Guest Article: Fritjof Capra Introduces ‘The Patterning Instinct’

Credit: Capra Course

Simon writes: We are now coming towards the end of the Spring edition of Fritjof Capra’s Capra Course. For the last two weeks there has been a hugely interesting conversation on how to instigate meaningful change inside organisations and the human quest for meaning and values. Fritjof as always has been extremely active in these conversations, including this comment in reply to a question on what predisposes a system (for example a social system/ an organization) to find an element meaningful. Fritjof replied as following:

First of all, meaning is relevant only in human systems, as it is part of human consciousness and culture. Nonhuman systems, e.g. plants and animals, will respond according to their structure, selecting disturbances that can be picked up by their sensory apparatus. In human societies, social systems generate cultures that represent common contexts of meaning, as I explained in Lecture 8. So, an organization, or a community of practice, will find a disturbance meaningful if it resonates with its culture.

Some aspect of the disturbance may indeed have already been incorporated into the system’s culture, which will then be reinforced, while others may be novel. Also, we need to realize that, when a certain community finds a disturbance meaningful, this does not necessarily imply that it will be beneficial for society as a whole. For example, in today’s political landscape we can observe several false populist movements (Trump, Brexit, Le Pen), which offer promises (disturbances) that are meaningful to certain segments of the population but then turn out to be harmful for the very people who voted for them. In other words, the values of a culture, or sub-culture, are not necessarily beneficial for the whole; and this brings us once more to the issue of cultural transformations (paradigm shifts, etc.).

During this conversation, Fritjof referenced a new book on meaning-making, which a friend of his, Jeremy Lent has just published. The book is called The Patterning Instinct and Fritjof wrote the foreword. It identifies the root metaphors that cultures have used to construct meaning in their world and for this reason I thought it would be really interesting to share the foreword, which you can read below.

Jeremy Lent is an author whose writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led our civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated worldview, both scientifically rigorous and intrinsically meaningful, that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth. If you would like to explore the themes in the book more deeply, you read more on Jeremy’s website: The Patterning Instinct.

For those of you who may be interested, the autumn 2017 of Capra Course starts on 1st September, with registration opening on 1st July. Please see the website for further information.

Foreword to The Patterning Instinct

by Fritjof Capra

When I went to high school in Austria in the 1950s, history was taught exclusively as military history, which I found utterly boring and studied only minimally, just enough to pass my exams. My main academic interests were literature, foreign languages, and, above all, science and mathematics. Then, as a young physics student, a decisive moment came when I read Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy, his classic account of the conceptual revolution triggered by quantum physics and relativity theory.

Heisenberg’s book had a tremendous influence on my thinking and determined the trajectory of my entire career as a scientist and writer. One passage, in particular, planted a seed in my mind that would mature, more than a decade later, into a systematic investigation of the limitations of the Cartesian worldview and the wide range of its scientific, philosophical, social, and political implications. “The Cartesian partition,” wrote Heisenberg, “has penetrated deeply into the human mind during the three centuries following Descartes, and it will take a long time for it to be replaced by a really different attitude toward the problem of reality.”

This passage also triggered in me a new interest in history, but this time in the history of ideas, a subject that has fascinated me ever since. The history of ideas is endlessly captivating because well-known sequences of political and cultural events of the past, again and again, appear in a new light when we look at them through a different narrative lens. I have no doubt that this is the reason for the tremendous success of books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, and of documentaries like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man.

The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent continues this tradition of broad interdisciplinary historical narratives, written in non-technical language, eminently readable, entertaining, yet sophisticated and intellectually fascinating. In this book, the author introduces a new perspective, which he calls “cognitive history.” Instead of the traditional approach of assuming that the direction of history is determined, ultimately, by material causes — geography, economy, technology, and the like — he argues that, following the fundamental human urge to endow our surroundings with meaning, “different cultures construct core metaphors to make meaning out of their world” and “these metaphors forge the values that ultimately drive people’s actions.”

