2 March 2008

The Crisis of Perception

The Fragmentation of Health

According to Dr Deepak Chopra, a physician and philosopher of holistic health, the global crises we now face are evidence of a more deeply rooted crisis of perception. A former chief-of-staff at Boston Regional Medical Center specialising in endocrinology, in his mid-30s Chopra smoked excessively and drank too much coffee and alcohol to cope with the stresses of being a doctor. But a turning point came when he began to learn about transcendental meditation, which helped him to quit smoking and drinking. “So I decided to give up my endrocinology practice to focus on holistic health. I think it was just the fact that there is a lot of frustration when all you do is prescribe medication, you start to feel like a legalized drug pusher. That doesn’t mean that all prescriptions are useless, but it is true that 80 percent of all drugs prescribed today are of optional or marginal benefit.”

Chopra argues that for hundreds of years, science mistakenly set in stone distinctions between the biological organism and the environment which don’t really exist. “We are not ‘biological organisms contained in an environment’, that’s a fundamental misperception,” he points out. “The biological organism, whether it’s a sentient human being, or a sentient mosquito, a sentient bacterium, is not separate from the environment. Both the biological organism and what we call the environment are differentiated patterns of behaviour of a single reality, whether you call that reality ‘Gaia’, or ‘Planet Earth’, or even if you wish, the ‘sentient universe’.” Ok, I’m thinking, if that’s the case then what does this shift in perception imply in terms of action? “So you don’t look at that tree and say, ‘oh that tree’s the environment’, that tree’s your lungs, if it didn’t breathe, you wouldn’t breathe”, explained Chopra. “The Earth is your body. The rivers and waters of our planet are your circulation, if you pollute them, you pollute your circulation. The air is your breath. We need to start thinking of the world as our universal body. Because our survival as human beings is equally dependent on our personal bodies, as well as our universal body.”

Now this was a surprisingly refreshing way of thinking that hadn’t occurred to me before – and it seemed to tie in with the diverse calls from psychologists, philosophers and economists for a fundamental shift in our values. What excites me about Chopra is his groundbreaking suggestion that such a shift in values was not simply a case of social convenience, of what works best; but that it might actually reflect the reality of our embeddedness in nature. Intriguingly, although Chopra has faced hostility from the medical establishment in the United States for his views, his consistent work to expand the boundaries of traditional medicine led to the peer-reviewed Journal of American Medicine doing a special issue dedicated to alternative medicine in November 1998. Since then, holistic conceptions of health care have increasingly been researched and recognized. For several years now, Oxford University Press has published a quarterly international peer-reviewed journal, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM). Dr. Edwin L. Cooper, who is founder and chief-editor of the journal, is also a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Neurobiology at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he heads up UCLA’s Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine. Dr Cooper remarks that the impact of cancer “reaches beyond the physical disease. It shapes a patient’s thoughts and emotions. Increasingly, physicians are recognizing that treating cancer often means more than just aggressively attacking the malignancy. It means considering the whole person—mind, body and soul—and adding complementary approaches that increase health and well-being, reduce stress, boost tolerance of conventional treatments, improve quality of life and help people to live as fully as possible.”

The new UCLA research programme in holistic health is host to the Center for East-West Medicine, housed in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. The Center, which receives 13,000 patients a year, is working to develop “a model system of comprehensive care with emphasis on health promotion, disease prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation through the integrated practice of East-West medicine.” These developments in health and medicine back-up Chopra’s arguments by revealing that the fragmentation and separation at the heart of our normal way of making sense of the world are reflections of a fundamental crisis of perception, a mistaken way of understanding human nature and its relationship to Nature. Chopra is pointing to an inherent interconnectedness, not only between mind and body, but also between the organism and its environment.

The Interconnected Cosmos

This recognition of interconnectedness in the health sciences is paralleled by new breakthroughs in other sciences, particularly in physics, which suggest that old, mechanistic conceptions of nature and the world are relics of an outdated worldview that no longer fits what’s happening at subatomic levels, beneath the surface of everyday life. At first, I was rather sceptical of the relevance, to questions about social change and global crisis, of a field as seemingly obscure and technical as quantum mechanics. But my bemusement quickly turned to fascination, and then conviction, after discovering one of the pioneers of this revolutionary perspective, Dr. Fritjof Capra, a physicist who teaches and researches theoretical high-energy physics at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley. Capra has written widely on the philosophical implications of modern science, and his first book, The Tao of Physics, argued controversially that Western science was now confirming the same fundamental propositions about reality found in Eastern mysticism. When Capra first started work on the manuscript in the 1972, he was spurred on by the realisation that two of his colleagues, both senior physicists who had made paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in the field, agreed with his views. “I had several discussions with Heisenberg. I lived in England then, and I visited him several times in Munich and showed him the whole manuscript chapter by chapter.” The “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle”, which refers to the impossibility of simultaneously measuring the position and momentum of a subatomic particle, was named after Werner Heisenberg, credited as the founder of the new quantum mechanics.

