Lesson about the Tide of a New Perception
Think back to the first time you saw that breathtaking photograph of Earth viewed from space. For most of us, the sight of that intense blue sphere, veiled in swirling clouds and inlaid with the fractal fretwork of continents, islands, deserts, rivers, mountain ranges, lakes, and polar ice caps, stirred in our depths something mysterious, moving, and even spiritual.
The astronaut Edgar Mitchell described his view of Earth as “a glimpse of divinity.” He was profoundly moved by “this blue and-white planet floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety cosmos, seeing—rather, knowing for sure—that there was a purposefulness of cosmos—that it was beyond man’s rational ability to understand, that suddenly there was a non-rational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience.”
He recalled that, on the trip home from the Moon, “gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the Universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”
But there are also ironies about this image from space. For example, why did it need all the technology of our modern industrial society, including an intense competition for dominance in space, to bring us to a place where we could see the indivisibility of life—a vision that each one of us could recognize, because we already knew it in our hearts?
But again, the irony: Beneath this glimpse of life’s wholeness lie national boundaries, property lines, busy roads, sectarian and racial strife, competing interests, accelerating conflicts, and our competing selves. The Earth humans have redefined over the last few hundred years—an Earth where human activity has shriveled the planet’s protective layer of ozone, greedily hacked down the rain forests, and genocidally eliminated thousands of species—is the antithesis of that fluid, integrated, stunningly beautiful “cell” our representatives gazed down upon from space.
What’s important about this image of our blue planet is the shift in perception that goes deeper than a mere change of viewing point. It’s the subtle mental shift, the reorganization of the entire way in which we conceive of our world.
The writer and physicist Fritjof Capra believes that the human race is experiencing such a “crisis of perception.” The fragmented, analytical view of reality we have lived with for so long is, Capra argues, “inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, interconnected world.”
Our worldview is the medium in which we mentally swim. It’s so much a part of our surroundings that we take it for granted and don’t notice its pervasive presence. But seeing Earth from space draws our attention to it, because the image recalls us to a worldview dramatically different from the one we’ve been immersed in for so long.
Chaos theory, like the image of our incredible planet in space, offers us a perception and an associated conception of an interconnected world—a world organic, seamless, fluid: whole.
Wholeness is the central theme of mystical revelations the world over. The Hindus seek unity of the individual soul or “Atman” with “Brahman” or “World Spirit,” or “All“. For Christian mystics like the twelfth-century St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the fourteenth-century St. Catherine of Siena, the totality of God’s love overcame all human contradictions. Among many traditional peoples, wholeness is a way of daily life. When Native Americans say “all my relations” during a ceremony, they are expressing their relationship not only to members of their group but to the plants and animals; rocks, trees, and rivers; the dwelling place of the sky and the soul of the Earth; their ancestors and descendants; and the multitude of energies that power the cosmos.
The ancient Chinese I Ching is based on a holistic cosmology in which the relationships between Heaven and Earth, mountains, fire, wind, and wood are reflected in the state, family, and lives of individuals. In a similar vein, the medieval alchemist distilling the philosopher’s stone in his laboratory was said to be emulating the whole by engaging in a primordial act like the one that created the Universe. The I Ching and the theory of alchemy are examples of the perennial philosophy that speaks of a self-similar mirroring of the cosmos within each of its parts.
The Old Perception Shift: From Medieval Holism to the Rise of Mechanism
Although chaos theory returns us to an ancient understanding that the Universe is whole, it also brings very new insights to bear on this idea. These new insights have emerged in part from the fact that the new perspective of wholeness is being born out of a mechanistic perspective that is the antithesis of wholeness. This mechanistic perspective is the one we have known for the last several hundred years. In its day, that perspective was born from another kind of holism that existed in the Middle Ages.
The cultural perception shifts we’re referring to here were mind-shaking events. They tremendously transformed the way people thought and behaved. Looking at these shifts in a little detail will perhaps help us glimpse the kinds of revolutionary effects that could take place if we fully engaged the radically new holistic perception that chaos offers us.
