FRITJOF CAPRA is a physicist who believes that modern physics has much to teach us about social, political, and even spiritual values.
In The Turning Point, Capra argues that "we live today in a globally interconnected world, in which biological, psychological, social, and environmental phenomena are all interdependent." Physics provides the inspiration for this holistic view since physicists were the first to discover essential interrelationships within nature.
The equivalence of mass and energy, the relativity of space and time, the discovery of a bewildering array of subatomic particles--these advances, according to Capra, demand revisions in our traditional views.
"In modern physics, the image of the universe as a machine has been transcended by a view of it as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process."
This shift within physics from objects to relationships makes necessary, Capra tells us, a new "vision of reality." The world can no longer be analyzed into independently existing, isolated elements. Instead, subatomic physics has suggested a world described by physicist Werner Heisenberg as "a complicated tissue of events in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole."
Capra's basic theme is that our society has failed so far to adopt the necessary changes in our "world view" demanded by the discoveries of modern physics. We remain locked into habitual thought patterns which isolate events while ignoring vital interrelationships. As a result, our society suffers from a "crisis of perception."
Economists, for instance, employ a fragmentary approach to the economy that concentrates merely on unrestrained growth and material wealth. They ignore such "external variables" as the inevitable limitations on our natural resources. The resulting deterioration in our environment is the consequence of such short-sightedness.
"Economists neglect social and ecological interdependence, treating all goods equally without considering the many ways in which these goods are related to the rest of the world--whether they are human-made or naturally occurring, renewable or nonrenewable, and so on."
As a result of our fragmented thinking on economic matters, "private profits are being made increasingly at public costs in the deterioration of the environment and the general quality of life."
As an example, Capra points to some of our nation's corporations which, spurred on by considerations of unlimited "economic growth," experience little conflict in dumping their chemical wastes into the environment. There are presently more than 50,000 known sites in the United States where hazardous materials have been stashed without proper disposal techniques aimed at neutralizing or containing the harmful effects on the environment.
Similar fragmentation exists within our health care system, which is based largely on an engineering approach to health "in which illness is reduced to mechanical trouble and medical therapy to technical manipulation."
While this approach has led to cures and treatments for many illnesses, it has also largely ignored the fact that diseases are as much determined by cultural as strictly "medical" considerations. For instance, at the present time, our health is principally threatened by illnesses resulting from our affluence and technical complexity. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, drug and traquilizer dependence, genital herpes--these are the result of our attitudes, habits, social customs, diets, and morals.
Capra claims, correctly I believe, that any attempt to improve our health must be based on a holistic approach which gives equal emphasis to medical, social and cultural factors.
By itself, the medical viewpoint is a myopic one, based on the belief that health can somehow be maintained via technological manipulation alone. The current frenzy of research directed toward genital herpes is a good case in point.
Rather than exploring what social factors are contributing to such a widespread alteration in our sexual habits, that this veneral disease can become "epidemic" in only a few years, the herpes problem is conveniently reduced to a technical challenge: the development of a vaccine or a curative drug.
Capra is justifiably irate at the current misuses of modern medicine. In many instances medical jargon serves as a means of avoiding rather than facing our unhealthy behavioral patterns.
"We prefer to be told that we suffer from 'hypertension' rather than change our over-competitive business world; we accept ever-increasing rates of cancer rather than investigate how the chemical industry poisons our food to increase its profits."
The failure of vision that results from this "fragmented approach" can be seen all around us, says Capra. "Economists are unable to understand inflation, oncologists are totally confused about the causes of cancer, psychiatrists are mystified by schizophrenia, police are helpless in the face of rising crime, and the list goes on."
Capra believes that such failures are the natural consequence of our failure to appreciate that all of these problems are closely interconnected and interdependent. "The vital social choices we face are no longer local . . . nor do they affect merely a small part of the population. They are choices between principles of self-organiztion--centralization or decentralization, capital-intensity or labor-intensity, hard technology or soft technology--that affect the survial of humanity as a whole."
Although in principle it is difficult to argue with the wisdom of Capra's analysis, some of his solutions are not appealing. For one thing, he calls for a "restructuring of information," which translates into legal restrictions on the advertising of "wasteful or unhealthy products." He conveniently slides over the tricky issue of who will make such decisions as "what is harmful to whom?"
He also calls for a "reclaiming" of the mass media, which are presently "dominated by business" and thereby "censured." After the "reclamation," reporters will be required to forgo their present concentration on "sensational presentations of aberrant, violent, and destructive happenings," in favor of reporting "quiet, constructive, and integrative activities going on in our culture." He fails to provide any details on how this is to come about. In addition, there is a disturbing undertone which suggests the rise of an intolerant collective.
"Once we succeed in reclaiming our mass media, we can then decide what needs to be communicated and how to use the media effectively to build our future." Who is this "we" and how will the decision be reached?
Overall, The Turning Point is a well written and compelling explanation of why so many things seem to be going wrong in the world. Unfortunately, it's short on acceptable proposals for what we can do about them.