“He was very interested and very open, and he told me something that I think is not known publicly because he never published it. He said that he was well aware of these parallels between quantum physics and Eastern mysticism. While he was working on quantum theory he went to India to lecture and was a guest of Tagore. He talked a lot with Tagore about Indian philosophy. Heisenberg told me that these talks had helped him a lot with his work in physics, because they showed him that all these new ideas in quantum physics were in fact not all that crazy. He realized there was, in fact, a whole culture that subscribed to very similar ideas. Heisenberg said that this was a great help for him. Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to quantum mechanisms, had a similar experience when he went to China.”

In a follow-up book, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, Capra went on to apply his philosophical explorations of the new physics to developments in other areas of science, coming to the conclusion that the crises currently afflicting industrial civilization are rooted in scientific beliefs which are now outmoded on the basis of new data and theories across the physical sciences. He later went on to found the Center for Eco-Literacy in Berkeley, a think-tank addressing the social and ecological implications of new developments across the physical sciences.

“What quantum physics has brought, indisputably, is a dissolution of the notion of hard and solid objects, and also a dissolution of the notion that there are fundamental building blocks of matter. When you study the smallest pieces of matter that we know, the subatomic particles, you find that you can only talk about probabilities. That's very well known. Since quantum mechanics we know that all these laws and regularities can only be formulated in terms of probabilities. But then you ask, what are these probabilities of? And you find they are probabilities of making a certain measurement, of these large-scale instruments interacting in a certain way. So whatever you say about the smallest pieces comes back to the large pieces -- can be expressed only in probabilities, in terms of the large pieces. It’s sort of a circular situation. In other words, everything is interconnected, interconnected in such a way that the properties of the smallest pieces depend on the properties of the whole.”

In words that sound uncannily similar to those of health-practitioner Deepak Chopra, Capra argued that “whereas before we believed that the dynamics of the whole can be explained in principle by breaking it down, and from the properties of the parts, now we see that the properties of the parts can only be defined in terms of the dynamics of the whole. So it’s a complete reversal. And that’s become one of the most fundamental scientific insights of our century. In fact, if you go even further and ask, ‘Well what are these parts?’ then you will find that there are no parts, that whatever we call a part is a pattern in an ongoing process.”

Capra believes that this insight, or rather the lack or it, lies at the core of global crises, which as we have argued here are all interconnected as manifestations of a defunct global system. For Capra, the interconnection of these crises is further evidence of a dysfunctional perspective of life underlying that system. “These systemic problems, all interlinked, are in fact reflections of the limitations of an outdated world view.” Given that all our social institutions -- the large corporations, the large academic institutions, the large political institutions -- all subscribe to this outdated worldview, it’s therefore not surprising that they are not able to solve the major problems that we have. “The old system shows us such a spectacular failure that the experts in various fields don’t understand their fields of expertise any longer”, Capra argues. “Researchers, for instance investigating cancer, don’t have a clue, in spite of spending millions of dollars, of the origins of cancer. The police are powerless in face of a rising wave of crime. The politicians or economists don’t know how to manage the economic problems. The doctors and hospitals don’t know how to manage the health problems and health costs. So everywhere it’s the very people who are supposed to be the experts in their fields who don’t have answers any longer, and they don’t have answers because they have a narrow view. They don’t see the whole problem.”

But a shift of perspective, of worldview and values, can only be meaningful if it incorporates a shift in our actual modes of social behaviour and organization, in politics, economics and energy. Such a transformation not only needs to be grounded in a more accurate understanding of nature and our relationship to it, but that understanding itself, if authentic, ought to imply certain key changes in our lives. The extent of the change required is, indeed, radical. But for perhaps the first time, the necessity of such change can be justified not merely by moral euphemisms, but by reality itself.

A Quantum Model of Social Harmony

Another physicist, Danah Zohar who graduated from MIT and Harvard, has followed the implications of Capra’s work on the philosophical implications of quantum physics in the realm of sociology, and even further into real-life problems of business management. Described by the Financial Times as “one of the world’s greatest management thinkers”, Zohar, who currently lectures at the Said Business School at Oxford University, in her book The Quantum Society fashions a concrete eightfold guideline for how social reality ought to be mobilized on the basis of the insights of quantum physics. The new social reality:

1) Must be holistic -- where it is recognized changes in any part will in some way affect another part.

2) Must transcend the individual/collective dichotomy -- where individualism and community goals merge.

3) Must be plural -- where we accept that “all meanings are true”, for the person who holds the meanings, and in that spirit attempt to truly not only “tolerate” other cultures, but to embrace and learn from them.

4) Must be responsive -- where society becomes a living machine “designed to cope with ambiguity and creative challenge”.

5) Must be bottom-up or emergent -- where front-line citizens make the decisions not top-level bureaucrats.

6) Must be ecological -- where humans are recognized as part of nature and treat nature as part of themselves.

7) Must be spiritual -- where we seek spiritual answers to basic questions of life and society.