By calling his approach “cognitive history” the author implies that he traces the human search for meaning through the lens of modern cognitive science, a rich interdisciplinary field that transcends the traditional frameworks of biology, psychology, and epistemology. The key achievement of cognitive science, in my view, is that it has overcome the Cartesian division between mind and matter that has haunted scientists and philosophers for centuries. Mind and matter no longer appear to belong to two separate categories, but are seen as representing two complementary aspects of the phenomenon of life: process and structure. At all levels of life, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected.

The Santiago theory of cognition, in particular, identifies cognition (the process of knowing) with the very process of life. The self-organizing activity of living systems at all levels of life is “mental” or cognitive activity. Thus, life and cognition are inseparably connected. Cognition is embedded in matter at all levels of life. Moreover, the theory asserts that cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a “bringing forth” or “enacting” of a world through the process of living.

Jeremy Lent applies this insight to history, recognizing the power of the human mind to construct its own reality and arguing that “the cognitive frames through which different cultures perceive reality have had a profound effect on their historical direction.” Engaging the reader in an “archeology of the mind,” he shows how, in different epochs of history, dominant cognitive frames can be defined in terms of certain fundamental patterns of meaning: “everything is connected,” “the hierarchy of the gods,” “split cosmos – split human,” “the harmonious web of life,” “nature as a machine,” and so on.

From this cognitive perspective Lent proposes new answers to some age-old questions of human history: Is it our true nature to be selfish and competitive, or empathic and community-minded? How did the rise of agriculture set the stage for our current ecological crisis? Why did the Scientific Revolution take place in Europe, and not in Chinese or Islamic civilization? What are the root causes of our modern global culture of rampant consumerism, and is there a way we can change that culture?

In our time of global crisis, which desperately needs guidance through new and life-affirming metaphors, the answers to these questions are more important than ever.

3 responses to “Guest Article: Fritjof Capra Introduces ‘The Patterning Instinct’

  1. “… this comment in reply to a question on what predisposes a system (for example a social system/ an organization) to find an element meaningful. Fritjof replied as following: ‘First of all, meaning is relevant only in human systems, as it is part of human consciousness and culture. Nonhuman systems, e.g. plants and animals, will respond according to their structure, selecting disturbances that can be picked up by their sensory apparatus. …'”

    I am not sure that “meaning is relevant only in human systems.” This assertion also seems to conflict with a notion in the introduction to the book: “The Santiago theory of cognition, in particular, identifies cognition (the process of knowing) with the very process of life. The self-organizing activity of living systems at all levels of life is ‘mental’ or cognitive activity.”

    It is hard for me to imagine “cognition” without “meaning.”

    In considering a system, one thing I consider is the flow of mass, energy, and information between the components. At first glance, it might seem that mass and energy exist independently while information does not have an independent existence: it must be embodied in a configuration mass and/or energy and is hence dependent. But mass and energy are not necessarily independent if we recall the most famous Einstein equation m=e (using a system of units in which the speed of light is unity). My problem is that mass and energy are reasonably well understood but information is more difficult.

    In any interaction within a system, mass is conserved, some of the energy involved can become unusable (the second law of thermodynamics), and the information can increase. The rate of information increase can grow significantly when information is recorded in a written language.

    The concept of language in relation to information is interesting. Language in a sense assigns “meanings” to “words” arbitrarily. Between us humans, the nose on a face is a nose, and it works pretty much the same way for most people. But people with very different languages will have very different words for this object. To steal an idea from an English writer, “A nose by any other name would smell as well.”

    I think about the earliest written language that I am aware of. It is a few billion years old, and we have managed to translate just a little bit of it. We know the parts by which a certain type of sentence that includes three-letter “words” formed from an “alphabet” of four symbols has the “meaning” of a particular polypeptide (protein). We also know that some organisms use a different dialect (the words for some amino acids are different from the words we and most other organisms use). It is also important to recognize that a strand of RNA representing such a sentence (commonly called a gene) cannot by itself create the protein it represents. This written language requires a “reader” that “understands” the language.

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