The seeds of the scientific and mechanical perspective in which we have been living began to take shape around 800 years ago as the European psyche moved to differentiate itself from the rest of life on Earth. Little by little over the next centuries, nature became objectified and externalized, and with it grew the idea of humans as fundamentally separate individuals with their own aspirations and inner life.
Another seed was the invention of the printing press, which brought new learning to the literate and encouraged private, individual study. The rise of city-states fostered the birth of a new type of authority: rulers who gained their position through personal ability, influence, and charisma rather than through hereditary power. Being an individual now became a virtue.
The worldview that began in the Renaissance continued to proliferate over the following centuries. In the early seventeenth century, a concerto meant a group of instruments playing harmoniously together, but by the middle of the eighteenth, it was the struggle of a single instrument, a piano or violin, to assert its individual vision against the whole weight of an orchestra. Literature saw the development of the novel and the biography. By the time of Beethoven, lone individuals were shaking their fist at both God and Fate.
The Renaissance’s increasing emphasis on the separateness of individual human consciousness led to a conception of nature as a vast collection of objects that could be subject to scientific investigation and experiment. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton stabilized the rising structure of the scientific enterprise by generalizing the observations made by Galileo and others of the motions of falling bodies, swinging pendulums, and planetary orbits into three laws that would describe the working of the entire cosmos.
Sixty years earlier, British philosopher Francis Bacon had asserted that “knowledge is power” and that such knowledge could be gained by putting nature on the rack to extract her secrets. Now Newton’s equations completed the dehumanization of the natural world by picturing it as composed of mechanical building blocks in interaction. Understanding became a question of breaking things down into their components and explaining the causal links between them.
Nature became a great clock that science could take apart and reassemble, and this became the overriding metaphor of the scientific enterprise. Prediction and control were the driving forces of a new scientific society. Control had been the province of governments. The Newtonian dream perfectly complemented that ethos. Science’s associated technology amplified the power of control through its ability to channel enormous energies, develop new substances, transport material at higher and higher speeds, and weave a network of communications around the Earth.
Science and society fed back into each other, expanding the scientific worldview enormously. Today, society provides the resources needed to build highly expensive particle accelerators, fusion chambers, space telescopes, and the like. Science, in return, supplies an endless stream of new technological objects—from land mines to cellular phones and synthetic food—as well as a flow of new ideas that reinforce the societal and scientific goals of prediction and control. In its very success, science has intensified the mechanization of our society and confirmed our perception of a mechanical universe.
Mechanical science has helped us live generally healthier and longer lives than our counterparts in the Middle Ages and to experience the world in marvelous new ways. But it does seem fair to say that our nearly total immersion in the mechanical, reductionist approach has led us as a society to forget our instinctive empathy for the natural world. And it has produced a way of thinking in which we tend to treat ourselves and others as objects for manipulation. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau had already seen the dilemma when he wrote: “Lo! Men have become tools of their tools.”
The New Perception Shift: From the Mechanical View to Chaotic Wholeness
The mechanistic worldview took several centuries to flower from the original seeds sown in the late Middle Ages into the present triumphs of science and technology. At the turn of our own century quite a different seed was planted, this one by the French physicist and philosopher Jules-Henri Poincaré. Today we are witnessing its unfolding in chaos theory. Significantly, when Poincaré caught the first glimpse of chaos, it was not in terms of a disorder and lawlessness in the Universe. What he saw was that chaos is wholeness.
Poincaré’s discovery illustrates the difference between chaotic wholeness and the symbolic wholeness of the medieval alchemist, the dual (yin-yang) wholeness of the ancient Chinese or even the wholeness of the Romantics who sought the experience of an enveloping nature where all particular things seemed to vanish. Different from these, chaotic wholeness is full of particulars, active and interactive, animated by nonlinear feedback and capable of producing everything from self-organized systems to fractal self-similarity to unpredictable chaotic disorder. In what is perhaps a joke by the ‘cosmic trickster’, chaotic wholeness now celebrates the very phenomena that were dismissed as “messy” and “accidental” in the mechanical paradigm.