8) Must be in dialogue with science -- where we replace the outmoded Newtonian mechanics billiard ball model of social interaction with the newer holistic all-at-once quantum mechanics understanding.

The last item, the dialogue with science, is the major theme of Zohar’s work, fundamentally because the new science is telling us surprising things about the world in which we live, that have direct implications for how we should live. “If we are to rediscover the moral and spiritual roots of our society”, she writes, “we must do so in a way which mirrors, which extends and develops rather than contradicts, the knowledge that science is giving us about the nature of the physical and living worlds of which we are a part.”

Evolution and Revolution

But all this needs to be translated into a specific programme of action. How do we start to shift our societies in such a new direction? The modes of behaviour that govern the global system, that underpin the conflictual and destructive nature of the international political economy, belong ultimately to what philosopher John McMurtry calls the tendency of “money self-maximization”, itself both rooted in and fuelling a culture of consumerism that defines human gratification by measures of material consumption. But we’ve seen that behind this tendency, this “infection of affluenza” as psychologist Oliver James put it, is a deeper problem of perception, a reductionistic worldview that views life and nature in competitive, mechanistic, materialistic terms in which organisms are pitted against one another in a hostile world. But this underlying way of looking at the world has been increasingly discredited, firstly because it is precisely this reductionistic and fragmentary worldview that is linked directly to the escalation of global crises; and secondly, because the new science increasingly confirms the accuracy of a more holistic and interconnected understanding of life and nature.

“It’s all to do with evolution”, observed John Peterson as we sat in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in London late last year. Peterson, founding director of the Arlington Institute in Washington DC, had agreed to meet with me during his visit to the UK to discuss their work on global crises. The Institute, set up in 1989, specialises in assessing global trends to make strategic forecasts about the future. “Humanity is on the verge of a precipice. All the trends in energy depletion, global warming and the markets show that we have very little time left. Either we’ll all just drop off the edge of that precipice, a precipice created by our own activities, or we’ll evolve into something that can take flight.” Peterson is not just a run-of-the-mill academic. In fact, ironically, he has a very conservative background. His government and political experience includes stints at the National War College, the Institute for National Security Studies, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council staff at the White House. After founding the Arlington Institute in 1989, he focused his efforts on futurism -- developing new concepts, processes and tools for anticipating the future and translating that knowledge into better present-day decisions.

In Peterson’s view, if we take evolutionary theory seriously, if we take our science seriously, then we have no choice but to understand our current global condition in the context of our fate as a species. Right now, we are on the path to total self-destruction. What does this mean? It means that we are failing to adapt, in other words, our modes of existence are not in accord with our natural environment. So what can we do about it. Are we doomed to extinction? Are we actually talking seriously about the imminent demise of the human race?

Species that fail to adapt to the conditions of nature cannot survive. If we’re failing to adapt, and the evidence before our eyes -- the climate change, the economic crisis, the draining of natural resources – proves clearly that we’re failing to adapt, then this means that there’s something seriously wrong with our understanding of nature, and our fundamental modes of existence as a species. If we want to survive, then the theory of evolution needs to become more than a theory; it’s staring us point-blank in the face: We have to evolve.

For Peterson, maybe this is not just doom and gloom. As the only species that has ever been conscious of itself as a species, and therefore conscious of the possibility of extinction, if there is any species that might be able to save itself, it is us. “Humanity may well be at death’s door, but we are simultaneously facing an unprecedented opportunity to become something new, real, and perhaps even beautiful. Maybe this is nature’s way of letting us know it’s time for change? I’m not sure what that new human being might look like, but it will clearly have to involve a new set of ideas and values, a new way of looking at the world that respects life and nature, and a whole new way of life to go along with it.”

For the first time in human history, the imperative to move toward a social order based truly on popular participation, social justice as well as both material and spiritual well-being is not just a matter of choice; but a matter of the survival of the species.

So where do we start? If we’re talking about a programme of action, then such a programme can only begin at the source: our social relationship to nature. As communities, societies and nations, we relate to nature not simply through our ideas and perceptions of the world, but more pertinently in how those ideas and perceptions play out in the way we inhabit and make use of our environment. In other words, we need to ask, how does our understanding of nature link to the way we exploit nature? I use the term “exploit” here quite neutrally to simply mean how we extract materials and energy from the natural world in order to drive and develop our societies. Because underlying all our economic growth, industrial and informational technologies, and everyday commuter-consumer lifestyles is the point-blank fact of energy. The kinds of energy we depend on, and the manner in which we extract, distribute and utilize that energy, constitutes the life-blood of the financial circuits of exchange that are the substance of our economies.

We’ve already seen the extent to which our dependence on hydrocarbon energies, and our continuing neglect of viable renewable forms of energy and associated technologies, is self-defeating. Both global warming and peak oil are tied indelibly to our energy dependence. With all the data showing that both of these crises are set to spiral out of control within the next few decades, it’s clear that we need to go cold turkey on our oil addiction. The question, of course, is how do we do it? What are the alternative energy sources, and are they viable? And how would a post-carbon society look and function, politically and economically?

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