Reflection in a world of action

2008-03-18 00:00

When two old friends, one an unsuccessful United States presidential hopeful and the other a poet and speech writer, decide to meet at the historic site of Mont St Michel in Normandy to discuss the possibility of a second stab at the presidency, they are in for an unexpected “mindwalk” thanks to a chance encounter with an ex-scientist.

Mindwalk is the film version of Fritjof Capra’s paradigm-shattering works Turning Point and The Tao of Physics, both penned over 20 years ago. It was directed by Capra’s brother Bernt in 1992.

In the initial getting-to-know-you conversation, the poet (Thomas Harrison, who has a penchant for Pablo Neruda and is played by John Heard) is astounded when Sonia (the ex-scientist, played by Liv Ullman) says that she recognises him but has no idea who his companion is (Jack Edwards, played by Sam Waterston). Here is a highly intelligent person who can identify a minor American poet but not the face of a powerful, media-friendly politician. She has to be as interesting as she is beautiful and, so it turns out, a person who would renounce nuclear physics when she discovered that the military was underhandedly using her scientific ideas to develop new weapons and who dedicated herself to developing a new outlook on the world.

As they tour Mont St Michel, Sonia gently walks them into a post-Cartesian-Newtonian world view, where the notion of nature as a complicated machine is superseded by a softer, organic, more feminine vision of a system of interconnected, self-perpetuating and self-adjusting systems. In a word, an ecosystem. According to Sonia, who, to use the Augustinian distinction, has moved from scientia (learning and scholarship) to sapientia (wisdom), the most important thing that modern people have to do is to discover a new perspective. “The major problems of our time are all different facets of one and the same crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception,” wrote Capra in 1982.

The universe as a supreme piece of engineering will no longer do. All cosmological models are only that — models — but the inadequacy of the Cartesian-Newtonian one is becoming alarmingly apparent in the damage being done to the natural world because the human race first of all mistakenly treats it like a machine and, secondly, forgets that humanity itself is ultimately part of it.

This is, or ought to be, old hat to us today, but the remarkable thing about Capra’s work is how ahead of his time he was. To see things so clearly back then was astonishing and poses the tantalising question of how he did it. How did he free himself from the intellectual categories of the science of his day to make this liberating leap?

The outlines of an answer came to me while I was reading another, earlier work of social criticism, the American trappist Thomas Merton’s Contemplation in a World of Action. In 1968, Merton castigated modern society for its frenetic and alienating activism and wondered whether his own country, the U.S., had ever really believed in any serious form of reflection, so wedded is it to the pragmatic. The stance he commends allows a person to withdraw from the ordinary and the everyday in order to free the self from the idols and illusions of the quotidien through silence, asceticism, study and prayer in order precisely to offer to the world a new vision of what the world itself is.

Like the contemplative, Capra has to find a standpoint outside the ordinary and conventional one of received scientific wisdom. He has to find a new and truer perspective. This may in fact lead him to a view of the world which may not necessarily be totally new, but is most unlikely to be immediately popular. In fact, the ecological idea of the Earth that is so rapidly becoming mainstream today is quite old fashioned in a way — far more like a mother than a machine, an image that was not new even when St Francis of Assisi popularised it in the 12th century when he addressed her as mother Earth and the sun and moon, fire and water and the beasts as his beloved siblings.

But once such a contemplative quantum leap is made, it affects not only the way we look at things but also how we treat them. Once you cease seeing the Earth as a machine and more like a mother, you can no longer treat it or her as a machine. A machine is something an engineer can fully understand and mess around with, not so one’s mother. Although it is possible to “love” a machine, this is not love in remotely the same sense as the love for one’s mother.

A newer, truer perspective then, is the disclosure of a conceptual and contemplative breakthrough and it leads to fundamental changes in attitude and in action. That is why we need contemplatives in a world of action. Someone has to go out there because,

Good tidings and truth;

These from the desert places come.

Where consolation wellsprings real,

And clear vision parts cloud-like,

In the land of mirages

And squinting sandstorms.

• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa (Jisa).

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