Chaotic self-similarity echoes down from the planet to the individual cells of our bodies. Each one of us is a set of dynamical relationships among entities we cannot really be said to “own.” As Lewis Thomas has said, the mitochondria that are found in the interior of each cell of our body possess their own DNA, which is quite separate from ours. In fact, they are the descendants of bacteria that entered the ancestral precursors of our first cells in an act of symbiosis and mutual support. This interlocking cooperation does not stop at mitochondria, but extends to many more organisms, which together make up the ecology of our bodies, including the spirochete bacteria that became our brain cells.
Chaotic Wholeness and a Different Approach to Life
Our traditional mind-set has focused on social, political, and ecological problems as lying outside ourselves. As a result, we try to overcome problems by conquest or negotiation, which has the effect of reinforcing our perception of inherent separation.
From deep within this mind-set springs the violence that today dominates much of our consciousness. Look at the language we use to describe society’s problems. We declare war on poverty and addiction. Doctors use “aggressive” methods on the critical patient, drugs are described as magic “bullets,” and we are given “shots” to “fight” disease.
There is a slowly growing recognition that diseases like cancer may not have a single cause that can be knocked out by magic bullets. Each cancer appears to be the result of a host of “cofactors” existing in a unique combination of feedback for an individual: low-level radiation and chemical exposure from the environment (an increasing factor for all of us), diet, lifestyle, genetic background, exposure to prior diseases, psychological stress, significant interpersonal relationships. All of these interact. The “cure” for cancer, or its successful treatment, may be more dependent on addressing the whole person’s life than on any magic medical bullet.
Medical problems, societal problems, and individual problems all have a holistic dynamic. So should we declare war on drugs or begin to seriously inquire into the interlocking factors within our society that cause so many young people to turn to drugs in the first place? Do we support massive funds for dawn raids on narco barons or do we make the connection that international agreements to hold down coffee prices make poppies a more profitable crop than coffee plants? In other words, instead of projecting the problem, shouldn’t we focus on how drug abuse is related to who we are as a society in the modern world? From that holistic focus, perhaps a new kind of action could emerge.
A mechanical perspective that sees the world and ourselves as no more than a collection of externally related parts blocks the clarity of our vision. Lovelock points out that if you only examined individual cells in the body and not their overall feedback interaction, you would never be able to guess that the body as a whole has the capacity to regulate the temperature of its entire system of cells. Likewise, we don’t know at this point what it would mean for the creative capacity of human consciousness to work as a whole across the planet. Since the time of the Renaissance, we have focused on our existence as isolated individuals rather than as aspects of a “con-science”-ness—what we are in our knowing together.
Is it possible that we can shift our own perception to embrace the self-organized and chaotic whole? This idea may seem mysterious at first, yet an understanding of wholeness is already woven deep within us. There are moments in everyone’s life of cooperation and spontaneous organization.
Experiencing solidarity with the whole universe is about freeing ourselves from the chronic habit of thinking that we’re just disconnected fragments.
It’s about moving from an emphasis on the isolated self, from the consciousness of what we only know individually, to the consciousness of what we also know together.
It is about moving from the old focus on individual heroic competition against the world to coevolution and collaboration.
It is about moving from seeing nature as a collection of isolated objects to experiencing that we are an essential aspect of nature’s organization.
It is realizing that the observer must always be a part of what he or she observes.
It is about moving from an exclusive emphasis on logic, analysis, and objectivity to an ability to reason aesthetically in a way that includes analysis but acknowledges its limits.
It is about moving from obsessive focus on control and prediction to a sensitivity toward emergence and change.
It is about a new understanding of time and our path in it.
It is about using our subtle influence to become the participators of the blue planet rather than its managers.
As we enter into this new perception, we needn’t entirely reject our earlier post-Renaissance understandings of ourselves as individuals and all the knowledge and technological advances that went with it. But in the light of chaos, each individual and collection of individuals may take on brand-new meaning as metaphors and fractals through which the whole is expressed.