fact most of their substance comes from the air. The bulk of the cellulose and the other organic compounds produced through photosynthesis consist of heavy carbon and oxygen atoms, which plants take directly from the air in the form of CO2. Thus the weight of a wooden log comes almost entirely from the air. When we burn a log in a fireplace, oxygen and carbon combine once more into CO2, and in the light and heat of the fire we recover part of the solar energy that went into making the wood."

"Hinduism cannot be called a philosophy, nor is it a well-defined religion. It is, rather, a large and complex socio-religious organism consisting of innumerable sects, cults, and philosophical systems and involving various rituals, ceremonies and spiritual disciplines, as well as the worship of countless gods, and goddesses. The many facets of this complex, and yet persistent and powerful spiritual tradition mirror the geographical, racial, linguistic and cultural complexities of India’s vast subcontinent. The manifestations of Hinduism range from highly intellectual depth to the naïve ritual practices of the masses. If the majority of the Hindus are simple villagers who keep the popular religion alive in their daily worship, Hinduism has, on the other hand, brought forth a large number of outstanding spiritual teachers to transmit its profound insights."

"I believe that the world view implied by modern physics is inconsistent with our present society, which does not reflect the harmonious interrelatedness we observe in nature. To achieve such a state of dynamic balance, a radically different social and economic structure will be needed: a cultural revolution in the true sense of the word. The survival of our whole civilization may depend on whether we can bring about such change. It will depend, ultimately, on our ability to adopt some of the yin attitudes of eastern mysticism; to experience the wholeness of nature and the art of living with it in harmony."

"I think self-organization and the newer understanding of life and complexity, when it is applied to the social realm and human organizations, can help people to find their authenticity as human beings The old paradigm model is a mechanistic model where people are seen as parts of a big machine and the machine is designed by experts who either sit at the top of the organization or are brought in from outside as consultants. Then this design of new structures is imposed upon the people who work in the organization and they are pigeon-holed in certain departments with well-defined boundaries. So the underlying model is that of a machine working very smoothly. What self-organization tells you, among many other things, is that creativity is an inherent property of all living systems. All living systems are creative because they have the ability to reach out and create something new. In the last 20-25 years we have begun to understand the dynamics of this creativity, in terms of emergence of new structures and in terms of instability, bifurcation points, and the spontaneous emergence of order. This is the underlying dynamics of creativity at all levels of life. When people understand this they will realize that human individuals as well as groups of individuals are inherently creative. So when you have an organization and you want to design a new structure and you bring in outside experts and then impose this structure on the organization you have to spend a lot of energy and money to sell the idea to the employees and the manager. Since human beings are inherently creative they will not accept the idea as it is. since this will deny their humanity. Therefore you can give them orders and they will nominally adhere to the orders but they will circumvent the orders; they will re-invent the orders and will modify it, either boycott it or embellish it, adding their own interpretation."

"If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2,500 years ago.... This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism."

"In a human organization, the event triggering the process of emergence may be an offhand comment, which may not even seem important to the person who made it but is meaningful to some people in a community of practice. Because it is meaningful to them, they choose to be disturbed and circulate the information rapidly through the organization’s networks. As it circulates through various feedback loops, the information may get amplified and expanded, even to such an extent that the organization can no longer absorb it in its present state. When that happens, a point of instability has been reached. The system….is forced to abandon some of its structures, behaviours, or beliefs. The result is a state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt; and out of that chaotic state a new form of order, organized around new meaning, emerges. The new order was not desgned by any individual but emerged as a result of the organization’s collective creativity."

"In biology the Cartesian view of living organisms as machines, constructed from separate parts, still provides the dominant conceptual framework. Although Descartes' simple mechanistic biology could not be carried very far and had to be modified considerably during the subsequent three hundred years, the belief that all aspects of living organisms can be understood by reducing them to their smallest constituents, and by studying the mechanisms through which these interact, lies at the very basis of most contemporary biological thinking. This passage from a current textbook on modern biology is a clear expression of the reductionist credo: 'One of the acid tests of understanding an object is the ability to put it together from its component parts. Ultimately, molecular biologists will attempt to subject their understanding of cell structure and function to this sort of test by trying to synthesize a cell."

"In Hinduism, Shiva the Cosmic Dancer, is perhaps the most perfect personification of the dynamic universe. Through his dance, Shiva sustains the manifold phenomena in the world, unifying all things by immersing them in his rhythm and making them participate in the dance- a magnificent image of the dynamic unity of the Universe."

"In the end the aggressors always destroy themselves, making way for others who know how to cooperate and get along. Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity."

"In its phenomenal aspect, the cosmic One is intrinsically dynamic, and the apprehension of its dynamic nature is basic to all schools of Eastern mysticism."

"Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter. Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. I saw cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were destroyed and created in rhythmic pulses; I saw the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I heard its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiv, the Lord of Dancers. "The metaphor of the cosmic dancer has found its’ most profound and beautiful expression in Hinduism in the image of the dancing Shiva. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another. For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our times, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The bubble-chamber photographs of interacting particles, which bear testimony to the continual rhythm of creation and destruction in the universe, are visual images of the dance of Shiva equaling those of the Indian artists in beauty and profound significance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics. It is indeed, as Coomaraswamy has said, ‘poetry, but none the less science."

"In Indian philosophy, the main terms used by Hindus and Buddhists have dynamic connotations. The word Brahman is derived from the Sanskrit root brih – to grow- and thus suggests a reality which is dynamic and alive. The Upanishads refer to Brahman as ‘this unformed, immortal, moving’, thus associating it with motion even though it transcends all forms.’ The Rig Veda uses another term to express the dynamic character of the universe, the term Rita. This word comes from the root ri- to move. In its phenomenal aspect, the cosmic One is thus intrinsically dynamic, and the apprehension of its dynamic nature is basic to all schools of Eastern mysticism. They all emphasize that the universe has to be grasped dynamically, as it moves, vibrates and dances."

"Modern physics has thus revealed that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another’’.For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos; the basis of all existence and of all natural phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our times, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance."

"My main professional interest during the 1970s has been in the dramatic change of concepts and ideas that has occurred in physics during the first three decades of the century, and that is still being elaborated in our current theories of matter. The new concepts in physics have brought about a profound change in our world view; from the mechanistic conception of Descartes and Newton to a holistic and ecological view, a view which I have found to be similar to the views of mystics of all ages and traditions."

"Life is much less a competitive struggle for survival than a triumph of cooperation and creativity."

"In the Germany of the l920s, the Weimar Republic, both orga¬nismic biology and Gestalt psychology were part of a larger intellectual trend that saw itself as a protest movement against the increasing fragmentation and alienation of human nature. The entire Weimar culture was characterized by an anti-mechanistic outlook, a "hunger for wholeness". Organismic biology, Gestalt psychology, ecology, and, later on, general systems theory all grew out of this holistic zeitgeist."

"Physicists do not need mysticism, and Mystics do not need Physics, but humanity needs both."

"Mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both."

"One of the key insights of the systems approach has been the realization that the network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks."

"Organizations need to undergo fundamental changes, both in order to adapt to the new business environment and to become ecologically sustainable."