The Quest for Wholeness

The systems view and the search for spirituality

23 MAY 2017,
The Universe
The Universe

Science’s claim, since centuries, is to describe the reality objectively, namely in a way which has a general validity in terms of people and in terms of time. However, the term objective has an intrinsic weakness: the observer can make statements only based on his/her own subjective experience, and therefore the term “objective”, at the most, may assume the meaning of “intersubjective”. We agree however that there are many observations and experiences which are common to everybody, and which are very well reproducible - in this way, we arrive at a series of laws to which we attribute the value of objective reality. And this procedure has worked rather well in the past couple of centuries, permitting a great series of predictions and discoveries which are at the basis of our technological progress.

But let us go back to that initial point, according to which all what happens outside is the objective reality; at the same time, it is simultaneously a subjective experience. So is, say, for the crying of a baby, or to the noise of the parking car. But also, a large part of the subjective experience is not a matter of a possible intersubjective exchange: my own feeling of red cannot be shared by anyone else (see the book by Nicholas Humphrey, Seeing red); and so is for my feeling of fear or joy. It appears then, and actually this is commonly accepted, that we are dealing with two realities, that of my consciousness, and the reality outside there, the “objective” reality.

This dualism becomes particularly critical in the field of modern quantum mechanics. In fact, this view casts some doubt about our common notion of reality, as it says that there is no material reality outside there, as you cannot grasp particles - to the point of saying (according to the Copenhagen school) that particles exist only when they interact with each other, otherwise they “are not there”. And this seems to reify the intuition of Fritjof Capra, presented in the “old time”, in 1975, according to which there is a parallelism between the view of physics and the view of traditional oriental spirituality. Spirituality here is meant, quite generally, as a way to look at reality beyond the normal perception of our bodily senses.

Despite the fact that quantum physics is hundred years old, modern science and technology are still dominated by classic molecular science. If you open the most important science magazines, like Nature or Science, you still find that the greatest majority of articles have to do with DNA, RNA, antibodies, proteins and hormones, as well as polymeric materials, new chemicals for batteries, molecular sensors… The question is whether also for this kind of molecular sciences, in which we still have objects outside there, a sort of parallelism can be found with spirituality, in the sense mentioned above. To this aim, let us consider the science paradigm, which from the epistemic point of view may represent the most advanced view to look at the world. This is, in the opinion of most researchers today, the systems view of life.

A system view is an antireductionist way of looking at our world, according to which, given a system composed by several components, none of these parts can be considered independent from each other, namely considered as working in isolation. The common place statement “the whole is more than the sum of the parts” indicates in fact the phenomenon of emergence: when the parts come together, emergent properties arise: those are new properties, new in the sense that they are not present in the parts- they arise just as a consequence of the interaction of the components. Think simply of life: there is no life in the isolated components like DNA, proteins, sugars, and in each of the thousand cell components. When they are put together in a particular space and configuration, something new arises, which we call “life”.

This is so in all kinds of systems. The system in question can be a family, where the mother cannot obviously be considered as an isolated entity, or can be an organism, where each organ or organelle has no particular meaning when considered in isolation; or can be a complex structure like an hospital, where the group of nurses cannot be considered independent from the doctors, from the administration, from the cleaning personnel. This is well described in the 2014 book The systems view of life by Capra and Luisi. The systems view gives you a picture of reality where all is connected to everything else. For example, starting from a tree, we can go to the forest, which is part of Earth, which is dependent on the sun, which is part of the solar system, which is part of the galaxy, which is part of the universe. Thus, reality appears as a gigantic web, in which each part is related and dependent from all other parts, and this is a definition and picture of the “wholeness”.

And let us go now from here to the world view offered by Buddhism, just to go back to the oriental traditions. Here, the central pillar is causality, with the notion of co-dependent arising. This notion, as we read in the classic texts, recites that “if there is this, there is that; if there is that, there is this” -implying not only a kind of direct causality, but also a kind of feedback, which is also typical in the systems view of life. And another pillar in the rational Buddhism is the notion of impermanence, according to which everything which was born is changing and decaying in a kind of dynamic, continuous dance. And if all things are mutually linked and dependent, and at the same time they continuously change, then the entire universe is not made by isolated, independent entities, but is a dynamic, totally interactive process. We have then a vision of wholeness.

Seen in this way, it may appear that between the two views - the systems view of science and traditional spiritual Buddhism, there is a great agreement- in the sense discussed in the over mentioned book by Capra. They both point at wholeness. However, is at this point that we have to go back to the dualism mentioned in the beginning of this article. The systems view is a dualistic approach. It is the observer who sees the reality as a wholeness, a wholeness however that, by definition, excludes the observer.

The pathway of the sincere Buddhist practitioner, however, should not stop here-it is a spiritual pathway. Spirituality (of which religion is part of) can be seen and defined in different ways, but if we consider it at the mystical level, we are dealing with a process to reach the reality of truth by a completely different way with respect to that of the traditional scientist: namely by entering directly in touch, merging, with a transcendent level. The aim here is to get rid precisely of that “dualistic prison”- and arrive at a unitarian view of reality. This is the true quest for wholeness, true as in this case includes the conscious observer. And indeed, there are extremely few scientists who consider the question of wholeness. One is Erwin Schrodinger, one of the fathers of modern quantum physics (and the Author of What is life?), who had to say:
“The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are one”.

Schrödinger, as he tells us, grew up being nourished by the classic Indian Upanishadas, but for most of the other scientists, the path of science is generally quite different from the spiritual path. It is however commonly said that many of the best scientists are “spiritual”. And I agree that one can use this term, but with a rather different meaning than the mystical view of oriental tradition. This is when the scientist reaches the limits of knowledge, the limits of human understanding, when namely the scientist is trying to merge with the depth of the immensity of the cosmos, or, at the microscopic level, with the whimsical components of matter. And acknowledging that they are beyond the reach of the human mind, and watching them with humility, with a sense of wonder.

Thus, Einstein had to say:
"One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality."
And the astronomer Carl Sagan adds:
"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual."

This can be defined as lay – spirituality, perhaps remote from the mystical spirituality, still something very human and noble, as it is based on the great intelligence of very knowledgeable people who recognize their own humility.

F. Capra, The Tao of Physics, Shambala, Boston 1975
F. Capra, P.L. Luisi, The systems view of Life, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014
N. Humphrey, Seeing red, Harvard University Press, 2009